The emergency exit only works if you use it

I'm someone who likes to plan my emergency escape routes. If I’m going into a situation I’m uncomfortable with, I like to know how I’ll get out of it if I need to.

If I'm going to a party I'm not sure I'll enjoy, I like to have my excuse at the ready.

If I’m going abroad, I like to know exactly how I’ll get home if there’s an emergency. That’s one of the reasons I’m not ready to travel outside of the UK just yet. I know how easily my escape plan could be scuppered.

I have a box of antidepressants on my bedside table that I was prescribed back in April. I collected the tablets and never started taking them. Somehow I moved past needing them, but it helps to know they’re there, just in case.

When I started working as a contractor, I knew that every project I worked on would come with its very own in-built escape plan: the clause in my contract that says I can be out within 1 week if I decide to. That was part of the appeal: the emergency exit is right there.

But there’s a problem with this.

The trouble with knowing I can leave at any time brings with it an unspoken implication that goes like this:

“The emergency exit is right there, so what’s another day?”.

That notion, that having my escape hatch at the ready somehow nullifies the experience I’m having has got me into trouble, in the past.

It’s what kept me medication-free through the darkest days of depression and anxiety earlier this year. Sure, I came out the other side, but those days still happened, and I can’t get them back and they affected me in ways I can’t reverse.

And it’s what kept me working through months of unsustainable stress at the start of my contracting career until I burned myself out so badly that half my face stopped working. In the end, knowing I could walk away at any time became the main reason I didn’t.

I powered through with my attention so fixed on that exit door that I failed to notice my mind and body shutting down.

But I’m learning.

Today I am having a sick day. I’ve got a sore throat and an earache, and to be frank, I’ve been feeling low and anxious for 3 weeks now. I’m overwhelmed.

I’m working with an understanding client and I’m working from home. It would be easy to spend the day working from my laptop, knowing I could stop at any time if I started to feel worse: nap if I need to and make the time up later.

But today would still have happened. Knowing I can have a sick day is not the same as having a sick day.

Because the thing about the emergency exit?

It only works if you use it.