So last week, I finally met up with the HR manager to discuss Dr Occy Health’s latest report and we have agreed that I can begin a very slow phased return.
I am starting with 2 hours a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I will be doing this for the next few weeks until I see Dr Occy Health again in December, when we will review again. All being well we will add a few more hours to each day and eventually extra days until I am back full-time, but I have been told to expect this process to take many months. I have no idea if I will be able to cope with going back at all, but it is time to try. It has to be a case of seeing how it goes and hoping that the transition is smooth.
It’s more than two weeks since I saw Dr Occy Health and our discussion about how I may go about a return to work. He seemed reluctant to try and push me into anything more than I was already doing (the occasional short visit), but I asked about formalising something more and he agreed I could begin with a slow phased return. He set some guidelines, but said I would need to arrange the details with HR, rather than him prescribe anything more definite.
The guidelines suggested that I am restricted to a maximum of 15% of normal hours at first. I didn’t ask him if he meant contractual hours or realistic ones, but I suspect he meant the former. It would mean quite a big difference – my contractual working week was 37.5 hours, but realistically I did anything upwards of 50 hours. I don’t think I will be allowed to do those sort of hours again though. Essentially I am restricted to a maximum of 5 and a half hours, which I guess seems reasonable, although of course I am only doing 4 at first. I don’t know how long this restriction is meant to last – the first week, first fortnight, first month? It looks like it will be at least the first month though and possibly even until the new year.
He suggested I start my working day during late morning, which suits me fine. I am usually at my most stable in the middle of the day and I am not used to early starts any more, so it makes sense for me to try and work when my mood is best. It also gives me the chance to take the dog out and get anything else that needs to be done beforehand.
Whereas over the summer my mood was consistently on the low end of normal and hardly ever changed, since the slow decline in my mood during late September and the subsequent increase in Reboxetine, my mood has been fluctuating a lot more. I am having good days and bad days, rather than lots of okayish ones and my mood is varying during the day too. Over the past month, my mood has been largely following the classic depressive cycle of feeling worst in the morning and mood improving throughout the day. I am waking up feeling pretty depressed each morning, but by lunchtime I am usually feeling okay. By evening, I am often feeling agitated or edgy, which is also not conducive to work either, so not leaving work until too late in the day is probably wise. Occasionally I’ve had a day that has gone the other way around or the morning depression has lingered long past lunchtime, some days are just crap all round, other days are absolutely fine. On the whole, I think the increase in Reboxetine has brought my average mood up again, but I am less comfortable with the instability that has come with it. I don’t know how I am going to feel from one day to the next and I find it harder to plan what I’m going to do, because one day I will be able to get loads done and the next I can’t face getting up. My mood isn’t really getting to the extremes, but it’s wobbly enough to be problematic.
Alongside the fluctuating mood, is also a fluctuating, but omnipresent level of anxiety. Most of the time I don’t even know what I’m anxious about, but I just feel the physical presence of anxiety lurking in my chest and a niggling worry about something in my brain. Sometimes that physical presence is a lot more than just a niggle and I feel physically sick, my heart keeps skipping a bit and I feel dizzy and shaky. I am getting a lot of nightmares too. Often I don’t know why this is happening. Sometimes the cause makes itself very clear and I can’t stop thinking about it no matter how much I try. There are plenty of worries about work, how it affects my benefits and finances, my tummy troubles, medication, diagnosis stuff and other stupid things like “what am I going to knit next?” floating around, but they shouldn’t be enough to prompt the level of panic I’ve been experiencing.
I don’t really know where this anxiety is all coming from, because until fairly recently I’ve not had much of a problem with it. I am usually pretty good at managing my worries and very rarely have I experienced the physical symptoms of them. Anxiety was always tagged alongside my list of diagnoses and I was often sent to “Anxiety Management” at The Priory, but I think that mainly came out of an assumption that all depression comes with anxiety and not because I actually experienced it. I can use those anxiety management skills and rationalise my worries and thoughts, but I don’t seem to be able to beat away the physical results. I have been taking Propranolol for months and that is supposedly meant to reduce agitation and anxiety, but I don’t know if it does much good. Reboxetine is known to increase anxiety, so it could just be that, but I am loathe to attribute everything to the damn drug.
Anyway, we shall see how I go with my working hours. I think if I stick to the middle of the day I will be okay. I don’t think there is anything stopping me going in a bit earlier or later if I want so if needs be I can do that, but I think it’s important I try and stick to a routine and get used to going to work at a specific time. I don’t know what will happen when I need to increase my hours or which end of the day it would be better to add to, but we will come to that when it happens. Having a routine and going in at regular times is one of the things I am going to need to adjust to. I’m not sure I’m up to doing stuff whenever I have to, rather than just when I feel up to it. When I’ve had chores I really need to do and am having a bad day it can make things a whole lot worse, so I hope I can manage.
Another guideline suggested that whatever I do is non-client facing. This is pretty important to me at the moment, because I can’t deal with the stress and responsibility that goes with working directly for the client. I am having to remember how to communicate in the world of business and not the world of mental health services or just with my friends. I think it is going to take some getting used to. I don’t know what to write in work-related emails or how to talk to people any more, so I’d rather keep my communication with others down to a minimum until I get used to it. At least if I make an idiot of myself with a colleague it’s not going to get me fired, but say or do something stupid with a client and I could be in trouble.
