I’ve been thinking about this post for a while, but a few things have happened this week that have made me decide to write it now.
Some background before I get to the main point.
I grew up with a severely autistic brother, whose violent outbursts and unpredictable behaviour made my childhood home a frightening and dangerous place to be. He’s my only sibling and I’m the eldest, and my parents unwittingly placed a great burden of responsibility on me that I was too young to bear. I became fearful, withdrawn and terrified of telling my parents how I felt because I thought they couldn’t cope. I wanted to be the strong one, because, from where I was standing at 11 years old and ignorant of the strength of my parents’ marriage, I believed that if I showed any weakness, my family would fall apart.
A few years later, after my brother had been moved to a specialist residential care facility, I developed health problems. It’s a complicated story but, in a nutshell, an undiagnosed autoimmune disease left me with permanent damage to my digestive system and significant problems with my nervous system. When it all began the physical pain only added to the emotional pain and eventually it all got too much. I became depressed, horribly anxious, and, eventually, suicidal.
I got the treatment I needed, and, 13 years later, I’m a completely different person than I was then. My physical health has gotten worse, but my mental health has improved enormously. Unfortunately, although I have beaten back the depression and suicidal thoughts, I still have an anxiety disorder.
Because of this, I worried for years that, despite my academic achievements and ambition, I would never find a profession that would suit me. Then I found publishing, specifically, editing.
To my great surprise, this turned out to be the perfect job for someone with an anxious mind.
I work as a Publishing Quality Controller, and my main responsibility is to ensure that our books are as consistent and error-free as possible before they go to print. I LOVE my job, and I have found that it has allowed me to turn my anxiety into an asset.
It sharpens my focus and causes me to hone in on errors by instinct as well as by skill and experience. I’ll run my eyes over a page and think, something is wrong here, and I won’t stop until I find and correct it (or grudgingly convince myself to leave it alone if necessary – some authors are very stubborn!). It also makes me highly organised, and I use spreadsheets, checklists, folders and a ridiculous number of post-it notes to make sure nothing is missed or forgotten.
I don’t have a very laidback attitude when it comes to my work. When I send a top priority job to our typesetters, I’m slightly on edge until they acknowledge receipt of it. When an important deadline is unexpectedly brought forward, I’ll work as much overtime as it takes so that I don’t sacrifice quality for the sake of getting it done on time. My anxiety has a hard time letting me cut corners, even if I know the readers would likely never notice the errors I don’t fix. I know they’re there, and that’s all the motivation I need to keep working.
I have been known to be in bed about to fall asleep, suddenly remember a detail about a book I’m working on, then get up again and write it on one of my ever-present post-it note pads so that I can follow it up the next day. Crazy? Maybe. But it means that I don’t have to worry about it and I can get to sleep. The same goes for checking my emails out of office hours. I’m a ‘forewarned is forearmed’ kind of person, and if having knowledge of a new job the night before means I can hit the ground running the next morning, then I’m happy to keep an eye on them.
To a lot of people, this way of doing things might seem very unhealthy, but it works for me, and has the added benefit of taking my mind off the physical pain I deal with every day.
I am incredibly fortunate to work in a very supportive and sociable environment with seriously awesome colleagues, and I have the best manager I could possibly ask for. So many people face stigma in the workplace because of their mental health issues, and, while I don’t go about discussing mine at work, it doesn’t bother me that there’s a chance a few of my colleagues might read this. I trust them not to judge me for it or look at me any differently, and that’s a rare gift that I’m very grateful for.
Earlier this week, I had an upsetting conversation with someone close to me, and while I lay awake that night unable to sleep for worrying about it, all I wanted was for it to be morning so that I could go to work and plough my nervous energy into something worthwhile that would focus my mind and help me feel better. It worked, and that day I managed to send a series of 5 books to our typesetters and beat the deadline I had set for myself.
Sure, having an anxiety disorder means that I spend a lot of time worrying about small things (or what other people might consider to be small things), and even things that never actually happen. My anxious mind can conjure up the worst case scenario from any situation faster than my rational mind can stop it. That’s hard sometimes, but it also allows me to anticipate potential problems at work and head them off before they jeopardise the quality or deadline of a book.
After being treated by 5 psychologists in 15 years, I’ve come to the conclusion that my state of mind as it is now may be as good as it’s going to get. Rather than being upset by that, I’ve finally reached the point where I’ve accepted it. There are times that it still gets the better of me, but those times get less and less as the years go by, and, for the most part, I am able to control it enough to allow me to live the life I want to.
Rather than fighting with my anxiety and trying to change the person it has led me to become, I’m using it to my advantage. I haven’t figured out yet how that’s going to work in other areas of my life (where it still tends to cause problems), but I’ve certainly figured out how to use it to make me the best Publishing Quality Controller I can be.
I would never have wished to go through the things I have and to have been left with this anxiety, but it’s a part of me now, and it doesn’t have to be a weakness. For me, it has become a strength, and I think, if he could be, my brother would be proud of me for that.