Friday, June 23, 2017

Real Talk: Why I Took a Leave of Absence from Work

This is my 3rd attempt at writing this blog post. I feel like it’s important to talk about, because no one ever talks about it, but it was hard for me to find the right way to talk about it. The first time I wrote it, it was me pouring out my heart and soul, laying all my pain out for the world to see. But at the same time, I kind of felt defensive. I felt like I had to defend my decision to take a leave of absence from my job, when honestly I don’t have to defend shit. While Jen read that post and said it was perfect, I wanted to wait. It took some time and, if I’m being real, some therapy, for me to feel like I was in the right head space to talk about this. So here we go. 

My mom died almost a year ago. It will be a full year at the end of July. It feels unreal that the time has gone by so fast and I’m looking at starting my second year without my mom. My mom died from multiple myeloma, a form of cancer. She had a stroke in early 2015 and shortly after was diagnosed with cancer. She was doing chemotherapy for almost 14 months straight before she stopped responding to treatment. This was at the beginning of July 2016. By the end of July her body just stopped. I found out she was in the hospital two days after being back at work from a 2 week vacation and instantly left and spent the next 3 days by her side until she passed. It was hard. Watching someone you love die is horrifying, nothing at all like it is in tv and movies. I was haunted by “end of life” breathing for weeks. Even now, sometimes I remember what that was like and I my heart sinks. I was 29 years old, my youngest sister was only 20, and suddenly we didn’t have a mom anymore. 

Her passing changed my whole world. I had a complicated relationship with my mom for most of my life, so her dying left me with a lot of guilt, a lot of unresolved issues. I felt scooped out. I was empty. I was someone I didn’t recognize anymore. I didn’t know how to navigate this huge grief that I didn't ask for and didn't want. Before my mom died, I had ambition and was hard working and energetic. When she died I became this version of myself I didn’t recognize. Panic attacks became a huge part of my life, along with constant anxiety. Depression also came along for the ride, so I was just a mess. I took a few weeks off from work right after this happened, but I was still struggling. I was pretending to be healing and that I was ok, that I was fine, but I was very much not fine. 

My depression made it hard to get out of bed, hard to do anything. I found myself missing work once every week or two. I just couldn’t do it. I was able to work from home sometimes, but it was still incredibly hard. It’s really hard to convey in words just how bad things were, how different I was from who I used to be, and how much energy I put into pretending I was ok. The company I work for has an unlimited PTO policy. It’s also the first place I’ve worked where it felt like I was valued as a person. I know that if I went through this at any other job I would most likely have been fired. It was hard to admit that I was not in a good place and I was blaming a million things in my life besides just dealing with my grief. 

In March, I was put on a performance improvement plan. Not surprising since my quality of work was nowhere near what I wanted it to be. It’s so weird to struggle at work and want to be better but not seem to be able to get any better. I finally opened up to my lead about how I was feeling, truly and honestly. She was incredibly supportive and kind. She mentioned to our HR rep in our office that I might need to talk. I had a meeting with my HR rep and she suggested taking a leave of absence. I didn’t even know that was an option, that you could take leave for mental health reasons. Once I knew that was something I could do, things just clicked. I had been seeing a doctor for my anxiety and depression since my mom died so I had medical records to back up my request, and getting it approved was pretty easy. 

The past 3 months have still been a struggle, but I finally feel like I’m healing. I’m moving on to the acceptance part of grief. My coping mechanisms are so much better. Like, I actually have coping mechanisms now. I’m anxious about returning to work but also excited. I’m grateful I was able to have this opportunity to heal. The biggest thing that has lead to my progress has been finding a therapist. I’ve been seeing mine for about 6 weeks and I kind of wished I had started seeing someone as soon as my mom passed. Therapy was scary for me, but just in the past 6 weeks I’ve made an insane amount of progress. 

When I first went on leave, I was incredibly embarrassed. I didn’t want anyone to know I was struggling, especially with mental health things. Admitting I needed help, that I needed a break from my job, felt like admitting weakness. Plenty of people live with these issues every day and don’t take a leave from their jobs. All I can say is that I know how bad things were 12 weeks ago and this leave feels like it saved my life, no exaggeration. I feel like I’m getting back to the person I was before, maybe even a better version of who I was before. I will always live with the loss of my mom and the feelings that come up with that loss, but I’m healing from the rawness of that loss. I don’t feel ashamed anymore that I took leave from my job. I did what I had to do for myself and my family. I recognize the incredible privilege I have that afforded me to be able to take this time off. I have an amazing support system in place, people who always believed in me even when I didn't believe in myself.

Mental health is something that is not really talked about very often or openly. Not where I’m from anyway. I want to be transparent with this huge thing that I dealt with. Grief is different for every person. For me it triggered an incredible amount of anxiety and depression and I didn’t know how to help myself. If you have any questions on what it was like to take leave, I’m more than happy to answer them! For now I’m preparing to go back to work at the beginning of July and prepping to talk to everyone who maybe assumed I didn’t work there anymore.  Wish me luck and thank you so much for reading through this very long and personal post! 

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