Photomontage: Nick Castle

MIND

I returned to work during depression, and this is how it felt

The thing about returning to work after mental illness, says Zoë Beaty, is that there is no “after”

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By Zoë Beaty on

Someone had asked if I was OK. It was September last year, late in the month. I’d navigated a busy morning on less than one hour of sleep and eaten little more than a yoghurt in the preceding days. Very abruptly – but, for the first time, absolutely – I knew the answer to their question was “no”, and, for the first time, that’s exactly what I said.

I’d been hiding a lot of things, with varying success, for most of last summer. I hid insomnia, and anxiety, and then I hid depression. I hid them quietly at first, when they could just about be contained behind my laptop screen. As they got a little louder, I migrated to behind the office toilet door. Months along the line, as I’ve previously written, the volume was turned up so high that it reverberated in my bones. When that day in September came around the noise had become too loud to bear, and for a while I disappeared within it. A friend told me to see my GP immediately, and my GP told me that I wouldn’t be going to work for a while.

In the context of mental illness, I wasn’t off for very long. It was just over a month, in total, which seems ludicrous now that I can see the full spectrum and weight of my thoughts back then. The added anxiety about going back to work began around a week before. I knew I’d be walking back in, not as a senior journalist, or a reliable editor, but as a fallible, breakable person. In the workplace, we usually choose how much we want to expose of ourselves – how personable we are, or how stern or how sociable. But being ill takes that choice away. I worried how my colleagues would react to me and that I’d screwed up my career; I didn’t want to see the wreckage.

Still, by late October I had run out of sick time and annual leave, and I’d failed to escape myself, so I had to go back. It took about an hour before I was in a familiar spot, hiding, behind a toilet door. Instead of being part of a team, I felt like I was eavesdropping on a conversation I was no longer privy to. My colleagues were so incredibly kind, but I knew they were speaking to someone who was no longer there. I tried to speak as little as possible, quietly, so they wouldn’t see how my thoughts disintegrated half way through.

There are few ways to have a conversation about wanting to die. There are fewer ways to have a conversation with a colleague about wanting to die. Suicide, and mental illness – it makes people uncomfortable. What I wanted to say when sympathetic voices asked me how I was feeling was this: that I didn’t know. I wanted to say, very clearly, that I was not just “sad” but that I had felt so very close to death, and what a frightening thing that could be. Of course, I didn’t, because nobody does.

I spent much of the first few weeks simultaneously willing myself to disappear from sight and wanting to be seen. Rather than a “jump-start” as some said returning to work might be, that first jaunt back into the fray was, to me, little more than a showcase of just how much I was stalling and how much I’d already lost. Despite resting, and several prescriptions for beta blockers and Prozac and for trying – really trying – to talk about how my mind was trying to kill me, I wasn’t fixed. I’d had my time, and I knew my editors were expecting me to come back having “overcome” the illness that had rendered me unable to do my job. Instead, I thought, I was letting them all down again.

I thought all of this because of one blinding factor: because I was still very ill.

There are few ways to have a conversation about wanting to die. There are fewer ways to have a conversation with a colleague about wanting to die. Suicide, and mental illness – it makes people uncomfortable

The thing about returning to work after depression – or any sort of time off because of mental ill-health – is that the very sentiment is flawed. There is no “after”. To suggest that anyone re-enters the workforce after anxiety or depression or whatever has consumed you, is a misnomer. Actually, for the most part, we return to work during depression. Because mental illness is, by its very nature, uncontainable. It doesn’t fit neatly into routines. It doesn’t always have that clear, triumph over tragedy narrative arc we seek out. With depression there is no clear winner (if there is a winner at all) and happy endings, while they might come, don’t look the way you’d expect. Depression doesn’t have a finish line, and going back to work made this achingly clear to me: I had not “finished” my depression within my set deadline. This was my first mistake.

Let’s be clear: I am very lucky. I am a white, cisgendered woman, working in an open environment which encourages me, like this, to explore and accept my own mental ill-health. Here are the things I was afforded on account of being mentally ill while working at The Pool: time off sick, with no questions asked; a phased return to work; a contribution towards private, immediate CBT (and the time to attend weekly sessions). I was afforded all of this firstly, perhaps, because I am characteristically privileged and because the environment I was in meant that even when I couldn’t take action for myself, others did it for me.

On my first week back, my editors – who have been attentive and patient – saw that I wasn’t really any better and started to put things in place. Our HR department ran regular meetings with me to see how I was doing. I found it hard to explain. I left the office frequently. But I did not think, at that time, that I was not supported.

That is not typical, from what I’ve been told since. It should be. Even with this support – and a base knowledge of mental illness through my work that I now see as laughably naive – depression and anxiety nearly killed me, and kills others every day. Workplace stress is a major factor in triggering depression and anxiety, and taking time off sick for mental ill-health is now pretty much at pandemic levels. In 2017 it’s estimated by the government’s Health and Safety Executive that 12.5million working days were lost to stress, anxiety and depression, a figure which accounts for 49 per cent of all days lost due to sickness.

It shows clearly that mental illness is very present in the workplace, whether we like it or not. And that anyone cowering behind a toilet door today is one of millions. That is, in some ways, for us, a comfort. To employers – and the government – it should be a warning. It’s imperative (and good business) to address this issue, in the same way that we are tackling things like the pay gap: with transparency. Talking in the workplace is important. Action is life-saving. Preventative action is best. Mental illness should not be viewed in the same way as physical ailments – it needs to be treated before the wound is visible. We shouldn’t wait for the point at which we want to die before getting help. In the same way, unlike physical illness, you can’t get a test result from a hospital to mark the beginning of a recovery. While mental illness shouldn’t be weaponised to make us feel less professional than if we broke an ankle, it doesn’t fit into the same narrative.

And it doesn’t just get “fixed”. My job is now helping to managing a team and a mental illness. Sometimes I still feel grey – all of February, most of last week, many times in between – and I fear it starting all over again more than anything. Mondays are always, always worse. Simple tasks like writing an email can still feel unfathomable. Some days my insides have jagged edges and some days I really can’t write, or think, and I feel like I’m failing. I am accepting that. I try and help myself, but mental illness is a continuum. Priorities matter and sometimes my priority is what’s inside my head.

It’s taken a while to get here but, I am grateful for the structures in place which have shielded my body from my mind. I feel OK; I am lucky. Work has helped me rebuild the part of my identity I now see I missed most at that time. In recent weeks I’ve had that gorgeous feeling of my mind expanding, like the crunch of new grass in between my toes. Words are no longer extracted from thick, black treacle; thoughts can sit without being a burden. I have the luxury now, of looking back on a long period of uncertainty and terrifying sadness from the other side of the road – and knowing that, should I cross it again, there might be support waiting for me there. So many aren't so fortunate. 

@zoe_beaty

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Photomontage: Nick Castle
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mind
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