Sunday, 8 February 2009

Depression diaries #1: silly excuses

For a while, I've been thinking of writing about my experiences with depression. Recent intolerance in the blogosphere has spurred me on.

I actually don't have a burning desire to convey any profoundly important social messages about depression. I just find it therapeutic (sometimes, at least) to talk about it, and to hear the experiences of others. So I'm going to record my random thoughts, a few paragraphs at a time, until I've run out of them.

My first random thought is to do with combining work and depression. When I'm feeling good, I can talk very candidly about depression. When I'm not feeling so good, it seems insurmountably hard. Many times, I've had that mired feeling that I'm not coping - a leaden head, and an inability to think straight or remember what I'm doing or go through the social niceties that worklife entails.

And almost every time I've felt this way, I've been afraid to say anything to my boss or workmates. I feel terribly self-conscious and make up dumb excuses: I'm tired because I was up half the night with my son, I think I'm getting the flu, I've got a headache. I've just about run out of pretend ailments - I may be forced to try scurvy.

The heart of the matter is that I'm terrified of not seeming competent - of derailing my career before I've really established one. In the cold light of day, this is clearly dumb. But in the middle of a busy workplace, I'm afraid to admit what's wrong with me, and I'll often just put on a happy face. I appear to be coping, so I'm given more work - and thus I make a rod for my own misguided back.

The absurdity of it is that there are others - many others - in my workplace who also have depression, or whose partners have it. One is quite senior. She works like a madwoman, ploughing her way through massive work burdens, almost defying the rest of us to question whether she's coping. Ultimately, she doesn't cope. She damages her mental and physical health - the two often go hand in hand - then has to take long periods of sick leave to recuperate. I think she's even more afraid of appearing incompetent than I am.

One day, I'd pluck up the courage to talk about what's actually wrong. In the meantime, I guess I'll have to learn to fake the symptoms of scurvy.


Cat said...

It's *really hard* to be a manager of someone with depression. And not because you in any way blame them. In fact it's really hard to be managing someone with any kind of chronic illness. Because if you have any compassion at all, fundamentally you want them to get better, feel well and be able to contribute to their fullest ability like they clearly want to be able to do.

And on the other hand, you have targets and other staff and KPIs and 'stakeholders' and Life Goes On. The balance is almost impossible to strike, even in a business which acknowledges and supports people with ongoing illness.

And that's not even allowing for having other managers around you who think that, if only the afflicted employee could just get out of bed, things wouldn't be so bad!

All that said, having been in the position of managing someone with depression (and having seen a depression-denier try to manage someone with depression), I would really encourage people to talk about it if they possibly can. And this might be something that has to come first from the manager and building up a trusting relationship.

Life Ain't Easy!

Anna said...

Depends on the person. Most people I've worked with didn't know I had depression until I told them (and given the prevalence of depression, you've likely managed other people like me without realising it).

If the point comes where a person can't function in the workplace, then obviously it's not appropriate to be there - but dealing with people who have disabilities is one of the responsibilities that being a manager entails.

stargazer said...

anna, i can totally identify with your experience. i know what it's like to drag myself to work while i'm feeling totally exhausted, spend the day finding it difficult to concentrate on anything, know in your heart that you haven't contributed as you should have but feel helpless to do anything about it. and all of that makes you feel even worse about yourself...

but of course there's nothing to show what you're going through except maybe some bags under your eyes. because you get so used to the pretence of being happy & cheerful, without that pretence you'd be a total social outcast (cos who wants to be around sad people all the time?) so you hide it all just to maintain some sense of dignity and connectedness.

if only there was some kind of bruise or physical symptom that you could show as evidence of how really sick you're feeling inside... i remember someone with a mental illness saying "if i had broken my leg, everyone would have sympathised with me & i would have received a lot of support. but because i have [xyz] condition, people want to not talk about it and pretend it doesn't exist because it makes them uncomfortable."


anna c said...

Thanks for this, Anna. Something I've noticed in my and other's experiences is that depression and similar illnesses (I don't tend to think of what I have as depression, and it's at a very manageable level these days, but depression's as good a shorthand as any) can sometimes need handling in a way that is not more difficult than physical illnesses, but places aren't set up for.

It may be by far the best thing for you to call in sick but take a half hour walk and meet a friend for lunch mid day, but many bosses are going to think that if you're well enough to do that you're well enough for work.

Sometimes you can see bad periods coming, either because you know how your mood patterns run or because they are related to, say, an anniversary date or something. This should be a way of getting control but it creates a whole new dilemma when related to work. You can either:

a) be honest with the manager and say you will/may need some time off then, which could provoke a negative response and even in the best of cases necessitates a level of detail that you may feel thoroughly uncomfortable discussing
b) ask for annual leave, which may be turned down (in which case calling in sick will make you look suspicious) and may also make you feel angry/resentful etc for not being able to use sick leave
c) call in sick on the day, having made arrangements, meeting etc and therefore unnecessarily inconvenience others

And then there's explaining why you only feel up to some duties and not others. I had a particularly bad day and then had a shift on reception in the afternoon. I just managed to do it, but communicating with people was really, really hard and if it had been a bit worse I wouldn't have been able to. I'd have been fine shutting myself in my office and doing some filing or something, but I knew if I'd tried to explain that I'd have got an outpouring of well intentioned sympathy and been persuaded to go home, even though I'd have preferred to get on with things. It would have been easier to plead a headache and leave, rather than do my best to keep going.

