This is LIS Mental Health Week. For those not in the library/archives profession, LIS = Library and Information Science. It is the name of the most common masters degree required for (more or less) gainful employment in the field.
I hesitated to jump in the conversation with my personal story because I’ve considered the depression and anxiety I’ve experienced to be mild. I have not suffered nearly as much as many people I know (in real life or the internet). However, it has impacted my professional life, and I decided it is probably better to have more voices and perspectives out there. I will share what has helped me, though my advice for anyone experiencing mild depression is not new or novel. But I know from experience that you can hear advice multiple times before it actually hits. Sometimes you have to be in the right place in order to really take something to heart. So maybe someone will find it useful.
I’m not sure when I first experienced depression, but the first time I’m aware that it really struck was in undergrad, particularly around my last two years. I had too much free time on my hands and I had stopped exercising. I remember dreading and putting off relatively minor tasks. Like having to get a form at the registrar’s office or sending an e-mail. I slept in late, sometimes having trouble getting out of bed. I spent a lot of time watching TV or on the internet (still a relatively new experience at the time). As a photo major, I needed to spend my time taking pictures, printing pictures, thinking about and analyzing what I wanted to create. I loved photography but as with most other things, I was deeply insecure about it. The process of going to the lab, signing up for a time slot, being around other people – sometimes it was too much for me and I avoided it.
After college, I failed to find a job in my field. I was stuck, or at least I felt like I was stuck, in retail, and the depression came in full force at various points. I had more physical symptoms like chest pain. It’s amazing what stress can do to the body. For awhile I was directionless, feeling like I had failed.
Things took a drastic turn for the better when I made the decision to go to graduate school to become an archivist. I had direction again. The earlier lack of success motivated me to be more fully engaged and to do anything I could to give myself an advantage when it came time to finding a job.
Thankfully, I found a series of temporary jobs in the field. I continued to experience depression and a sometimes crippling insecurity when it came to work or social interactions. I suppose my issues could be considered confidence problems more than mental health per se, but for me, the two are closely connected. Lack of confidence made it difficult to push myself to do things that I knew I would benefit from professionally, like becoming involved with professional organizations, submitting a presentation for a conference, and so on. After a couple of years in the field, I found myself slipping again, in a job that did not challenge or fulfill me, but one that was comfortable and provided at least some income. This is where my first piece of advice started to pull me out: Exercise. (See? Very unoriginal advice.)
I know exercise helps a lot of people, though maybe not every body. My preferred workout is Crossfit. When I go to the gym I benefit from 1) having left the house, 2) having done something productive with my time and good for my body, 3) most likely having a positive social interaction or two with my classmates and coaches, who are always supportive and encouraging, 4) having physical activity to get the blood flowing and the heart racing and all the great physiological benefits of exercise, 5) having completed what was probably a challenging workout, therefore conquering something, which always makes me feel good, and 6) having put in the work toward any number of ongoing gym goals, and achieving or getting closer to achieving those goals, which also makes me feel good. Those benefits come with me when I leave the gym. The more frequently I workout, the more those feelings carry me through tough situations at work or in my personal life. As a bonus, the community around CrossFit is full of people always pushing themselves to be better and that is great environment to find yourself in.
My second piece of advice is to focus on the work you need to do, not how you feel about it. In one of my undergrad classes, a photography professor described a dark period in his life after a divorce. Though it was difficult, he kept taking and printing photographs. He told us you have to work your way through depression. It has been many years, but the way I remember his telling of the story, it seemed that photography saved his life. That has stayed with me, though I have failed to put it into practice so many times.
When I am feeling insecure, I do my best to push those feelings away, put my head down and do the work I need to do. I’m not advocating burying your feelings, but for the most part you probably know the difference between your irrational and legit insecurities. Sometimes I wince as I hit that “send” (or “publish”) button a little sooner than I’d like to, just because I know if I hesitate, I may not do it at all. I have volunteered for tasks before taking the time to think about how scary they are. Forcing myself to do things has made it easier to do more. Like exposure therapy. I’m trying to build my way up to bigger things. On hard days, I try to find something productive to accomplish, even if it is not the most important thing that I should be doing. I try to remember that you have to work your way through depression. Or as Cheryl Strayed says: “But being a motherfucker, it’s a way of life, really… It’s about having strength rather than fragility, resilience, and faith, and nerve, and really leaning hard into work rather than worry and anxiety.” Lean into the work. Focus on the work (creatively, professionally, personally), not the fear or darkness or anxiety. For the most part, this has enabled me to manage my feelings, and things are starting to get easier.
Whatever issues you are facing, know you are not alone. Be sure to follow the conversation on Twitter #lismentalhealthweek (you’ll find many links to other blog posts there) and for resources, check out the Google doc.