This is actually something that upset me during the HR meeting. The HR manager said she was worried about how I am going to cope interacting with others in the workplace. She remarked that observing me at the community meeting I went to the other week, she was worried that I was too honest and open with people and she is worried that my openness will shock people. She said she doesn’t want me to stand out too much or give people the wrong impression. I don’t think I said anything other than that I’d been off work for a couple of years due to illness, but I am currently in the process of returning to work. I didn’t elaborate on what kind of illness I’d experienced. I only said that because we were asked when we joined the company and what client we were working with at the start of the meeting. If I didn’t explain that I’d been off for a while, it would look like I’d been passed over for promotion a couple of times and that I wasn’t chargeable to a project, which I think would have been more embarrassing.
I’m not ashamed of the fact I’ve been ill and don’t see why I should hide it from people. I didn’t mention mental illness, but even if I did, it shouldn’t be a problem. I’m sure nobody would be telling me not to tell people that I’d been off work if it had been cancer or a heart attack keeping me away, so why do I have to hide it because I’ve been off for mental illness? I don’t intend on telling everyone the whys and wherefores, but questions are going to be asked or assumptions made unless I say something. You can’t just ignore two years of my career that have just disappeared. The gap in my company CV and in my client history is plain for everyone to see and the fact I’m still at my current level over 3 years after joining, also points to some kind of problem. I don’t see what is wrong about being honest about the fact I’ve been on long-term sick leave. I don’t know what else I’m meant to say. I have no intentions of lying or deliberately hiding the truth.
She said I should treat it like starting a new job and I should remember that I will be meeting new people all the time and they don’t know my history, so I should feel no reason to tell them. I understand this and agree, but the problem is that there will be plenty of times that my absence will be obvious. My company start date and level is on my people profile and my CV is on the system for anyone to see. The question of what client I am working on or have worked on in the past is going to come up. People I have worked with in the past will see me and ask where I’ve been. People will see me arriving and leaving the office at strange times, only working for a few hours and doing pointless tasks. I can’t hide things forever and I see no reason why I should, especially as I don’t have to worry about HR finding out, resulting in me losing my job. HR know the whole grizzly story, so there is no reason to hide. I will have to be honest with whoever I work with next, because I will be working reduced hours.
I was really quite upset by this comment and it took a lot to bite back the tears that were threatening. I knew I couldn’t break down at that point, because she would never think me well enough if that happened. I really would look like an overly emotional mental person if I burst into tears in her office and it would confirm all of her worst fears, so I did my best to maintain my composure. She thinks that I’m not able to act professionally and deal with people’s reactions and of course her comments do feed my own fears and anxiety. I am scared about what I will say, but I have thought about it a lot and see no option but to be honest. If they aren’t happy with that, then it is their problem, not mine. I know I am going to have to get used to this kind of thing, but it hit a nerve. I worry I will be faced with this dilemma for the rest of my life.
I’d asked Dr Occy Health if he thought I should or could go to the all-day community event and Christmas party in London. I’d like to go because I have missed out on the last couple of years and the meetings are usually interesting. I think it would be a good opportunity to find out what is happening in the company at the moment and the party should be fun too! I was a bit worried about the fact I will be travelling down to London on my own and it may be a bit much, but I think I will be okay. Dr Occy Health agreed that it would probably be good for me and said he would put a comment supporting my attendance on his report.
HR Manager was less keen on the idea. She was worried about me travelling to London on my own and is worried that I won’t cope with meeting everyone. She seemed worried about how it will look if I manage to attend a whole day event and a party, yet I’m only able to work four hours a week normally. People may judge me for it. They may, but it is a bit different spending a day listening to someone else talk than actually having to do proper work and very few of them will know I’m working reduced hours anyway. We have agreed to take a call on it next week, so we shall see what she says. I don’t know what is the right decision, but I’d like to go if I can.
I can’t remember what the other guidelines said. I think they probably mentioned local working and having a local manager, but I’m not sure. There was a note about me being protected by the DDA and the fact that these could be considered “reasonable adjustments”. Finally it was noted that I should be reviewed by Dr Occy Health in early December.
I hope I can manage. I have survived my visits so far, but I think it will get harder when I have to tackle some proper work. I have run out of initial tasks now, but HR Manager talked about the possibility of me doing some work for her. There’s a project she is considering that is related to something I did on a previous role, so I may be able to help with that, but I don’t know yet. I’m just waiting to see what she suggests.
At the moment it is a bit frustrating. I feel weird when I arrive at work so late and have to leave so early. I worry what everyone thinks of me. I generally feel okay whilst I am working, but I struggle either side of it. Strangely, one of the weirdest things is wearing smart clothes again. I am not used to it.
I wish I could fast forward to being back properly, but sadly that is not an option. I have been off work for nearly two and a half years though and I know it is going to take a lot of adjusting to go back. Dr Occy Health keeps reminding me of this and I think as far as he’s concerned, it’s a miracle that I’m trying to go back at all. This is somewhat disheartening, but I know the statistics and he must see enough people that never make it. I hope I can be one of the lucky few.
Anyway, I must stop writing now. I always finish blog posts like this, but I never get the chance to say everything that I am thinking at once. I have been writing this on and off for days anyway, so it’s time I posted.