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work, work, work: life before sign-off…

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This is the second part of my post about work. The previous post can be found here.

I’ve been thinking about work and my performance in the weeks before I was signed off and trying to work out where I got the point that I was not fit to work. It’s strange because one of the things I struggle with most is working out how much things were a result of my depression/mental illness and how much of it was a cause. I can’t work out where the lines blur. It’s hard to distinguish illness from personality and circumstance. How much of it is depression, how much of it is part of my nature and how much of it was caused by the pressure of the job in general? It’s all one big melting pot and I’m not sure what to blame.

I realise now that I was becoming increasingly stressed and wasn’t able to cope. Sooner, rather than later, I was going to reach burn out, but I still don’t know if that is a symptom or a cause. To some extent I would throw myself into my work to distract myself from how I was feeling and to allow myself to pretend everything was okay. If I was still doing well at work, I could keep telling myself that I wasn’t depressed and that it wasn’t another episode that I was facing. In the process though, it meant that I worked much harder. I put a lot of pressure on myself to maintain the high expectations I’d previously set. I’d have to work harder, to give the same output, as my concentration was deteriorating and I was struggling to handle things. Deadlines were a complete nightmare. I had no idea if I was going to be able to meet them as some of the time I’d be fine and would just get on with things and then five minutes later I’d be completely floored by the task, unable to carry on. I found myself under increasing pressure to meet my deadlines and was too scared to ask for extensions or to push back. I was becoming inefficient, but I refused to admit it to myself. I kept telling myself I was okay and as I was still performing well at work, it wasn’t an issue. Even when HR referred me to occupational health they said there was no noticeable effect on my performance, so I think it was only me that was really worried, which made me paranoid and wonder if it was all in my head. My line manager said to me that as I perform at 130% of the level of everyone else, a drop of 10% is hardly going to be noticeable. He frequently told me not to worry about my performance, but I didn’t really believe him and started to get paranoid that I wasn’t doing enough. This was a cycle that was hard to break. As I got more paranoid, I’d work harder and harder, but I was probably making myself worse in the process.

As things progressed, everything got more and more blurred. Things changed on an almost daily basis. Some days, I was the archetypal depressive, struggling to show any interest in the things that I cared about or loved. I began to hate my work and get frustrated with it, feeling increasingly unsupported, bored and fed up. Other days, I’d work tirelessly, not giving myself a chance to rest and working harder and harder to ensure I didn’t fall behind – I guess this was more of the case just before our latest performance reviews – I didn’t want to fuck up just before those. I was a maker of my own stress, but again I don’t know if that was partly the fault of the illness or just the way I am. Other days, I’d be agitated and unable to concentrate and would spend the day flitting from task to task.

I think about it now and I wonder how I managed to maintain everything as long as I did. I was a mess and a whirlwind – a car crash waiting to happen.

When things were really bad I was getting more and more suicidal during my work. Every time something went wrong, I’d find my negative inner-voice wearing me down, making me feel worthless and useless. If I actually received some criticism it was like the end of the world. I just couldn’t see how I could carry on and get over the problem. Instead of working out how to tackle an issue, something I am usually very good at, I would find myself completely flummoxed. I found myself staring at my screen, unable to go on or worse, with tears running down my face, at which point I would sidle off to the toilets as fast as possible.

At the time I was under a lot of stress as well, which I’m sure didn’t help matters. A couple weeks after my suicidal confession to my manager and HR finding out, my manager was due to go on holiday. This was a nightmare as even though he knew I was unwell, I was left to organise one of our biggest events of the year, completely on my own. I’d done similar events before, but always with the knowledge that my line manager was there to bail me out and offer support if necessary. Of course, I’d also not been seriously depressed at the same time as organising one of these events. The stress was too much and I don’t really know how I survived the week. I was so terribly close to killing myself. I couldn’t handle it at all and found myself having to run to the toilets to bang my head against the wall in utter frustration. There was no one that I could pass my work onto or even anyone that I could go to for an ounce of support. I felt complete isolated in my mood and this was compounded by my isolation at work. I would spend hours staring at the emails that remained unanswered, not knowing how to response. I found myself looking at the same PowerPoint slide for hours, completely unsure of how to even start to put the presentations together. I would get messages and questions from senior execs and would cry in desperation because I didn’t know how to explain to them that I couldn’t cope. I resolutely refused to admit I couldn’t cope. I was terrified that people would think I wasn’t capable or that I couldn’t cope without my manager. I was desperate to prove that I could cope without him, but also completely unable to. On the Thursday afternoon I was completely at the end of my tether, but had no one to turn to anyway. I couldn’t even admit defeat. I spent the week full of bitter, agitated depression and paranoia. I snapped at senior execs completely unnecessarily and by the time I got to the event I was so stressed out I could barely talk. I couldn’t get over the paranoia that I was messing everything up and acting terribly. I knew I was being snappy and agitated, but the more I realised, the worse I became. I couldn’t bring my mood under control and spent the time during the presentations desperately resisting the urge to just run out of the room. I have no idea why no one sent me home, but I was too indispensable. Anyone could see that I wasn’t myself – some people even pointed it out, but I don’t know why no one intervened. Following the event, I spent three days beating myself up over the fact that I’d been a complete nightmare and hadn’t acted professionally or done myself justice. I knew I’d snapped at people and that the event hadn’t run smoothly and I was paranoid that everyone would think I was incompetent.

