Office politics

As mentally ill people go, I’m lucky – I’m in full-time employment so I’m not reliant on the savage benefit system for cash. My job is a fairly dull admin-based role in an interesting, creative company. There are times when it’s stressful and exhausting, but generally I can cope with the workload with relatively few incidents of loo-crying.

This July marked my one year anniversary with the company. I’ve had 3 sick days in total, worked many extra hours for free and I’ve been expected to take on a lot of additional work outside of my remit. I’ve been fairly open about my struggles with anxiety and depression as I required a little bit of time off for appointments with my doctor and other mental health professionals. There was a point a few months ago when I was finding it difficult to keep on top of things, so I thought it best to be honest with my manager and director and ask for some support. Things have improved since then, and although my depression is still a dead weight which refuses to budge, my anxiety seems to have lessened.

So about 6 weeks ago it was time for my annual appraisal. I sat down with my bosses and a strong cup of tea, and we discussed my progress over the last year, as well as my goals for the year ahead. They praised my manner with clients, my work ethic and my productivity, and agreed to arrange the software training that I requested. All in all it was a glowing report and I left feeling newly confident. My director told me we’d meet soon to discuss my pay.

Surely I’d be getting a great pay-rise. I’d proved myself to be a good employee, and they were obviously willing to invest time and money into me over the next 12 months. They’d also told me that the company was thriving financially. So when I heard “We’d wanted to give you more, but we’re concerned about your health and can’t take the risk with you”, I went into tearful shock. I sat there nodding whilst being told that, because of my mental health problems, I wasn’t worth much to them as an employee. I felt my eyes filling with awful hot tears of shame and rage. I couldn’t say anything because I knew my voice would crack pathetically, which would only undermine me further. I ended up telling him that I understood. I mean, I tell myself everyday that I’m worthless so it felt right to be told I was actually worth less.

I was so embarrassed that I didn’t even tell my mum. I dragged myself into work the following Monday feel entirely demoralised and humiliated, thinking up desperate ways to prove to them that I deserved to be paid more than a poverty wage. But then I started to get angry. I’m fairly sure that what he said was illegal and he knows it. But he also knows that we’re a small company, nobody else heard what he told me and I that I need the job. Even aside from that, what he said also makes no sense, does it? Paying me peanuts and telling me that it’s my fault for having a mental health problem is hardly helpful.

And yet, I’m one of the lucky ones. I have a job to feel shitty about, and it’s my boss denying me a pay rise rather than ATOS cutting off my much-needed benefits. I also have a degree, I’m cis, my family are middle class, I’m white and I pass as straight – all of which means that if I lost my job because of my depression or anxiety, I’d be in an alright position when looking for work or signing on. So if it makes me feel as bad as this, this scared for my future, I can hardly imagine what it would feel like for others without that security blanket of privilege.


Living with ARFID (Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder)

I’m afraid of fruit and vegetables
One of the strangest things about my experience of living with a food phobia is that people get genuinely offended about what I do and don’t put in my mouth. They take my rejection of greenery as a personal affront, which seems pretty unreasonable to me. I’m always tired, always bloated, and without my clothes on I resemble a marshmallow. I don’t drink, smoke or do drugs, because I figure I’m already taking enough chances with my health as it is. Hardly a desirable lifestyle choice is it? Even I’m not that contrary.

I’m well aware of the health implications of my weird diet, because I’m not a total idiot. But people somehow think I could have missed the years of “five-a-day” healthy eating campaigns and all school biology lessons. They relish telling me that I’ll probably die of cancer. Or worse, get fat.

It’s kind of ludicrous that they think I’ve chosen to eat such a restricted diet. Whenever I get ill, somebody will tell me it’s because I don’t eat fruit. Obviously this is exactly what I want to hear when I’m in bed with the sweats and a throat that feels like somebody’s given it a good scrub with wire wool. Maybe it’s just me, but trying to scare somebody doesn’t seem like a logical way to rid them of a phobia.

The other thing that seems to piss people off about my “food thing” is that I live in a prosperous country with easy access to a varied diet, and don’t take advantage of it. Yes, I know that millions of people are dying through lack of nutritious food, and it disgusts me but that doesn’t mean I’m going to tuck into a banana.

These days, everybody is a “food snob.” They know the best place to get authentic Lebanese food, and where to find cheap, good sushi. This is something that middle-class, educated people are supposed to enjoy. If you don’t enjoy these big food rituals, you can become a bit of a social pariah. My “weird food things” seem to surprise people in a, “I thought you were a bright, cultured woman, but you’re actually just the sort of person who shops in Iceland” kind of way. This is seriously uncool as it smacks of class prejudice.

