Invisibility: Georgia's story
Georgia is an architect and Associate at Grimshaw, and a wellbeing lead for the practice.
Architecture, both in education and the workplace, is a profession that places sustained periods of pressure and stress on us all.
In 2014, following a series of deadlines which happened to coincide with a relationship breakdown, I ended up becoming very ill with Ulcerative Colitis, a chronic autoimmune condition which is both triggered and exacerbated by stress.
I was bed bound for six weeks and spent time in hospital, both of which were truly isolating experiences. I lost a lot of weight and did not want to recognise the skeletal frame, let alone the stomach that would look more suited to an expectant mother, as that of my own. The simple sight of the stranger that looked back at me in the mirror brought me to tears.
I struggled with insomnia, and any sleep I did manage to get was tainted by some terribly dark dreams. These were largely triggered by the cocktail of medication I was taking, which only served to compound the chronic fatigue associated with the condition.
I did not feel comfortable talking about all of the symptoms, tests, pain and procedures that I was suffering through with those close to me due to the stigma associated with any bowel related condition.
This self-inflicted isolation and withdrawal had a very detrimental impact on my mental wellbeing and the emotional stress and crippling pain I was experiencing lead to me developing depression and anxiety.
I am not naïve to the fact that whilst the NHS is under extreme pressure through a lack of funding and stretched resources it is almost inevitable that the emotional and psychological impacts of being diagnosed with a long-term illness are not discussed with healthcare professionals.
Not once since my diagnosis was I asked by my consultants or nursing team how my illness may be affecting my mental health or whether I was coping with living with a chronic illness. It is imperative therefore that we recognise early warning signs in both ourselves and others and not be shy of instigating difficult conversations in a supportive manor. It is also important that when we are struggling, we find the strength to ask for help. This is something I failed to do and only served to make my conditions worse.
My return to work was a slow process. Getting ill is something none of us plan for, and therefore we are generally unaware of the policies and procedures that have to be undertaken both during and following a period of absence. It was a period that I found to be incredibly stressful and looking back should have managed a lot better. I suffered from a series of anxiety attacks on the train to work, and this repetitive cycle resulted in me also having suicidal thoughts on a daily basis.
Trying to control my illness and manage its effects was all encompassing and having to repeatedly declare an illness I was ashamed and embarrassed to be suffering from was not helpful. I was not ready to open up.
It is all too easy to fall into a mode of feeling isolated and alone during periods of ill health, especially when first diagnosed. It took me about a year to finally accept my diagnosis and how it might affect my life going forward. Eventually I made a conscious decision to will myself better.
It is important that when we are struggling we find the strength to ask for help. This is something I failed to do and only served to make my conditions worse.
Finding ways to manage within the workplace can be difficult and will be unique to each individual. For the past year I have been implementing flexible working to help alleviate some of the pressures of commuting whilst also easing the process of attending hospital or doctors appointments. When leading projects this can sometimes be difficult to achieve, but through careful planning, close team relationships, communication and broader flexible working initiatives across the wider team such as dialling into meetings etc. this is becoming increasingly accepted. I have also found that having a few key people within the office whom I can talk to when things get too much, or when I need take time off to get better without having to go into detail each time helps relieve some of the stress and anxiety associated with my illness.
This being said, despite my determination and drive for career progression and development, I’m still very conscious about the perception of my abilities and increased responsibility in relation to my illnesses. My own view is that managing health conditions has to be a conversation between managers and the individual concerned. As a profession, we have to ensure that projects are resourced appropriately such that we are all able to maintain a healthy work-life balance that is so critical to our physical and mental wellbeing.
On my part, I have to be self-aware enough to identify when things are getting too much and recognise that sometimes my own health needs to be prioritised. During these periods, shared decisions can then be made and appropriate measures implemented to help.
I am undoubtedly a different person now. On reflection, I regret not opening up to those close to me about what I was going through. My raised self-awareness about my conditions and associated trigger factors, along with increased self confidence and acceptance mean I am now better equipped to cope. I have learned to start being kinder to myself and employ self-care. I am the first to help others when struggling or in need, often prioritising others’ needs above my own. In asking myself what advice would I give a friend in a similar situation, I have learned to be compassionate to myself. Whilst self-love is a journey, becoming slightly easier each day, when that little self-doubting voice enters my head telling me I’m not good enough, I can now tell it to do one.
Living with invisible illnesses, be it mental, physical or both, can be debilitating, especially when your physical limitations or poor mental health can prevent you completing simple daily tasks, let alone things you actually want to do. But as a profession, as leaders, as colleagues and more importantly as friends we can all do better. I hope that initiating these frank and open discussions is the first step towards this and is a reminder that you never have to suffer alone.