A Day In The Life With Depression

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.

Depression Drawing
One of my sketches

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.

The Little Voice

I decided to do some volunteer work. I haven’t worked in quite a while and I wanted to introduce some structure into my life. I also felt like I needed a shot of self-confidence and I thought this would be a good way to start getting my mojo back. I signed up to volunteer at a local theatre festival. It’s a festival I know well – I’ve been involved with it in the past and I’ve always enjoyed my experience.

Making the decision felt good, great even, but as my first shift approached I was terrified. I wanted to cancel my shifts and hide at home. Why? Why was my heart beating at an alarming rate? Why was my brain screaming at me? “Don’t go! Stay here! Volunteering is stupid. You’re stupid. It’s too much, it’s not enough. It’s boring, beneath you. You’ll screw it up. Don’t try. Don’t stretch. Don’t do something new. Don’t improve yourself. Stay here. It’s safe here. No one can hurt you if you don’t take a chance.” The thoughts jump quickly. It’s hard to keep up. They contradict each other. They try anything and everything to stop me and it’s because they’re scared. I’m scared. Scared of trying, of failing, of succeeding. Scared of everyone finding out what an awful person I am. The thoughts bring out all their old tricks: bullying, negative self-talk, worst case scenario thinking – whatever they can do to convince me to stay home, stay hidden, stay safe.

It’s all based in fear, I know. I also know it’s not real. Oh, the feeling of fear is real enough, but the thoughts behind the fear are false. I’m starting to understand I don’t have to hang on to the negative thoughts as I’ve done in the past. I can let them pass me by and then introduce some different thoughts. Positive thoughts that tell me how strong I am. Thoughts that tell me it’s okay to try, to be hopeful, to be part of the world, that there’s a place for me. Thoughts that sound tentative and shy right now, but become more self-assured every day. The negative thoughts are still there and they can be so loud and insistent, but I don’t want to confront them with cruelty or banishment. They have been with me for a long time and have done the best they could. They deserve love and compassion. My plan is to introduce the new, positive thoughts slowly. Casually. Like when you want to set up two friends and you invite them both to a party hoping they’ll hit it off. No pressure. It’s just a quiet get together and the old thoughts are acting all cool and cynical and the new thoughts are wide-eyed and hopeful, but I’m going to introduce them and hope they’ll give each other a chance.

So, what happened with the volunteer experiment? I signed up for four shifts. I cancelled the final two. I could look at it as a failure…and I did just that for a couple of days. The negative thoughts sidled up to me and spoke in my ear: “See? We warned you. We told you that you’d fail. Worthless. You should have listened to us.” It was enough to send me into a tail spin. The negative thoughts surrounded me and just when I was ready to embrace them, something kind of amazing happened. Another thought made itself known. It sounded nervous and unsure of itself and quietly said one word: “But…” Wait. What? The negative thoughts had never been followed by a “but” before. The negative thoughts have always been absolute. However, there it was…that little word, spoken by a little voice. And then I did something I’d never done before: I listened. The negative thoughts immediately went into full panic mode, swirling around me, tossing out hurtful words: “STUPID! USELESS! FAILURE!” I closed my eyes and tuned in to the new voice. “But…you tried,” it said. “You tried and I think that’s very brave. I’m proud of you.” The negative thoughts grew quiet. They were confused. What was happening? The whole world seemed to freeze. I listened to the sound of my breathing. In and out. In and out. The little voice waited patiently. It was in no hurry. I kept breathing, in and out, and I let the truth that the little voice spoke wash over me. I smiled. And welcomed it in.

In Case of Emergency, Read This

There are times when you will feel lousy. You can do all the good self care things. You walk, take a bath, put on a nice outfit, treat yourself to an ice cream cone. Or you listen to metal. Or you work on a quilt. You take your meds and you go to therapy. You talk to friends. You call your mom. You bake muffins. You work on your car. Whatever it is that usually helps pull you out of that pit of despair, you do it. Only this time it doesn’t work. You feel lousy. It’s shitty when that happens. And it can be terrifying. Especially if you’ve had a significant period of feeling pretty good. You start to believe that the lousy times are in the past…and then it suddenly feels as though someone’s tripped you. It happens. It’s going to happen. I wish I could say it won’t, but I can’t. What I can do is offer something that might help when you’re in the middle of the lousy:

It won’t last forever
This feeling will not last forever. No matter how terrible you feel, no matter how dark things seem. It will pass. I promise.

You are not a bad person
You may feel bad, but it doesn’t mean you are bad. Please don’t blame yourself.

