I remember when I applied for long term disability, one of the questions on the form asked me to briefly describe how my injury or illness prevented me from working. I’d taken a sick leave from work and my short term sick leave ran out. I was living on credit and money borrowed from friends; my dwindling bank account was becoming a problem. I had already tried to return to work once, an attempt that was crushingly unsuccessful. Still, I resisted applying for long term. It seemed so final, defeatist. It meant I really was sick. I didn’t want to be sick. I wanted this to be a temporary blip on the radar. Long term disability meant this wasn’t a blip. There was no “business as usual.” It meant that my life had changed, that everything had changed, and that was a tough concept to come to terms with. Eventually, my therapist and my friends helped me understand that long term disability was simply there to provide support while I focused on getting well. I began to realize how fortunate I was to even have the option of long term disability. In the end, practical economics won out.
Briefly describe how your injury or illness prevents you from working.
That’s the question, isn’t it? It would be so simple if I could say I had broken bones or blurred vision. Whiplash. A back injury. Some kind of physical thing that could be seen on an x-ray or a blood test. Something that could be measured or quantified. But none of that applied to me because I have something no one can see. It doesn’t show up in photos or when I look in the mirror, but it can make getting out of bed in the morning a battle. It means I bargain with myself to brush my teeth, to get into the shower, to get dressed. I drag myself through the morning as if I’m carrying a boulder on my back. I feel like I’m wading through oatmeal and my brain is foggy and dull.
When I’m able to leave my apartment, I’m filled with dread and fear. There’s no specific reason I can pinpoint, I just feel scared and vulnerable. The noise is too invasive, the light too bright. The streets are too crowded and the office seems so far away. I want to cry and scream and hide, but I keep going. Because that’s what you do. You keep going so that you look like a functioning member of society. It’s just a matter of willpower and motivation. Pull up your socks. Shake it off. Think positive.
By the time I get to work, I’m sweaty and shaky and exhausted and it’s only 9AM. I see the voicemail light flashing on my office phone and I look at my inbox overflowing with paper and I see all the files on my desk filled with more paper and I logon to my computer and see all the email messages and someone comes into my office with a question and I think of all I have to do and I don’t think I can manage it. But I have to because that’s what you do – you manage it. So, I smile too widely and act overly bright. I laugh a little too loudly and say things like, “let me look into that for you” and “no problem,” but it is a problem. It’s a huge problem because I’m wading through oatmeal while carrying that boulder on my back. I’m fuzzy-headed and confused. I can’t seem to take a deep breath and my chest feels stormy. Coworkers ask my opinion on something and I’m terrified that I’ll give the wrong answer and then they’ll find me out. They’ll know I’m not managing because, let’s face it, I’m not. I look at a relatively simple task on my To Do List and it seems impossible. How do I start this impossible thing? What if I make a mistake? What if I disappoint everyone? I’m paralyzed by fear and I have an impending feeling of doom, like something truly awful is going to happen at any moment and then the phone rings and I let it go to voicemail and I shuffle paper around on my desk and I stare at the emails I need to answer and I have to do something. Do something! ANYTHING! Just one thing. I feel worthless and I want to put my head down on my desk and cry. And my manager comes in because a deadline has passed and I feel defensive and I make an excuse. Then, in a heart-pounding rush I do the thing that should have done a week ago, but I end up having to do it all over again because I can’t focus and I’ve made a mistake. I know it’s only a matter of time before everyone realizes how useless I am. I hide in my office because I can’t face anyone and I stare at my computer screen desperately hoping that something will start to make sense. I’m tired…tired of being sad and exhausted and filled with panic. I’m tired of this feeling of dread and powerlessness. I’m tired of pretending everything is fine when it is very clearly not.
I get through the day. Sometimes I complete a task or two, but more often I don’t. I feel guilty and ashamed as I walk home, wading through oatmeal while carrying the boulder on my back. When I get home, I eat food I don’t taste and watch television I don’t comprehend and count the minutes until I can go to sleep. The next morning, I wake up feeling as if I haven’t slept at all even though I’ve slept for ten hours and I have to get up and do it all again, but I don’t think I can. I’m sitting on the edge of my bed and I need to get up, but I can’t get up and I’m crying because I don’t know what I’m going to do. What am I going to do?
That’s a day in the life of someone with depression. I’m happy to report that I haven’t had one of those days in a long time. Oh, I still have bad days. The low-mood-dread-filled-empty-feeling-foggy days, but it doesn’t feel quite as deep and dark and dire as it once did. I got help. I’m getting help. I’m learning to stop blaming myself for something that is absolutely not my fault. I’m learning that the low mood doesn’t last forever. I’m learning to take care of myself and reach out for help. I’m learning that the people who love me…LOVE ME. I’m learning to exchange shame and guilt and self-loathing with kindness, compassion and love. I’m learning.