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Friday, 10 October 2014

2014: Depression - an illness. Everybody else is doing it, so why can't we?

This is a post about mental health. I hurt myself badly this year through depression. And then I broke myself physically. Another post about that to follow. And it all started with a stubbed toe.

This year we did some major renovations to our flat. When I say 'we' I mean 'I' of course. My husband's idea of a renovation is changing a broken light bulb. or taking down the Christmas tree (in April). (I can confirm that April is, in fact, well after twelfth night, and thus you superstitious types might want to clutch your lucky(? for whom?) rabbit's foot as you continue to read.)

Flat à la Manhattan, and piano (just seen)

I decided to bring a touch of Manhattan to our London home, so with the help of our DIY Tzar Tris, I drilled and took off the plaster from our hall wall, exposing beautiful multi-coloured bricks beneath. I repainted the hall, living room and toilet walls, and framed and hung many pictures, photographs and mirrors to offset the stark white setting I had created. I varnished and stained tables and chairs, bought cushion covers and rearranged furniture. And then, transformation almost complete, one happy Sunday near the end of June, for no reason at all, I moved our piano - as if purposefully - into my left little toe.

Firstly, of course: "OWWWWWWW!"

Definitely NOT walking into the centre

But secondly, necessarily, Google for NHS advice and thirdly a trip to our oh-so-appropriately named 'walk-in' centre for a toe check up - was it broken? Was there anything that could be done, other than grimace and hobble? Apparently not much. Strapped up - my little toe to its bigger next door brother, that was it. However, dear reader, little toes are still very large in the area of pain, and a right royal pain it was - not only literally, but through the subsequent sartorial limitations. I'm talking about SHOES. The mothership of fashion in my view. SHOES. I-COULD-NO-LONGER-WEAR-ANYTHING-BUT- UGGS. Like, total disaster, babe. Tyra dissed them in season 3 of ANTM. Ugh [sic], What to do, yeah?

Uggs? Nooooo!

Luckily I found a pair of plimsolls - coincidentally these were Uggs too  - but shoes not boots - that I could wince - less - around in and off I went. 6 week recovery. Not really an illness at all. Simples.

Unfortunately life didn't quite work like that.

In my previous post I talked about loneliness and moving back from New York. Such was my loneliness and feeling of isolation and lack of support that I began to suffer a severe episode of depression, which started early 2013 and continued well into February this year. During the worst of this time I spent all the time I could in bed, or watching television catatonically.When I wasn't crying from loneliness or just plain sadness, that is. I worked though the struggle to do so was immense, every day a new battle to just survive it. I found social situations exhausting and stressful, and sleeping became fitful at best. Fortunately I found help - a (UK) doctor who prescribed medication and cognitive behavioural therapy to treat the symptoms, while I managed the move back home to the UK. And gradually I felt better and able to go out into the world again: I mostly slept through the night, I saw friends, I exercised.

The road to recovery

At the time of the toe incident, and while still being treated with medication for depression, I was working for a client and having an increasingly hard time. My job means going into tricky situations, this no exception, but the difference here was that two of the people at the place I was working - third party people (i.e. not from my company or the company I was consulting for) - had taken such violent affront to me that life at work became very tough.

Let me just talk about my job for a second. It is to advise. It is to think through solutions and share them, and ask for input. It is to join a team and work with them towards a better company - better outcomes, people, changes. It is to get things done. That is my job. And finally, let's consider that I am not a 21 year old wet-behind-the-ears graduate with the sounds of a sticky-floored nightclub ringing in my ears. I am nearing veteran status as a consultant, I work bloody hard and I know what I'm talking about - or when I don't I say so, or keep schtum.

Making stuff happen. That's what I do.

These two women decided a week and (in one case) a day after meeting me that they did not like me or want me around. Fine. We all meet people we wouldn't socialise with outside of work, but with whom we need to get on with. And, for goodness sake, I cost a lot of money - so it would be foolish not to use me.

Still, perhaps they were fools. Within a single day I was demoted in my role to fill the most junior status imaginable; I was also seated in a building 10 miles from where they worked. Only two others from our twenty-plus sized team worked in this building, and were often elsewhere, leaving me alone, in the Midlands, even though it cost £500+ a week to get me there on the train, let alone hotel costs. I was physically and deliberately isolated from them. If I worked at home I was criticised for not being ' visible': interesting how you can be more physically visible working 10 miles away than 100 - I haven't been able to understand how that works.

