After a difficult week, I share about taking days off, presenting to executives, and thoughts on suffering.
This past week was a roller coaster for me. There were a number of small moments that contributed to the struggle, and there were also a number of high points. In my experience, one of the most difficult aspects of dealing with mental health is the reality of life being good and hard at the same time. That was a truth that my mind was unable to compute for a long time, and still often remains a challenge.
As I mentioned last week, I spent all of Saturday volunteering with my daughter. The day was full of free time to relax and write articles on my phone, punctuated with periods of intensity and stress interacting with the participating children. The next day, I noticed early in the morning that I was much more agitated than usual. As Sunday morning progressed, it became clear to me that I was not ok. Irritation is one of my most common indicators that I am symptomatic and OCD is getting the better of me. As I caught myself snapping at the children, I realized that I need to withdraw a bit and I sat downstairs in my armchair for most of the day. I had the thought early in the day, “I know the drill. I just need to make it through this.” When I get triggered, my body reacts, and I just need to weather it and remember that it will pass.
On Monday, I felt much better and spent the day with the family. Tuesday morning, as I contemplated work, I felt completely overwhelmed. My agitation returned, and I cancelled every event in my calendar and laid down for a nap and then settled back in my armchair. I remember thinking again that I just needed to make it through the day. There was no guarantee that the next day would be any better, but I knew it was a matter of time. The challenge for me that second day was to find any activities that would engage my mind enough to slow it down or distract it from the looping thoughts that were contributing to the agitation. A few episodes of Forged in Fire and a couple trips out of the house later, and I had finally made it to the night and could legitimately crawl back in bed. Rough days!
As I went in to therapy on Friday, I told my therapist that I had a couple difficult days but was not sure why. I then proceeded to describe all the little stressors that had been piling up in my life. The clincher came as I described how my routine of walking every morning, which I just commented on recently, had become interrupted with the start of the school year. She kind of laughed and commented that my routine had been thrown off, which is notoriously hard for me and many others with OCD, and I hadn’t been exercising and starting the day with an activity that I looked forward to and which centered me, and I was surprised that I had become more agitated than usual? It was both funny and tragic. We often underestimate the power of small and simple habits in our lives.
In the middle of the rough day on Tuesday, I got word that I needed to present to the executives the next day. At first, I was frustrated that I had so little notice. I realized that being asked to share an update on my project that I am leading is not something that is stressful for me—it was just the plan change that was throwing me. I put some thought into it and decided what I wanted to prepare.
Wednesday morning, I woke up and did not know what to expect. I had not been able to work nearly at all the day prior and I felt the executive presentation looming over me. I decided I would just show up and see what happened. So I sat down at my computer and started preparing my presentation. After a few hours and a number of interruptions to help people on my team, I felt confident and ready. I had not ever consciously decided that I felt well enough to work—I just started working with curiosity about how things would go. The presentation itself was a success, which felt nice, but even more important to me was the experience of uncertainty and approaching my day with curiosity and having it work out.
I had a positive experience this week with a co-worker. We were discussing career options for her, and I commented on her exceptional technical prowess, and how she clearly adds much more value than the years on her resume would indicate. This competence was even more impressive when paired with her total lack of ego. She said something to the effect that suffering has a way of stripping away ego, as I surely know myself. Her comment has continued to resonate in my mind since our conversation.
During my time in an intensive outpatient program for OCD, we would talk a lot about pain and suffering, especially in the context of DBT. In short, pain is a natural part of life, but when we fail to accept the reality of our current situation, suffering is the result. A common saying was, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” Many of my favorite thoughts on suffering come from Viktor Frankl in his masterpiece, Man’s Search for Happiness:
In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.
So if I was to rephrase my coworker’s statement, I would say that adversity can strip away ego, but it truly is a choice. I have known plenty of people who have experienced hardships in their life, but are still quite full of themselves. Those of us who grapple with mental health challenges come to know that we cannot choose our situation in life, but we can choose our attitude. Hopefully we choose well.
Hard days are part of life. They rarely come at convenient times. The relieving news is that they pass, just as the good days pass. As we get better at accepting the reality of our current situation, we can avoid extra suffering in our lives.