The thought of going to the office tomorrow is bringing me to tears.
November 29, 2017 11:15 PM   Subscribe

I took a mental health sick day today, but I absolutely need to go back to the office tomorrow. I left early yesterday because after breaking down in tears for reasons I don't understand, I just couldn't pull myself together. Although I had to deal with a couple of stressful situations (and frankly, didn't really handle them well and got called out for it) it's nothing that should have caused this type of reaction, and hasn't in the past. But thinking of going back tomorrow is literally causing me to break out into tears again and I can feel the beginnings of an anxiety attack happening. What on earth do I do with this??

By all accounts, I have a good job. I'm well paid and in my chosen career. I actually work for an employer that despite its size actually does care about it's employees, within reason of course. They're not perfect, but I'd say better than average.

However... I work in a very male dominated field. I'm the highest ranking female in my department, but stuck solidly in middle management. Emotional breakdowns are quite possibly "career-hindering". Basically, every un-perfect aspect of my personality has been called career-hindering at some point. Please dont turn this into a diversity/women-in-tech discussion, but I can't pretend gender doesn't at least play a small part here. But again, this is something where my employer takes pride in being ahead of the curve... it absolutely could be worse. Regardless, I simply cannot be the emotional female at work; professionalism is key here.

All that said, I also haven't been even close to happy at work in a long time - months if not years. My bosses know that, and are at least paying lip service to the idea of fixing the situation by moving me back into a more technical role instead of managerial, but things dont move quick and right now they need my mediocre managerial skills more than they need my pretty-darn-good technical chops, unfortunately for me. This people management role basically sucks the life out of me, but I'm still there because of inertia, stock options and a smidgen of hope that things might get better eventually. That said, I'm also pretty sure I'm having some sort of mid life crisis and suffer from mild depression that's currently not controlled well at all (the SSRI I'm on does diddly-squat).

Everything above (plus maybe the aforementioned badly handled situations and subsequent fallout) apparently lead me to not being able to have a conversation yesterday afternoon without tears, so i basically snuck out of the building through the back door so I wouldn't run into anyone. But now I have to go back... and I can't even type this without tears and anxiety. I'm ok with hating the idea of going to work (it's called work for a reason) but this is a new reaction for me...

WTF, brain??!? How can I make this work? I just need to get through one day at a time without tearing up or my voice wavering. Any ideas, strategies, tips, etc are very welcome. Another sick day or working from home is not an option as I've already taken way too many of both because of my migraines, and because there are meetings I really need to attend. I need some immediate coping strategies please!!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (14 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Hi, I actually just asked my partner to give up his computer so that I could answer your question, because I feel this so hard. I actually am in a similar place right now, but I've had to get it together many times before and so I feel qualified to respond. Here are the things that I have done in the past and plan on doing tonight/tomorrow, roughly in order:

Make sure that you've eaten a healthy dinner
Drink a bunch of water
Watch something or read something that gives you low stakes low trauma chill out time, like The Great British Bake Off or Anne of Green Gables or Frasier
Read while you take a bath if possible, even a short one
Get your stuff for the morning ready especially things that take more effort to do, like: make lunch, make sure you have a plan for coffee/tea, pack your bag or purse ahead of time and pick out your clothes (the less stressors in the morning, the easier the day will feel)

Get up, have your coffee ready, I am turning my Christmas lights on first thing in the morning for some extra cheer while I have my coffee and the breakfast I made sure to have available
Have a good breakfast while listening to some kicking tunes that make you feel great

Get to work a little bit early if possible to give you a chance to just sort of sit in your office without having to rush, rush, rush, but just sit in there, straighten your desk, listen to more kickin' tunes

Figure out what things in your schedule are the most important for you to "have it together" during, like, meetings with coworkers present, or a group lunch that you have to do
Plan a few times during the day when you can be alone just to not have to deal with faking it - I usually take lunch by myself in my office on those days, get out for a walk to go to the fancy grocery and buy myself a coffee, sometimes call a friend

