Mental Illness as a Gateway to Librarianship.
Aged 19 I headed off to university and merrily ignored the gathering signs that I was not mentally well for two years, until my final year of university and my fine art degree. My social anxiety had become so severe the thought of walking into the university building I needed to go into to work in the studio made me physically sick. Instead I spent all day in my room and made no art. I fucked up writing my dissertation, I just about managed to make some work to put in the end of degree exhibition and scraped a pass for my degree. I was 22 years old and I had no idea how to tell people how I felt or what was wrong with me really. I had what I now recognise as a breakdown and ended up in hospital at one point. This, and not getting the mark I expected for my degree completely put the post university plans I had in the bin- I was planning to move back in with my parents for a year and work to save up enough cash to move to London to do an MA in curating and art theory after that. Instead, I hung around Brighton for a year, mostly unemployed, but steadily feeling more and more mentally well again. As part of my benefits conditions I started volunteering in the special collections department of a university library, thought ‘oh yeah this is pretty good’, started looking for a job and eventually got one in a museum library in London in 2008. So I guess, inadvertently, my mental health issues brought me to library work in the first place. (I’m also glad I never tried to become a curator in the end- I’d probably still be doing badly paid ‘internships’ now).
Hiding in the Stationery Cupboard Vs. Talking About What’s Wrong.
Much of my first library job involved working on the service desk, retrieving books that readers had requested and helping them with basic enquiries. I spent the first three months feeling sick every time I had to do a two hour desk shift. My social anxiety kicked in hard and each time someone approached the desk I imagined all the shit they were thinking about me and all the likely humiliating confrontations that were about to occur. On a couple of occasions it got too much, and I locked myself in the stationery cupboard (which was actually a small room) and tried to control the oncoming anxiety attacks with varying degrees of success. One day one of my supervisors noticed and took me aside for a chat. At first I felt even more panicked- this was my first ‘proper’ job, what if it made me look like I couldn’t do it and shouldn’t be there?- However the way I look after an anxiety attack is the shit you can’t hide, so I told her everything. She was great about it. Over time I became used to doing the desk shifts and realised people generally didn’t think I was an awful person or want to shout abusive shit at me, and became much more able to rationalise what is actually likely to happen compared to what my catastrophising brain thought will happen, and control my anxiety as a result.
Since realising that bottling up how I felt had been what made me seriously ill when I was at university, (and also not being very good at hiding how I feel about things more generally), I’ve always been very open with people that I work with about my mental health. Mostly I’ve had excellent and supportive colleagues, although I’ve also worked with people who’ve asked me inappropriate questions (“what medications are you on?”) or used it as a kind of tool to control me or make me feel bad (“you shouldn’t use your annual leave for mental health reasons”– um I can use it for what I like thanks). As things like #LISmentalhealth week, the twitter chat and my own personal experience show, fellow library people are often incredibly empathetic about this kind of stuff, but the stigma is so strong still, I can fully understand why many people choose not to disclose their mental health problems to their employers.
Being a Body in an Office.
This also fits into the idea that it’s better to be at work, even if you’re really ill and not actually doing anything productive, than to take time off if you’re unwell. There’s a lot written about how the culture of work is making people sick, and how in an age of precarious work and job losses, the need to be seen as a ‘good’ worker who is not absent from work is strong for fear of the consequences. My most recent mental health ‘episode’ happened before Christmas 2015, and I was signed off work for a week. The guilt of being signed off and my colleagues having to cover my shifts added another layer of panic and stress to how shit I was already feeling. Now, in the cold light of not feeling like I would rather stab myself in the legs than go to work (yes, this was really how I felt at the time) I realise taking that time off was absolutely the right thing to do to help me recover, and I would do the same thing of covering for any of my colleagues who were away due to illness. This is also a good time to discuss workplace ‘sickness monitoring schemes’. Supposedly a way to stop people from taking the piss, these feel more like punitive ways of punishing people for having the temerity to be ill more than a certain number of times (sometimes as little as under 5 separate days) in a year. The fact this can make you feel like you’re doing something wrong by being ill can certainly add to anxiety and pressure you into feeling like you should be at work when you really shouldn’t. Finally I never want anyone to say ‘oh but work is good because it takes your mind off of things’ to me ever again. Work doesn’t ‘take your mind off’ anything when work is the thing that is making you sick.
The first time I accessed counseling was in my 20s, and it was cognitive behvioural therapy. I learned some useful things from it, which I still use today when I’m trying to control my anxiety or intrusive thoughts. The thing is though- once you’ve done it a couple of times you feel you’re being told the same things that you know already and it’s not so useful. I’ve had other kinds of therapy too (different talking types, exposure therapy to help with my PTSD) that have varied in their usefulness to me. I also wouldn’t ask to access these therapies via the NHS now even if they were suggested by my doctor, as NHS Mental Health Services are buckling from the cuts that are being made to them, and the huge increase in those who need to access them, and I wouldn’t want to take up that space someone else might benefit from. A number of my employers have offered ’employee assistance’ programs where you’re able to access a limited number of counseling sessions. In 2013, I was acting as the carer of my partner at the time who had very severe OCD. I was also in the final stages of my LIS MA, and working full time in the bibliographic services department of an arts university library service. I felt like I could not let the stress the whole situation was causing me show to my partner as I didn’t want to upset them, so I internalised it all and instead of feeling depressed, became incredibly fucking angry. This peaked when one day at work I was trying to cover a book in vistafoil (I hated this job at the best of times). It went badly, and without thinking, I hoisted the whole roll of vistafoil and the book cover out of our office window, onto the flat roof outside. I then left the office, kicking over my computer CPU and a bin on the way out (Whenever I think about this now, it makes me laugh, but at the time it didn’t), and had an anxiety attack in the corridor. During this period I had a very understanding boss, who knew what was going on and arranged for me to have some counseling sessions through work, which focused on helping me feel less angry. The counselor encouraged me to to say “I AM CALM. I AM CALM.” out loud to myself instead of thinking ‘I’M SO FUCKING ANGRY’. It worked, but only because I felt like such a dick saying it, it made me laugh and broke the tension.
Long term Effects/But You Don’t Look Unwell.
I can’t imagine not having mental health issues, and I feel like they’ve played a big part in shaping who I am as a person in many ways (this blog is called ‘Librarian Killjoy’ and I’ve got a tattoo of a black cloud on my arm- I mean…). Although there might be months or even years where I feel pretty good, they will always be there, looming about in the background ready to blow up. Negotiating the tension between this happening and being a ‘functional’ person in a working environment (such as a Library) will be an ongoing process. There might be times when I’m not well enough to do my jobs, but that’s ok, because the majority of the time I will be. Learning to dismantle this work related guilt that serves no purpose other than to kick me when I’m down is something I’m getting better at doing. These days I’m much better at dealing with mental health stuff than I used to be and know what I need to do to look after myself and when to ask people for help. I also know that as a cis white woman, and with the privilege that gives me I’ve been able to access care in ways other people may have not, and obviously it plays a part in how I am treated by my employers with regards to my mental health.
In terms of LIS and mental health, I think that things are definitely improving and events like #lismentalhealth week help to get people talking and providing solidarity and critical discussion about these issues. I hope we can be kinder to ourselves and each other. I hope that we can continue to challenge the stigmas around mental health in the workplace, and the idea that being a productive, competent library worker at ALL TIMES regardless of, or at the detriment to your own mental health is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING. It isn’t. It never is. Look after yourselves and each other first.