Surviving at Work – 1: Recognizing the Symptoms

There are days that begin in difficult moods, and I start writing down what I’m going through to see if I can shake myself loose. Here’s what I wrote one morning last week.


I keep sinking away into a deep pool of stillness. Looking outside this morning, I see that the season’s first rain showers came before dawn. After so much dryness, the slick sheen of water seems strange. Everything is damp and chilly, the sky is dark with the rain-weighted clouds, and I keep staring out the window at the garden, the bare yard beyond that, and across the street to an old barn in an open field. It’s a good thing I don’t have to rush to work this morning because my body doesn’t want to move at all. I’ll stay here, connecting remotely, trying to get things done, then go to my meeting late this afternoon. But I’m feeling this stillness getting into me, a kind of comfortable, let’s-sit-and-stare into-the-fathomless-world feeling. A rich depth opens in my chest. I wish it were the warmth preceding a good writing spell, but really it’s more like falling into emptiness, a state where I will do nothing if I don’t activate soon. Writing these lines is a mechanism to turn my mind from emptiness to the beginnings of movement. Work feels miles away and alien – I guess I’m really drifting off. I’ll stop now, get cleaned up and dressed for the day, then come back later. This drugged state of floating seems to lift me easily onto a smoothly flowing cloud that will take me somewhere intensely pleasant. But I know it’s nothing but sleep, a lazy turning round and round, dreamlike days – I’m unconnected to anything. At least there is no fear and panic, everything is muted, distant, like living in the midst of a soft warm fog.

Two Hands (Rights Reserved)


OK, that helped. I got myself organized, read through some emails and responded to those. That got my brain functional and focused on specific tasks. I’ve been working moderately well since then. I have to keep writing about this problem of how to get going when illness is starting to take hold. It helps to remind myself of the basic things I need to keep doing just to survive a working day when I’m starting to succumb to one or another of the disease’s different guises.

Recognition is critical. If I don’t catch the onset of each state, I’m at risk of falling into a twisted mindset and accepting it as my full reality, rather than seeing it as another form of illness. It’s like the beginning of a migraine – you have more options if you act at the first sign.

There are at least five different mind-states that occur at work:

– Total detachment, indifference, loss of motivation, paralysis of will

– Anxiety, wild fear and borderline panic

– Paranoia and obsession with a person or event

– Bleakness, sadness, shame, an all-pervasive sense of worthlessness

– Mental confusion, inability to focus, lapsing memory, loss of attention

Each of these is hard to deal with but each comes on with clear warning signs. If I’m lucky, I can catch them right away. Today, it’s detachment and wandering. Fortunately, I am alert to this while I’m still at home, and I’m lucky to have the option of working from here. A virtual private network line to the office system is a wonderful thing – it’s just like being there as far as access goes. And, of course, I can call everyone I need to talk to from anywhere.

That’s the easy part. So often, I’m already at work when something hits, or I go there on auto-pilot without paying attention to what I ‘m feeling, or, most commonly, I just have to be somewhere as part of the job. Then I’m facing a group of demanding professionals with my scrambled mind and feelings pulling me far away from the efficient self I’m expected to present.

I don’t have all the answers on what to do under these conditions, but I’ll keep writing about what I’m finding out. Writing itself is part of the discovery process – somehow the words pull new ideas out of my head while they’re getting onto the page.

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