Giving Yourself Permission; especially for invisible illnessess

The most important thing I’ve ever learned how to do is to give myself permission.

If you’re reading this, it’s likely you’re an overachiever, that you’ve pushed yourself to (and past) breaking point multiple times, and that you’re not very good at saying no. I understand; I’m all that and more when it comes to toxic relationships with work. I’m pretty sure the only reason I survived my honours year is that the sound the heaters made at night scared me so I had to go home regularly.

My Coping Mechanism

When it comes to being chronically ill the most important coping mechanism is to give yourself a break. I have had depression for most, if not all, of my life. My anxiety and other brain quirks rear their heads when I push myself too hard. I’m good at ignoring them and getting on with work. I’m also good at getting distracted and forgetting to eat for a week. Neither of these are positive traits. When I gave myself permission (to be sad, to be afraid, to take days off, to take care of myself), a few things happened.

What happened when I cut myself some slack?

I stopped getting so defensive when people asked me about it. I’m constantly afraid of disappointing people in authority, but once I give myself permission to put my health first and told people that, there was very little argument. The people around you often want to be supportive, but can’t take your situation into account until you say “I’m taking today off because otherwise I will lie on the floor and cry instead of doing work”.

Secondly, I got healthier, happier, and more productive. This may seem obvious, but the “don’t do work to do more work overall because you’re not as sick” equation isn’t one I totally get. When I am sad or stressed, my go-to is to throw myself into work and yes, obviously that isn’t healthy or productive, but I liked it. Treating myself the way I would treat a sick partner made me better at research and happier with my life.

I became more confident. The pressures of being a woman in science means we’re not “meant to” have emotions (see: Tim Hunt’s failed “joke”). By giving myself permission to be “feminine” in the sense that I have feelings meant I was being myself a lot more, which made me a more confident researcher. It also meant I wasn’t bottling anything up, so my mental illness let up a lot. It surprised me how much of my anxiety was tied up in the fear of how people would respond to who I was.

Acceptance, Asking for Help and Healing

It also became easier to ask for help – I wasn’t hiding my mental illness any more, or pretending it was a “blessing in disguise” (I went through a few weird stages of relating to my mental health). Rather, I was allowing myself to have it and in the same step letting myself not be superhuman. I still don’t quite get along with the term “disability” but a fully healthy person probably couldn’t do what I push myself to try, so giving myself permission means taking a breath and not getting frustrated with my limitations. This resulted in me both thinking about my mental illness as an illness, and initiated getting on medication, which has been one of the best choices I’ve made.

Giving myself permission was instrumental when healing from trauma. At a recent talk about the barriers women in science face, a panel I was on was asked how we dealt with our personal barriers. I said that I cry a lot. Allowing myself to cry, be angry, and to experience the full spectrum of human emotion has been invaluable. It has contributed to my growth as a human and as a scientist and has facilitated managing my illness while studying and working. 10/10 would recommend.

About the Author

Sophia Frentz

Sophia Frentz is a PhD student in Genetics at the University of Melbourne with a fun cocktail of mental health issues, predominantly depression. She’s learned a lot of lessons along the way but still struggles with giving herself a break.

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