#MeVsAnxiety is a weekly column that provides a safe space for people living with anxiety to share their experiences, anonymously.
In today’s interview—the first in the series, the subject discusses how she’s been able to navigate working from home while dealing with anxiety and trying to keep her mental health afloat.
What do you do for a living?
I’m an amateur filmmaker/director and photographer, a contract lawyer and HR head in a telco startup based in Lagos. I also edit manuscripts and I illustrate.
A woman of many talents. That’s a lot. How do you handle them all?
It’s a blessing and a curse. Most of the time it doesn’t feel like a lot. There are days when it does, but not because I’m overwhelmed by too much work; more like because I’m a perfectionist and I keep trying to figure out how to be perfect at everything. My brain shuts down and I can’t do anything for days or weeks on end. But I don’t usually feel swamped.
Fortunately, I mostly work remotely, so I manage to have time for everything. My legal job needs me at the office only twice a week and I just fit everything else into my schedule. I would say my only problems are impatience and being an amateur at the things I love to do.
How long have you worked from home for?
I’m sorry. what?
I freelanced from 2018 to 2019. Started professional work early 2019. Is that strange?
No, I’m just surprised.
I wish I started earlier. People made it seem so unconventional for the longest time. I served late 2017. I was supposed to have served earlier but I was depressed for a few months after I passed the bar and the months just flew by.
What’s it been like? Generally?
It’s been very challenging but in a good way. I feel like it has helped me grow. Having to make myself do things because no one else will, fighting depression when my finances go dry and finding new sources of income, marketing myself without external coaching, negotiating work arrangements that suit my mental needs and personality, quitting jobs that affect me negatively even at the risk of going broke again.
I’ve definitely grown. I’m braver. I understand myself more. I’m more at peace than I would have been in a conventional work environment. But it’s fed my anti-social tendencies and I worry about that occasionally. If I’ve been indoors for weeks I’m less likely to seek human interaction or respond to requests for interaction.
If I’m forced out of my comfort zone by an errand or meeting I can’t avoid, it affects my ability to function, even when I’m back in my space. It takes me some time to recover. I’m basically like some sort of groundhog. But I don’t think I would trade it for a more extroverted life.
It’s interesting that you’ve grown in it. Love it. And it’s working for you, so. How much has WFH impacted your mental health? Anything in particular you noticed?
I think it’s made me more confident about being an introvert. It’s made me feel more normal because WFH is normal. I always got the impression that it was unconventional. In 2018, a friend of a (now ex) partner kept asking if I had ‘started working yet’. Even though I was working.
Another partner I’ve been trying to fix things with, this year, attacked me for going out for a shoot instead of staying with him at his place. When I said I was working and it would be the same if it were an office job, he said it wasn’t an office job.
Ah. Based on what, please?
I didn’t even know how to respond to it. If you’d heard him say it you’d have been shocked too. He made it sound like I was being silly for even saying that I was working if it wasn’t an actual 9-5 building job. I think that’s a very closed-minded way of seeing things.
Unfortunately, a lot of Nigerians think that way. And the way people perceive things is of course very difficult for me because of my anxiety, but WFH has made it easier to be confident about it. It just feels more normal to want to build your work around spaces where you feel comfortable, safe and at peace now and I’m grateful for that.
After this pandemic, no employer can force me into a situation I’m not comfortable with because we’ve proved WFH is just as effective. I guess in summary I’m more assertive and less insecure about what my mental health requires.
Have you been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder?
No, I haven’t. I wouldn’t even know where to get checked. I’ve taken a few online tests that tell me I have anxiety though, but nothing professional.
Apart from online tests, what points towards having anxiety for you?
I have panic attacks once in a while, where I can’t breathe properly and I cry uncontrollably. They usually come at the thought of having to do something I feel is difficult or challenging or, sometimes, at the thought of having made a mistake, or of my past mistakes and people’s perceptions of me.
I find it difficult to have conversations with strangers, or even with friends, in person. I’m always worried about how I look or that my opinion might be stupid, or they secretly don’t like something about me that I don’t know about.
My heart starts beating faster and I suddenly become very weary at the thought of having to do things like go to the grocery store, or places where there are a lot of people.
I don’t like to have pictures of myself up for too long because I don’t want people to study me and see flaws that I didn’t notice. I’m very uncomfortable in front of a camera.
Before I start an important job/interview/project, I have to make an effort to breathe normally. Most of the time I’m convinced I don’t know what I’m doing until I’m maybe halfway through. When my ‘anxiety’ spikes, I have to dissociate myself from my emotions/body to function.
Wow. It must be hard having to deal with all of this constantly. But this definitely points towards an anxiety disorder and professional advice isn’t out of place. Do you have any coping mechanism(s) that has helped you manage your anxiety thus far?
Sleep. Prayer. That’s really all I can do when I feel like my brain is attacking me. I’ve tried calling people, but they’re more put off by it than anything else.
Why do you think so?
The reaction. They don’t ask to understand – they ask to make me normal. So it’s ‘are you sure you’re not overreacting?’. Or attempts to distract me or change the topic. I’m also very perceptive, so I feel when the energy a person I’m speaking to is off. At the same time, I realise that not everyone can understand, so I don’t blame anyone.
What’s one thing you wish people understood about anxiety?
That it’s debilitating. It can literally reduce an intelligent human being to nothing. It’s not something you can shake people out of. It hurts a lot when people dismiss me or mistreat me because they’ve judged me by my performance/behavior under the influence of anxiety.
It’s easy to think someone’s pathetic cause they act weak/stupid/shifty. I wish people would pay more attention to human beings, try to be more intuitive and empathetic, so they can see people for what they really are, and help them however they can to become better versions of themselves.
That’s very wise. Thank you
Thank you. Talking about this has been like breathing out air I’ve been holding for a long time.
If you’d love to share your own experiences with anxiety in our #MeVsAnxiety column, please send us an email via firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a dm on Twitter- @WorkingAnxious