Then pull your focus to making it through just each individual thing where you have to be On, you only have to do one at a time, and afterward when you can be alone, do something to congratulate yourself for getting through it, like dance in your office, watch silly cats on YouTube, write a short eff yeah i did that text or email to your bestie, take a silly selfie to send a friend, listen to Dear Sugars while you do typey-work, etc

You only have to get through your work day without losing it. You do NOT have to be perfect, you don't have to be PRESENT 100% of the time, you don't even have to get every single bit of your work done tomorrow. Your only task is really to show up there and get paid and let the people see (when you allow them to see you) that you are chill.

Oh man and I forgot, do activities that regulate your vagus nerve. I don't have my link here but you want to do things that stimulate that nerve because it can shift you out of fight-flight response, like, my personal favorite is hanging upside down on a chair or yoga ball, and yes, I have done it in my office and yes, it always makes me feel instantaneously better. Deep breathing, rhythmic tapping on your arms and legs, squeezes up and down arms and legs can all help.

I hope that this helps at all -- these are the things that I do and I have had to do them a LOT during my process of being a human with occasionally very intense bouts of anxiety. You do not have to be perfect, you just have to show up. You can totally do this and so can I -- I'm starting my process right after I finish typing this to you. You and me, we can both go to work tomorrow and we can both manage that shit.

Take care, be well.
posted by fairlynearlyready at 11:43 PM on November 29, 2017 [78 favorites]

Brain is good. You're burned out, dude. Ask about a sabbatical while researching something related. Pretend you're really interested.

Or, take a medical leave. Don't make that decision without figuring out your benefits, because they often are cut on medical leave, as is your salary, and you might have to pay the extra. Kick in the ass, isn't it?

If you can take a leave of absence, not the same as medical leave, that might also help. For personal reasons. Even if it's for 3-4 weeks. Again, know how this affects your benefits before you do it.

Maybe your employer is asking too much. Perhaps they need more people, but the result is you are not thriving at your work place. Your health and well being has to come first, as how can you function at work if you feel so stressed out, right?

You can take a break if you negotiate it. If not, consider your health and well-being before this job. It's not worth it, in the long run.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 11:53 PM on November 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

I can't even type this without tears and anxiety. I'm ok with hating the idea of going to work (it's called work for a reason) but this is a new reaction for me...

Frankly, I'd claim a death in the family to cover yesterday's crying and today's absence and book into my GP/PCP or nurse practitioner TODAY to get a beta blocker or Xanax or something for the short term while you work with a therapist and make some life choices over the medium term.

FWIW I have been where you are, very recently, and the above is what I had to do to be able to keep on keeping on.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:02 AM on November 30, 2017 [31 favorites]

I don't know if this is going to be helpful, so I apologize if it's not and feel free to ignore.

You talk about being emotional at work being career-hindering and seem worried about 'getting in trouble' at work. I guess the question is, in the absolute worst case, where your job there comes to an end - is that terrible? Can you afford it financially for a while? Is your field one where you can expect to be fairly employable where you live?

It seems like the stress is breaking you down, and there are a few possibilities. One is that this is purely a health issue and better meds would make everything okay. Another is that this is an issue born of a miserable working environment, and different meds might be a bandage but not actually address the real problem. Given how long you've been unhappy at work and the fact that you've been kept working at a role that doesn't let you excel, this option seems more likely. So the only real solution here would be to find a different job, almost certainly in another company.

Which means a few things, along a scale of immediate impact. It could mean handing in a resignation today. It could mean calling in sick today and Friday, the same way you would if you had come down with some serious virus where going in would absolutely be impossible. (If you're worried that it looks bad: that's all right, you're going to leave this company anyway. If you're worried about running out of sick days: that's all right, it'll be unpaid time off. If you're worried about your meetings: that's all right, you do what you can in the same way you would if you had the flu.) It could mean deciding to yourself that you're going to stay at your company for three more months, during which you're also going to look for new work. You write a resignation letter, date it for three months from now, and keep it (literally or metaphorically) in your pocket. When something stressful happens at work then, you remind yourself that this isn't really your life anymore: you're going to be leaving these people quite soon. When some project or meeting doesn't go as well as you'd like, you remind yourself that it doesn't really matter, it's okay. You're just serving out your time and it's not actually important any more.

