Friday, October 18, 2013

Up to Here

For several months, my job has gotten a little on the nutty side. It's all good stuff, but my department is changing things around pretty drastically, and because of that, I've had to rely pretty heavily on my deep breathing exercises, daily walks, and a few bursts of headphone time where I listen to Spanish guitar. Or smooth jazz. And let's not judge, please. As I explained to you in the last post, everyone has their "isms." Smooth jazz is one of mine.

All of this recent work nuttiness reminded me again of that job I had years ago as a medical answering service operator. That was when I first started having a hard time coping with stress. One day, a coworker came by my desk with a pamphlet for a seminar called "Women and Stress in the Workplace." The co-worker was a loud man who worked in sales, and he thought I would benefit from a day out of the office. Or possibly, everyone needed a day without me (I was supervising people by that point). I was a bit offended at the suggestion, but I had to admit he was right; I needed some help. I later married that man, but that's another story for another time.

I don't remember the name of that outfit that offered the day-long seminars, but we were always getting mail from them, and they advertised all kinds of seminars to tackle a variety of work-related issues -- Wearing Many Hats in the Workplace (I thought briefly about signing up for that one, and showing up wearing a stack of hats), How to Get That Promotion!, How to Organize your ms-DOS disks -- wait, I'm showing my age here.

Anyway, I signed up for the session for women and stress, thinking I could use a day away, and if I learned something helpful, even better. The seminar took place in a B-grade conference center in a strip mall. We've all been there - the flimsy, carpeted movable walls, the dingy used hotel chairs with suspicious stains on the cushions, the sweaty, frazzled receptionist/greeter in tan hose and square heels -- you get the scene.

When I arrived, I made beeline for a seat on the outside edge, sort of near the front so I could participate but only if I wanted to, but in an aisle seat in case I needed to run for the exit. I took stock of the place and thought about my mom, who has bookoodles of girlfriends but has always despised organized groups of women. Since this was a group of stressed-out women, I looked around to check out the competition. Nobody stood out as particularly twitchy, and surprisingly, nobody looked particularly stressed out. Maybe it was already working!

The instructor was a pasty, meek type who made up for her lack of charisma by offering us glazed donuts. As I explained in my last segment, I can't have idle hands, so I helped myself. What I didn't consider while throwing down a freebie donut was that our instructor was likely drugging us to keep us there. Because we all stayed. The entire day.

The course was completely forgettable except for one key moment. The meek and pasty instructor -- let's call her Patty from here on out - asked us how we handle it when someone walks up to our desk when we're in the middle of something and don't have time to chit chat. I think there was some label for those people, like "Chatty Saboteurs" or something similarly ridiculous. The idea is that there are people who will approach you at work, and they don't mean to prevent you from working, it is completely not intentional -- they're just chatty. But you get the fun job of trying to figure out how to ask them to go away without offending them.

Now, I am THE chattiest person I know, so this is a tough one for me. That said, through the years, I have figured out how to pick up on non-verbal cues so that when I sidle up to someone's desk to say hello, when I start to sense they really can't talk, even if they're making eye contact at first and appearing engaged, I figure out the quickest way to wrap it up and I mosey along.

Here are the signs that someone is hinting for you to leave their desk:
  • watch-looking
  • looking at the computer screen
  • typing
  • looking down to appear to read notes
  • closing their eyes and pinching that spot at the top of the nose in between the eyes

The last one is a dead giveaway that the person you're speaking with is busy. I know these are cues because I do them all myself. But I should think back to that seminar, because Patty didn't suggest any of those things, possibly because she knew from experience they don't really work. Instead, Patty said something like this:

"Now that we work in open environments, you can't close your door and have time to get your important work done. You have so many distractions -- the phone ringing, a meeting, an e-mail, and then you have the Chatty Ones. So, when a Chatty approaches your desk, and they say, 'Hey! How's it goin'?', you simply need to raise your arm above your head like this:

(And she began shaking her hand, firmly, with much more conviction than she seemed to truly possess)

"...and say, 'I am so sorry, but I am just UP TO HERE today. Let's catch up later!'"

