Key Lessons Learned from Mental Health Challenges

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Kemetia Foley shares key lessons learned from mental health challenges and how they helped her prepare for the pandemic lockdown

Twenty-five years ago, a tsunami of years of family chaos, twenty-one moves in 18 years, a divorce, and a binge drinking problem brought me to my knees.  Little did I understand how that collapse would ultimately save my life, my sanity, and provide me the means to bring forth perspective, and deliver a right-sized view of challenges right up to today’s tough environment of the pandemic lockdown.

The pandemic has certainly filled our days with uncertainty and truly train-wrecked future plans to go see family and friends, attend religious services and conferences in-person, and put the kibosh on any spontaneous outings. It certainly has changed our workday, our routines, and our relationships. Energy levels are constantly challenged, as I see it, because we are in a constant state of fight or flight.

What does this have to do with Executive Secretary Magazine or working in the administrative field? Plenty! Our whole career mojo is built on how we plan and execute, shift and recoup. Even though we are built to executive Plan A, Plan B, Plan C and so on, how do we cope when even our best contingencies are not workable? Usually it is a messy gambit at best.

An Unrecognized Trauma

We lose energy trying to contingency plan or being in a constant state of contingency planning. It is, in my opinion, an unrecognized trauma.

When my life fell apart, so did I. That spiral into the mud pit was as unpleasant as it sounds. Luckily for me I had a director who recognized a staff member that was spiraling quickly down the drain and she referred me to the company’s Employee Assistance Program. This eventually led to working with a therapist, being prescribed proper medication, and entry into group therapy. That wasn’t enough though. About two years later, I had remarried and moved away with my new husband. I lost my father to cancer and when our daughter was born, all that chaos – unresolved chaos – was brought to a stunning and frightening plunge into a deep depression brought on by a severe case of post-partum.

Again, getting professional medical intervention was key. But the rest of the work was on my shoulders and still is. I am incredibly grateful for the multitude of resources available to me and to the friends that have seen me on this journey.

The Key Lessons

Here are the key lessons I have learned which truly allow me to be present and function in this most stressful of times.

1. Don’t go it alone

Being stoic and strong is a fool’s game. This doesn’t provide permission to spew your life challenges to whoever can hear you speak. It is simply a nod to recognize how hard it is to dig yourself out of a hole you built. It is not weak to ask for help. Think of it as a hack to getting out of your funk. Start with a trusted medical professional and only your most trusted confidantes. Sometimes this means NOT sharing your situation with family.

2. Just for Today

This is SUPER hard for us admin planners – what do you mean just today only? How’s that gonna work?  Focusing on just one day – the day in front of you – helps keep anxiety manageable. It allows you to prioritize what absolutely, positively MUST get done. It also brings to mind the adage, understand the difference between Urgent and Important. You can look ahead at the calendar at the beginning of the week. Try to limit yourself to only looking at the next day as you close your laptop down from work.  This particular practice more than any of the others prepared me best for not knowing what the next day brings during the pandemic. I just have to deal with today. To me, that is a grand gift.

3. Moderation in all things is key

Abstinence from some may be beneficial. I can only speak from my own experience. Moderation is one of the toughest practices for me to follow.  I can binge just about anything… from eating a pint of ice cream to scrolling social on my phone to catch’n’release clothes shopping. (*catch n release clothes shopping is shopping like crazy but then feeling remorseful about it, I return 99% of it.) I have been known to stay up all night watching TV because I needed a brain zombie breakout – something that required no brain power and allowed me to decompress. I would say my worst vice these days is drinking too much coffee. Luckily, my body will physically nudge me to cut back.

4. Gratitude List

I have to make a list. It’s imperative to my mental well-being that I keep a list of what has been good about my day. For many years before I sought help, I mistakenly – nay, narcissistically – behaved as if I was the only person that had suffered a crappy childhood. Guess what? I was far from alone in that situation!! And once I got over that self-centeredness and began to be grateful for what I did have and for what was good in my life, my ability to zoom out and get perspective changed me. I could see others. I could be present for friends. I could start to give more than I took. This gratitude practice, more than any other gift, has reminded me we are all in this together. As R.E.M would say, “Stand in the place where you are.”

5. Accepting a lack of full control

I cannot control governments, viruses, people being rude, people being sad, rainy weather, delayed airplanes… you name it. Neither can you.  We can confront people and we can manipulate others should we choose that path. Yet, I am reminded by the Serenity Prayer to accept the things I cannot change, change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.

Acceptance does NOT equal approval. I do not have to like the circumstance of being a temporary employee, but I can accept that for now, it is my current employment standing. I just have to accept it for today. I can review my day and decide if there was, in fact, something I could have changed (my tone of voice, my driving speed, my intake of chocolate) and try again tomorrow to improve.

Right now, I absolutely despise not being able to hug my friends. It’s horrible. But I accept it because I know it is the best way for me to show love and respect to these very friends – by doing what I can to keep my germs away from them. Do I like it? No. Can I accept that I will not be able to hug them in the next 24 hours? Sure. I don’t allow myself to think that I may never get to hug them again. I just know I won’t be able to hug them today.

6. Exercise and sleep

Lastly, I must – I must – get some form of exercise to keep the endorphins in balance. I may be physically exhausted or sore after getting my walks or other exercise in, but my mental health state improves vastly in two ways: 1) Increased endorphins 2) Better sleep. I’m less likely to stay up all night binge-watching ‘The Crown’ if I have exercised out some anxious energy and my body is physically tired.

Again, these lessons are only from my own personal experience from functioning with chronic depression. I hope that some good, something beneficial will speak to you as you read along. Know that you are not alone in feeling anxious and/or out of whack. If the feelings are overwhelming, I encourage you to seek professional medical assistance.

If you had told me those many years ago to ‘hold on – this too shall pass’, I probably would have slapped you across the face or told you off. The reality is, coming through that challenge along with many others has proved to me time and time again how vital it is to use tools to get and keep the proper perspective. Feelings don’t disappear but they don’t overwhelm me, either. That’s progress in real life. Just for today.

 Watch Kemetia’s #adminchat webinar which accompanies this article

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About Author

Kemetia MK Foley is a humorist, storyteller, writer, and trainer. She is fierce, funny and phenomenal – energetically delivering outstanding professional development courses since 2007. Kemetia has written, developed, and taught several sections of the Administrative Assistant certificate course for Northern Virginia Community College Workforce Development Division, presented more than 100 training sessions, and traveled internationally providing thoughtful perspectives and approaches to customer service, storytelling, and marketing. Students and delegates frequently comment how much they love her genuine and humorous teaching approach, sharing stories from her own experiences in the workplace. Kemetia is also part of our Speaker Bureau. If you are interested in Kemetia training your Assistants or speaking at your event, either virtually or in person, please visit our Speaker Bureau.

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