This is my story about having an anxiety attack at work
How are you…really? I mean, REALLY?
For 2021’s Mental Health Awareness Month, the National Alliance of Mental Health amplifies the message of “You Are Not Alone.”
For those of us working in customer service, it’s very easy to put ourselves aside and focus on others. It can be easy to feel alone with mental illness in a room full of coworkers because it is too scary to admit our truth.
Years ago, I wish I had had a resource to relate to. In the early 2000s and even into the teens, the stigma was still loud and minimal relatable articles were written about working in customer service with mental health struggles.
To honor the message of “You Are Not Alone”, I want to share my story with you:
When I started my career in customer service back in 2005, I had a full blown eating disorder. I hid it well and everyone just thought I was really into health and wellness. Truth is, I was really into it. By that point, the eating disorder had taken over my life. As a high-functioning bulimic, I was able to do my best at work, support my team and customers because it was much easier to care for them than it was for me. I’d go home at the end of the day and wreak havoc on myself because I didn’t feel I was good enough.
When I finally sought help, I lied to my then employer. I told them I was going to a nutrition course and needed to change my schedule to accomodate. Speaking up about mental health at work? No way! I’d never do something like that because of the stigma. I’ll follow suit of what everyone else is doing and not overshare.
My then employer was the kind of company that really cared, provided incredible benefits and the small team of coworkers were like family. It was a safe space, but not safe enough in my mind to share what was really happening in my life when it came to mental health. My boss or even my HR department wasn’t a therapist and nor did I want them to be. I held on tightly to the shame instead.
Even after I received treatment for my eating disorder and had a toolbox full of ways to cope, I still struggled. In and out of therapy, I had a lot to learn. Flash forward to 2015 and an eating disorder relapse that happened outside of work led to me having an anxiety attack at work in front of several members of the customer service team I managed.
It wasn’t the first anxiety attack I’ve ever had. But it was the first I had in front of other people. Typically, the anxiety attacks happened after work hours or during sleep.
My go-to is to try and hide it, but if you’ve had an anxiety attack before, it’s reallllly hard to do that. My ultimate goal that day was to not pass out in the office. I rushed into a bathroom stall trying to catch my breath. I couldn’t see clearly and my heart felt like it was going to bounce out of my chest. Temperature wise, I was burning up and sweating.
I ended up reporting the situation to HR, taking the day off to rest and when I returned to the office, my team had surprised me with sweet gifts, flowers and a card signed with caring words.
I felt embarrassed, ashamed and weak, even though my team showered me with compassion. I told myself I needed to work harder with longer hours to prove that I wasn’t falling behind. I needed to do more to be worth it.
It was that situation that woke me up. Things I thought through at that time were:
- The thoughts that I’m not good enough and need to work harder with longer hours is what got me into this in the first place.
- Mental health is important but I am putting it last on my personal values list.
- I’d never want someone on my team to feel they had to hide something in fear of being judged.
But here I was, shaming myself for that exact thing I would never judge someone else about.
I never, ever, ever thought I would share the truth. Not to my coworkers or my boss, let alone over social media, a speaking event or a podcast!
In November 2018, I held a workshop at Zendesk Relate titled “Supporting Your Support Team Starts With You”. The 100+ audience with a line out the door had me shaking with nerves. I stood in front of them and for the first time, shared my true story outside of a therapist’s office. And, I haven’t stopped talking about it since.
What strikes me the most are the people who approach me after the session. They would pull me aside and say things like, “I have an eating disorder but I haven’t got help for it yet. Your workshop today makes me want to though” or “I always put others first. I never really think about self-care or supporting myself before my team. But I am struggling. This opened my eyes.”
It’s not about making big changes all at once, unless that’s your style. It’s about progress, not about perfection. I don’t think about my life without struggle. It is a part of my life. It’s how I respond to it that really matters.
What’s different for me now is that what happened and continues to happen is not a secret and I own my struggles. I take full responsibility for taking care of myself while in a job that cares for others.
I’ve learned to set boundaries around people and other things in my life. This is not a sob story. I want no sympathy.
My goal in sharing, I’ve realized, is to be just another person sharing their story in hopes that someone out there that feels a little less alone. Because in order to take the best care of others, we must first take the best care of ourselves.
Mental Health Resources
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7: (800) 273-8255
- National Eating Disorders Association has a live chat, text and phone line here: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/help-support/contact-helpline
- National Alliance of Mental Health: https://www.nami.org/home
Jenny, thank you so much for having the courage to share your personal story. You and your story are inspirational; sharing it will doubtlessly inspire countless others to seek help.
Thanks for sharing your story, Jenny. I’m sure it wasn’t easy, but I’m sure a lot of people can learn from it.
One challenge for employers that want to better support employees is avoiding illegal discrimination. Various laws protect our personal health information and make it a very bad idea for employers to ask about it without a very specific need. Even when a boss or coworkers become aware of someone’s health issue, they have to be careful about what they do with that information.
So a well-meaning boss can set a company up for major liability by asking too many personal questions. At the same time, as your experience points out, telling employees to leave their issues at home and refusing to listen or provide any support doesn’t work either.
One of the biggest resources that employees don’t know about is an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Many employers offer one, and many EAPs include access to all sorts of help. Making employees aware that an EAP exists and that employees can use it to confidentially get the help they need is a big step.
Thank you for reading this, Jeff. I’m glad you brought up the laws around personal health information. It is definitely important for employers to bring up the EAP, too!