Don't worry about your career progression at this company. Wean yourself away from being too emotionally invested in your position there. When you find yourself in the middle of a stressful conversation there, imagine yourself five or ten years in the future looking back on this moment. It won't have any importance for you then. This job isn't where your future is, and it's okay to demote its importance in your mind.

Feel better, and be easy on yourself. You're going to be fine.
posted by trig at 12:08 AM on November 30, 2017 [10 favorites]

I feel for you miss lady and I think you got some great advice so far. I second the poster that said take it task by task and get alone time in between. Put on iheart radio's 24/7 comedy, that stuff makes me laugh anytime. Deep breathing and knowing that this sh*ituation will change soon should get you through.
posted by livelikegold6 at 1:02 AM on November 30, 2017

Yeah, call off again.

And start looking for a new job yesterday.

Because this:
also haven't been even close to happy at work in a long time - months if not years.
— that’s no way to live.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:49 AM on November 30, 2017 [3 favorites]

Go to work today. And tomorrow. Take some deep breaths, and then some benzos.

This may sound harsh, but the thing is that being given the cold shoulder for taking a sick day or being treated like a nasty self-centered malingerer if you take medical leave isn't something you'll ever forget, even though this stuff isn't warranted. You're already taking sick days for migraines - be careful with how much goodwill you've used up. Coming back from being treated as though you're bad for prioritizing your self-care...your brain doesn't come back from that, nor does your own perception of your career and your rights even if you change jobs. So sometimes a good strategy is to keep on keeping on.
posted by blerghamot at 6:51 AM on November 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

i had a crying at work issue a few years ago (because my dog was put down) and the best last ditch effort if i felt the tears coming was to go to the bathroom and clean myself up while forcing myself to smile. Like physically smile, not thinking happy thoughts or something. Something about forcing the muscles in my face to smile worked to stem the flow of tears so I could clean up and get back out there. Bring some makeup for redness or whatever if thats your thing or just use some cold water to tamp down blushing (thats what i did)
posted by WeekendJen at 7:09 AM on November 30, 2017

I'm in almost your exact same situation, to the point where I've been drafting a similar AskMe in my head for a few days. Similar company culture, etc., and a feeling like I ought to be so grateful for this job, but then why does it make me so miserable?

For me, the biggest issue is time off. After sick time is used up, we don't get the option for unpaid time off (instead, if we go over, we have to beg coworkers to "lend" some of their sick days to cover the gap). All the allotted time off we get is meager to begin with. It sucks and I hate it and every passing day fills me with resentment.

So from a point of view where more days out are not an option: I'm doing the thing called "picking 'em up and putting 'em down." One task at a time, and I try not to think too much but pretend I'm a robot. When I have more bandwidth, maybe after lunch, that's when I'll respond to emails and deal with people. Which will be ok, because I showed up--if they're so insistent on presenteeism, fine--and I can fake being pleasant for a few minutes at a time.

Another thing that helps me is to ask myself "what's not wrong?" This is a fun way to turn the tables on your anxiety--I generally operate from a position of expecting the worst, all the time, so it is genuinely surprising and fun to realize that I don't currently have any hangnails, and there isn't a leak in my roof, and I also have clean water and all the tea I want, and ice cream is available if I want some. Not awful! And in the meantime, my dark anxiety spiral is interrupted and has lost some of its momentum.

And thank you for posting this. One other thing that helps is to see that I'm not alone, and I'm not an ungrateful fuck-up for feeling this way. I suspect a lot of people who seem like they have it together and "bloom where they're planted" etc. (barf) are feeling desperate on the inside too.
posted by witchen at 8:31 AM on November 30, 2017 [8 favorites]

I love my job but I finally realized it's become emotionally untenable for me. Humans didn't evolve to function 40+ hours a week in an office environment - it's hard work! And some work is extra hard, like being the only woman at your level.