And that was that. She had us practice on each other, and we did it with sincerity, fired up to go back to our open environments and practice on some unsuspecting Chatty Saboteurs. It was exciting. And when I got back to the office it worked, at least to some degree. What also worked was turning in my resignation, because the stress of that particular job was simply more than a day-long seminar could cure. But I never forgot that little bit of advice. 

Now here I am, years later, working at a company that I absolutely love. I believe in our product, our management, our vision, and we're in a big growth spurt so our office is getting more and more crowded. I am chatty, as I mentioned, and I genuinely like my coworkers. Yet, as we grow, I find that more and more often, when someone approaches my desk, I want to raise my hand and announce that I'm "UP TO HERE." Except it doesn't work. And it's kind of rude, right? And even if I do say it, we just end up chatting, and it's hard to stop.

I don't blame the people who come to chat, I blame myself for being someone that wants to chat along. 

So lately I've been brainstorming potential solutions to my problem. Working from home isn't an option, and I actually like being in an office. Raising a Pancho's flag isn't an option either, because I don't have a Pancho's flag. If you're not from these parts, Pancho's is a pretty terrible Mexican food buffet that I believe is defunct.  Once you serve yourself a heaping plate of crappy hangover Mexican food, then you can sit tight at your table, and if you want seconds, there's a flag on a little flagpole at your table, and you raise it up, and an underpaid server will appear to give you another enchilada. It's a pretty amazing idea. I kind of want one just to have when I go anywhere, and see what happens when I raise it. Except if I raise it, I'm afraid people will come to me, and that's not the goal at all.

Here's a picture, thanks to a random stranger who was snapping photos while waiting on more flautas. (And thanks to Google image results). There is not much documentation on Pancho's, I'm sad to say!

In lieu of a Pancho's flag, I have decided to go with the Hot Dog Hat.

I own a ridiculous hot dog hat, which is another great story, but I don't have time to tell it. Ask me later, please!

I decided that when I need 100% alone time, I'll slap on this hat and tell everyone what it's about, and that should do the trick. If it doesn't, I'll brainstorm another idea (a Nerf gun?), but I feel confident that my lovely coworkers will get the idea. I have even floated the idea around a few times, and the feedback has been positive. 

So it's official. I shall commence to wearing Hot Dog Hat very soon. When people approach me, I'm going to look up, raise my hands, and shrug. Here's my first attempt. I hope to appear friendly, but not too approachable, because that's what got me here in the first place.

I'll keep you posted on the results!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Managing the Isms

At some point in my early 20's, I started having difficulty managing stress.

For a lot of people who struggle with stress -- and isn't that all of us at some point in our lives? -- the root of our stress is the pressure we place on ourselves. For me, it's pressure to do well at work. By "doing well," I'm not referring to making a pile of money, or that I become a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. My definition of "doing well" at work is that my colleagues think of me as valuable, that my customers know I'm reliable, and that nobody ever questions my work ethic. This has always been the case for me.

That self-imposed pressure comes with a lot of stress. My need to work hard is most definitely an inherited thing. Both my mother and father are crazy hard workers. After they divorced, they each went off and married another hard worker. Look on both sides of my family and you can't find a slacker in the bunch. All of my family role models definitely earned their pay. As if that all of those busy bees in my family weren't doing a good enough job creating a false pressure to work hard, add my great grandmother Vera Conrad, lovingly known as Great Gran. When I was a little girl, Great Gran used to lean towards me in her wheelchair and whisper, "Idle hands are the devil's playthings." I assure you, there is nothing creepier than an ancient woman with long earlobes and chin whiskers telling you about devil's playthings to scare some work ethic into a little kid. And she practiced what she preached. Though she was wheelchair bound and no longer able to tend to a farm (talk about work!), Great Gran sat in her little wheelchair and quilted non-stop, keeping those wiry old hands as busy as could be.

Her creepy words stuck with me. At a very early age, I figured that I better work hard, or the devil would start playing with my hands and oh my goodness no! I'll just get to work, thanks. Given that pressure, it's no wonder I got pretty good at playing the piano. Busy hands. Busy hands.

