It was July 2014, and I was nearly three months into my new role at a major financial services organisation.
At the time, I remember feeling quite anxious at work: things just didn’t feel right, and before I knew it, I was being called into a meeting with my then-manager and the head of my team.
We started to talk about my performance, and suddenly my manager blurted out, “People just don’t know how to be around you”, and handed me a brochure for the Employee Assistance Program. I was then told I was being let go and was immediately escorted out of the building.
Four months later and in-between jobs, I experienced my first psychotic episode, which resulted in a three-week admission to a mental health ward in hospital on the NSW Central Coast.
Looking back, I can see now that my lead-up to psychosis began seven to nine months prior to being dismissed. I kind of knew something wasn’t right with me, and I sought help from a counsellor, a doctor and a psychologist, but no one (including myself) could figure out what was going on.
Over the next six years, I experienced another four psychotic episodes, which ended up with dramatic hospital admissions each time. During that time, I went through times of being unemployed, working in large corporates and also, at times, running my fledging business.
Thankfully, when I experienced my third hospital admission to a mental health ward while employed at another financial services organisation, I was dealt a much kinder and understanding hand. Instead of marching me out the door, this second organisation provided me with an overwhelming amount of support, all the way from management down to my colleagues.
One day, as I approached my third psychotic episode, I remember being in the work kitchen when a colleague asked me, “are you OK?”. I was clearly not OK, and I did not have the capacity at the time to express that I was not.
My lack of response sent alarm bells ringing through the management team, and after I was admitted to hospital for the third time, I received the blessing of support from my employer in the form of extended paid sick leave to cover my three-week stay in hospital, a case worker to support my easeful return to work, and the kind support of genuinely curious colleagues when I eventually did make a return to the office.
I went on to experience two more psychotic episodes, with hospitalisations each time, until I received my eventual diagnosis of schizophrenia.
While this may seem a life sentence to many, it actually wasn’t for me. I finally had an answer, and something that I could tangibly address. Before this time, my mental health had been a deep, dark secret I hid as if my life depended on it, because I felt sure that I would be judged and not accepted if I shared my condition with ‘normal’ people.
Since then, I’ve had time to adjust and realise that while I may have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, it doesn’t define me – and nor does it have to. Here are my tips for those who have been through something similar, and who may still be struggling.
There is nothing ‘wrong’ with you.
For years, I hid my mental illness, never spoke about it, and the strong high-achiever in me believed that I had failed as a human. Through the deep personal transformation work I did, I came to a place where I fully accepted that mental illness is just one part of the whole of me, and I continue to welcome it in.
The journey to diagnosis takes time
The self-work doesn’t stop when a diagnosis is reached. While a diagnosis can provide solace to some, the diagnosis doesn’t actually solve the self-love that needs to happen to own your mental illness as part of you.
While I received my schizophrenia diagnosis in 2018, and wrote about it in 2020, until recently I was still speaking about my mental illness as “psychotic depression” (which was my first diagnosis) and still felt somewhat separate to my final diagnosis of “schizophrenia”. I have only truly owned that final diagnosis of schizophrenia within the last three months of this year – nearly a decade after I first experienced mental health issues.
Mental illness doesn’t stop you from thriving
You can absolutely have a mental illness and live a thriving life at the same time. One in five Australians experience mental ill-health each year (as reported in 2020 by the Australian Productivity Commission), showing that far from being a dark, hidden secret, mental-ill health is simply a part of daily living for many.
Meditation and self care are essential
Meditation, self-care and creativity are really important priorities to help maintain your wellbeing over the long run. I regularly meditate each week and from those mediations, I have received countless creative ideas that have brought joy and often further success in my life. Meditation comes in many forms: you can practice meditation while sitting, you can practise with yoga or even while you are walking in the park.
Mental illness is not all bad
Having a mental illness can deepen your empathy for others in challenging situations. Since speaking openly about my mental illness, I have experienced many people who felt safe to share their challenges, too. While I am not a medical professional, I can tell you from my own experience, just knowing there is someone there who is willing to listen and understand can be a huge support on your journey to wellness.
Alana Mai Mitchell is a corporate results coach, an author and senior product development manager at a large Australian bank who is passionate about empowering people to reach the highest version of themselves. She is also the host of The Eastern Influenced Corporate Leader podcast, which interviews prominent figures with Eastern-style perspectives about the merits of compassion, empathy, mindfulness, meditation, kindness and more.