Most people would describe me as confident and successful which, I suppose, makes sense. To the outside world I’m a trainee solicitor at a magic circle law firm with an Oxford degree and a busy social life. Society has a habit of judging a book by its cover, and being quick to do so too, but a book’s cover can be misleading and the story therein quite different.
Deciding to share my story
Deciding to open up and share parts of my story is, quite frankly, terrifying. Friends and family, concerned with my wellbeing, have asked whether I have really thought about the “consequences” of doing so, both personally and professionally. In fact, the latter concern has only served to reinforce my reason for sharing in the first place. Why is there still such a stigma surrounding mental health, particularly in the workplace? The workplace can be, at times, an intensely stressful environment which is bound to exacerbate any underlying mental ill-health. Surely, that is the prime reason that we should seek to encourage transparency and honesty about mental health and support each other in making the daunting step to open up?
For as long as I can remember, I have had an insatiable need to be liked by others and to achieve perfection in everything. I have held myself to unrelenting high-standards, struggled to accept personal criticism and taken only the negative out of almost every situation. When I was fifteen, after several years of feeling bad about myself, I was admitted to hospital with anorexia and major depressive disorder. The doctors said my anorexia was an attempt to regain control over my life which seemed to me, at that time, an inevitable descent into darkness. The irony was that I didn’t control my eating disorder; it controlled me.
School and university were a struggle, to be honest. I felt compelled to get the best grades, but hospitalisation, ongoing therapy appointments, and chronic tonsillitis (a consequence of my anorexia was a severely impaired immune system) forced me to sacrifice large periods of my GCSE and AS/A-level education. At university, being surrounded by supremely intelligent people only compounded my own sense of inadequacy. I added anxiety to my list of “problems” and struggled to escape the fear that I simply was not good enough.
Support at work
Yet, somehow, here I am, one year into my training contract at Linklaters and, to all intents and purposes, doing well. However, anxiety is still an issue that I am dealing with and is susceptible to being triggered in high-stress situations or when my performance is under scrutiny. Towards the end of my first seat (an exhausting and stressful experience by all accounts), with appraisal-time approaching, I felt my resilience waning. But precisely because I feared the impact that admitting to having these feelings would have on my career, I didn’t speak up (against the advice of my doctor). Instead, I continued going to work, acting like everything was okay, until one morning my laptop failed to connect to the internet. This ordinarily insignificant incident was enough to trigger a panic attack in front of the colleagues I had desperately been trying to impress and convince of my ability over the previous months.
Linklaters has been very supportive since that day. I took time off work, and returned on a gradual basis. I have been encouraged to attend regular therapy appointments, and I have an open dialogue with HR and the immediate team meaning that I worry less about having to hide how I’m feeling. Consequently, I tend to feel much less stressed now that I can be more transparent about feeling stressed.
One of my biggest realisations to date is that the fear of doing something is always worse than the act of doing itself. Speaking up about mental illness triggers fear of judgment and rejection, but from my own experience people will react much more positively than you might expect.
Thriving from the Start Network
Being invited to join Thriving From The Start, a mental health community network for apprentices and school leavers who are in the early years of their City careers, coincided with my decision to take positive action to support other young people’s mental health journeys. Mental ill-health is a pervasive issue, stemming from ever-mounting societal pressure to aspire to the images of perfection that social media convinces us is normal, to get the best grades at school, to earn more money, to work more hours…the list goes on. “Mental health” still carries a stigma, and yet mental health means just that; it’s a good thing and something to be protected and nurtured. I hope that I have demonstrated why taking care of our mental health is so important, and I strongly advocate everyone working together to build a society which not only cares about mental health but celebrates it.
If you are interested in finding out more about Thriving From The Start, please click here: https://bit.ly/2GZWbcb