As I’m writing this, it is 7:21am on a Monday morning. As with every Monday morning, I dragged myself forcefully out of bed about eighty-one minutes ago. I had, as always, intended on being up far earlier than that, but last night was the usual cycle of panicking about the coming week and consequently not being able to sleep, leading to me panicking about not being able to sleep and therefore continuing the painfully awake loop. Thus it was under duress that I forced my weary feet onto the floor after tossing aside the sheets soaked in my sweat from the nightmares that came when I did finally fall asleep for a meagre few hours. As I rub my eyes and try to focus on the bleary screen in front of me, the same thought permeates my mind:
“I can’t do this.”
This has been the reality of my working week for as long as I’ve been in a position to work a Monday to Friday job. Before that, it was my reality every day I woke up and had to go to work, university, or school respectively. With age has come some degree of mental health management, so this true sinking feeling of panic and hopelessness usually restricts itself to Monday mornings or Sunday nights. It’s nevertheless been a real and present part of my life for as long as I can remember. There have been years where every day has felt this way, regardless of what was actually expected me. There have been years where the mere idea of getting out of bed has caused the same level of hopelessness that a sixty hour working week now brings.
The reality is that like every week before this one, I will do this. Regardless of my brain screaming that I can’t, I will somehow find a way to overrule this order and put one foot in front of the other. I will methodically and mechanically plan out what I need to do in small steps to achieve the overall seemingly insurmountable workload. I will implement years of strategies and coping mechanisms and come out at the end of the week without having caused a major disaster, having potentially even done my job exceptionally well, and have a brief moment where I can breathe again.
But throughout it all, for every accomplishment and success, my brain will immediately bite back with the old mantras.
“This changes nothing. You’re still worthless.”
It’s a strange dichotomy to live with. On the one hand, I understand objectively that this isn’t true. I have a solid group of friends and family who care about me and value me. I have a successful career wherein I’m frequently told of the positive impact I have. Objectively, I understand that this idea that I’m worthless and hopeless is ludicrous. I understand that I have achieved a lot in my relatively short life, and that I have the means and skills to achieve more should I so choose. And yet, somehow, even after all this time, that’s not enough to put a silencer on the other half.
I have spoken in the past about how living with depression as you get older becomes, in some ways, progressively harder and more isolating. As you become more independent, you are more expected to keep your shit together, and the consequences of not doing so are, in many ways, a lot graver. This tends to mean that you have to not only be better at managing it but also at hiding it. It’s very difficult to pass yourself off as a successful career-minded individual if when people politely ask you how you are, you find it difficult to muster the energy to lie and say you’re dandy. It’s not even so much the taboo of mental illness as it is the polite disinterest we feel the need to treat one another with in the working world. Your co-workers are who you spend the majority of your time with – but they’re also the people who have to rely on you to get your job done no matter what, and allowing cracks to show in your apparently well-put-together demeanour can break the trust which your working relationships rely on.
And yet the fact is that despite it all, despite the cracks and fear of failure and desperate wish that no one could ever see past my professional demeanour to know I’m the prime resident of struggle town, I’m perfectly competent and capable at my job. There are certainly things I wish I did better, but I believe that to be true of every person regardless of what their brain might happen to be screaming at that moment in time.
With all that in mind, whilst it’s important to recognise that depression is a part of your life and something you’ll have to cope with, it’s also important not to let it define your life or career either. If you love what you do, never let someone make you believe that a job is “too stressful” or “too demanding” for you to be a part of. It’s amazing the resilience and skills you develop to manage over years of putting up with your head being your own enemy. You CAN do this and you CAN find ways to balance it all out if the end goal seems worth it. If you don’t love your job, then yes it probably will grind you down and add to the already heavy weight sitting on your shoulders. But if you love it, then nothing and nobody, least of all your own head, should stop you doing it well.
Be gentle with each other too. Just because someone admits to weakness or struggling within the working world, it doesn’t automatically mean they’re going to fail. It doesn’t automatically mean that they can’t do their job. Yeah, they might need some extra support from time to time, but who doesn’t? Our reasons for needing it might be different, but no matter how proficient we are at what we do we’re ultimately still humans, and humans make mistakes. If we look at each other like we’re waiting for those around us to crumble at any moment, then we’ll most likely contribute to that collapse. Support, understand, don’t change the fact that you once saw them as a competent and capable individual – they still are.
With that in mind, as I sit here writing this, I’m forced to lean back and stare at the screen for a moment. I blink and sip my coffee until the screen comes into sharper focus. I breathe deep and repeat that which I know to be true:
“You’ve got this.”
And I do.