During school and college, I managed stress enough not to cause problems, but I was always known as a bit of a "Stressball." It's just how I'm wired. But when I started full-time work in my early 20's, the stress of it all began manifesting itself in the form of some ugly little anxiety attacks. I didn't know how to handle it, and that stress fed on itself, so my anxiety worsened.

Lucky for me, when this started happening, one of my longest and closest friends was in grad school, getting her Masters in Social Work. I called her, and she came to my apartment with her hands full. In one hand, she held a six-pack of beer, in the other hand, she held a fat copy of the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders. I will never forget that. It's so indicative of the kind of friend she is: loyal, giving, and fully invested in helping you when you need her most. It's not surprising that to this day, she is still my dear friend, and a successful and highly-regarded private therapist who specializes in many things, among which are anxiety disorders.

That night, with a six-pack, tears and laughter, we began searching the DSM for answers. While we certainly didn't find them all that night (that DSM is one agonizingly difficult read, but a good cure for insomnia), it was a first step in identifying what was causing me to feel like I was completely out of my head. Soon enough, I began seeing a therapist, learning breathing techniques, and learning how to cope with my own definition of "normal."

I hated the way anxiety made me feel, so I didn't tell many people at all. I kept that secret close to my pounding chest. I was so afraid of people thinking that I was crazy. Except guess what? We're all crazy. It's just varying degrees, friends. And guess what? Most of the normal, honest people I know have admitted that they, too, struggled with anxiety at some point in their lives. If not anxiety, then depression. If not depression, then some kind of compulsion.

My sister calls these things "isms." "Isms" aren't always related to mental health. It could be that you need glasses and refuse to get them. That's your "ism."  It could be that you use baby talk when you talk to your boyfriend. Well, that's not an "ism," but it is annoying, so quit it. It could be that you detest laundromats. That's your "ism". Are you getting the idea? And honestly, if you live in this day and age and don't have some kind of "ism", well, congratulations on becoming a Buddhist monk. When you get back from your silent retreat, we'll all be back here in "ism" town when you're ready to talk again.

There's a Facebook thing that's been going around for a year or more that has a sad little drawing of a woman in an ugly pink robe that says, "Depression, anxiety and panic attacks are NOT a sign of weakness. They are signs of having tried to remain strong for way too long." The first time I saw it, I thought, "No wonder she's depressed. That robe is terrible." And then I read it again, and realized that the sentiment there is meant to promote acceptance of mental health issues - and that the sentiment is a good one. But it is a tad on the dramatic side. I certainly wasn't forced to be "strong" for a long time, I just got hit square on with anxiety issues. I believe my anxiety issues have much more to do with chemical make-up and a lot of forced pressures that I place on myself.

The post goes on to send a message of acceptance for those of us (1 in 3, evidently), who deal with "isms" at some point in their lives. It also mentions that this week is Mental Health Week. Every time somebody posts it, I "like" it. Because it's a good message. But I also get tickled that since it's on Facebook, that message keeps floating around, making every week Mental Health Week. But in case your particular "ism" is that you're a stickler for dates, October 6-12 is Mental Illness Awareness Week. And while I will always take a silly tone with serious topics, it really is a good time to reach out to someone that you know struggles in some way, and let them know that you are there for them. It might also be a good opportunity to ask them how they manage their issue, and how you might help.

For those of us who struggle with our "isms," every day is Mental Health Day. Not a day goes by that I don't think about what would happen if I had an anxiety attack while driving, speaking to customers, caring for my kids, you name it. If it weren't for years off an on in therapy, an extremely supportive family, meditation and prayer, regular exercise and deep breathing techniques, I'm fairly convinced I would be trying to figure out how to leave my people and make a beeline for the nearest ashram for a long-term recovery.

And just because I can talk openly about my anxiety issues, does not mean everyone feels that free. I wish it were easier for everyone, because it would help reduce the stigma associated with mental health problems.

In recognition of Mental Health Week, here's the link to the National Alliance on Mental Illness website, where you can tell your story. I shared mine; I hope you share yours.