Taking life one day at a time

Sissi is a content creator who blogs about food at eatinginberlin.com We sat down with her and talked about mental health, finding a therapist, and her approach to self-care (and love of dogs!).

Hey Sissi, thanks for being open to talking about mental health with us - on that note, how is your mental health?

This feels like such a complex question for me to answer. When I was severely depressed, it felt like I had to survive on the basis of just living from one day to another. From that experience, the best way to address this question would be: I’m feeling quite well today. I can’t say how it will be tomorrow, but there is one thing that I can say and that is, I feel mentally stable and strong enough to cope with whatever is coming in the future.

On that note, when I meet people I like to ask “How are you doing today?” rather than “How are you doing?” as I think it takes away the pressure for the person to find a “satisfying” answer to what can otherwise be an overwhelming question. Especially for people with anxiety like me, when someone asks how I am doing, I immediately panic and try to find a non-upsetting answer. For me this small difference in phrasing makes a huge difference for me.

I think that’s a really good point... and this small change in wording can make a big difference, so I’ll definitely try to consciously adopt that in future :) Have you always felt this pressure to find a ‘satisfying answer’?

I want to give a little backstory here, that would make it easier to understand. I grew up in an abusive household and have suffered years of physical and mental violence. Until I was 25 years old, I experienced recurrent depressive episodes with suicidal thoughts. I never thought about getting help, since I had zero knowledge about mental health issues and always thought I was weak, and that suicide was the only way to end my pain.

It had gotten pretty bad until I was at my lowest point where I started to think about realising the plans to take my own life. I went to the doctor, we did a small assessment session where he suggested me to get institutionalised in a mental hospital. I didn’t want to go, because I didn’t know anything about it and grew up thinking those places are for “crazy people”. So, we agreed that I would see him again if it got worse, and I left with a list of psychotherapists to call.

Luckily I was able to tell myself just to exist from day to day until things eventually got better. I did tons of research on finding a therapist, and called what felt thousands of different people who would be able to hear me out.  After visiting 6 different therapists, I found one person that I felt more or less comfortable with.

Fast forward to now, over 4 years of therapy later, and I’ve come a long way. I started by going to my therapist once a week, then twice a week and now I go three times a week. The type of therapy I do is called conversational therapy, which is based on in-depth analysis. Most of the session is spent talking, and the therapist basically asks why I feel how I feel, until we find the root of the fear.

It’s great that you found a therapist who you feel can help you.

Making progress in therapy is utterly different from person to person. It depends on so many factors such as your relationship to the therapist, the methods you feel comfortable using, how your personality deals with coping and reflecting and so on. Everything I describe is purely personal and doesn’t say anything about how “things should be”.

Is it possible to outline what you have learnt from your time with your therapist?

There are different steps in my progress and what contributed to my way to better mental health. I’ll try to summarise very roughly what some of my learnings are:

  • Acknowledging my feelings and not putting judgement on them - they are just feelings and they have the right to be here. They are neither wrong nor right.

  • Understanding where the roots of my fears lie. The best way to get to understand them is often asking “why” and “what if”, and reflect on the answers. Sometimes it takes months to get somewhere, and it’s frustrating running in circles, but I do feel that when I eventually get somewhere, the emotional reward of feeling better is very sustainable.

  • Understanding myself better by getting aware of my own behaviour patterns. This helps to realise in conflict situations which part is unhealthy - and created by my own actions - and which part of the situation is part of the other person’s problem.

Those are some parts of my therapy and they’ve helped me in the past years to improve my life quality. It takes years and years of effort in severe cases like mine to work on your mental health, and it’s hard work on a daily basis. What my therapist doesn’t do is give me suggestions of what to do. By working out my issues by myself, I have simultaneously learned the methods of how to deal with anxieties in the long run.  

You and I actually used to work in the same ad agency - although in different teams, so we never met, which is a shame as I think we could have supported each other. Lots of things about that agency triggered my anxiety. What kind of things or situations trigger anxiety for you?

