When I draw the cycle of my depression over the past 31 years, I can pinpoint the exact ages where I truly hit rock bottom.
I was 17. Doing year 12. Had 26 pieces of work overdue. What the hell was wrong with me?
19. Dropped out of university. Felt so pathetic. Am I just lazy?
27 . Quit my job with Accenture. My flatmate asked me to move out as I was too hard to be around. Accepted I really was pathetic.
29. Cried uncontrollably – for no actual reason – for 15 hours. Finally went to a psychiatrist and got diagnosed with severe depression. Considered that maybe I wasn’t pathetic and lazy; maybe I was just sick? Such relief.
31. In a world of torment, I hurt myself and (unlike previously) couldn’t hide it with clothing. Had to tell my family, friends and colleagues I’d been in a car accident. I realised that clearly medication alone wasn’t going to save me.
That was 16 years ago, and that was the last time I truly hit rock bottom.
At 33, I felt myself slipping into yet another cycle of depression. I told my partner that I was going to resign from my job; because I couldn’t stand the indignity. I’d worked so hard to build credibility, and I wasn’t going to let them see me turn into this withering shadow of my real self.
He reminded me of a promise I’d made myself soon after my diagnosis.
“Clare, I remember your words clearly. You said, next time I get sick, I’m not going to resign. I’m going to ask them to help me get through it”.
I cringed. He was right. So I did it. I walked in and asked for my boss for his help.
Since then, I’ve had this conversation another 4 times.
The moments before those conversations are the absolute worst. I DO NOT want to do it.
I can’t believe it’s happening again. I can’t believe I have to try to maintain my dignity while I share this most private, personal thing about myself that my boss may or may not understand.
I can’t believe I have built my credibility only to jeopardise it.
I can’t believe I have to let them know that in addition to being talented, smart, funny and energetic…I am struggling.
I never go in with the attitude that my employer HAS to help me. I don’t expect them to rescue me – I make it clear I will do that myself. I own that this is MY illness, MY issue.
I simply explain that I need to prioritise getting well for a little while, above everything else. I explain how giving me flexibility at work will help me to that.
I go in faking strength. I breathe slowly. I try not to cry. I approach it very logically, words prepared, as if I am talking about a broken arm.
“I have an illness. It means I have a predisposition to depression and every few years or so my body seems to want to go into a real slump.
I’ve been successfully managing this illness for 5/10/15 years.
Recently I have noticed some early symptoms. It’s nothing that you have done. It is not because of work.
These are warning signs to me that I need to be quite strategic about how I structure my week, so I can help myself get back on an upward spiral.
Here are the ways you can help me.
Are you willing to help me?”
If you’re a people manager, this may happen to you. One of your team members might confide that they’re having mental health problems. Or perhaps you’ve noticed that something is ‘off’ – you can’t quite pinpoint it, but your intuition tells you something’s amiss, as with two of my bosses (@kyliegardener; @kellyhyland)
My advice to you is this.
Don’t be ignorant and tell them to ‘snap out of it’. Trust me, if we could, we would.
Don’t be cross and tell them ‘we all have problems’. We can handle our problems. This is depression.
Don’t think you can give them a week off and expect them to come back all better.
Instead, put your heads together and think laterally about how you could provide flexibility.
Can you modify their role for a few months?
Could they enter a job share arrangement for a while, so they can go back to part-time hours?
Can you let them work from home occassionally?
Can you permit them to work in a private office now and then, so that they don’t have to fake feeling good in front of colleagues?
Can you organise their phone to divert to someone else in the team for a few weeks, someone who is ‘in the know’ and can screen their calls? (the phone ringing is very scary when you’re depressed! More on that in another article).
Could you change them from night shift to day shift for a while? Reduce their hours? Let them work from 12 til 8 instead of 9 til 5? (again, so they can work without anyone around them for a few hours).
Their brain may not be at full throttle, so use your brilliant brain to think of some lateral ways you can support them with this.
It is not your job to rescue them; they have to own this process. You can help simply by shifting a few obstacles out of their way.
Remind them that they’re not pathetic, they’re not weak. They are managing a legitimate illness.
Remind them that rock bottom is not inevitable. Reassure them that they are a valuable contributor to your team, and it is worth your while to provide them with the flexibility they need to prioritise their health, and turn this around.
As I said, I’ve had this conversation with a boss 5 times in 14 years.
My hit rate so far? 100%. Every single one of these amazing people has said, “Yes Clare, I will help you”. That, my friends, is a major reason why I have been able to turn my downward spiral towards Rock Bottom into an upward spiral to Good Health.
And that moment, the very moment I walk out of my boss’ office, having talked to them and secured their support – that EXACT moment is when the heaviness that has formed in my chest starts to ease ever so slightly.
I breathe a big sigh, because I know I can turn this around.
I don’t get better overnight. But nor do I get worse.
There are many strategies I will have to put in place. No one else can do it for me. It is my illness, and I will rescue myself.
But with the backing of my boss, I know rock bottom is not where I’m going.