Is there any way you can swing a leave? Extended sick leave? If nothing else, you have a legal right to FMLA. Find a mental health provider who can sign off on your need.

You sound like you need a serious break to breathe, evaluate what you're doing, and decide what you want to do next.
posted by latkes at 8:41 AM on November 30, 2017

darlingbree said what i was gonna say. you need the xanax. for me it made it possible for me to go to work because i JUST DIDN'T CARE about all the shit that was making me miserable. i didn't take it every day, but if i was at work and the panic was starting, i took one and was uncaring in about 10 minutes. i took the lowest dose that worked for me so i wasn't passing out and could still get work done.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 11:12 AM on November 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

You physically can't cry while you're drinking a glass of water - so take a water bottle in to meetings, if need be. I also recommend picking up some Visine, so if you do tear up in your office, you can go to your next meeting without having red, puffy eyes.

But honestly, the 'death in the family' advice is the best advice in this thread.
posted by valoius at 12:51 PM on November 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

Anti-anxiety meds, yes. If you can't get the prescription written or filled before heading into work, diphenhydramine (brand name: Benadryl) might help. (In similar situations, I've taken one half to one tab in the morning, with another dose after lunch. Adult dosage to combat allergies is one to two tablets, but taking two at once leaves me too sleepy to drive or focus much.)
posted by Iris Gambol at 4:17 PM on November 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

It sounds like your brain is completely exhausted. When my brain is exhausted like this, I find it helpful to think of it like a sprained ankle: swollen, injured, bruised. Luckily, similar to a sprained ankle that needs rest, ice, compression, elevation, there are some basic physical things you can do to help your exhausted brain. Try some of the below "first aid" tonight and tomorrow morning:
  • Close your eyes and breathe. Fill your lungs all the way so that your chest puffs out. Exhale all the way until they're empty. Breathe loud enough so that someone in the same room could hear. Breathe deeply five times.
  • Put yourself in warm, pleasant water. Could be a bath, a hot tub with gentle or no jets, or just sitting on your shower floor for a few minutes and letting the water run over you. In your office, this could be as simple as soaking your fingers or hands in warm water. Feel the sensation of the warm water on your skin.
  • Find a calming scent. For me it's lavender. Smell the thing, then close your eyes for a few seconds to really focus on the smell.
  • Make yourself a cup of herbal tea. Take a minute to sit with the cup, smell the tea, feel the steam on your face, touch the warm mug with your hands, taste the flavour on your tongue.
  • Go outside and sit with your eyes closed for thirty seconds. Listen to what's happening around you: talking, birds, traffic, etc. Let the sound drift around you.
  • Find a piece of art that is calming to you, maybe something abstract or impressionist. Look at it for thirty seconds. Don't worry about what it means, just look at the colours, textures, shapes. Let your mind drift over it.
  • Download the Headspace app and use the free ten episode basic starter pack. Just start with the first one tonight. Don't worry if you feel like you didn't do a good job with it, just sitting with your phone until it finishes is a win this time. Find ten minutes a couple of times during your workday to either repeat the first session or move onto the next when you're ready.
Letting your brain relax for thirty seconds or a minute or whatever you can manage to let it experience one of these basic sensory things will help it start to heal. I actually visualise my brain as swollen, and imagine that doing one of these things is like putting ice on my sprained ankle to reduce the swelling. I'm giving myself time, space and permission to do first aid.

This is not the end of the solution. You know this situation is unsustainable in its current form. Try not to dwell on fixing that tonight though. Once you feel like your first aid has helped and your "swelling" has gone down a little, then you can work more on the bigger problems like negotiating better conditions or finding a new job. For tonight, just breathe.
posted by mosessis at 7:19 PM on December 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

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