If you think less of me because I don’t eat kale or butternut squash, then you can kindly jog on back to your local artisan food market and leave me alone. This is also why I find proselytizing veggies and vegans quite difficult to bear. I don’t eat animals because I hate them and want them to die. I’m just too scared to eat anything else.

As I’ve got older, I’ve grown more and more embarrassed about ordering my weird, dry, unhealthy meals in restaurants. Asking for things with no salad garnish or sauce (I don’t eat those either) often raises eyebrows, and sometimes waiters don’t bother to write down my requests, or even relay them to the kitchen. I’m always super apologetic and polite when placing my order because I used to be a waitress, and dealt with pernickety arseholes every day. My worst nightmare is that staff in a restaurant think I’m one of those entitled pigs.

Despite this grovelling politeness, a shocking level of hostility has been directed toward me during meals out. Recently, I had a plate of food literally thrown down in front of me in a well-known cafe in London. I had gently asked for a plate with no salad on, like I’d ordered.

Obviously, I am the worst person to go out for a meal with. If you’re meeting me for dinner, you’d better put your hiking boots on because you’re going to have to wander around the city for at least half an hour before we find somewhere that cooks anything I can eat. And you’d better not fancy Indian, Mexican or Sushi because that’s just not going to happen.

Telling dates about this is pretty humiliating. I usually try to do drinks for a first date and maybe pizza for a second. Because telling somebody you fancy that you only eat dry, beige food with next to no nutrients in it because you’re afraid of fruit and vegetables is basically the opposite of sexy. I have a number of stock jokes that I tell in order to disguise my abject humiliation. I usually proudly declare that I’m a medical miracle for being able to survive on carbs alone for over 20 years. The response is often a forced chuckle.

It’s hard for the people who care about me, too. They want me to be healthy, and to be able to get the same enjoyment out of food as they do. Some of them just want to be able to cook dinner for me without the crying and panicking. I do appreciate the concern, but it adds a heavy layer of guilt to my anxiety. I want to not be a pain in the arse to go for dinner with, to live a really long time in good health, and to really enjoy food. The fact that I can’t make people happy by doing these apparently simple things is quite miserable.

Nobody is forced to justify their fear of spiders or their phobia of flying, so it feels a bit unfair that I have to explain the details of my phobia to every new person I meet over dinner. Just talking about it with insensitive nosy-parkers is enough to make my heart race, my eyes fill, and my voice crack embarrassingly.

So, just to clear a few things up: Yes, I’m aware my diet is unhealthy. No, I can’t just “eat around it.” Yes, of course I’d like to be able to try and enjoy different foods. Yes, I’m aware and angry that millions of people in the world are starving, but no, I still can’t eat that celeriac mash.
I haven’t eaten any fruit or vegetables for about 21 years. I stopped eating them when I was 4 and old enough to refuse to ingest any more of that slimy, juicy, squishy filth. Just the thought of eating an apple is enough to bring me out in a cold sweat. A salad garnish is my mortal enemy.

If an otherwise edible piece of food has so much as touched tomato, a leaf or a condiment, it has to be thrown away because it has been contaminated. This isn’t fussy eating, it’s a really, really annoying phobia. It’s not that I don’t want to tuck into a bowl of leaves or fruit salad, it’s that I can’t. Not without having a panic attack and serious dry heaves anyway.


Did depression turn me into a goth?

Yes, I’m aware of how rubbish a premise that is, but it encapsulates how I feel my identity might be linked to my depression. For many years, my depression used eyeliner, Nine Inch Nails and teenage angst as a disguise. I was the weird kid who hated sports, and loved books. What I didn’t accept for a long time, is that what lurked underneath the tears and lack of team spirit was darker than the kohl and chipped nail polish I wore.

When I look back, I can see it was always there. I had a habit throughout my childhood of loudly declaring that I hated myself, and I would regularly cry myself to sleep for no reason. I was certain that nobody liked me, and when I became a teenager it all intensified. My superpower was crying so much and so hard that I literally couldn’t stand up. But all this is pretty normal adolescent behaviour, right? The problem was, it didn’t go away when I ‘grew up’. That’s when it all went a bit ‘Girl, Interrupted’.