Eventually they seemed to understand that I could in fact do more for my money, and I worked on a single piece of deep research. Alone. No guidance - I wasn't granted the pleasure of answers to my phone calls or emails. Fine - not the way I wanted it but I did it. But again, I was isolated. I was disinvited from meetings; I was criticised in the office, or only spoken to to disinvite me from yet another meeting or to comment on my appearance: "I couldn't get one leg in that."

Not the most fun project ever

I'm afraid that now I will stoop to that level of personal comments - which I feel are unprofessional - to help you imagine these two vicious persons I am grateful no longer to be acquainted with. For this I turn to Roald Dahl, who perfectly describes one of this pair (who were both female - I imagine still are) in James and the Giant Peach: "(Aunt Sponge) was enormously fat and very short. She had small piggy eyes, a sunken mouth, and one of those white flabby faces that looked exactly as though it had been boiled." Copy this but make the other woman tanned with massive false eyelashes - not, unfortunately, massive enough to complement her chubby cheeks and grotesque exterior, and you have the pair. If doughnut scoffing were an olympic sport, I'd fancy these for the GBR gold and silver.

Sponge and Sponge 2 (No Spiker.)

Shunned by silence on the few occasions I was in the office by these two 'colleagues'; whispered about; isolated and spoken to only rarely, I of course shared this with my superiors, but the fact was this: I was being bullied. When I asked for help I was advised it was 'inappropriate to show stress'; another person said it was 'as much my fault for not bringing it up sooner.' And another has admitted to me since that I could have equally been criticised for requesting to stay and fight it out or admitting defeat and requesting to leave. I felt trapped.

Bullying. Evil. Always has been. Always will be.

As a child, I was bullied at 5, at 10 and at 14, very badly. I thought I was over it. Clearly not. My depression - which had been under good control, no longer needing CBT, seeped back little by little. I found it hard to go to work, knowing an empty office would await me, and little likelihood of much work-related interaction. Knowing I would have to try to speak to those two women who refused to interact with me.

Unfortunately this could only be maintained so long

It got worse and worse. Isolation grows like weeds around an empty gravel patch and suffocates the other life that could potentially live there. I left to walk for lunch and would bite my lip to try to stop the tears coming - every day, and clock watch the minutes to take me home and to bed. I suddenly found it hard to socialise again. Running became a trial, as if someone were constantly pushing at my head. Going out was exhausting. I was becoming catatonic again.

Finally I could barely hold myself together through the day - though I had taken not a single day off - it was becoming harder and harder to start the day at all. I didn't want to go to work. I didn't want to live.

I refer again to the description of myself at work. I am someone whose job it is to get things done, and that is what I did. I made an emergency appointment with my psychiatrist - yes, my doctor is a psychiatrist. I asked my GP to refer me to him (as I had been privately paying for him before) to apply for medical insurance and finally, I asked and agreed with my psychiatrist to admit me to hospital. I could not go on any longer.

Here comes the rub. Mental health as an illness. I was absolutely terrified of anyone at work knowing the truth; I feared stigmatisation after the feedback to not demonstrate stress at work. And I feared it because before I had been shunned after (once - ONCE) crying at work. The next day I was rolled off a difficult project at the end of my term, rather than extended. I wasn't consulted. And I felt sub-human because of it.

I got better, though. Two weeks in hospital and a lot of day patient care and I felt ready to try life out again. The doctors and staff who treated me were amazing. Thank you to my friends whom I emailed to tell of this at the time. You have been incredibly supportive and amazing. You visited me in hospital and brought me wisdom and love - and even though I can't love myself in this state I re-read your emails and keep trying to accept myself just a little bit more.

Today is World Mental Health day and I am coming out. I am someone who has depression. I take medication and get help for it. And I can work and operate as a normal person with that help - and hopefully, soon, as in the past, without it. Please don't patronise me by treating me differently because of this. Please don't make decisions for me. If I had broken my leg, you wouldn't start treating me differently at work. You would sympathise but you wouldn't stigmatise. So please don't. I have an illness and it is being treated. If I need help I'll get it. I don't want it to define me and I don't want to be 'the one with depression'. I'm as funny, intelligent, driven, annoying, ridiculous etc. as I always was - as I was 1 minute ago before you knew. Please think about that.

