Updated: Sep 7, 2021
(CW: suicidal ideation)
Yesterday my therapist asked me what I’m living for. She says she thinks I’ve lost weight.
“You used to laugh at your problems. You look and sound like a different person. What if this was a permanent position, what if you had no other choice? What would you do?”
She is trying to help me discover how to prioritize my health, to stand up for my needs. I have been given an assignment. I need to ask for a day off.
The excerpt above is from an article I wrote while working on a TV show in Atlanta. This is my attempt to reflect on and clarify what I wrote then because looking back I’m honestly embarrassed for anyone to read it. It was manic, unorganized, and kind of terrifying. Understanding more of what I was going through, it makes a lot of sense. I include some italicized snippets of mania to emphasize what I learned in my last month working there.
I took the job opportunity in March after freelancing for two months. I was really excited about working on such a cool production, and all of the connections I would make. The only catch was that the job was back in Georgia, where my family lives. I had just moved to LA in August and I had been so excited to get away. I had actually managed to build a support system there and work consistently in my field. Then the burnout happened. Film, like a lot of industries, is a high-stress environment with long hours and lots of politics. It can be really hard to go so long without time to check in with yourself. My weekends were filled with chores and errands, and by the time I got home, I could barely shower or eat before falling asleep. I got offered a job in another department, but I turned it down to work on my own creative projects. I had saved up enough to afford time off, but after a few months, I was ready to get back into my career.
I drove across the country in three days. I don’t recommend ever doing that if you don’t have to. The closer I drove to Georgia, the closer I was to the mess that I left behind, and the farther away from my support system. I could feel my heart beating faster with every mile. I had a deadline to stick to, had only stopped to sleep a cumulative 10 hours during my three-day trip, and I was running on a combination of fumes, caffeine pills, and fast food. I had a few days to settle in before I started, but I never really got my heart rate back down. This would turn out to be the hardest job I’d had up until this point, and after a few weeks, I was overwhelmed in a new and terrifying way.
What can I say? Lately I’ve been feeling embarrassed, ashamed, and like an all-around horrible failure of a human being over things that I seem powerless to control.
I spend all day avoiding landmines.
I just need to catch up. One day of catching up. One day of rest. That’s not too much to ask, so why don’t I ask? My will to live is hanging here in midair, and I am letting the world swing at it like a piñata. My head is spinning. I have to get out of this place.
Why not ask for a day off? What’s the worst that they could say?
“You are not in any position to ask me for anything”
And then I’ll burst into tears in their office.
Or I could respond:
“Okay, that’s fine, just a request.”
“I would love to get some feedback, but if you aren’t willing to talk about it now that’s understandable. Thanks.”
“I have been working my ass off, putting in so much effort despite your constant attempts to discourage me at any opportunity you get. I am exhausted. I am asking for this for my health, and if that small request is not something you are willing to accommodate then I can no longer work in this environment.”
I know this seems dramatic, but I am dealing with symptoms of a condition I am just now understanding I may have.
Not only can I not get out of bed, but I am also completely blind to time. “What if I kill myself?” I ask when I open my eyes. There are way too many tasks between me and the door. Where do I start? How do I start? How long does it take to brush one’s teeth?
I really did not understand the symptoms of neurodiversity that I was experiencing. All my life, I have been an extremely high functioning person. Yes, I get distracted very easily, but I knew how to rope it in when I was in social settings. I would get in trouble for doodling during class, but it was the only way I could stimulate my brain enough to keep out obsessive thoughts and pay attention to the lecture. I got called out for not paying attention, but I still made good grades on my tests. I never did homework when I was home because I couldn’t focus on tasks for long enough to start them. I did, however, hyper-fixate on homework the class before it was due, or at lunch, or in the hallway between classes. I made it work, and I finished top 30 in my class. Film was always a way for me to channel my anxious energy into bursts of productivity, and I was really good at it. I never had a problem with deadlines, but I was also working with peers in an environment where I was earning class credit. This was different. When my boss or a coworker made a comment on a mistake I’d made it felt intensely personal, and after a year of struggling, being unemployed on and off, and watching other people lose their jobs, the pressure was beating down on me.
Twelve-hour days, staying late, missing appointments. When do I get help? When was the last time I talked to myself? Or woke up at peace?
Did I fuck something up again? Did I forget something again? I might as well kill myself.
I didn’t notice the hyper fixation until I started dissociating. I come to and I’ve been scrolling up and down on my computer screen for 10 minutes.
I can’t do it. There’s no way I can just do it. I can’t just walk into their office and ask for a day off. Did you hear how they talked about the set designer when they took a half-day to do the paperwork after they sold their house? They definitely want me gone. They want ammunition to torment me with. I can’t give it to them. I can’t take that.
What if they think I’m awful and tell everybody? What if they fire me and I have to explain why in a job interview? What if I am as horrible as they make me feel and I have to deal with that forever?
What if I kill myself? What if I kill myself? What if I kill myself?
I can’t wake up when I want to, I constantly forget small things, my thoughts are racing, I hyper-fixate on negative feedback. Do I have ADHD? I jump into conversations recklessly, I can’t stop myself from offering solutions to people that don’t want to hear them. My brain surges with serotonin when I accomplish a task or receive praise, then I crash in minutes and can’t focus or start anything. Tasks start to pile up and then my to-do list becomes overwhelming. It’s painful to even think about. I must escape, I have to get away.
Or maybe I just need a day off.
