Turning suffering into success
Paul Carter, April 18, 2019
In this series of columns we're asking HR professionals to help get the conversation going on HR's own mental health by sharing their personal experiences
Am I using my mental health story to boost my professional profile and attract employment opportunities? Maybe. It’s certainly topical and I deserve compensation for losing golden years to OCD and anxiety.
I do want the well-paid HR job, TV drama, book deal, speaking gigs and worldwide adulation for standing up for those who suffer in silence. But I detect the rumblings of a backlash against people who share their battles.
Caught in the crossfire between storytelling and bringing your whole self to work, I may be seen as an 'over-sharer' or a wannabe office celebrity riding the wave of the wellbeing trend. The stream of supportive messages applauding my bravery and honesty will run dry, leaving me as the one-in-four poster boy without a fan club.
No, that’s what my anxiety wants me to think. It wants me to stay quiet and suffer. To feel like a fart in a boardroom meeting that everyone heard but, if you wait long enough, will go away and never be spoken about again.
Once it’s out in the open there’s no turning back. Even if there are critics in the workplace they cannot stop me and all those who follow. We share our stories through blogging as it is 1,000 times easier than telling people directly about our dark times.
It’s our way of controlling the conversation. Snippets and excerpts of the 24/7 mind games that plague our lives. We share just enough to help people understand what it’s like not to be OK and how you can fight back to get your life back.
It takes a long time to be comfortable with sharing. In 2004 I was late for my awful temp job and the recruitment agency phoned my family to find out why. My mum said I had been feeling very down lately but would rather die than be late for work. When I finally got to work after train delays I had to convince the agency that I was OK, that nothing could stop me from destroying an endless pile of files and recording their serial numbers on a database.
I put on my headphones, carried out my meaningless work and swore vengeance against my life. I could have just sat at home, an unemployed graduate with a 2:2 degree in journalism, but I had a student loan to pay off.
The funny thing about OCD and anxiety is that I never stopped thinking. My brain was blasting away a bombardment of intrusive thoughts and panic attacks. I tried to lose myself in military history, but if men my age and younger could storm the D-Day beaches in World War II why couldn't I beat this invisible enemy?
Not even the smell of my dad’s gangrenous leg as he underwent his second amputation could stop the flow of what-if terrors occupying my mind. While my dad’s phantom leg pains could be explained by science, I couldn’t explain why my brain wouldn’t shut up.
At least I could run away from my imaginary pain. I moved to London, got a full-time job, continued writing, and enjoyed the nightlife. The years could blend into one but every day was a new start.
My life had purpose, meaning and hope but I had to play catch-up in my career. After lots of ups and downs I moved into HR and have thrived ever since. While being open about my lived experience has boosted my reputation, it’s what I achieve and how I do it that defines me.
I would rather not be in the 'mental health community'. That part of my life sucked and the hangover can still hit me, but it made me resilient. I can face anything.
Yes, there’s a time to wear the t-shirt and share, but more time should be spent living your life and building a rewarding and meaningful career. However, looking out for number one doesn’t mean you can’t also make the world of work better for someone else.
Paul Carter is a senior policy consultant at Civil Service Employee Policy