But workers, everywhere, and mostly, leaders, and future leaders. Please recognise mental health for what it is. Something that is challenging, difficult and takes time to heal, but does not and should not preclude suffers from being just like you. Look around. Maybe there is a leader among you who is excelling in spite of it. And don't send flowers for just physical illnesses. Mental illnesses are just as serious and real.

Depression is the curse of the strong, so it's more than likely that in our country where 1 in 4 people have a mental health problem, you know many people who might be suffering - perhaps in silence. Let's end the stigma together. I am standing up. Please stand with me - and my friends.We are all standing close to you now.


  1. Thank you for this very brave post. I'm so sorry you've had to go through this experience but am grateful to you for spelling it out how it is.

    1. Thank you Christine for your kind words. It is hard - I think very hard, at least for me, to write about 'how it is' without it being boring because when one is depressed and especially when catatonia of a kind sets in this is a seemingly endless state. I just hope others - especially at work - can come to see depression as mental illness as an illness like other physical ones. Thanks again.

  2. Thanks for sharing Jessica! You are truly a dedicated rockstar at work - I know this from personal experience. I think the consulting industry can be particularly unforgiving and I have unfortunately seen and heard bullying and harassment go unaddressed on a number of occasions. Kudos to you for bringing awareness to this. I hope you find yourself in a more "humane" work environment in your projects and adventures to come! We are all humans and we all deal with illness at some point - physical, mental, whatever form! Hugs from Canada!

  3. Thank you Ashton for reading and for your comments. I'm sorry but unsurprised you've also witnessed or learned of bullying and poor treatment going unaddressed, particularly in an industry which is commonly referred to as 'professional services'. We are indeed all humans, and making it okay to be human and to experience difficulties - whatever they are - is something that I am passionate about addressing after my own experience. Thanks again for reading and I hope you enjoy the other posts. x

  4. Awesome post. You are very brave to overcome your depression and bring this awareness .Sorry that you have to go through all this.Hopefully your blog will help others going through similar phase of life.

  5. Thank you Fazila! It is hard to write about and even harder to live with but this topic is talked about so little in the work place - particularly in corporate environments - that I truly believe that the change has to start with me and others suffering to bring light to this and alter the way mental illness is perceived and dealt with. Thanks again and please do keep reading. x

  6. Ok so you're actually really rather awesome. An over-used word I will admit, but I feel that it's justified on the occasion.

    This is an amazing blog post and it needs to be read by every single employer so that they can look out for and not be afraid to tackle, mental health issues. Even if they get it wrong (because very few have training for that) at least being able to listen and acknowledge and know that there is a problem, so that their workers feel that at least someone is trying to understand. And it makes good business sense too (as well as being the down right decent human thing to do).

    But now I have a problem. I love your writing style. Even your apparent inability to negotiate a couple of stairs, had me glued.

    So I guess I'll have to write off the next couple of days and catch up with the three years or so of your blog that I've missed. Gee thanks, that's two days I won't get back again.

    And finally, help me out here. I'm a guy, so I may have this wrong, but, don't most women crave to have their knickers ripped off them at some point?

    1. Thank you for reading and your lovely comment! I read this while in intense pain but the happy endorphins of your kind words dampened that - hooray!

      I agree with you: It does make sense for employers to look after their employees mental health for business sense - especially as businesses and markets continue to fluctuate - this has a significant effect on the mental well being of employees. It can't be a coincidence that The Priory (in whose Roehampton branch I stayed to receive treatment as an inpatient) is opening a branch in the city of London to enable it to offer more localised services to the many city workers experiencing stress.

      I hope that you enjoy the rest of the blog, with its variegated outlook on life, loves, and locations, and look forward to your comments in the future.

      And finally, knickers being ripped off? I think I'll refrain from addressing this comment, except to say: picture the scene: five female nurses of different ages standing around my hospital bed. Different shapes, sizes and wearing those nurses uniforms that we KNOW are not sexy in any way (Carry On Matron made all of that up) talking over me as I lay prone and desperate to urinate. I can honestly say I will never crave this scene to reappear in my life at any point. Ha. Thanks again.