I’d seen the signs before. Insomnia. Lack of concentration. No interest in anything. Not wanting to socialise. Becoming increasingly irritable with the people I love. Pushing them away. Worrying incessantly, ruminating compulsively and negatively about pretty much everything. And feeling complete and utter hopelessness for my future. In fact my brain told me I didn’t have a future. That I was a never-has-been-and-never-will-be; and I didn’t deserve anything else. This was nothing new for me. I’ve lived with depression, and those thoughts, most of my adult life; and in fact, had been living with it constantly, in one way or another, in some kind of severity or another, for two years at least before everything finally went to hell and I felt something crack inside me.
And yet, before that day, I continued. I smiled and pretended – to the outside world anyway – that I was okay. I turned up at work, even though I would feel sick with dread on the short journey. I believed that I was useless and couldn’t cope like other people could (that last at least was true – I wasn’t coping – although finally I’ve mostly accepted that I’m not useless!). I lived in a constant state of high anxiety, wondering what new stresses that day would bring.
My job as a senior lecturer is high pressure – increasingly so in a Higher Education system which regards education as a business and students as customers rather than human beings – and the constant pressure of having to prove myself became intolerable. And yet I ignored the signs. Ignored the voice in my head that told me: Enough is enough. You seriously shouldn’t be going on like this. But I ignored that voice for those couple of years, because – despite a couple of quite serious dips, which of course I also ignored – I was still functioning. Because I was ‘valued’ as a member of staff, even though I felt less and less valued, less and less relevant – if indeed I ever had been, which I was never convinced of. As the months dragged by, it was as though I was – to use a cliché – wading through treacle towards a place of blank and black nothingness. I can honestly say that the only time I felt ‘safe’ at work was when I was with my students, who have been a joy to teach.
And in essence, that was another issue. Because I was ‘valued’ and a good teacher, I decided – and I now recognise this as warped and dysfunctional thinking – that I couldn’t let people down by going off sick. That I couldn’t burden my amazing creative writing colleagues with extra work, or abandon the students, who I cared about so much. I have often been asked by some people why I care so much. Why I invest so much in other people. Is there a definitive answer? Well, I don’t believe in definitive answers; life is always so much more complicated than that. But I can say that it’s in my nature to care (enhanced by nurture), and before I became a mum, I was a nurse and midwife. It’s in me to do my absolute best for others, to never let people down, because, at the heart of the matter, I’ve always believed they’re more important than I am. That is how I was brought up. Duty and people pleasing. I have always served others, and not myself. That’s not selflessness. It’s being a ‘good girl’ by bowing to the authority and needs of others, almost without question.
But that’s for another time.
And so I continued, until, finally I just couldn’t. Until I felt that snapping inside, and knew I couldn’t go on. Luckily I had an occupational health appointment arranged, and the advisor took one look at me and, after asking lots of pertinent questions, told me I had to go to my GP and get signed off. I felt an immediate sense of relief, but those feelings of intense guilt, and terror that everyone would hate me for it, also surfaced.
Cutting a long story short (I’ll deal with other subjects in other posts) I’ve been off work for two months now, having quite intense therapy and meditating regularly, and just looking after myself. I’ve learned a lot about myself, including that my needs are important too, and I will try to resist the urge to bow to pressures – internal and external – that are dangerous for my mental health, because that’s more important than anything else. I’m going back to work next week. I’m anxious, terrified in fact, but I’m stronger now. I realise I have choices.
And I’ve made the choice to care about myself more.
I guess the point of this is to say to whoever might read this: look after yourself. Don’t ignore signs until it’s too late. Seek help.