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Whenever I visit LinkedIn, Medium or any other site with an abundance of articles written by professionals for professionals, I get the feeling that a lot of them seem to purposely miss or ignore a very important point when it comes to your mental health and your workplace.
Maybe I’ve been looking in the wrong places. Still, every morning I’m assaulted with notifications of articles like “7 tips to decrease work-related stress” or “Why you should do this very inconvenient thing to increase work-life balance”.
I don’t mean to sound pedantic, these articles have their merits. They might undoubtedly help some people dealing with very serious issues. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that this “biz” culture seems to deliberately ignore stress’ ugly cousins: depression and anxiety.
After all, these two aren’t quite as marketable as the catch-all concept of “stress“.
Mental health in the workplace
According to the “Health at a Glance: Europe 2018 – State of health in the EU cycle” report, about 18,4% of the Portuguese population suffer from some sort of mental affliction, including depression and anxiety. These numbers are frightening.
So, why am I bringing this up? I feel like the “biz” culture’s issues are too broad of a topic to tackle in this article, but I’d like to use my concern for the lack of awareness of work-related depression and anxiety to preface my story.
To make things short: I’ve had a particular work experience that caused me quite a lot of mental anguish.
I don’t feel like a detailed retelling of my past professional experiences is particularly important for the story. I will refrain from giving detailed reasons why the situation got out of control while trying to convey what I felt during the process and how that directly impacted my career.
My own experience
Before I got out of college, I began working as an HR specialist in a large company. I was overjoyed, of course. I had gotten a job before finishing my thesis, in a large, well-known company and most of all, I was working in a field that I thought I loved.
Well, considering how I introduced this topic, it’s obvious that this feeling of bliss didn’t last. 3 Years into the future and I’m leaving this company, and my only regret is that I didn’t do it any sooner.
I quickly fell out of love with my workplace. Unprofessional attitudes pertaining the way I dressed, inappropriate reactions to my sexual orientation and downright mobbing behaviour that was ignored by management, were just some of the reasons why this place quickly wore me off. The work I had to do, by itself, was fine… I mean, it was boring and unchallenging, but it was okay.
“My energy had been drained completely from me.”
Before I could take note, my energy had been drained completely from me. I felt tired, unmotivated and above all else, incredibly sad. Most scary of all is that like many people with depression, and I didn’t notice it crawling in until depression made itself noticeable.
Getting out of bed was a chore, weeks seemed to stretch to no end, and the weekend felt short and unsatisfying. Of course, I could always take vacation time, but the truth is I really couldn’t… Not unless I was mentally ready to face the consequences of taking a week off from work.
Getting to my workplace itself was another monster all on its own. The situation got to a point where just seeing my desk was enough to give me a slight panic attack. Each morning I found myself carefully assessing my co-workers’ mood, ‘Were they pissed off at something? Am I at fault for that? If not, will I still have to put up with the consequences?”.
“I feel like I wasted three years of my life”
It was a real low point. My friends and family began to worry about me. Without me noticing, my demeanour had changed. I was giving off non-verbal cues to signal I wasn’t alright.
Some of my relations suffered some degree of strain because of this. In that weird feedback loop of worry/care that we share with our most loved ones, I ended up distancing from them so I wouldn’t worry anyone, isolating myself further.
I think the worst part is, now that it is over, it doesn’t feel like three entire years went by.
At some point, my panic attacks, my scrambled emotions became a backdrop to a monotonous routine. Wake up, go to work, go to bed, repeat. These days merge and collapse into each other. Eventually, they just disappeared from my memories and skewed my perception.
Now I can only remember either the bad stuff or the incredibly good stuff, and everything else quickly became background noise.
Effectively, I feel like I wasted three years of my life.
Why am I sharing this?
Reading this you might be asking yourself “Well, cool, what do you want? A pat on the back? A medal for doing what so many other people have to do on a daily basis?”
No, in fact, that’s precisely my point. I’m not sharing my story because I feel what I went through was something exceptional.
