Content Writer
Living with Anxiety with Seasonal Affective Disorder

For years, Ashley Sides-Johnson struggled to navigate her mental health condition in an unsupportive workplace. Now, she has finally found her voice and actively advocates for herself and others. In her time away from the workforce, Ashley published a book full of practical tips to successfully identify and support mental health in the workplace. She wants everyone to know, “You can be a mess and a success at the same time. Struggling with poor mental health for a period of time does not erase your personal and professional accomplishments.”

Ashley’s Story

How has your condition impacted your life? When were you first aware of it? What was your most difficult time?

During high school I started to realize that before every big event my digestive system got really angry, causing me to spend way too much time in the bathroom. I didn’t feel anxious. I wanted to go on a date or be in a drama production, but my body protested. It was really annoying, but I just dealt with it.

My most difficult period of poor mental health happened in the year after I gave birth to my son. Crippling anxiety kept me from enjoying my baby and a terrible marriage left me unbelievably depressed.

Overall, my condition has caused me to be quiet when I should speak up for myself, believe that I’m not worthy of success, disconnect from family and friends, and suffer for years in silence because I didn’t want to talk about it.

What is your life like now?  What does success/living well look like for you?

I’m in my early 40s now and have finally found my voice. After a series of events at work led to losing my previous job, I had a lot of time to think, and write. I started a blog which evolved into a book and speaking events. I started teaching at the local university and worked part time.

Very recently I decided to get back into the workforce related to healthcare marketing. I accepted a 28 hour/week position so I can gradually reacclimate to leaving the house on a daily basis. In six months, I can decide to go full time or stay part time.

I’m finally advocating for myself and my needs. That is success.

What help or specific strategies helped you to get well and move to stability?

While it sounds basic, I slept, worked out at a gym with my best friend two or three times per week, and started cooking more from scratch. After losing my job, my mind and body needed a re-set and new, healthier habits. During that time period I felt so good.

After seven years of marriage, I finally started telling my husband when I was struggling with anxiety or my mental health in general. He’s very helpful and supportive but not a mind reader. This is still hard to do.

What do you do to manage your condition and stay healthy on an ongoing basis?

I have a therapist and a medication management provider. I see both regularly. Talking to my therapist helps me gain perspective on different parts of my life and gives me a safe space to say all the things I want to say but am afraid will adversely affect me or people I love. My medication management provider works with me throughout the year to adjust dosage levels. It’s down to a science now! When the time changes in the fall, we increase the anti-depressant. When the time changes in the spring, we decrease the anti-depressant!

I pay attention to my irritability level. If I get frustrated and annoyed really easily, I have to take inventory, i.e., do I need more sleep? Am I too stressed? Do I need a day with friends? I’m also trying really hard to prioritize movement. Not work-outs or exercise, but movement. How have I moved my body today? Notice, there’s not a quantity associated with movement. The question is how.

Are there positives that have come from having a mental health condition?  If so, what?

Being forced to deal with performance plans and unpleasant HR discussions at work led to me reaching out to my sister for help. Our discussions sparked a lot of questions and identified a huge literature gap in workplace resources. We put our brains together to address that gap and created a successful professional imprint: There’s an Elephant in Your Office. So, in a roundabout way, having a mental health condition led to a stronger bond with my sister and a chance to help others trying to manage a job and a mental health condition.

How has your condition impacted your work and your career? 

For years, my mood disorder remained well controlled. I could handle deadlines and huge piles of work with no problem. Then, I had to change medication. As the months of trying new meds (and having terrible side effects with each one) passed, I felt exhausted and overwhelmed. Normal bumps in the road became insurmountable obstacles. I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t focus. My brain didn’t seem to work anymore.

Communicating required so much effort. So, after a while, I just didn’t. I didn’t answer the phone. I didn’t tell my boss the status of projects. I didn’t go to meetings. Eventually, my managers got involved due to my performance levels – and they were right to do so – however, what followed was a frustrating, embarrassing, and lengthy process designed to force me to quit my job. I didn’t, and they couldn’t fire me, so they made me a supplemental employee and said, we’ll call you when we need your skills. That was 4 years ago and I’m just now ready to rejoin the workforce, in a new company.

What words of encouragement would you give to someone struggling with a condition similar to yours?

You can be a mess and a success at the same time. Struggling with poor mental health for a period of time does not erase your personal and professional accomplishments. They just get hidden from view.

What motivated you to join The Stability Network?  What do you hope to get from it?

I truly want to raise awareness about the millions of employed people who manage a job and a mental health condition. The Stability Network provides a framework in which we can all pull in the same direction and hopefully see the needle move toward better mental health services and systems. I hope to find teamwork and progress against our common foe.

Are there resources (books, videos, websites) that helped and/or inspired you that you would recommend to others?

JAN – the Job Accommodation Network

There’s an Elephant in Your Office: Practical tips to successfully identify and support mental and emotional health in the workplace by Ashley Sides-Johnson

Mental Health America’s screening quizzes