“There can be a sense of shame that comes with not being able to work because of your mental health.”
Shannon opens up about how panic attacks lead her to leave two jobs: and upon a slow journey of adjustment, compassion, and recovery.
Less than a handful of shifts into my first job, after weeks of endless scrolling on various job sites, I was quitting because of a panic attack that had swallowed my confidence whole.
I threw away the t-shirt that was my uniform and tried to get the jingle that had played for hours over the store radio out of my head. I’d taken up the job after dropping out of University in London due to my mental health.
This wouldn’t be the last time my mental health would take an opportunity from me. The following September I started studying again, this time in Manchester, and managed to get an interview at one of my favourite stores for a part-time temporary role.
When I bagged the role, I left my induction feeling excited and proud of myself. I was in a new city, starting a new course. I felt like some of the stability I’d been hoping for was finally coming my way. The fact that the role was temporary made it feel more manageable – like something I could get through, shift by shift, until the Christmas rush was over.
I was only a handful of shifts in when the paralysing anxiety consumed me. It didn’t matter that a manager had come over and complemented how I’d handled interactions with customers. It didn’t matter that I loved the store: learning about the products in glass bottles, placing them into little gift bags, handed them to customers with a smile. My brain was stuck in a loop of intrusive thoughts.
I found myself crying on the way to work and being seized by a complete inability to cope. My manager tried to adjust my shifts – but, after a particularly unmanageable patch with my mental health – I was yet again quitting a job.
And this time it was a job I’d hoped I’d love, one I’d excitedly told my friends about over FaceTime and posted about on Instagram.
It was impossible to build my confidence when I felt like I was repeatedly failing. The shame of not being able to hold down a job felt suffocating – I was embarrassed around my friends, and the stress when my student loan was beginning to run low would consume me and exacerbate my mental health symptoms.
I was able to scrape by with the maximum student loans and bursaries from University, but it felt like I was just surviving. The thought of life after University felt terrifying. I had no idea what I’d do next, or how I’d get through.
After a number of trips to A&E, referrals, and lengthy wait times, I finally began therapy in my second year at University. As I began to understand my mental health and develop ways to cope, my life began to feel more stable. Feeling heard and understood gave me the space to start the work: tackling the symptoms that had warped my perspective and controlled my life completely for years.
2 minute watch: For a brief description on what a panic attack is, and what happens in the brain.
I began to get involved in sporadic volunteering opportunities. They were never for long and it was never easy, but I slowly began to develop the ability to manage my anxiety in a professional environment. It took small steps – a couple of hours in a local community café, helping out at an event taking place in the city – but slowly, I began to build up a list of small achievements. My confidence started to grow.
Likewise, I started to treat myself with more kindness: accepting my limits, and trying to avoid comparing myself to my friends. Learning to be okay with where I was at and what I was able to manage gave me the freedom to support my mental health without as much guilt.
Treating myself with compassion also helped me to build up the courage to try new things and play to my strengths. I wasn’t able to hold down a job in a busy, overly-stimulating and fast-paced restaurant like my friends: and that was okay. Instead I pushed myself to give organising a small spoken-word event, raising money for a local mental health charity, a go.
The event meant so much to me – seeing a space I’d created come together and the connection between people on the evening allowed me to see my self worth in still being able to make a genuine difference, realising my strengths in other domains.
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It took a long time and lots of ‘failings’ before I got there. But I now have a full-time role that I wouldn’t have got without that experience that came from doing what I could, rather than what I felt I should. There are days when my job feels overwhelming; days when I wonder why it seems so much easier for others. I schedule Annual Leave in advance to try and avoid feeling burnt out. Some days it feels like I’ll never get anything done, and the fear of what will come next feels so heavy. But I did get there. I ticked off the days until I had surpassed my old record for ‘days in a job’, and eventually even had my contract extended.
There can be a sense of shame that comes with not being able to work because of your mental health. It can be hard for other people to grasp, and the financial burden it can place on you makes it all the more challenging.
If you’re finding yourself struggling to manage your money as a result, please seek out guidance. Whether it’s your University or a local charity, financial support may be available to you and it’s not always clearly advertised.
If you’re unable to work right now, please do not deem it a personal failing. Treat yourself with kindness and compassion as you take your time to manage your mental health. And remember to celebrate all of the strengths that make you a whole person: not just the ones that pay the bills.
This story was contributed by Shannon Westacott, who can be found on Instagram @shannonwestacott and writing at http://www.shannonwestacott.com.
If you have your own mental health story to share with us (anonymously or otherwise!) please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.