Bits and bobs

Random thoughts about random things by a random person


Productivity and mental health – A personal story

A few days ago I read a post by Wil Wheaton called i exist. It reminded me of a session I had last year with an EAP counselor.

About half-way through the session, the counselor said, “When I’m working with someone who is off work for a while, I ask them to commit to a 30-minute walk every day. Is that something you could commit to?”

The expression on her face told me that she fully expected my answer to be yes. Perhaps even with an “Of course I can” thrown in for good measure.

Her expression changed very quickly when, instead, I responded with a very definite “No.”

It was as though nobody had ever told her no before. She didn’t seem to even know how to respond to it. (Had I been in better spirits, I’d have found it funny…) I’m pretty sure at least some people who went to see her, who were in the same mental state I was then in, must have lied to her – probably because they felt they were “supposed” to say yes, so they did. And then they went home, didn’t go for their daily walks, and felt even worse about themselves for not having done it.

Well, I wasn’t going to do that. I definitely didn’t need more things to add to the “All the ways you suck and are a horrible person” list that my brain at that time was having a hey-day reminding me of.

Since she was so obviously not expecting my answer, I went on to explain that I was, at that point, struggling to even do things that I enjoyed doing, that I wanted to do. I don’t enjoy going for walks, and certainly not for 30 minutes, so there was no point in me telling her that I would do something that I knew very well that I would not.

I explained further that me just getting to that appointment that day was something to celebrate.

I was off work at the time because I had hit a limit that, for the previous couple of years, I knew was coming. Depression and anxiety (things I have struggled with for most, if not all, of my life since puberty) had been mounting gradually over time and I knew was going to hit critical mass on it before too long.

The week before I saw her, that moment had come. I still clearly remember sitting at my desk, looking at my monitor, reading an email when it happened – quite innocuously, it turned out. Nothing of any consequence brought it on. I was just…done.

I knew in that moment that I needed to leave, to go home, and that I wouldn’t be back for a while. I thought, “Huh…I knew this was coming and I wondered when it would happen. I guess this is it. This is what did it.” I remember being surprised that it wasn’t anything big or momentous that had tipped me over the edge. It was just a slightly annoying email that in any other context would have resulted in a “Tut tut…seriously?” and that would be have been it. But nope. It did me in.

I emailed my boss that I was sick and needed to leave and headed out.

The next about 10 days were absolutely awful. Horrible. Part of me wished I lived with someone who could take care of me and make sure I was fed, as I huddled under blankets like a pile of goo, while another part of me was very glad to have nobody around to tell me I needed to get up, get dressed, get showered, etc. I could be as much of a pile of goo as I wanted.

The only thing of any practical benefit that I did in the very first few days was find the number to our Employee Assistance Program and get an appointment with a counselor. Then I made another, last-ditch effort to get a new doctor. I’m amazed, actually, that I was even able to accomplish that much.

The day of the appointment – about seven days after “it” happened – I was still pretty much a wreck. I really didn’t want to go, but I knew I needed to.

Part of my apprehension was from a previous experience I had had with EAP. It was in 2008 – the year that both of my parents passed away. The counselor’s advice at that time (which she delivered as though it were some grand new revelation she had come up with on her own) was: “Keep your work stress at work and your home stress at home.” Really? And what if the problem is that you aren’t able to do that right now?? She had nothing.

Never mind the fact that her office was a mess and she looked like she had come to work in what she had slept in…She didn’t exactly inspire confidence. Needless to say I didn’t go back. (I did, however, get some handouts from her with helpful information about insomnia.)

With that experience in the front of my mind and the fact that I really only wanted to crawl into bed and stay there until sometime around the turn of the next century, I really was not keen on getting to that appointment.

So, I resorted to playing mind games with myself. “We aren’t going to an appointment. We’re just going to get in the car. We aren’t going to an appointment. We’re just going to get in the car.” That got me showered, dressed and in the car.

Once in the car, I repeated, “We’re not going to an appointment, we’re just going to drive to Fallowfield Rd.” Once I got that far, it became, “We’re just going as far as the 417”, and so on until I found myself in the parking lot of the counselor’s building.

Even then, I had to do some convincing to get myself out of the car and into the building, and then the office.

I couldn’t have done it otherwise. I know…it sounds dumb, especially if such feelings are completely foreign to you. But that’s where I was at that time. To be honest, I still have to do it occasionally, and I will likely have to for the rest of my life. But that’s OK. The anxiety isn’t going to go away, so that’s why there are tricks to deal with it. Sometimes it still wins, but most times I do. (Yay!)

Anyway…back to the 30-minute walk request.

I explained to the counselor the whole process of how I had even made it to the appointment and she finally clued in: “Ohhhhh….you really are in a bad way!” (No…she didn’t say that… but she may well have thought it and who could blame her! 😉 )

After we talked for a little while longer, she circled back to the walk. She explained:

“The walking isn’t about exercise. It isn’t about breaking a sweat and doing cardio. It’s just about doing something. Getting yourself off the couch and putting your mind on something else. So, really, it doesn’t even have to be a walk. If you have a closet or cupboard you’ve been wanting to clean out, do that. If there’s some spring cleaning you need to do, do that. And it doesn’t have to be 30 minutes in a row. You can break it up throughout the day. The point is to just get up and move.”

That I was able to commit to. In fact, not only did I commit to it, I actually did it! Every day! They weren’t fancy, important things that I did, but I did them. Usually I had to talk myself into it, like I did to get to the appointment, but that wasn’t the point. The point was I did it.

I was also very blessed to have a good circle of friends who kept in touch with me and even got me out a few times for actual walks. 🙂

During that dark and difficult period, making sure I had 30 minutes of some sort of activity every day was critical to my healing.

And so I echo Wil’s statement:

“The single most consistent factor in how I feel about myself and my day, on the 5-point scale, is how productive I am.”

I’m not someone who needs to be constantly busy, busy, busy. I regularly enjoy heaving off on the couch to watch TV. But I have learned that being productive every day, in some fashion or another, is vital to me and my mental health.

AND…extra bonus! As I’ve thought about Wil’s post, I’ve realized that I’m actually way more productive than I give myself credit for. I need to remind myself of that more often. 🙂


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