First and foremost to you all, Happy World Mental Health Day 2017!
It is so important to end stigma and to empower people to be able to speak about their mental health problems, if you are reading this and are suffering in silence then make today the day you reach out to someone. It can be a friend, a relative, a professional or even a stranger! For those in crisis, there are always people ready to listen and help. Never forget that the Samaritans are just such an organisation. It may only take one conversation to completely change a life, or even save one.
The Samaritans cover the UK and Ireland but for those of you outside of these areas, check out the Befrienders Worldwide site to find similar support in your country.
So I have had A LOT of time off this year to try and get well again, this all started back at the end of March or early April when I felt like I was at breaking point and just not getting anywhere with my regular doctor. Fortunately I was eligible for a BUPA wellness check through work and my manager suggested I go and speak to them about how much trouble I was having. I did, and within a week I had an hour and a half appointment with a Psychiatrist who told me he was signing me off work until I was in a better place. Fast forward 6 months of therapy and other treatments (which I’ll come to in later posts, think of this as a bit like the film Momento, where you get the end first!), and here I am having completed my first few days back at work.
I am incredibly grateful for being able to follow this path and I know it is not one which is available to everyone. That said, everyone is entitled to get a second opinion from another doctor at your surgery, maybe even at a different practice. I believe some are better with mental health than others but I think it is a bit pot luck to be honest. I’d love to be corrected on this point though. Counselling through the NHS is pretty much the same as through private although often not as quick to access. If you get offered a group session and are skeptical, give it a try as this proved very beneficial for me despite my initial misgivings.
“Nice Summer Off?”
I know I am not alone when it comes to the Sunday evening dread of having to go back to work, on this occasion I think it started about a week before that last Sunday night before work! One of my biggest problems I am still working through is the fear of judgment from others, that and mind reading where I believe I know what someone is thinking about me. It helps sometimes to remind myself that other people probably don’t find me half as interesting as I think they do. Anyhow, that said, I was dreading going back in to work. I was imagining a bunch of very sarcastic comments, the one which really stuck was various people asking me if I, “had a nice summer off”. The thought of being asked this was really allowing my anxiety monster to go wild.
I simply had no idea how I would react. Would I be able to laugh it off? Would I respond with something viciously cutting? Would I punch them? In my head I had a jumble of reactions to this and I hadn’t really prepared the response I would actually use when it came time to enter the building.
I have been using the gym as a key part of my recovery and I plan for it to be a cornerstone of my resilience going forwards. Since I had a 10am start on my first day back, I resolved to get to the gym before I went to work. I had a hard time getting that done as my sleep has been really erratic recently with me waking up around 3:30 or 4am most mornings and struggling to get back to sleep. The Sunday before work was no different and unsurprisingly I woke a couple of times in the night. So I was knackered and anxious but get to the gym I did. This helped a great deal as it meant I had already accomplished something with my day, got my endorphins flowing and expended some tension so mitigated the chance of me punching someone.
I went home and got ready for work. It felt like the first day at big school. I was properly nervous and so I set myself up with an inspiring podcast to listen to on my way in. The one I listened to was “The One You Feed” podcast with guest Tim Urban. I didn’t think I was going to listen to much of it so distracted was I by my own thoughts; but it actually got through to me as it dealt with the concept of taking little steps which add up to something momentous and how you can tackle “Icky” daunting tasks. Pretty much perfect for me on this day. This is a series of Podcasts I have found helpful so check them out if you aren’t aware of them.
So it was time, I had arrived and was sat in the car park. I guess there was nothing else for it but to take a few deep breaths and head in to work.
Time to Run the Gauntlet
I had been speaking with my manager pretty much weekly since I was off and he has been a great help, far more so than my HR representative who possibly made things worse rather than better on the whole. We had agreed that he would meet me outside the building and bring me in to somewhere quiet in case I freaked out, a very real concern of mine in the days preceding the return to work. He met me outside the building and we entered through a very little used entrance to minimise the possibility of running in to anyone. Nervous and over hydrated from the gym I took the opportunity to pee before entering the office areas proper before heading in to the main thoroughfare of the offices.
I was tense and alert to all noises, my fight or flight reaction in full flow as I entered the corridor. It was empty. We got all the way to the door to the area where I would be now working and I’d started to relax but then the door opened and a friend of mine came out. I think he was as surprised as I was at this encounter. I received a friendly handshake and, “Good to see you back!” along a promise to come find me later and that was it. One down and so far so good, although he wasn’t one of the pricks I was really worried about. True to his word, he did come back and see me and we had a really good catch up.
Opening the door to the small area I would be working in was daunting but again it was blessedly empty apart from the director sitting in his office. It was a newly created area and most people hadn’t moved down yet so that suited me perfectly I thought. We pitched straight in to a chat with said director who I would be working for during my phased return and all was well. I screwed up my courage and asked if I knew why I had been off. He didn’t. I dug deep and said out loud, “I have had depression.” I could feel the sweating start a bit, he was an ex-serviceman and I figured I had about a 50/50 chance over how he would react and again I got lucky. He said something to me that I will value for a long time. He said, “I have the utmost respect for people like you, who can go off sick for a long time, get well and come back. That takes true courage.” He went on to tell me that his wife has similarly struggled with depression and was pleased to see I was doing well in my recovery.
I left his office after about an hour and the back of my shirt was pretty damp, clearly I had been more worked up about that initial meeting than I thought but it was done and I felt a bit more confident. I chose a desk, the best one with a window of course, good for vitamin D and all that. I settled in and logged on to my laptop. In a moment of devil may care impulsiveness, I selected EVERYTHING in my inbox and hit delete. I did the same for my archive and my calendar. This was going to physically represent a fresh start. It also felt great.
To Pee or Not to Pee
After an hour or so of organising myself and de-cluttering all of the crap that seemed so important 6 months ago, I realised that I needed to pee. This was not something I had planned for and my earlier smugness about not having to physically see lots of people began to wear off. I wasn’t going to ask for an escort so I didn’t really have any option other than wet myself, which on balance would probably be worse than seeing some people. This decision to go to the toilet on my own became one of the hardest parts of my day, how weird is that!? Anyhow, I didn’t get off to a great start as upon walking out the door of my room I came face to face with one of the aforementioned “pricks” I had spent ages worrying about how they would react. I was equally pleased and disappointed as I got a handshake and a “Good to see you back”. I may have misjudged the man.
Over the next couple of days I ran in to a number of people and have had numerous offers of coffee and a catch up and wall to wall “Good to see you” comments. I have ventured to the canteen and in to other areas of the building slowly building my “comfort zone”. None of my fears came to pass and I regret wasting so much time agonizing over it in the last 2 weeks before going back but still lesson learned. Words from “Feel the Fear and do it anyway” were helpful and kept me from trying to back out on that first day. This is a good read for anyone who suffers from anxiety and fear of being judged.
I have done 3, 5 hour days now and I am glad to be back but the days are taking it out of me quite a lot, so definitely need that build up of a phased return. In short I wish I had done this years ago, taken the time out that was recommended before and not tried to keep myself hanging in there, I have wasted a lot of time fighting myself. If you are having problems please reach out, it may not be as scary as you think. So far, no one has asked me if I had a nice summer off and I haven’t punched anyone.
Look after yourself,