My experience leading up to taking medical leave for mental health
Gymnastics was a large part of my life from the age of 3 to about 12. There was a coach who taught tumbling and trampoline in the gym connected to the First Baptist Church’s daycare center in my small Texan hometown that my grandmother ran and my brother and I attended. It was a no-brainer on the convenience front for my parents who signed us up for lessons.
My relationship with the sport fluctuated over the years anywhere from a pure love to begrudging participation depending on the pass, what we called our routines, that was in front of me. That said, I certainly enjoyed it way more and stuck with it longer than hand-eye sports like baseball and basketball. I’d have at least one, sometimes two, practices a week for a majority of the weeks during that span of time, and years into it when my coach joined a gym in a neighboring town 20 miles away, I’d carpool with teammates to continue our training.
While tumbling and trampoline were the disciplines I competed in, we would get to try out other events like parallel and high bar, balance beam, and vault in the summers at gymnastics camp. Out of all these, the vault was somehow both my favorite and most feared. If you’re unfamiliar, the gymnast makes a run towards a springboard that is then used to propel themselves over the vaulting horse in order to perform a pre-planned routine.
Folks might be familiar with Mary Lou Retton’s vault in the ’84 Olympics, or more recent Olympic performances by Simone Biles or McKayla Moroney after the vaulting horse was modified to the current vaulting table for safety, but the image that was seared into my 8-year-old brain was Kerri Strug’s performance in the ’96 Olympics where she took gold despite injuring her ankle in the process.
My level of experience was nowhere near these athletes, but Kerri’s performance definitely made an impact. While I was content with just using the springboard to clear the vault with whatever trick I had in mind, my confidence left as soon as we were asked to start inverting and perform handsprings. It was common for me to make a run and then come to a full stop on the springboard, stopping all momentum.
“C’mon Lance, don’t choke on the vault,” my coaches would say.
This idea of “pushing through,” has become an inadvertent hallmark of my life in many ways. No matter the challenge or pass in front of me, I did my best to make sure I didn’t choke on the vault at all costs, even if that meant denying my identity or ignoring my authentic needs in the process.
When I decided that achievement would need to be a focus in my life in hopes to be “good enough” to overcome the public condemnation that I felt would come my way in my religious/conservative culture if my sexuality were to be found out, this approach kept me in the closet.
My approach proved to be effective on many levels. It pushed me to the top of my class in high school, propelled me from Texas to Alaska on a bicycle, and got me an internship at the White House. It pushed me to be a good business student who never had a gap on my resume, which meant applying and interviewing for corporate wellness internships while I was in DC and then turning around and doing the same thing to find a job while working the one I landed at Dell in my final semester of college. All of this could objectively be viewed as “successful,” or at the very least “acceptable,” which was my goal as a Queer kid who had grown into a Queer young man in the closet. The “pass” in front of me was to find worth through accomplishments. To finally be “enough” for myself, my family, and in the eyes of the world.
Even after coming out, I continued to operate with the “at all costs” approach to life. By that point, it was the only thing that I knew and had become my standard operating procedure. This approach, or work ethic, lent itself well in my role directing the program at the nonprofit I had cycled to Alaska with. I could lose myself almost completely in that world investing in the riders, building the program, and dealing with all the operational factors of helping run a small two-person nonprofit with a Board of Directors that could be overly dramatic and demanding at times. To be clear, I loved the work and when someone would occasionally call me on how much I seemed to be working I’d casually wave it off saying that work-life balance was still something I was working on.
One night after a very trying stretch of time at the nonprofit, I pulled out a journal and started the process of writing down my plan to move on. I was easily working 60–70 hour weeks as the norm at this point and while my salary was gradually being increased each year, my proposals for making more money to reflect the work I was putting in had repeatedly been denied. The weight of my debts from putting myself through school and then spending close to half a decade at a nonprofit barely making enough to cover my monthly expenses was creating an unspeakable amount of anxiety.
My plan, aptly titled “Project Save Lance,” was a formulaic, step-by-step process all focused on knocking out the debt and providing for my basic needs. The pass in front of me was to slay the monster of debt that was $76K stories tall at the time, and like every other challenge I had taken on in my life up to that point, I was determined not to choke on the vault.
I plowed through the following 5 years in my career hacking away at that monster. My first job following the nonprofit was a cushy tech job that required virtually nothing of me in comparison to my previous director role. The sheer fact that I was only working 40 hours a week alone for just a slightly higher salary was an adjustment, and I chose to use that extra time to take on more side hustles to make extra money. I had held on to my indoor cycling job from college throughout my time at the nonprofit and added many more classes to my weekly rotation at two separate gyms, and started to work athletic event production jobs with some contacts and friends I had made while at the nonprofit. Looking back, I could have used that extra time to try to address the obvious mental health issues that were becoming more present in my life, but that wasn’t the pass in front of me.
In all honestly, a lifetime of focusing on the pass in front of me led me to believe taking time for oneself like that was a waste — especially when I had so much debt to take care of. So I just kept hacking at it.
I made a pretty significant dent in the debt monster in the first year and a half or so, but everything leveled up when I landed my next full-time job with the help of my friend Kate from the bike ride and time at the nonprofit. My salary almost doubled instantly and with the bonus potential, I was able to crush my credit card debt completely while making hefty blows to college loan debt each quarter.
