I don’t know if your job has ever broken you, but mine did recently. It happens. I found myself crying every day, reacting outrageously because my emotions were all over the place and generally just not coping. I know enough about my own mental health to realise the stress had kicked off a horrible depressive episode. My doctor prescribed two weeks away from work to recover, and so a fortnight of struggling to feel or justify everything I was going through proceeded. It was so tough.
What’s the point in being signed off?
If you’re signed off, it’s due to necessity. This time should be used to put yourself back together piece by piece. And you never really know how to do it. Some won’t want to leave the house. Some want to be surrounded by friends. Some need to reacquaint themselves with a hobby. Some dread being confined to four walls, preferring nature to heal in it’s own special way.
It’s a scary enough battle to face. You know what makes it worse? Onlookers and observers judging your every move.
Why the judgement?
There is a saying that a mental health condition requires medicine and recovery, just like any other illness. Sure, the symptoms aren’t always visible (though mine were – I must’ve been a fucking nightmare deskmate), but if you had a broken leg you’d get a cast. If you had diabetes you’d take insulin. If you have depression, you take at online pharmacy anti-depressants. And I think this saying is completely spot on…. IF we’re talking about the medical side. The part where you have to go on a quest to regain your confidence and personality is not fixed with medicine alone.
Unless staying indoors with Netflix really does make you feel happy and rosy, you’re gonna need to venture outdoors sometimes. I needed so badly to get away from the flat. To be inspired, remember why I love people and socialising and introduce myself again to the chirpy little show-off I made myself into when I was happy. But not everyone was on board with this idea – presumably because mental health issues are so hard to understand and explain. We still don’t talk publicly about depression enough to educate people. It feels like no one is on your side.
My five pillars
I get why it’s hard for everybody to understand why you aren’t laid up in a sick bed, so I’m going to try and explain.
Think about the different pillars that make your life good. I suspect everyone’s are slightly different, or are prioritised differently, but a search of my brain leads me to conclude that to be happy, I need:
- Good friends that I can trust, lean on and have fun with
- A loving and understanding family (this doesn’t necessarily mean relatives. Family is a concept that doesn’t have to be linked by blood)
- A focus in life that brings regular achievement and enjoyment, and the inspiration to do it
- An income, however big or small
- Independence and freedom of choice.
There is ultimately no one way to look at a person and surmise that they’re experiencing an all-consuming feeling of doom and parallel terror that that will never go away. You just can’t. But it stands to reason that to at least start feeling yourself again, you should do whatever it takes to nurture your life pillars. Focus on them. Remember happiness. Feel comforted. Yet when my diagnosis was officially written down and sent to my place of work by my doctor, and I felt justified in talking openly about the steps I’d take to get better, I received a surprising amount of questioning. Criticism even. And do you know what you don’t need when you’re dealing with a scary, little-understood illness that you’re doing what you can to shift? Questions about your recovery plans. That leads to the fear of being branded a skiver or, worse, a liar. So those essential next steps become really hard to feel good about doing. I can’t help but wonder what fucking right society has to judge how I support my own recovery from my own mental health problem.
We have a long way to go
I’m not writing this to whinge at how unfair life is. I’m writing because I’ve had highlighted to me how far we have to go to really understand depression. I mean, yes, there’s lots of messaging out there about how “I look fine on the outside but on the inside, I’m not coping”, but I don’t think that’s enough any more. It’s actually quite limiting.
My fear is that this unfounded judgement is hampering the recovery of frightened sufferers. If I’m too worried to do something fun with my best friend, I can’t re-initiate myself back into social situations at my own pace. If I can’t keep publishing blogs because it puts me “out there” when people think I should be comatose on the sofa, I can’t rekindle my love for writing. If I can’t check in with the colleagues I’m close to at work (in my case, ones who have literally gotten me through days that felt impossible sometimes), how can I start feeling like I’m appreciating those who have loved and supported me? And if I can’t document a gorgeous, life affirming walk I took between 9-5 whilst being signed off with depression, how can I get those crucial endorphins flowing through my veins, and remind myself of it in case there’s a next time?
Society – please start supporting us. Your assumption that we are and should be completely incapacitated when signed off work with depression is damaging. I am convinced that this widespread opinion is part of what costs the UK workplace 105 million sick days per year. I wish there was more guidance, and a wider understanding that you need to reintroduce the outside world at your own pace. Staying holed up at home isn’t the best recovery, and society is most certainly not the qualified specialist to prescribe it. Can we have a go at changing it, please?
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