Full Schedule, Empty Plate
Becky Brinkerhoff is the social media manager for 3% and a copywriter at Arnold Worldwide in Boston. She’s a diversity and inclusivity activist in all things and hasn’t been “chill” a single day in her life.
Content Warning: Eating Disorders
“This is not a relapse,” I’d say as lunch rolls by. I’m just busy. Sure, people who had much more responsibilities than me were, at the very least, chowing down at their desks. But, this is not a relapse. I’m a grown-ass woman with a career and grown-ass women don’t have eating disorders.
That was a frequent inner monologue when I was put on my first food-based account. As a junior copywriter, I was cranking out a month’s worth of social content per day. The content glorified something I never really had a great relationship with: food. So many recipes. So many “we heart-eye-emoji this delicious party platter” lines. (FYI that party platter looked like a pile of skin tags, anyone would be grossed out.) So many fucking food puns (before you write me off as a bad creative, know that was a client request).
My whole job became about food.
At that point, I’d been in recovery for an eating disorder for a number of years. It tends to rear it’s hibernating head when I’m feeling inadequate or more anxious than normal. I operate at a high level of anxiety normally, but this account was a disaster. That meant a lot of stressful nights compiling food content that would be completely disrespected by the rest of the internal team the next day.
To summarize: I was a young creative working with personally-difficult content on an account that bred insecurity and undue frustration. Oh yeah, baby—sounds like ideal conditions for a relapse.
I tried to push through it, demand it back down. Told it that it had no power over me. Convinced myself that my drive to do good work would overpower it. But, day by day, eating became harder. And the more I had on my work plate, the less I wanted on my dinner plate.
I tried to impose some ground rules to coax it into something manageable: don’t work on this account in your kitchen; get a smoothie when food feels out of the question; don’t work on this account thirty minutes before or after eating. But, since it was pretty much all I was working on, relief was limited. It felt like all I could do is sit at my desk, feeling my fat seep over the band of my bra, typing post after post about how “you’re gonna drooling-emoji this delicious seasonal plate-emoji.”
It seemed like there were only a few choices: create the highest caliber of work this account would allow for at a disadvantage to my mental health. Or, create lower quality work with less of a risk of falling back into patterns I spent years trying to break. It’s not that I didn’t want to do well. This was the only account at my agency that comprised of all female creatives (let’s ignore the fact that it was a grocery store and take what we can get). I’d sacrifice almost anything to have a team of ladies come out on top.
There was a third option, but it was the most difficult one. Talk to my creative director. Eating disorders try to convince you that what you’re dealing with isn’t a real problem. Or, if it is a problem, it’s a childish one of your own doing. What if it made me look hard to work with? Or high maintenance? Or weak?
Here’s how I worked around all that: it’s not necessarily my employers’ responsibility to look out for my mental health. But, it is their responsibility to create an environment that allows for the optimal production of work. And my disorder was keeping me from producing the best work possible for that account.
I set up a meeting to talk to her about it. Let this be known: I would never have done this if my creative director had been a man. Eating disorders are typically seen as a feminine issue and feminine issues are commonly cast off as the banal plight of the over-emotional.
I came to the meeting armed with points and counterpoints as to why something as intangible as an eating disorder was a professional issue. I told her at certain points I’d have to step back from the work. Sat up straighter. Told her I didn’t want her to think I was lazy. Tried to maintain eye contact. Told her I respected her and her leadership. Attempted to keep my voice from shaking. Told her the caliber of my work would never be to mine or her standards on this account. Married business terminology to my pain to give it some credibility.
This creative director deserved more credit from the get-go. She was, above all else, empathetic. I really didn’t need to spend all that time drafting a professional argument as to why this account wasn’t healthy for me. She listened, promised to take as much of the social work as she could off my plate, and started transitioning me to another client.
So, does all this mean I’ll never be able to work on a food account? That is, after all, pretty limiting for a young creative. I don’t think that’s the case. But, I now know to preface my difficulties from the start. And I know to check in with myself to make sure things aren’t going south.
My situation played out as well as it could have. But, let’s be real for a second: I was lucky. There are some situations where the only way the powers that be will take a mental health issue seriously is if it costs them money in the long-run. Capitalism, am I right ladies?
They always say to put yourself in the work when you’re a creative. That gets tricky when there are a few mental illnesses stashed beneath your “About Me” section. Sometimes they really mean “bring the parts of yourself that are useful to us and leave the rest at home.” Maybe one day we won’t have to look at our personal wellbeing through the lens of what’s best for the business.
But, until then, I heart-eye-emoji empathetic creative directors. And I clap-emoji clap-emoji clap-emoji those who stand up for their mental health, no matter the outcome.