Today, 10th October 2019, is World Mental Health Day. I thought I’d write a bit more in depth about my experience with burnout, breakdown and depression. It never stops being a journey, but it’s one I’d like to change focus from nowadays. This will be my final post talking about my specific experiences – it’s been cathartic to write it all out, but now I’m finally in a place to take that next step forward. I’ve learned so much, and now it’s time to take those learnings and begin to make something new.
I wondered what positives could come out of the most negative time of my life. And all I can do is be visible, normalise it, speak honestly. Mental illness affects 450 million people throughout the world. Two thirds of these people will never seek help from a medical professional. Approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will be affected by mental illness at some point in their lifetime, with 1 in 8 people who have a mental health problem currently receiving treatment. It’s time to do something about it.
I should have stopped, when days off became a distant memory.
I should have stopped, when my heart hammered every time the phone rang.
I should have stopped, when I cried in a corner of the room, shaking, hands over my head.
I should have stopped, those nights I left work at 1am, knowing I had to be back in 5 hrs.
I should have stopped, when I had to dig my way out of snowdrifts at 3am and travel 4 hours across moorland and motorway, as not to turn up to work would mean disciplinary action.
I should have stopped, but I got up every day, again and again and again.
I worked a 90 min commute away from my house, but I loved my job. I loved my colleagues. It was stressful, but it was retail, so the culture promoted this. More stress was better. More responsibility was what we strived for. At the time, I said yes to everything. I ran on wired from the moment I woke up to the moment I crashed into blackout sleep. I did well, I was good at my job, I was proud of my job, I was thriving. Except I wasn’t.
I screamed at anyone who drove on the right side of the speed limit on my commute. I sat alone in the giant stockroom and hid away. I threw stock around in fits of anger, to make myself feel better. I worked all day, drove home in a rage-filled haze, and then worked some more. But this was normal, right? Right?
My friend hindsight tells me now that this was the point to walk away. All the warning signs were there – I was becoming increasingly cynical about not just my work life, but my everyday life. I cried every day when the alarm went off in the pitch black, knowing I had to face another day doing something I was growing to hate. I wouldn’t admit that the workload was too much, in fear of being passed over for someone else. I had to be the best, and the image I projected was that I was. I didn’t show those feet paddling furiously beneath the surface, just to keep functioning day to day.
When I was asked to run a bigger store, of course I said yes.
And here began the downward spiral. Management changed, from inspiring to threatening. The culture became draconian, my days lengthened. I began to get dizzy, falling over randomly. My hands were shaking almost constantly. I was absolutely knackered, running on adrenaline and buckets of strong black coffee. But this was still normal. It was still normal. I wondered how everyone else was managing to cope. People who enjoyed their jobs. People who managed to have a life outside of work.
I remember the very day I broke. I was shaking, shaking. I remember to this day looking in the mirror, trembling from head to foot, tears staining my face. I looked myself in the eyes and my pupils were wide, with nothing behind them. I knew in that moment that this was the final straw. I left the company. But I didn’t stop pushing.
I set up my own business, but just couldn’t face the world. I struggled with the expectation to ‘build’ this new venture, when inside I was terrified of facing anyone at all. I swallowed my anxiety to meet new people, but I was still falling. The previous stress was replaced by a huge blackness of guilt. There was an expectation to make money. I needed to stop, but I wasn’t allowed. The burnout started to become something more. I felt the colours begin to fade from the world. I began to experience flashbacks of stressful times at work. I couldn’t go past the shops where I had worked. I started to get nightmares.
But I had to get another job. 1 year later, when I should have been recovering, I stepped into a shiny new office job.
I sank deeper into depression, although I didn’t know what it was at the time. I dreaded the alarm, every single day. I hated the packed trains, the monotonous days, the view outside my window making me feel even more trapped inside. I sat in the park before work each day, twisting my fingers, trying to breathe, before slapping on my mask for the day. I lasted 10 months.
Instead of stopping, I got another job, in management once more, but for a charity. I loved it. The culture was entirely different, and I could finally see why people loved their jobs. Over the next few years, I moved around and eventually ended up as a manager once more. But I hadn’t dealt with the simmering problems underneath the surface. I just masked them and pushed them down. Something big was coming.