I did eventually get a day off. It wasn’t until I got physically ill and had no other choice though. This job taught me so much. It taught me to be aware of the mental states of others, how to be a leader that can bring a team together and be compassionate to their needs. Most importantly, I learned the tools I needed to cope with the neurodiversity I may never have noticed in myself if the pressure of this job hadn’t made my executive dysfunction so apparent to me. My mind latches onto self-deprecating thoughts and runs them like a script in my head. It always felt like I was spiraling when I was at a low point, but I always thought that was normal. It made sense to me.
I didn’t really want to kill myself, but my brain said it once when I was feeling especially low, and I was so terrified of that thought that it was all I could think of. I repeated it over and over until I couldn’t grasp onto anything real. I forgot things the moment they were said to me. I’d just sit at my desk saying that phrase again and again. There were some days I must have said that to myself over 500 times. Looking back, it’s so hard to process how traumatic that experience actually was. It’s really scary to feel stuck in a place like that, and I felt so guilty for it.
I go in soon to talk to an ADHD specialist. I spent so long feeling guilty for what I perceived as failings, but I’m not a failure at being human, I just have difficulty regulating my attention. I hyper-fixate on things I don’t need to be focusing on, but when not being able to focus on a task has negative repercussions I feel almost paralyzed. This came up a few times in college, but not enough to understand that there was something wrong.
Because I was so high functioning, I never had to learn ways to manage this disorder that I now see in myself. Struggling so profoundly at this job was the motivation I needed to figure it out. I had read online that if you try to replace a negative script with a pet name for yourself, it can make the fixations more bearable. My favorite suggestion was “mon petit chou,” or “my little cabbage.” I would be on a supply run in my car just singing “mon petit chou, mon petit chou,” over and over to myself like an actual crazy person. I felt insane, but it worked. Eventually, I only had a negative fixation a few times a week. My therapist gave me tools to get myself out of bed in the morning and get started on tasks. It was all about reframing from “having” to complete something to thinking about what this task was doing for you. This job was an opportunity to learn how to push through difficult circumstances.
I do everything for the next morning right when I get home. Turn the heat on in my camper, or I’ll be too cold to get up. Lay my clothes out, make my lunch, do the chores. Less to think about when I re-enter existence. The mornings are the hardest. Why would I emphatically choose to subject myself to this kind of treatment over and over?
It’s just three more weeks. It’s a temporary thing. I can’t quit, because it’s almost over. So I drag myself out of bed.
I’ll just ask for a day off, what’s the worst that can happen?
I’ve been instructed to keep it vague. Don’t give any details.
“For personal reasons.”
You’ve got to be kidding me. Why not just ask me to shoot myself in the forehead in the middle of the office? Just as painful, with less risk of embarrassment or rejection.
What if she says no?
I know that she’ll say no, but maybe that’s not the point. I have to practice standing up for myself at some point. Let’s make today the day. But oh, I am so scared.
The hostility in the atmosphere makes it even harder to concentrate. What do I say?
“Hey, can I request off next Wednesday?”
“Sorry, no. You’ve been slacking off enough as it is. I didn’t hire you so you could not show up. If I knew you weren’t going to show up I would have hired someone else.”
“Hey, can I request off next Wednesday?”
“I really wish you would have asked sooner, but if you have to I guess you can.”
That could work. I could make that work. Then I’d sleep in on Wednesday and get high and watch cartoons and do nothing except maybe contemplate why it is that I care so intensely about how others perceive me.
It's a shame that so many of us feel so exploited in our day-to-day environments. No one should get to the point where they feel physically ill from the stress of their jobs, and that should not be a controversial thing to say. Many people, especially adult women, are realizing now that they live with attention regulation disorders. It is heavily underdiagnosed in adults and overdiagnosed in children. Most research completed on ADHD has been conducted on young boys, so the information is skewed and it is hard to get help and treatment. Many think of ADHD as a strength. Some of the most successful people are neurodiverse, and in many ways I appreciate the ways it sets me apart, but it’s hard to focus on anything but how this disorder makes my life harder.
I travel every weekend. Trying to make things work for other people. It’s always for other people. My therapist says I should look forward to one thing at the end of each day, do one thing at the end of the day that makes me happy.
Sleep is the only thing I crave. Sleep and sweet escape. That’s what this brain ---- what this body ---- needs. I do not have enough time between triggers to soothe my racing heart. You may think this is weak of me, and I would have to agree.
I have thought for a long time that evolution was trying to weed me out, but I’m still here. At the end of it all, I am committed to the relationship I have with myself. At the end of the day, I will do what it takes, and learn to be a leader that guides with love and compassion.
I know what it means to open your eyes and stare at the ceiling and not want to breathe, but I’m still breathing. Dread is a part of life. So is pain, so is growth. How to shut out the sounds and dissociate in a healthy way. I am imagining a place where things are alright and not fantasizing about the sweet release of death.
A job should not make you want to kill yourself, but what do you do when you have to follow through? How do you prioritize? Where do you put your foot down?
There must be ways to cope, so that it doesn’t feel like the only thing you are ever doing is coping, instead of living.
There must be a way to cope.
While I still have a long way to go when it comes to learning how to thrive with (my suspected) ADHD, I am thankful for the opportunity to learn what I need to succeed in hard situations. If you are feeling overwhelmingly foggy, out of control, or struggle to meet the expectations of those around you, I hope you are being kind to yourself. After the year we’ve all had, many are finding it difficult to function at the levels they are used to functioning. If you already have a diverse way of thinking, that gap between the world and you may have been exasperated. Slowly, I am learning to mind that gap and nurture my beautiful brain one step at a time. All you need is the ability to forgive yourself, ask for what you need, get through the hard times, and seek out the environments that allow you to flourish. And no matter what, I deserve to love and take care of myself the same as anyone else.