I was a maudlin child. Whilst my peers were listening to Spice Girls, I was learning all the words to every song on ‘The Bends’. My mum caught me reading ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ at about 10 years of age. The ‘Goosebumps’ series just weren’t doing it for me anymore. As a teenager, I fell passionately in love with Brian Molko and covered myself in glitter and eyeliner. I went out with boys that were horrible to me, and consoled myself with the fact that I knew more about music and movies than anybody else in my year at school. (In retrospect, this was probably because other people went out and had fun.) Despite being considered a swot, I struggled to keep on top of homework because I just couldn’t find the motivation to try. I thought things would improve when I went to Goldsmiths for university. All it meant was that there was no mum about to force me to get out of bed.

These days, I still hide behind my vintage specs and stupidly heavy black fringe. I’m tattooed and pierced, and refuse to leave the house without a pair of black tights on. I’d like to be able to still believe this is because I’m an ‘individual’, but I’m becoming more and more aware that this is not the whole story. If I look like I don’t want to be pretty, to be successful, to be happy, then I can convince myself and everybody else that I don’t want any of these things. How can I fail at being pretty, or successful if I don’t try? Looking at me, nobody expects me to be a happy-go-lucky type. If I can make darkly hilarious comments about the fact that I hate myself, and that I’d rather not have to ever leave my bed, then I can keep it all at arm’s length. I can make it a part of my personality rather than something clinical that may never go away.

Because the reality of this situation is pretty terrifying. I’m currently functioning a little better due to a high dose of an SSRI, which keeps me from feeling much of anything at all. Before this, I was so consumed by hopelessness and anxiety, that I could barely walk. Who would want to accept that as properly part of their life?

So I’m left wondering what’s more real; my personality (including my taste in everything from clothes to literature) or my crippling feelings of hopelessness and self-loathing? Which came first, the depression or the hair dye? Would I be Nick Cave fan if I didn’t live my life in a constant state of anxiety and unhappiness? Maybe, without depression, I would be somebody completely different. Maybe I would have tried harder at netball, and believed that people could genuinely like me. Maybe I would go out for cocktails on a Friday night, and be good at talking to people I fancied. And this frustrates me, because, objectively, I like who I am. I like my silly glasses and morbid taste in literature and film. I’m glad I don’t giggle or flirt. The thought that this is all just a coping mechanism, or a disguise is depressing in itself. I don’t want my faulty brain to be responsible for the only parts of my personality that I like.

People who experience depression often talk about a loss of identity. When you can hardly see past your bedroom door, it’s hard to imagine having a life filled with all the things that make you real. In a way it’s strange that an illness that causes such introspection can cause such a crisis of self. But that’s what it seems to do. It undermines your foundations, leaving you unsure of who you really are. Perhaps that’s why some of us cling to fiercely to an idea of who we are, regardless of how it came about.

The beginning

I’ve spent most of my life trying to ignore the fact that I feel hopeless, sad and anxious every day. I got used to it I guess, and it seemed normal. My fear of men seemed logical, and my phobia of most foods has been with me since I was an infant.

I bumbled along like this for years, until everything in my life changed at once. My brain, which operates at rock bottom as its default, couldn’t process it all. I felt as though I’d been entirely hollowed out. Suddenly I was crying at work, before collapsing onto my bed in an almost catatonic state when I returned home. I couldn’t write, I couldn’t even read. The walk from my bedroom to the bathroom in the morning was agonising because all I wanted to do was curl up, sob, and think about how I wished I had never existed. The number of foods I could eat, or stand preparing, was diminishing, and just having to sit next to a man on the train would make me panic and cry. I’d also developed a couple of fun new symptoms, in the form of compulsive skin picking and hair pulling.

I dragged myself to the doctor where I broke down and explained how I felt (being careful not to say something which might get me hospitalised). I was prescribed Sertraline, and shown how to refer myself online to the mental health services offered in my borough. Since that first appointment with my GP, my dose has been increased to 150mg and I’ve been for a couple of assessments for talking therapy (more on that in the very near future). I still feel broken. My legs are covered in bruises, my skin is red raw in places, and I’m terrified every day when I wake up. But I feel angry now, and also more motivated to feel better.

I’m hoping to use this blog as part of the process of recovery. I don’t think I can unpick what’s going on in my faulty brain unless I can write it down and read it back. You can also expect rants about the impact of capitalism and patriarchy on our mental health, and hopefully some more positive posts about self care and support networks. Although this is ultimately a selfish project, I really hope that some of what I write will resonate with readers who stumble over into this corner of the internet. I’d love to hear from you if it does.