I don’t even know where to begin. I was anxious most of the time. Advertising agencies are a tough place to hide your worries and constant fears, especially dealing with big name clients and teams that rely on you.

At that time, one of the biggest anxiety triggers for me were just people. Working in an agency that was growing very quickly, I struggled a lot in dealing with the constant amount of new colleagues. Part of my anxiety is for example, that I was afraid they would think I am extremely dumb with no reason. I avoided going into the office kitchen when there was someone in there, I didn’t talk most of the time in small groups during lunch and I was so afraid of socialising at company events such as Christmas parties or team events.

Besides my anxiety during the socialising part of the day, I was also extremely anxious when I had to present something in the team or to any clients. I am not sure if somebody noticed, but a lot of times I found excuses why I couldn’t fly to the client or why I let somebody else present the entire presentation, even If I had made most of the work. I liked working in bigger teams, because I could hide behind someone else, rather than be exposed with my anxieties, which - in my eyes - were weaknesses and something to be ashamed of.

As a strategist, a big part of my job is actually sitting by myself doing research and thinking about possible logical solutions. Luckily I have no issues dealing with that part. The more tricky part is to present the results in front of people I don’t know, or don’t know so well. I guess everyone gets a little bit insecure with that part, but unfortunately my anxiety in those moments are quite destructive and can spiral into me feeling absolutely worthless about myself.

Therapy sounds like it helped a lot, but was there anything else you were able to do to help you in such situations?

What I learned is to find and work with people who I can trust, and who can show empathy towards my anxiety. It’s not necessarily my job that is so fearful, it’s me who gets anxious because of the triggers. I’ve decided to work on my triggers, because they are similar in other contexts too.

Despite mental health receiving more attention, the stigma still looms large doesn’t it. Do you have people in your life who you can talk openly about it with?

I would say there is still a huge stigma around mental illness and it’s a difficult topic to talk about, without the fear of being judged. I used to feel ashamed to let other people know about my ‘stupid’ fears and my ‘weakness’ or ‘lack of discipline’ when I was depressed.

I’ve changed a lot through therapy and I’ve learned that there is nothing to be ashamed of. I would consider myself quite open about mental health and now I feel quite comfortable talking about it. The depth and intensity at which I talk about it varies a lot depending on the person I talk to - just because I feel comfortable talking about it doesn’t mean that the other person feels comfortable too.

At work I’ve decided on a individual basis whether, and how much, I am open about mental health. Sometimes it’s easier for me to talk with someone at work who I barely know rather than with a friend I’ve known for years. I go with my gut feeling whether I feel the other person is able to process, comprehend and reflect on what we’ve talked about or not. But generally I would say I am quite open about my mental health in the workplace.

Alongside therapy, are there other things that you consciously do, to help look after your mental health?

Self-care is a difficult thing for me to practice. I am still figuring out what it actually means to take care of myself, and to look after my needs. I would say it’s definitely both physical and mental.

I love dogs and occasionally take care of dogs from friends and colleagues. I go for long walks with them, play with them a lot during the day, give them a good scratch on the belly when they like it and just generally look out for them really well. I make sure that they get all the physical exercise that they need and give them all the attention, love and sometimes treats that they require. There was one day when I was really busy while dog-sitting. I didn’t go on long walks and didn’t have the time to play with the dog for the entire day. When I was finished with work late in the evening, I finally put my laptop away and I said to the dog “I’m sorry that I couldn’t walk you like we usually do. And I’m sorry I didn’t give you the attention you would deserve. I’m also sorry that we didn’t play today, but I promise we’re going to do all of it tomorrow again.” In that moment it suddenly clicked, and I realised that I need to treat my well-being with the same care as I do with the dogs.

Wow, that thought about how we treat our animals often better than we do ourselves is something I that will stick with me. And, on that note, i’m going to go take the dog in the office out for walk, and try relax my shoulders and let that tension drop... giving my mind and body a rest from the stress of working! :) Thank-you so much Sissi for sharing your experience with us x

The interview has been slightly edited for clarity.