“Do you want a sick line?” the doctor asked me, and as she did so I breathed a sigh of relief.
I had been considering speaking to a doctor for weeks at this point; repeatedly lifting the phone to my ear, dialling the number and then slamming it down in protest, adamant that I’d be laughed out of the doctor’s office and told to stop being so dramatic. I can’t remember exactly what tipped me over the edge and forced me to make the appointment, as a lot of it went by in a blur. I vaguely remember hiding in toilets at work, losing my temper with a team member over something incredibly insignificant and crying uncontrollably on the bus home every night. Not exactly the behaviour you’d expect from a manager who is overseeing 4 supervisors, 20 team members and running several retail outlets and 2 departments simultaneously.
I knew I was stressed. My workload had increased dramatically over the 6 months leading up to this and I was feeling troubled following the death of a grandparent. I knew I wasn’t coping very well. I remember looking at my ‘to-do’ list and thinking that it was too overwhelming. My brain couldn’t process the list into actions, and it was like I was trying to read hieroglyphics. There seemed like no good place to start. I didn’t want to start. I needed a break, but asking for it felt like a sign of weakness. I’d always got promoted on the basis of saying ‘Yes!’ to more work and more responsibility. For a proud career woman like me, saying I couldn’t handle it felt shameful.
When the doctor heard my symptoms she very kindly suggested I take a few weeks off to recuperate and prescribed be some beta blockers as she thought I was having some anxiety issues. Being given that ‘permission’ by an authority figure was just what I had been looking for. I felt reassured.
There was certainly no talk of depression.
I left that day happy in the knowledge that I just needed some time to relax, gather my thoughts and was certain I’d get back to my career in no time at all with the support of my boss to help ease the workload. Just a short break.
After a week, having given my mind and body the rest it had been silently screaming for I was suddenly overcome with the feeling of hopelessness. Darkness. The kind that feels like a dense, damp storm cloud enveloping your whole body to the point of suffocation. From the doctor’s waiting room I stared out at the beautiful summer sky and all I could see was my desolate, pointless existence. Nothing mattered any more. The beta blockers were quickly swapped out for something new and a fresh sick line was scribbled on to reveal the worst. Patient is suffering from depression.
After 3 months off work I had exhausted the generous amount of sick pay allocated to me and I had to make a decision. I had tried going back to work a day here and there; the HR department were very accommodating and let me try a ‘phased return’ but doing my job seemed incomprehensible. How was I supposed to lead a team? How could I adhere to health and safety standards, deliver award-winning customer service, and control a department budget when I could barely find the energy to take a shower everyday? How could I sit in meetings and listen to company objectives when in my head I was contemplating the very worst, every moment of every day? How could I performance manage staff when I couldn’t see the point in doing my own job? I felt backed into a corner – not by my employer – but by my illness. My job required a certain level of attention that I physically was not capable of offering.
So, I quit.
I had spent 5 years in the industry; on my feet for 50+ hours a week, doing all the shitty jobs, late nights, early mornings, working for pennies, and finally I had landed the highest earning job of my career. I was in a desk job with sociable hours, stability and lifelong prospects. Then I lost it all.
Through no fault of my own, all of a sudden had no ability to do the job I had worked so hard to secure. Even now – 4 years later – I feel totally incapable when it comes to the tasks I used to complete with ease. There is an entire skill set on my CV that I may as well just delete. I have the experience, but I believe I’ve lost the capacity.
I’m not trying to encourage people to quit their jobs as soon as they’re diagnosed with depression. Not everyone will be affected the same way that I was. A lot of people find their job is the one constant in their lives during a depressive period, and it gives them comfort to focus on something other than their own mind. I just want to be completely honest about my experience and what I personally had to do to get better. Of course I feel angry that I had to lose my career to save my mental health. I feel like I had this enormous setback in life where all my hard work had been for nothing. This stupid illness came along and it took over my life. The honest truth is that it still does. I’m almost certain it’ll control me for the rest of my life. Is this the way it should be? Should we feel forced to be unemployed, feel unable to contribute to society because of our brain chemicals? Absolutely not, but it’s the situation many of us find ourselves in.
Today, I have no confidence in my ability as a manager. I’ve worked in middle management roles during my recovery (which is ongoing, by the way) and although I can do it, I seem to have a finite amount of energy for jobs involving leadership. It eventually takes its toll on me and I either have to quit, reduce my hours or hand over some responsibility to others. So unfortunately at the moment, I only feel capable of doing a job which as no responsibility and pays minimum wage. Some people would find this humiliating, and I did too at first. The alternative is to earn more money and compromise my future and I’m just not willing to go down that road again. Its simply not an option.
There’s a certain freedom that comes with working in a less pressured work environment. My job no longer defines who I am, but that’s a good thing. I’ve learned that it’s OK not to have the career I thought I once deserved. What I actually deserve is a healthy, happy, fulfilled existence. My career did give me that for a while, but I couldn’t continue. Now I’m on the road to discover what else I can do, what else I can create, experience and give to others in order to get some sort of satisfaction whilst maintaining a balanced head. Having a less stressful job has given me the thirst to explore the creative talents that I always thought I would pursue after university, but never did.
Creating content for my blog is one thing that I really look forward to doing. This thing came to exist because of me. Does it pay the bills? No. But I’ve learned stimulating my brain is incredibly important to my own well being; so if waitressing everyday allows me the opportunity to share my thoughts on here the rest of the time, then I think their are worse things I could be doing, don’t you?