I continued on at that job for close to 3 years doing well and getting promotions/bonuses as I became eligible for them. In my last two years or so, I was managing a team that was responsible for millions of dollars worth of business for the company. I was back to working 12 hour days as the norm and rather than just having a blurred line between personal and work-life, I had virtually no line between my personal life and my work again. The only difference being that I wasn’t nearly as passionate about the work as I was while I was at the nonprofit.
Over time the mental health issues and red flags that had been present since I was in college continued to grow and fester while I wasn’t at work until they started to rush into my day-to-day. To be clear, I’d exhibited anxious quirks like biting my nails and sweating through shirts going back to my time interning in Washington, but these new symptoms were heavily impacting my work. It started with indecision, inability to focus on tasks, and severe feelings of inadequacy before leading to panic attacks and losses of memory. I’d have to hop in conference rooms to rub my knuckles against my sternum in attempts to calm anxiety attacks when they were becoming so disruptive that I felt like I couldn’t be on the floor with my team anymore. I also started to forget entire conversations for seemingly no reason which made the job nearly impossible.
Things got bad enough that I finally went to see a mental health professional for the second time in my life - the first being a failed attempt at trying to get help while closeted in college. I chose a psychiatrist because I mistakingly believed there was some type of hierarchy within the mental health field and believed that a psychiatrist would be the “most qualified” to help with what I believed to be my potentially “big problems.” Luckily the psychiatrist I found was a good fit and also well versed in offering psychotherapy as well.
Within the hour and a half of our first session, he diagnosed me with ADHD and attempted to prescribe some medication that he felt would help with my ability to focus and reduce some anxiety around my indecisiveness.
“I’m already taking that. My general doctor prescribed it about a year ago when I first brought up these symptoms to her,” was my response. It had been the first time I cried in front of a health care professional when I was trying to describe the beginnings of the now fully expressed symptoms I was dealing with.
“Then we have some more work to do,” he said.
Over course of the next four months, my psychiatrist and I had sessions every other week and attempted to understand what was going on in my head and unpack years of repressed and ignored symptoms associated with my mental health. During that time, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, clinical depression, and PTSD. My psychiatrist was very much of the opinion that I needed to change jobs and did a good job walking me through the reasons why the work just wasn’t the best fit for someone with ADHD and self-worth and inadequacy issues that were exacerbated during times of stress. In his mind, I was walking into an environment each day that was creating the perfect storm to knock me off my game and drive me further into a deep dark hole of depression spurred by the “I’m not good enough” mantra that had been imprinted on me in the pews of that small town cowboy church so many years ago.
All I heard was, “You’re choking at the vault, Lance.” In my mind, changing jobs wasn’t the answer because I had already tried that once before when things had gotten close to this bad so I kept working. I kept running at the vault and thrashing my way through the darkness.
It wasn’t until Kate, who had become my manager over the course of the many organizational changes and promotions during our time together at the company, suggested that I talk to HR to see what resources were available for me. From her view, I was doing most everything she could ask of me in terms of leading and developing my team, and handling client work well enough, but she was also seeing me visibly crumble faster and faster as I continued to run at the thing that was slowly killing me.
I was fearful of that conversation with HR because I was concerned that it would lead to a performance improvement plan. This detail helps highlight how out of touch with reality I was given that the “performance improvement” part would have needed to be related to my own health and wellness. Luckily Alex, the HR contact I worked with, assessed the situation along the same lines as Kate which I thought was a relief until she presented an option that I couldn’t see myself taking: medical leave.
Medical leave for mental health felt like I was failing. Up to that point in my life, every act and every story I had told myself and others about my life was all focused on the intention of proving value, and my skills of ascertaining how our culture measures value and worth sharpened by years of practicing the achievement for achievement’s sake mantra led me to believe those that struggle with mental health are valued as less than in the same way that my voice and life were considered unworthy by a portion of the population simply for being gay. I had not yet learned that it was possible to acknowledge the realities of man-made social constructs while also making decisions that best suited my authentic self.
Looking back at that initial journal I started with the “Project Save Lance” plan, I saw that I was acknowledging my overall discomfort and unhappiness in some small way:
“I’ve been angry, I’ve cried, and I’ve gotten really sad, but I don’t want to journal about that right now because that’s not really about me. It’s my job,” I wrote.
Rather than focus inward at that time, I did the only thing that I knew how to do — find a challenge and run at it with all my might. I had accomplished many of the milestones I had set for myself in terms of increasing income, knocking out a lot of debt, putting enough aside that I was no longer living paycheck to paycheck, but I still felt many of those feelings I had written about before — to a stronger degree even. I’d also met and fell in love with my partner which was not part of the plan, but a saving grace that is worth its own story at some point.
The act of taking medical leave for my mental health was the end of that pass — the quintessential choking on the vault that flipped my life upside down because it pushed me away from all that I knew.
As I shared in a previous essay I still frame things in my life as a challenge that I must somehow achieve from time to time, but I am more focused now on not losing myself along the way.
It helps to think of the little boy running down the mat in his socks and gymnastic outfit, doing his best to run in a straight line and build speed to hit the springboard with enough momentum to clear the vault. At any point when I notice that he’s tying his worth to the accomplishment, I pull him aside and say that we don’t have to focus on the vault today because there are just as many activities in this gym as there are ways to do life, and none of them are worth losing ourselves in.