More and more I’ve been seeing people I admire admitting publicly that they struggle with depression and anxiety issues. Every time I see that, I applaud their bravery in adding their voices to help end the stigma around mental illness, and wish I had the courage to join them.
I have been open with only a few closed circles about my struggles for years with depression and, more recently, anxiety, but hesitated to do so more publicly because I was afraid of what it might mean for my ability to make a living. As a Realtor just starting out (I have been licensed since May 2014), I am almost entirely dependent on word-of-mouth among friends and family. Would they still choose to use me or refer me to someone they know for a real estate transaction, if they knew that I suffered from mental illness?
Recently, I realized that it didn’t matter: even if it meant that I would lose potential clients, I want and need to be honest about what I live with. I imagine there will be people who opt to work with someone else once they know, but I also know that I am good at what I do and have made many past clients happy. My mental health struggles were there yet I was effective for them and they were happy with my work. I also realized that a lot of the things I learned from living with mental illness actually made me a better business professional. The assumption that mental illness makes you weak, which I still struggle to let go of on daily basis, is simply not true for me, and I want to share what that looks like.
For me, depressive episodes come with extreme fatigue, which reduces my ability to be productive. This was particularly difficult to deal with when I worked in a regular full-time position, and resulted in a year off of work on long-term disability. At the time, I had wonderful employers who encouraged me to “take the time to get better, and come back refreshed and ready to be your old self.” Despite their encouragement, being off work for severe depression left me drowning in guilt; I kept telling myself that I was a bad person for continuing to get paid despite not working, that I wasn’t “getting better faster.” It took months of counseling for a psychologist to convince me that feeling guilty was not helpful to my condition, and was in fact holding me back from recovery. When I began to let go of the guilt, I was able to start getting better. From that experience I learned that my first reaction of guilt to any sort of interruption to productivity, was not helpful and likely a result of experiencing years of childhood emotional abuse from my mother. In it’s place I’ve learned, and am still learning, to be compassionate instead.
Self-employment in real estate has made this easier to manage. I have significant control over my own hours, so I am able to accommodate bad days and give myself space for self-care. It allows me to spend more time with my partner (who works a three-week rotation with hours all over the place), who is a major source of emotional support. Working from home allows me to draw strength from being near my dogs, who demonstrate for me 24/7 what it means to be mindful and live in the moment. I am able to travel more, which allows me to see family who live far away. Sometimes a change in scenery can help with pulling me out of a particularly severe depressive episode.
Specific to how I run my business, I limit the number of active files I take on at any one particular time, both for my own health but also to ensure I am able to give my clients the attention and care that they deserve. My annual sales goals are moderate and reasonable, and are formulated specifically to allow myself a lot of room to deal with my mental health issues. Should that time not be needed for dealing with mental illness, I have a list of alternative projects to pursue. When I pitch my real estate representation services to potential clients, I tell them that my business practices focus on quality, not quantity, that I never take on more than I can handle, and that I will place their well-being above that of the potential economic transaction. This way of working would never have arisen had it not been for my ongoing experiences with depression and anxiety. Happily, this approach to my new profession has resulted in a successful start to my new venture, and I am now at a place where I can acknowledge that while I would never wish struggles with mental illness on anyone, my own struggle with them has led me to be a different, and perhaps, stronger individual.
Surprisingly, the real estate industry has given back to me in ways I never expected. When I first left the education and non-profit sector, I considered myself a “sellout.” I viewed it as shifting from social justice work to facilitating capitalist transactions, which is more or less still true. But I had underestimated the degree to which I could still help people. Many of my clients are first-time homebuyers, and it was extremely gratifying to help them with what was usually the largest economic transaction they’ve ever been part of. Real estate transactions are complex and poorly understood, and it felt good to walk someone through successfully and support them in what is often a highly emotional and stressful time. I feel like I am still helping, just in different circumstances. The improvement in income (compared to working in non-profit) has also freed up time for me to do more volunteer work, which also feeds my soul and helps me continue to contribute to my community.
I used to think that being mentally ill made me weak, and that if potential clients knew that, they would not want to hire me. But I know now that learning to live with my depression and anxiety issues has actually made me stronger, both personally and professionally. I have no doubt that being more public about my mental health issues may cost me work; however, I also know that lots and lots of people have similar struggles and they continue to excel at what they do. I am proud to be one of them.
I experience ongoing depression and anxiety, and I am really good at what I do for a living. I now know that both of these things can be true at the same time. I suspect it may be true for many others as well.