I am not an ambitious person. People don’t believe me when I say it, but it’s true. I don’t really care about external validation or accomplishments, but I gather them up anyway, so I can see how they’d be confused. But the truth is that I can’t help it. It’s my anxiety. I need stability, and stability comes from social and cultural capital—my ability to ape and secure a middle-class life for myself and my family—so I do what needs doing to get it.
My anxiety disorder and I are frenemies. On the one hand, the way it manifests makes it incredibly easy to pass. I am an extraordinarily productive person. I have to be doing things all the time. It’s like I have to leave a trail of created things in my wake to prove I haven’t wasted all this time I’ve spent living. I am writing this piece on the bus ride home right now. I cannot ever seem to just sit and relax like my partners can. I am, in fact, so anxious about being able to do all the things I’ve convinced myself I have to do that I’m a savant at time management. At work, I can get through in eight hours what would take colleagues of mine something closer to twelve hours. I have to, otherwise I never feel safe. Otherwise I feel like the ax is about to drop and I’ll be fired. And I’ve lived like this my entire life, so I have a hell of a poker face. Impossibly tight turnaround time? No problem! Scope of project far too large for one person? Says you!
Here’s the thing: it’s easy for me to pass because I’m productive. In this society, demonstrable productivity is used as a way to measure someone’s worth. To be a “productive member of society” is the goal. Schools are supposed to train children to grown up to be productive. Parents are supposed to give their kids the tools to be productive. The homeless and poor and unwell are a drain on society precisely because they are not productive. This is the rhetoric we hear every day. This is the rhetoric I have used to pass, because we don’t understand how mental illness can coexist with such culturally sanctioned productivity.
You can see where this is going, right? On the surface everything looks great. I’m high-achieving and high-performing by virtually every metric there is. But below the surface is another story, because as much as we’re taught to value productivity the truth is that productivity is not an index of mental health. I have a history of neglecting my physical needs in order to meet unreasonable deadlines imposed on me, things like working twelve hours straight without stopping to eat or go to the bathroom. Things like completely revising an academic article for revision to a prestigious journal without any help from my advisor at his behest while a month giving birth. I did that on essentially no sleep. My advisor was impressed; I received a pat on the back and a request to work on another article. That’s when I had an epiphany.
A month postpartum, so anxious about my baby that I literally could not sleep, I was both ridiculously productive and an absolute emotional wreck. It took me way, way too long to realize that I was living with severe anxiety in large part because the anxiety was manifesting in a way that is culturally sanctioned. I was productive, but I wasn’t ok. And looking back all I could see where the thousands of other times I’d been so anxious, so panicked, that I forged ahead and produced whatever needed producing instead of asking to be accommodated.
It’s a lot of work to unlearn the associations I have between productivity and mental health. I think this is partly because of me, because I’m a person who has always been happiest working, but a lot of it is society. My capacity to get enormous amounts of shit done has been a quality that has been praised and rewarded my entire life. It’s the thing that made me look sane. It’s still a tension I struggle with within myself, though I struggle now much more self-consciously.
I think about this a lot. This is like any other kind of passing—it’s a short-term fix with negative long-term consequences. I pass for sane, for someone with a brain that works right, because that’s safe. There’s still stigma. There are still biases. If I told my boss that I have an anxiety disorder it would change how I interact with her, and I’m an at-will employee who doesn’t want to take that risk. But the flip side of passing, in this case of being productive, is that doing so forces me to reproduce a particularly subtle and pervasive form of ableism. I’m not trying to change how my coworkers and supervisors approach mental health and accommodations. I’m not trying to make my workplace more emotionally sustainable for me and others. I’m trying to use the veneer of normalcy I have learned to project to get me through this day, through this week, through this month. And in the doing I enable my supervisors to develop unrealistic expectations for what I can/should be able to do in what timeframe and with what resources.
I can pass, but it takes a toll. I have to pass to feed my family, but sometimes it means choosing between productivity and my own mental and emotional health. Passing for sane is both a mark of privilege (since I can cover it and I can be productive the way society deems worthwhile) and a mark of marginalization (since I have to cover it in the first place). I can pass, and I do it, but I wish I didn’t have to. Using productivity to hide my anxiety disorder is like any other kind of lie: it grows in the telling and becomes its own prison.