Ask for help
You are not alone. You have friends and family. A doctor. A therapist. A teacher. A manager. You can call a hotline. They have your back. You’re allowed to reach out and tell someone you’re struggling.

You are worthy of good things
You deserve to be happy and healthy. You deserve love and compassion. You are enough, just as you are.

Emotions are not the enemy
You’re allowed to feel the way you feel. You are entitled to your emotions. Invite them in and sit with them. Honour them. They are important.

You can’t expect to feel great all the time
Not to sound trite, but shit happens. Sometimes bad things happen. Sometimes you’ll be disappointed. Sometimes people suck. Sometimes you are going to feel lousy. Give yourself permission to not be okay.

Meditation can help
Turn off the television. Turn off the radio. Turn off the smart phone and the laptop. Spend a few minutes being still and quiet. Breathe. Listen.

There is no instant solution
Chances are you’ve lived with mental illness for quite a while. Now you’re focusing on feeling healthy. It will take some time. It will take some patience. You can do it. You’re stronger than you know.

Don’t worry about the destination
It’s tempting to believe that if you [lose weight/get a boyfriend/find a fabulous apartment], you will finally be happy. You’ll have arrived. It doesn’t work that way. Don’t worry about being “done.” Honestly, it really is about the journey and finding a way to be healthy and fulfilled here and now.

Practice being a little kinder and more compassionate…to you
We can sometimes be our own worst enemies. It’s okay to give yourself a break. It’s okay if all you could do today is breathe. Remember: perfection is a lie.

There is always hope
There is always hope. There is always hope. Stay with us. Keep breathing. There is always hope.

Read these words. Read them twice. Print them out and carry them with you. And when you’re in the middle of the lousy, read them and read them again. Add your own words. Keep reading. Read until you believe. Believe.

Hello, My Name is Lynn and I Struggle with Mental Illness

It was a grey Tuesday morning. Or was it a sunny Wednesday afternoon? Maybe it was a rainy Thursday evening. It doesn’t matter, really. The point is one average day, seemingly out of nowhere, I realized I wasn’t okay.

I’d been ignoring that feeling, that “not okay” feeling, for quite a while. I told myself I was just tired or that this was what being in my forties felt like. I was lazy and unmotivated. I should exercise more. I needed to get my shit together and get on with it. Stop my bitching and be an adult. That’s what I had always done when the “not okay” feeling surfaced. Push it down and clamp the lid on it. Keep moving. I’m fine. Everything’s fine…except everything wasn’t fine and one random weekday I allowed myself to truly see it. I wasn’t okay and I needed help.

I didn’t do anything with that information for a long time. I didn’t want it to be real. Not only was I scared of friends and colleagues finding out, but I also carried around a deep feeling of personal shame. I’ve always been hard on myself, much harder than anyone else could ever hope to be. I had very carefully cultivated a façade of confidence. A lot of time and energy went into its maintenance. I couldn’t let it fall. Vulnerability was weakness. Weak people couldn’t cope on their own. Weak people needed help. I did this life thing all by myself. I just needed to power through. This too shall pass. Time heals all wounds. Insert platitude here. I was lying to myself. And I kept lying to myself. However, it was becoming more and more difficult to keep up the façade, to keep up the lie. Deep down I knew I needed help. I desperately wanted help. I just didn’t know how to ask.

One day, while having a weekly status meeting with my manager, the façade slipped. I had missed a couple of deadlines, my attendance was becoming a real problem, and I was withdrawing from pretty much everyone at work. My manager had noticed. She didn’t voice it as a performance issue, rather she expressed concern. She told me she was worried about me. And that’s all it took. I burst into tears and then I shared the secret I had been keeping for so many years. I told her I wasn’t okay. I told her I needed help.

What came next were doctor visits and tests, a therapist, a different therapist, medication, different medication, emotional conversations with friends and family, denial and shame, a breakdown or two, medical leave from work, challenges and change. It’s been a long few years, but out of the pain and fear has come many positive things: a diagnosis (depression and anxiety, complex trauma), a doctor who has my back, medication that works for me, an amazing therapist, friends and family who support and love me, and most importantly, hope and optimism for the future.

So here I am, dealing with mental illness (as is the case for so many of us). Not only that, but after years of feeling unhappy and unfulfilled, I decided to leave my well-paying-great-benefits-solid-pension-golden-handcuffs government job to try something new.

That’s what this blog will focus on: finding my way through mental illness, finding my way to a new career…finding my way. I hope you’ll join me.