“I shudder to think what the state of my in-tray would be if I was away from work for five days!”
“Yes, someone might slip dragon dung in it again, eh?” said Fred.
“That was a sample of fertilizer from Norway!” said Percy. “It was nothing personal!”
(JK Rowling, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”)
Well, I haven’t found any dragon dung yet, but I certainly have been having problems with my in-tray. It has really not been a good few months at work and now everything has finally come crashing down.
All my life I’ve found a kind of escape in work. As a primary school age child, I was taught at home by my mother who suffered severe mental illness. Achievement, excelling and perfection was of such importance to her and the only way to avoid her accusations, threats, shouting, violent distress, which would erupt when I could not do something or did not do as she wanted. It was the only way to be safe by avoiding this explosion and avoiding the harm I appeared to cause, escaping the danger and catastrophes I believed would ensue or did ensue. (This probably warrants another post at some point.)
When I went to secondary school, I physically escaped her illness for a portion of the day. Soon I worked out that if I stayed at school as long as possible (extra clubs, volunteering, staying on to do some of my homework at school rather than going straight home at the end of the day of classes) I could escape for longer. Working in my bedroom in the evenings was preferable to staying under her intense gaze, or risking conflict if I was around her. Being used to the need for excellence, I worked as hard as I could, so though I was nothing particularly special or noteworthy I got good marks by virtue of the time I put in, and this too was “safe”. It secured her approval too sometimes.
I continued to work as hard as I could and give my all in every job I’ve had. Perhaps it’s something that comes fairly naturally to me in my character. If so it’s a gift I am thankful for. It is very important to me to do a good job, give my best, serve the people I am working for properly, offer my work in prayer and dedication.
It has been a way to escape from the noise in my head, the hollow emptiness and uncertainty, flashbacks and panic attacks. Focussing on work takes me away from myself, to look outside and to others, to keep my concentration on the task in hand. Although I have never had much self-confidence, I have gradually learnt there are some areas I have some strengths and where, even if I may never be satisfied, my managers at times do seem to be. So whereas pervading most areas of my life I have suffocating fears that I am going to hurt someone, that I’m bad inside really, at work at least I can hope objectively to do some good, give a good service, help someone.
All that has come crashing down in the last few weeks. I’ve been on a phased return to work since I was last off sick after being in hospital. I’d got up to about 4 days, to accommodate therapy appointments at hospital. For several months the pressure of the workload seemed to be increasing. I was getting more and more stressed and though it was agreed in principle for me to go to my appointments, there was not any support in terms of managing the workload or anyone covering during my absence, so work built up, causing more stress for me and more anger from my managers. I tried to address this, together with the general atmosphere, which was becoming more and more uncomfortable and hostile. I did manage to have a few brief discussions with managers and was never told that there was a problem with my work and my appraisal earlier in the year was, to my surprise, good as well.
A month or so ago the pressure built up to a point I could not cope with and I insisted that something needed to change. At this point, I was told that there is not much on, it is not busy, nothing much is expected of me, everyone knows I cannot cope with the work, and people hold back giving me work because they know I can’t cope with it. The fact I do extra hours was used as a fact to support the idea I cannot cope with the work because it shows I can’t get the work done in the standard working hours (whilst I would say there was simply too much work to get through).
There were many other things said that were very upsetting which I won’t go in to here, partly because I don’t want to say anything directly identifiable to my employer.
But basically, I was told that I’m rubbish and I cannot cope with the job an don’t get through the work, and that I am not providing the kind of service that I am supposed to because people know I won’t be able to cope with it.
So many feelings went and are still going through my head over this. Partly anger and shock, because I had found that it was busy and was giving everything I good even to the detriment of my health. This was so contradictory to all the feedback I’d had before – why? Then fear and anxiety. I didn’t even know I was doing so badly or that people were so unhappy with me. I mean, I knew they were unhappy with me, and thought they think I’m stupid and don’t do what they want quickly enough, but I hadn’t realised how incompetent I actually was. It’s even worse that I did not realise how bad I was, because I fear so much in my life that there is something horrible and bad in me which I’m not aware of and can’t control, which hurts people and I don’t even realise it, means that my family even can’t stand to be around me.
I had hoped work was one area in which I could do some good but now this is gone too. It was what I was clinging on to and trying to keep going. Even though I could see in a way it was doing no good to me because I was so stressed and couldn’t cope with other areas of my life at the same time (not looking after my flat, not cooking, getting mixed up over bills, so drained I did not socialise with anyone outside of work).
I know that my concentration is not good, that I dissociate for periods of time and lose track of time when I am stressed and very upset. I know I do not work as quickly as I used to. I didn’t realise the extent of the effect it was having. That I can’t do my job. That my perception of the situation should be so different from other people’s – I thought I was giving everything, I thought there was pressure, when other people are saying there is no pressure, it isn’t busy, and I can’t do it. That is frightening to me. According to my therapist, a disconnect between one’s own experiences and other people’s, and a difficulty dealing with this, or dealing with situations in which our emotions and feelings are different from others’, is common in personality disorders.
I don’t know where I go from here. I called a couple of advice lines and they told me that possibly I have some case to say that more could have been done to support me, with more “reasonable adjustments” at work. I looked into this and wrote down a case around this but I couldn’t go forward with it in the end. I doubt my own perceptions and feelings too much and even writing it for myself, I felt like a complete fraud, that I’ve invented everything and the problems lie all with me not my employer. The voices in my head are telling me I’m nasty, disgusting, invented it, liar, fake, you’ve invented a story to accuse people of things… I just cannot cope with that and know how much more intense it would be if I actually tried to put anything in. Crazy, I know, but that’s what goes on in my head. I’m scared in the end that I’m just bad and evil and greedy inside.
In the end, my employer has told me I’m not coping with the job and not competent and I think I’ll probably be dismissed. Even if not my GP and specialist have told me it’s too stressful an environment. I need to get out of this role and do something less pressured and stressful and where I can engage in the therapy I’m doing at the minute, get to appointments and get support. I agree with them. Even if I am dismissed or do have to take the decision to leave, the one good thing I can see is that at least I am choosing to try to do something to put my health first, for the first time. Not admitting what I need to do in the past has just led to things getting worse and worse.
But it’s scary right now. I’m signed off sick at the moment. I feel empty and frightened and anxious all at once and there’s too much space for the spiralling thoughts and fears in my head. I’m trying to focus on positive and creative things. I don’t know how to trust myself at all because even in the last things that I trusted I could do properly, it seems actually I wasn’t doing a good job at all, and everyone except me knew it. So many jobs have ended in the past and I so want to find something that is sustainable but where I can engage with my therapy as well.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on work if you’d like to share them. Is work a good experience or a bad one for you? What kind of work you find is good for you and something where you can give your skills and abilities? If you find part time work is helpful and how much flexibility you find employers can give to be able to go to therapy appointments as well as working?
It seems like a very anxious and uncertain path at the moment.