You're so good to me
I know but I can't change
Tried to tell you
But you look at me like maybe
I'm an angel underneath
Innocent and sweet
Must have been relieved to see
The softer side
I can understand how you'd be so confused
I don't envy you
I'm a little bit of everything
All rolled into one
Ever feel like you just can't win? Ever feel like whatever you say or do is the absolute wrong thing? OK, now add mental illness: depression and anxiety in particular. Makes for a roller coaster of emotion and turmoil.
The reality for many of us with these illnesses is that navigating life and the day to day responsibilities of work and relationships can be hard. No, make that beyond hard.
Eighteen months ago I returned to work after experiencing a major depressive episode, one of the darkest chapters of my life. I was on short term disability leave from my job for about five months. It was hard to go through that time when I was away from work and away from my "life". But coming back to work was hard, too. Just in a different way.
I never hid the fact that I had experienced depression. I was open about that with my employer and my coworkers. But once back at work it was often difficult to just be me, the real me. Even though I knew on one level that depression is a disease and a valid illness, the doubting, insecure side of me felt like I had to prove myself. I felt like I had to show everyone that depression didn't make me less intelligent or less capable than any of my other colleagues. I had something to prove.
Quite simply, I overcompensated. Many days I was flying high. Maybe a bit manic but not necessarily suffering from mania - just a feeling that I had to be "up" and happy and reassuring that everything was just fine with me. Some days things were just fine and some days they weren't. And yes, there were some days that I just didn't have the energy to put up that happy, outgoing facade. Those were the days that I was able to fight the illness enough to at least make it out of bed and out of my apartment but mustering the strength to appear happy was impossible.
Because I had chosen to be open about my illness, I felt a responsibility to explain when I wasn't able to pretend. Luckily, I have a manager who is incredible - she has helped me along the path of recovery and held my hand as I felt my way back at work. I have always been able to be honest with her. For that, I am so incredibly grateful (and did I mention, lucky?).
The reaction from colleagues, however, has been mixed. Some have told me that I don't need to apologize for what I may be experiencing (thank you!). While others have expressed that my explanations for what I am experiencing are an excuse for behaviour that they view as less than appropriate. Ouch. That one hurt.
Behaviour. Now there is a word with negative and positive connotations. I have been thinking about this a lot lately. Stewing over it, really. And that's not good. I am really writing this post so that I can think about this, express it, and then let it go. So here's what I have come up with...
Behaviour in someone who has depression or anxiety or really any mental illness is actually better defined as symptoms - symptoms of illness or disease. If you have diabetes and your blood sugar is low you may faint or feel lightheaded. If you have cancer you may have pains or perhaps nausea from treatment.
When I am experiencing anxiety I feel hot, claustrophobic, irritable, and I may snap at you. If I am depressed, I may be quieter than normal and teary. This is not bad behaviour - I am experiencing symptoms of my illness.
So here's where I can't win. If I don't explain or apologize for how I acted during an anxiety attack, for example, people may just think I am exhibiting bad behaviour. If I do explain, then people may think (and, apparently, have thought) that I am providing an excuse and getting away with acting badly. Guess what? In a perfect world I am always healthy , I never have to fight the darkness of depression or the strangle-hold of anxiety, and I am always happy, shiny & bright. In a perfect world.
As I write this I am reminded of a vow that I made to myself. That vow was to be honest and to fight against stigma and misunderstanding of mental illness. Part of that is not backing away. So I won't. I will try to let go of what other people may think of me and stay true to who I know myself to be - someone who is just trying to end each day a little bit stronger than when it started. And, in the end, I am the only person to whom I need to prove anything.
P.S. Want to learn more about how to talk about mental illness in the workplace? Check out Partners For Mental Health's upcoming campaign called Not Myself Today at Work: http://www.notmyselftodayatwork.ca/home