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  • Writer's picturePeggy Spear

Do Our Brains Have Rotator Cuffs?

Almost exactly a year ago, I tore my rotator cuff in my right shoulder. I was playing in the ocean in Phuket, Thailand, and got knocked down by a rogue wave. It was a rough landing, just in the exactly wrong position.

After the initial stunning pain, I just assumed that it was a bad sprain. But by the time we were visiting Chiang Mei a week later, I was in such intense pain that we went to a Thai hospital emergency room. We were there a mere hour and a half, which included a consultation with an English doctor, x-rays and a visit to the pharmacy. There I was prescribed hospital-strength Tylenol that I swear had an extra Thai kick to them. “You’re going to need a doctor in the states,” my doctor said as we left. “You definitely tore something."

Well, four months and two orthopedic surgeons later (the first one said, “just deal with it, we see this all the time in women your age,” and prescribed medication to which I was allergic), I had surgery. It was a three-to-four-month recovery period, but I felt good enough – and bored enough – that I was eager to get back to work, so I returned in November after two-and-a-half months and a heavy regimen of physical therapy and yoga.

I was greeted with open arms, concern and support. I’ll always be grateful for that.

Here’s my question: what if I had told my employer in August that I was suffering from anxiety and depression, and I was having panic attacks on the drive home from the office? Or that my stomach was cramping up so bad from stress that I had lost 27 pounds and had early signs of ulcers and couldn’t work? Both instances would have been medical leaves approved by a psychiatrist, a trained M.D. Would I have been welcomed back so sweetly?

I can honestly say the answer is no because both those experiences happened to me before, at previous jobs. I had alerted my bosses that I would be leaving the jobs and gave plenty of notice. But my mental health had other ideas, and I had to leave early. To this day neither of those bosses have said boo to me – even when I called to apologize for having to leave my position early! Crickets.

That is an issue – our work society’s view on mental health. If it’s a physical problem, like my rotator cuff surgery, everything was fine. But a few years ago, when I was going through a lot of loss and stress in my life and my mental health issues needed attention, I was treated like a pariah.

Both bosses professed to support me and were dear friends of mine. I quite honestly don’t know what I did wrong. I was ill, and I want to clean up my side of the street. We have a policy in place in my current office that if someone isn’t feeling physically well, they should stay home. It’s a good one, since we share germs like pencils.

But what about working America at large? Why can’t mental health be seen in the same light as physical health? Why can’t we get past that barrier? Being ghosted by my ex-bosses doesn’t faze me that much anymore – I’ve put it behind me, and only bring it up here as a living, breathing example of the ignorance and hypocrisy of our society. How many Naomi Judds, tWitches and Taylor Hawkinses do we need to shine the light on the fact that mental health and addiction issues aren’t like eating mushrooms in “The Last of Us”? It’s not contagious. You can’t catch it by small droplets from your spit or a gritty deli counter. But they can be just as disastrous.

Mental health issues, and mental illnesses, need to be normalized in our human psyche, if possible. All they women I know over 50 take an antidepressant, or, as a nurse friend of mine calls it, “Vitamin P,” for Prozac. That staves off depression. Isn’t that an indication that mental issues are extremely prevalent in “normal” society?

And no, sorry non-Boomers – it’s not just women of a certain age. Mental health issues are all around us, especially in our teens, tweens and young kids. Heck, they survived the worst thing that happened to the worldwide collective in a century and *seemed* to have bounced back. Some school districts are doing a better job of monitoring their kids, and I salute them.

Meanwhile, my daughter is getting married in three weeks – that’s another story. Despite being the MOB, my fiercely independent daughter has not called on me for a lot of help. In fact, the only thing she said to me was, “I’m not going to let you do anything until you get your own stress under control.” The next day I temporarily cut back my hours at work. My family will always come first. And I have been stressed, ever since I came back to work early. My shoulder may have healed, but did the rest of my body? My current employer understood the stress I was under and was kind enough to work with me.

As a mom, I still feel all my daughters “feels,” and, of course, my own. I’ve been depressed, anxious and panicky about things, sometimes all in the course of one day. I’ve been snappy and cranky, with a short fuse and a long regret.

Still, I am not falling apart completely. I am thankful for the tools I have, the skills I’ve learned and the mental health support I do have from forward-thinking medical professionals. (Not all are like my orthopedist, whom I dumped for a younger, smarter model.) It all keeps the worst symptoms of my illness under control (like wanting to hide under my bed covers every day and cry). It’s like I have a flare up of diabetes, lupus or a peanut allergy.

They’re all the same. They can all be deadly. With mental health, we’ve hidden it in our back pockets too long. Here’s a call to action to all people of all ages: Mental health issues can kill – help stop the spread. Acknowledge them if you or someone in your family is suffering. You’ll be surprised by how many open arms there are to help you.

[If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time day or night, or chat online. Crisis Text Line also provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis when they dial 74174.]

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