I should’ve taken one after I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and recurrent anxiety at 19. I couldn’t. It was the start of the Great Recession, when I dropped out of college to work full-time because my mother was laid off.
I also should’ve gone on a mental health break when I went off my meds after college, which was a terrible idea, but I was broke and thought I was better. I interned at NPR in Washington D.C. right after college. I called my mom on my day off in tears because I was absolutely convinced I was going to die. Looking absolutely deranged, I criss-crossed the city that day to find a doctor who would prescribe me my old medication. I took the next day off, chalking it up to ‘a cold,’ but I was back at work the following day because I had to prove my worth at my dream internship.
My two-and-a-half years of contract work after couldn’t be considered a mental health break either; I was always worried I wouldn’t get enough work to pay my student loans. I also didn’t take one during planning my wedding, nor could our honeymoon stay-cation be considered a break because we were setting up our apartment. When I took ‘vacations’ from work, they were actually just a day here, a day there, and I was usually traveling for family matters.
You can tell where I’m heading, right? I was a decade overdue for a nervous breakdown. I eventually had one under the crumbling weight of managing our personal finances, a $2900 car repair, struggling to find creative meaning at work, and a string of changes within my and my husband’s families. I was emotional laboring to death, and I couldn’t take it anymore. (That’s also why I wasn’t updating here.)
I didn’t write a viral email to my boss about this mental break. I had planned to go to a women’s podcasting conference, but I couldn’t afford it (womp), so I decided to use those days to take a breather. It was perfect timing.
The first rule of a mental health break: don’t schedule work, which is what I did. At first, I was good; I put up my “away” work email, I hid my work email from my phone and I didn’t check it. But I also booked a tape-sync on my first day of break because hello, money! It was a very simple job, but it was work nonetheless. I was also very insistent that my husband and I have our “come-to-Jesus” finance meeting about our household budget. About 75 percent of my stress was wrapped up in household finances. It was easy when it was just me, the saver. My husband’s a spender who was used to bachelor spending. There were lots of tears (on my end), but we came to an agreement in the end. I’m glad I earned extra money and my husband and I came to a resolution, but next time I won’t schedule any work.
Second rule: disconnect and go outside. I really enjoy running and lifting weights, but in the weeks prior, I couldn’t bring myself to do that or any of the other things I enjoyed – which is the first sign you need a break. Exercise has always been great therapy for me. I was listening to Another Round’s latest episode, which focused on the outdoors. One of their guests was Rahawa Haile, who took six months off of work to hike the Appalachian Trail. She talked about how many people hike the trail to heal, and that really spoke to me. Though I don’t think I’ll ever do through-hiking, that message of healing really stuck to me.
You know what else is healing? Staying off of social media. I still received news alerts on my phone, but it was great not to read the commentary, angst, or even the rumblings of workplace politics in some Facebook groups. It gave me the room to really sit in my thoughts and consider what I wanted in my life and career, what balance looked like to me, and what vices still trip me up.
Third rule: do what you want. I didn’t want to do much except see my friends, go outside, and maybe paint my nails. I did all three. I loved it. I took a page out of the Bored and Brilliant campaign and allowed myself to be bored so I could let the creativity flow. It’s not like I composed a sonnet or anything, but the quiet gave me the space to take stock of what balance needed to look like in my life, what I could do to nourish my soul, and think deeply about what gives me joy.
As a result of my time away from work, I’ve made the following decisions:
- I’m entering a 10K, which will give me a mental and physical workout. I struggle with body image, but I’m slowly trying to shift my thinking from loathing my body to appreciating what it can do.
- I’m going to breathe a little deeper. I don’t know if that means meditation, but I noticed I don’t breathe when I’m stressed.
- I’m going to do at least one thing I enjoy each week that has nothing to do with my daily routine or work. That can be reading a book, playing a video game, or sewing.
- I won’t angst as much over my career trajectory. How will I do that? Not sure yet, but I just need to focus on doing work I’m proud of and let the rest take care of itself.
My mother suggested I should take a mini-retreat every quarter to recalibrate, which is a pretty brilliant idea.