I’m sharing my story because I believe so many people are going through the same thing but refuse to talk about it out of fear or embarrassment, or, even worse, have no one to talk about it. Fear and embarrassment often go hand in hand with depression and anxiety.
Still, not everything is doom and gloom. Depression doesn’t have to control your life, and a great deal of getting your life back on track is to learn to take back control of it.
Coding got me out of it
For me, what allowed me to break out of the cycle and set myself on a path to recovery was coding.
For years I had been flirting with coding. Whenever I saw someone code at the public library, I would stare mesmerized at those lines of obscenely coloured words that made absolutely no sense to me. My friends, the few who had been coding since childhood, looked like absolute wizards to me.
I remember perfectly when my video game partner coded his own small video game on his behemoth of a computer. It all seemed so insane to me. He could create something from what was, essentially, a few hundred lines of code and, before that, nothing.
Of course, coding became something I associated with extremely smart people. Not something that I would be able to do and indeed it had never crossed my mind I could ever do it well enough to make a career out of it.
Realizing coding was not so impossible
As time went by, I kept tipping my toe in the world of coding, but I never really dove too deep into it.
That was until I met this person at a party. I can’t even remember the guy’s name, sadly, but as he was talking about his coding projects and how he had built them, I realized something… I knew what he was talking about. I could understand the concepts he was describing meant and how they played off each other.
That night something had clicked in me, coding wasn’t necessarily this overly confusing and hard to understand thing. It was a game, just like the hundreds of problem-solving games I had played in my childhood.
A coding solution was no different from a Lego construction. By itself, the building blocks are unimpressive, it’s how you use them that allows you to create amazing things.
I began learning how to code properly that same night. I consumed every form of media that could help me understand how these blocks worked, and I could use them to build stuff.
“The ability to create can become a form of healing.”
At this point in my life, I had been riding the wave of depression and anxiety for a while. I was parched for something that would challenge me. Every time I could solve a tiny coding problem, I would feel like I had won something that had been missing for a while in my life, like a little part of me had returned.
No matter how depressingly bad the day at work had been, no matter how tired I was, I always had time to code a little something when I got home. Coding never felt like work, it felt like a hobby, something that I really have a lot of fun doing. It felt like some sort of religious ritual that I had to perform every day so I wouldn’t feel so bad.
This worked, in part, of course, because I didn’t have time to think about bad I was feeling, or how unmotivated I really was. Coding kept my mind too busy to process those thoughts.
I see this pattern a lot with people with mental illnesses, the ability to create can become a form of healing. Look at how many artists suffer from these ailments, and how their art is impacted by their emotional state and vice versa.
Of course, just a therapeutic hobby isn’t enough to fight off depression, but in many cases, it can be a start.
From HR to coding
Eventually, I became good enough to create websites. Sure, they were pretty static websites without much novelty to them, but they were websites, nonetheless.
Not long after, I found myself creating websites for my family and friends’ businesses. Some of them pretty complex, others not so much. But all of them had their unique challenges. Translating someone’s needs into code and code into an actual real object was a rush like I hadn’t experience before.
I began working freelance and even got some exciting projects under my belt. But the freelance life wasn’t my cup of tea as I felt I wasn’t developing my skills nearly as much as I could be in an actual work environment.
About one year after I first began learning how to code properly, I got a job as a full-time web developer. There’s something huge to be said about having a job that ruins you mentally and then finding your way into a job you genuinely love, and that actually brings you a lot of happiness.
Do you know that feeling of getting to bed after a 15-hour drive? The feeling I get whenever I get to work is very similar to that.
“You don’t owe anyone or any job your mental health.”
Honestly, if this blog post has a point, it should be this: you don’t owe anyone, or any job your mental health, no amount of money earned will buy back your motivation and happiness.
Find what makes you happy and invest in it, no matter how long it takes, you’ll eventually see a payoff, and that could be your first step on a path to recovery.