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mental health and being a professional

People who’ve been following me on Twitter will likely note that I’m largely unabashed about discussing my health. Particularly my mental health.

Even so, there are some things I obviously don’t share (since, I’m not about to put my entire history of mental health online). The stigma around mental health and, when applicable, invisible disability is strong enough that most of the time I post, I feel a tremor of trepidation. Because if you have struggles with mental health or a cognitive/behavioural/etc. disability the world tells us we should smile and soldier on – in silence.

But since this blog is an experiment, I think being candid about my own struggles is worthwhile.

I take medication for anxiety and agoraphobia. I’m actually quite happy to say this because my overall quality of life has improved so much since starting the medication. Not having to spend hours convincing myself to leave the apartment to get groceries down the street has saved me so much wasted time and energy.

Am I less of professional now?

Or I’m currently doing a bunch of tests and waiting to see some specialists to figure out what my brain thinks it is doing (sleep study tomorrow! MRI last week!).

The pervasive silence around neuro-diversity has meant that I’ve spent 30 years just not noticing/understanding that my brain does (or doesn’t do) things that other people appear to. It means that I’ve spent my entire life pretending to understand things that I really, really don’t.

Example: I cannot produce internal mental images (ie, I can’t visualize things in my head). I’ve referenced this obliquely before by saying how much I have visual/grid layouts for textual information (I’m looking at you Prismatic/Feedly/whatever). Or when I say that data visualization is absolutely meaningless. Or that I don’t see the point of ppt presentations (and that I’m never making another one ever again).

I don’t know why my brain can’t visualize, but I’m hoping that the MRI and neurologist might have some theories.1 But the real reason I did the MRI is because I experience periodic olfactory hallucinations. Apparently smelling non-existent things isn’t really something other people do with any regularity. Who knew?

But it is weird and strange for me to write “olfactory hallucinations.” That word ‘hallucination’ is heavily stigmatized and evokes all kinds of horror story stuff. However, my own experience isn’t all that scary. I know the smell isn’t real. It doesn’t appear to correlate with anything else (which is how I’ve managed to ignore it for 15 or so years). It is just a smell. That isn’t real.

Does it make me less of a professional?

What actually does, admittedly, make me less of a professional are my periodic bouts of uncontrollably falling asleep (hence sleep study tomorrow). Since I started working as a proper career girl, I think I’ve fallen asleep at almost every meeting I’ve attended that lasted longer than 10 minutes. I fall asleep at my desk usually once a day (if I don’t take a nap). And this isn’t about sitting at a desk, since this also happened when I was inventorying UBC’s library and would fall asleep standing up, but keep on working (only to wake up five minutes later with no clue as to what I had done and needing to redo all of the ‘work’).

Are these three things related? Maybe. I don’t know. And I really hope I can find out.

But does the sleeping thing actually make me less professional, in the sense of being able to competently accomplish my tasks? No, not really.

What I always find interesting about ‘professionalism’ as a concept is the ways that not only does it force a normative, ableist notion of productivity, but also somehow means that when we walk into an office, we are supposed to check our humanity at the door.

And this expectation isn’t just about hiding mental health issues. It is also about how/why women are told that we can’t cry at work. Or be even a little emotional (being branded as ‘hysterical’ is a very bad thing). Having feels at work isn’t professional. At all.

But the force of this normative understanding of ‘professionalism’ is that, yes, it is often silencing. We are expected to suffer quietly. And all this does is create an additional burden.

There are 168 hours in one week. About 40 of those are spent working. 68 sleeping (if you’re lucky enough to get 8 hours a night). Leaving about 72 hours. Work takes up a significant portion of our lives and time. On this level it seems absurd to ask everyone to put their feelings on hold, to act ‘normal’ (even if they can’t) during a major portion of their waking hours.

Absurd, but this is part of the expectation of being a professional.

And this isn’t about maintaining some distinction between job/life, since I actually find having a boundary between the both keeps me from over-working myself. I have anxiety on my personal time. My hallucination doesn’t magically stop the moment I walking into the library.

Yet, I’m supposed to act as if these things aren’t happening/impacting me at work. Of course they do. How could they not?

But does this make me unprofessional?

If it does… well, then this is a problem. And given the ways that ableism obviously continues to be a thing, it is a problem we very much still need to deal with.

If it doesn’t… why can’t I talk about it then? Why doesn’t anyone talk about it?2