It was strange though. I was desperately suicidal throughout, but even still, I had this determination not to let my manager down. I was too scared to go to the senior execs I was working for, to tell them I was unable to cope. I was too scared to stop working, because I knew that no one else would be able to fill in for me. I was even too scared to kill myself, worried about what everyone might think and what might happen at work without me there. I was worried that if I survived, everyone would think that I just couldn’t cope with the challenge of the event and that I was useless or if I didn’t survive that the event would become associated with my death and would become some morbid remembrance service. I somehow survived, by telling myself that at least the event would be over soon. The problem was the mood wasn’t over soon and a few days later I was worse than ever, alone on the roof terrace of one of our offices, frustrated that the barriers were impossible to climb.

There was also a moment a few days before I saw my doctor that highlighted when things had gone too far. It was a strange situation. My line manager mis-read a text that I had sent him and panicked. When he read it, he thought it said I couldn’t cope, when it actually said that I couldn’t come [to a meeting he’d invited me to]. He was already in a meeting at the time, with his new manager and he actually stopped the meeting because he was so worried. He re-read the text and realised he’d got the wrong end of the stick, but it seemed he’d flipped out and thought I’d texted him to let him know I was going to kill myself or something. When I talked to him later he wanted to check I was okay. I told him I was fine and why was he asking so he explained. It was a difficult situation. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to worry him and hated feeling like a burden. I also felt a little uncomfortable that he thought I would text him in that situation. At that point I’d lost trust in him anyway, so I don’t think I’d have told him. I guess I was also a little bit glad that he cared about me enough to worry, but more paranoid that he thought I was that unstable. The thing was, at the time that I’d sent the text I had also been pretty suicidal, so I kinda hated that he knew. I was generally freaked out by the whole thing and didn’t know how to handle it.

One thing I struggled with, throughout the period that I was ill and still in work, was my relationship with my line manager. After I’d confessed how I was feeling and he’d passed things onto HR, he seemed to change. It felt like he was pushing me back and that he wasn’t interested any more. He seemed keen to stay out of things, even though in the past he’d been happy to listen. He was under a great deal of stress himself, but he stopped supporting me and didn’t seem to have time for me. I couldn’t get any time in his diary to sit down and have a meeting and when I tried to raise issues, he wouldn’t listen. I began to feel that he’d lost all respect for me and that he thought I was incapable. I don’t know if he just couldn’t understand, was caught up in the stigma of it all or was too worried about what to say, but it was so awkward. I was struggling to trust and forgive him too, as I still unhappy about him telling HR behind my back. I tried to talk to him about our deteriorating working relationship and his lack of support, but that backfired and he took offence. In taking an honest approach, I may have stepped over a few lines and been a little critical, but I was getting desperate and trying to be proactive in making things easier for both him and myself. We’d always been honest with each other before I was ill, but things changed. I hated the fact that we couldn’t be honest with each other and just talk about things. Every time I tried to bring things up or explain the conversation was changed. He was also worried about professionalism and how he should have been seen to handle things, which was just frustrating. At that stage I wasn’t worried about professionalism – I was just worried about getting the support I needed so I didn’t kill myself! I understand that he was worried about what might happen if I did something stupid at work or if he didn’t handle things right, but I still wanted a little compassion. Some of the time he’d put too much pressure on me, setting unreasonable deadlines. I’d try and push back, saying I wasn’t up to it, but he’d keep telling me I could do it. I don’t know if he thought he was helping, by demonstrating that he had faith in me and didn’t think I was incompetent, but it didn’t seem to help. It just meant I was getting more and more stressed and didn’t feel like I could cope.

I understand my line manager was in a difficult position and he probably couldn’t do right for doing wrong, but I found it so difficult, after having such a good relationship initially. I was disappointed with him, as it felt like he was unable to cope with the idea of my illness. He didn’t understand or know what to do and for that reason he gave up trying to help. I was disappointed, because he was a fantastic manager, but my illness and the way he handled it, really highlighted where he was flawed. I wanted to work with him, but every time I tried to offer him advice or feedback it backfired. I think this was probably the hardest thing of all. I hate the fact that I no longer trust him and have lost faith in his ability as a manager. I used to regard my line manager as not only an excellent and highly talented manager, but also a good friend. I’ve lost both now.

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  1. […] on July 16th, 2008 So I’m at it again.. writing more about work (previous posts here and here), but this time from the perspective of not being […]

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