I’ve started multiple drafts about this subject but binned them all, because they are – well – a bit depressing. But I want to talk about this. So I’m determined that this writing will be published on my blog.
Throughout my adult life I’ve believed that I can outwit my own brain and defeat my mental illness for good. But when tested by my own chemical imbalance this summer, I had to ask myself: what if my depression is embedded in the fabric of who I am? To cut it off would be like cutting off a limb, except it’s in my brain, and I’m pretty sure trying to cut out my own brain would end badly.
I had an episode of depression in June which resulted in my being signed off work for 2 weeks. I have had depression for many years, but this particular episode was proving more dangerous than any I had encountered before. This time, I was plagued with intrusive thoughts and feelings of hopelessness. I would never – in my right mind – want to take my own life. But, the problem was, I was not in my right mind. A part of my mind had gone rogue.
I didn’t know why I felt so low, and not understanding my depression only made it even more powerful. What I did know was that I was in a lot of physical and emotional pain, and there was no chance in Hell that I could suck it up like I used to. I had been feeling desperately sad for weeks by this point, but until recently my low self-esteem formed as irritability and extreme stress, fuelled by a desire to ‘be somebody’. Not anymore. Gone were the days when I would doll myself up and believe whole-heartedly that I could take on the world. Dreams of a fulfilling life had well and truly vanished, and overwhelming feelings of shame and disappointment took their place.
In spite of all of this, I was still able to observe what was happening and catch the thoughts before they did any real damage. While a dark funk had infected my sense of self with disturbing malice, my survival instincts remained intact, offering a glimmer of hope when I needed it most. It didn’t feel like hope in the moment, mind you – more like an intense fear of losing control. In any case, my anxiety signalled that I did indeed want to go on. It’s probably the only time I’ll be grateful for my obsessive self-awareness.
I believe I managed to get my head back above water because I shook off the stigma and asked for help. It wasn’t easy, though, opening up. I had to force myself to accept that it was not attention-seeking of me to speak out, that I was not a burden for requesting support. I gave myself a hard time for it, and still do, but I had to do something – the alternative was unthinkable.
As it would turn out, getting help would be a very wise decision. By talking to my boss, I was given time off and permission to stop thinking about the pressures of work. By talking to my GP, I was able to receive medication, get signed off, and meet a mental health professional. By talking to HR, I was given an opportunity to discuss my situation with an occupational health nurse. The culmination of these conversations enabled me to return to an inclusive workplace with a written diagnosis and newfound validation. I do not take any of these conversations for granted either: I am incredibly fortunate to be a part of an individualist culture that stands up for diversity and equality.
At the beginning of those 2 weeks I really didn’t think I’d be able to return to work at all. I lost my sense of purpose and any discussions of the future terrified me. But the time off and subsequent support that I received was invaluable. I journaled, I fessed up to family and loved ones, I prioritised self-care and removed all pressures. By the end of the 2 week period, I was ready to get back on the horse, with a view to speak up and acknowledge my mental illness as a legitimate impairment. Now that everyone was aware of my situation, I could finally drop my inner perfectionist and revisit my work-life balance with the support of the employer.
I’m conscious that people reading this may be out of work themselves or still enduring a debilitating mental illness. I should stress that I returned to work with the approval of the GP and the proviso that steps would be put in place to help me reintegrate myself, through occupational health services and an online CBT programme. I’m no GP, but I would strongly advise taking as much time as you need until you feel 100% ready to work and confident that help – as discussed with the GP and employer – will be available upon your return. A job is a job. It is what you do, not who you are.
I do feel like ‘one of the lucky ones’ because I reclaimed my routine so soon, but I am also cautious about saying I’m ‘better’. I’m not experiencing suicide ideation now, which is definitely a step in the right direction. I still experience fatigue, very low self-esteem, loss of interest in activities, comfort eating, negative thinking, and the occasional intrusive thought. But now I can also do my job, have a laugh, and enjoy close relationships with my family and loved ones.
The thing is, I have to accept that the effects of depression may never truly go away. I will never be ‘depression-free’. But ‘depression-free’ is not the same as ‘happy’. I do think I can be happy again. I have, after all, experienced frequent waves of happiness since starting my recovery journey. It’s just that, happiness isn’t my default setting – it takes a little more work for people like me.
I want to end this post by thanking my family, loved ones, online friends, employer, the NHS and authors of mental health resources for all the support I’ve received. Without that support… well I wouldn’t like to think about the alternative. Just know that it meant the world and I feel so lucky to be in this position. Much love to you all.