Pushing against rigid, entrenched culture in an established team will always make cracks. I knew this going in, and I knew what I had to do. But along the line, that same feeling of stress began to rear its head. The same feeling from all those years ago. I wasn’t recovered, and it was about to make itself known. Along with the depression that had been lingering over the last few years, I began to self destruct. I couldn’t feel anything. My world was grey. I started to drink more in the hope of feeling something, anything. I started overeating as a form of punishment to myself, and so that I would at least be able to experience a sense of taste in the absence of any other feelings.
It took a long time to admit that I wasn’t coping. Countless suggestions to talk to someone from my long-suffering husband. Eventually, after one too many days wanting to die, I finally visited the doctor who scored me 27 on the PHQ-9, gave me SSRI’s and made sure I referred myself to therapy immediately. It all made sense, finally.
The relief I felt from just uttering those words in the doctor’s office “I’m not really coping at the moment” was indescribable. Being not just a little depressed, but full-on, ragingly sad. Things started to click into place. I took my tablets, and went to therapy, and carried on. And then, one day, I couldn’t carry on any more.
Work got worse and I just couldn’t face it any more. I was constantly fighting, and the same symptoms were returning at a rapid pace – dizziness, extreme fatigue, shaking, confusion. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t get out of bed. Therapy was helping and the anti-depressants were numbing most of my emotions, but I just lost the ability to function. I spent hours staring at walls or hiding under the duvet, shivering, crying. The doctor signed me off work for a month. Then another month. And another. Eventually I knew I wasn’t going back, and handed in my notice. Finally, it was time.
The month I was signed off, everything came crashing down. It was as if my body had held out for so long, and finally, I knew it was the right time to deal with everything from the last few years. The nightmares returned. The flashbacks were vivid, terrifying and draining. I couldn’t move, most days. I increased my SSRI dosage, then changed, then changed again. Then I randomly became intolerant to alcohol, which is probably for the best.
Sometime along the way, I started to learn mindfulness. I kept talking to my friends I’d met in therapy. I stopped shaking, mostly. After a bad experience with new antidepressants, I decided to come off them altogether. The withdrawal made me rather odd for a couple of months, but then I felt myself starting to settle. As the chemicals slowly left my bloodstream and my brain began to learn how to cope on it’s own, I felt a little happiness for the first time in a while. I also felt sadness, not numbness. The sadness was just as joyful as the happiness itself.
Me and my friend hindsight can look back now and see the progression clearly. The effects that prolonged stress can have on a person. From here, I can see myself, pushing, pushing, pushing. I want to shout at myself, go back in time and shake myself by the shoulders, tell myself this isn’t normal. Good jobs, supportive employers – they do exist. What you think is important now just really, really isn’t.
I want to say that it’s ok to talk about depression, about burnout, about all these things. Talking about it, with people who were going through the same thing, was the single biggest factor in helping me feel better, and I’ve made really good friends from it. I grew up in a family where we just didn’t talk about stuff like this. I look back at poems, songs I wrote as a teenager and feel the things I felt then, and I wonder. Depression as I experienced it isn’t sadness. It’s an utter absence of feeling. An endless grey with no beginning and no end. Talking to someone, anyone, a person you trust or a charity that is there to help – it can make all the difference. My doctor was brilliant – she was supportive, non-judgmental, practical.
I also want to say that it’s not a race. It’s just the last few months that I’ve started to feel somewhat brighter, and I left the first job I talked about in 2011. I learned that I need to listen to my own body, my own mind. It helps me to write it here, to get it out, to try and put it in some sort of order. I try, and fail, not to beat myself up about not feeling able to put myself in many social situations at the moment, as I get stronger bit by bit. When I was ill I thought it would last forever. I couldn’t imagine feeling as ‘normal’ as I do now.
It’s an odd thing to say, but I think I’m glad that this happened to me. It’s changed me a lot, and I like the person I’m becoming a hell of a lot more. If I hadn’t crashed, there wouldn’t have been the opportunity to really look inside myself, to discover who I am at this moment in time, and to try and take that learning and make something out of it in this life.
If your job is causing you stress, please don’t stay there. If you feel that the colour is draining out of life, speak to your doctor, speak to a friend, speak to a charity such as Mind, Samaritans, Young Minds, Childline. If you are using food, alcohol, self-harm or drugs as a way out or as an escape, please seek help or talk to somebody about it. If you’re feeling suicidal, please call 999 or go to A&E.
There is always a way through. Yes, it is fucking hard to go through. But on the other side is hope. Always.