There aren't any easy answers. I know I'm very lucky though, in the fact that I have a lot of sick leave (I use virtually nothing, but it's good to know it's there) and I don't have a bullying boss who aggravates it. But having society and workplaces better equipped would make a world of difference to a lot of people.

Deborah said...


And honour to the women who have been so up front here about suffering from, and dealing with this invisible illness. I've had some bouts with the black dog - nothing prolonged or severe - and it can be so debilitating, even in cases of minor depression, as mine was.

hungrymama said...

I have no idea how I'd have handled my depression had I been working at the time. My black dog followed on from an illness that had already caused me to suspend my studies for a while. I think the lack of additional stress probably helped my recovery about as much as the lack of social interaction hindered it. My depression was a long way behind me before I could talk about it with any frankness with anyone but the closest intimates and probably have a bunch of ex-friends who still wonder why I just dropped off the face of the earth.

Maia said...

This is an awesome post Anna, I'd be really interested to read more of your thoughts. The point that it's easy enough to talk about depression when you're feeling good and next to impossible when you're feeling bad is something I really struggle with (one of my triggers when I'm borderline is a certain type of music. It's so hard to communicate to people "I really need that music to stop now unless I'll have a break down" without either having a break down or just sounding controlling).

The only thing I'd say is I think maybe you should be easier on yourself. I'm not sure in the cold light of day not talking to management about depression is dumb. When I was working for a union I dealt occasionally with issues that arose from management's reaction to a worker's depression. And from those experiences I'd stay silent unless I absolutely needed not to, or until I knew for certain that the reaction was going to be OK.

I think one of the things that this shows, is how stupid our economic system is (to be fair I think most things show that).

But the assumption behind work in our society is that people have teh same amount of energy and ability every day. And it's nonsense for lots of different reasons. But it's particularly nonsense for people with depression.

Because there's no intrinsic reason why people who are depressed can't increase and decrease the productive work that they do to reflect the state of their health (I actually sort of did this at one job I did. It was a combination of working more hours than I was paid for anyway, and not really having a manager). Except capitalism.

Julie said...

Thank you for this Anna, and for the promise of more. I have some thoughts about this whole idea of "coping" that I'm going to come back and comment about when things aren't so crazy (boom boom) here at the screenface!

wickedferretknits said...

As a person with bipolar, I can really relate to this post. It would be much better if I could tell my employers about it, but I'm scared I'll be seen as a liability. I work in a low paid retail job, and in this economic climate, that's the last thing I want. I'm a student, and it's how I pay my rent and food.

So, like you, I just try to deal. I'm lucky enough that my bipolar isn't the really scary type, but it's serious enough that it affects my every day life. I feel for the people who can't actually work because of their mental health. I have a mate who's like that, and it was a big source of shame for him, because he wanted o badly to work, but just couldn't.

anita said...

I'm really interested in Cat's comment about how hard it is to manage someone with depression. I've managed people with a range of mental illnesses and while it's not easy I've not found it harder than managing other staff.

Perhaps the fact that I have both a history of mental illness and a history of advocacy for people with mental illnesses helps. Plus I was actively advocating for increased employment, visibility and promotion of the mentally ill in one workplace, and was brought in to discuss the issues with other managers so I'm probably not typical :)

For me one of the joys of managing people with mental illnesses is that they are have, in most cases, been able to be clear open and honest about their symptoms and what support and accommodation they've needed and/or willing to work it out together. The people with other conditions I've found most challenging as a manager have been ones where they have built a public web of deception (e.g. people with substance abuse issues) or where their condition has led to an experience of passive helplessness (e.g. people who suffer from chronic pain).

There's a complex balance between getting enough information to be an effective manager, and being intrusive. I used to use the wrist-in-a-cast analogy, as a manager it's reasonable to want to know how long the cast will be on, what kind of restrictions it will cause, whether there'll be some time off for scans and whether there's any help the person needs or would like. It's not reasonable to expect to know exactly what's going on under the cast or how it happened. Many employees will tell you, but that's their choice, and if they don't it's not that they're dishonest, unhelpful or holding back, it's that they're managing their boundaries and good on them.

Principessa said...

I too have Bipolar- diagnosed 7 years ago. Some of the experiences I had at the beginning of the illness are enough to fill a book. If there is one thing I have learnt that I would like to convey today on this blog it's: WE AS WOMEN HAVE GOT TO STOP BEATING OURSELVES UP. Once I got my head around this... well, life's pretty damn good right now.

Cat said...

@Anita oh I'm sure that while I found managing someone with depression difficult, it's not the worst thing ever encountered in the history of management! In the particular case I had it was not an 'open' thing, so only people in management and anyone the person chose to disclose it to 'knew'. Which led to distrust and bad relationships. If you're in an operational role with no real backup, and you're away quite often on an ongoing basis the stress starts to show in other people. I was able to institute better backup which helped, but I still wouldn't say it was a good situation..

And actually, I had someone else who basically had a mental breakdown - quite sudden and without warning. In this case the person was much more open to discussion, although it had to be outside the workplace as they couldn't physically come to the office. That was quite heartbreaking, but I think it got sorted out in the end - they didn't come back to work, but they were able to work through it and find something else :)