Last July, I had a panic attack at Boston Logan International Airport. I was flying home to Manchester after a month in New Hampshire, and I'd just found out that my connecting flight out of Iceland was delayed by ten hours.
I want you to picture the scene here: there were people in Winnie-the-Pooh pyjamas, people who had been drinking vodka since 9 am, and others sleeping on beach towels on the floor, but it was me, crying at the gate, that attracted looks of utmost alarm.
We aren't used to public displays of vulnerability. There seems to be an unwritten rule that negative emotions should be confined to private spaces, and even positive emotions must be moderated in public ones. The only thing you can express in all its glory is apathy. Anything else is indecent.
But as with any societal norm, there are some people that disregard these ideas, like the kind stranger who, only a few hours after a hundred people at the airport gate had looked at me like I had two heads, took my hand during takeoff because she could see I was nervous.
I'm openly vulnerable in every area of my life. I don't hide the fact that I'm mentally ill (anymore) from the people I spend the most time with.
Everyone in my closest circle knows I have severe anxiety and depression, and I know that when they ask me, "How are you?", I don't have to give a sanitised, socially acceptable answer.
I can ask for support when I need it.
More importantly, I can say "no" to things without feeling guilty or having to come up with an excuse.
A few months ago, I had a debilitating flare-up with my mental health, and I had to take time off. I was honest with the people I was working with at the time, not because I felt "ready" to open up, but because I was too unwell to think of a lie.
I can't put into words how much this has improved my work and relationships.
I'm a journalist, and I mostly write people's real-life stories. I talk to women who have had unimaginable things happen to them, and I feel I have an obligation to create a safe space for them to share their stories. I can't do that if I: one, can't relate to how they feel in their vulnerability, and, two, remain cold and detached.
I also feel I have an obligation to the publications I write for and the editors I work with. That means delivering projects to a high standard and on time. However, the way that I work is not the way a lot of other people work. I don't often work to tight deadlines, nor do I often work entirely independently; I will ask editors for advice, direction, and, in some cases, reassurance.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I have an obligation to myself to keep myself healthy. I spend the majority of my time working, so I can't afford to take liberties and stretch myself too thin.
These three obligations are all connected, and I fulfil them all through vulnerability.
If I'm not feeling well, I tell the people I'm working with so they're not anxiously awaiting my email.
If I'm worried or unsure about something, I tell my editor.
This reduces conflict. I don't mean with the people I work with; almost all of them have been wonderful, patient, and understanding. It reduces conflict within myself. I don't have to pretend to be okay when I'm not. I don't have to have a facade of coolness. I get to be wholly myself.
When I first adopted this approach, I thought I would be working less. I thought that by permitting myself to say, "No, I can't do that. I'm not well enough," I would lose out on commissions. The opposite has been true.
Knowing that I don't have to hide anything allows me to show up more often and be more present when I do. My work is better; I'm more creative, both in my ideas and my delivery, and I don't get burnt out from the exhaustion that comes with hiding a mental illness.
Furthermore, you'd be surprised by how open people become when you're open with them — when you show people that you're willing to let them see and know you.
They may find the confidence to say, "Thank you for being honest about your anxiety. I'm also anxious right now, and it would help me if we could..."
Suddenly, working together no longer feels like a battle where you're each waiting for the other to do something unintentionally hurtful, harmful, or stress-inducing.
I'm not saying that I no longer have any work-related stress. I do. But now I have a community that can support me through that. And I get to be that person for other people.
Humans are not meant to be solitary. We are meant to collaborate. It's how we find joy, and it's how we stay sane.
So, don't be like the people at the gate. Be like the people on the plane: be willing to take someone's hand, and be willing to let them take yours.