Photo Credit: JesterArts – Stockxpert
I’ve been a bit overwhelmed reading the many moving responses to my post dealing with depression at work, Support or Defeat?, that have appeared on Beyond Blue and Furious Seasons. The comments describe many tortured work histories, some with good outcomes, others with no end in sight to an anguished battle. Through these wrenching stories, I’ve been trying to look more deeply at my own experience because it is all I have to offer by way of advice to others. In doing that over the past week or so, I’ve been tending to fall into memory holes of dark moments and getting a little lost there. So to regain perspective, I’ve been trying a new tack, stepping back and struggling to see if there’s something a little less heavy that I could bring to mind, if only as an experiment in cognitive therapy. Then I kept coming back to two ideas, two words, that strike me just now as – and please, I mean no disrespect – a little funny.
I have to offer a dose of background, though, before I can explain why I’m trying to find a streak of humor in what’s often a nightmare. I am struck by how many people recoil from the idea of seeing themselves as having a disability (the first word on my mind). Although the disability accommodation process was important in having my employer make adjustments, I backed away from having this label attached to me by going through all the formalities. That’s not just because it’s a legal concept that stays with you, probably forever. I don’t want to think of myself as disabled. After all, I’m working everyday at fighting the effects of depression. Changing the way I think in order to filter out the words of the D-Man is part of what I do. So why do I need another d-word, sanctified by law no less, inviting my needle-mind to get stuck in this cracked groove? (Disabled, disabled, disabled …)
And, like anyone else, I want to be successful at work. That’s the other word I keep coming back to. Sure, everyone wants to be successful at what they do – and recognized for their contributions, to enjoy their work, get decent reward for it and feel they’re making a difference in the world. But remember I’m looking at life through a lens of depression, feeling and reacting to my work in the midst of a struggle with this illness. So what’s amusing about disability or success? Deadly serious, I’d say. Well, it’s not those concepts so much as thinking about me, headed to work on a typical day, not disabled and bent on success. Now part of my recovery is being realistic about what I can do, and the thing about heading off to work is that I’m never really alone. The D-Man goes to work with me everyday. And he has a cousin, Mr. Obsession – the O-Man. He’s there too.
Think of it this way. On a good day, D-Man isn’t wearing his dark cloud suit. No, he can be more like that lazily bemused character, the Dude, in The Big Lebowski. This shaggy ex-hippy radical doesn’t like to push himself by walking a lot so he gets up on my back, and we go around like that, the Dude keeping up his Oh, man, what’s the point, man, I mean, what the f- monologues. But I also have a little chain around my neck that O-Man likes to pull on by means of a 3-foot straight rod. He’s not so amusing – more like that mechanical killer with the glasses in Sin City. He walks in straight lines so I often have to reach forward to grab his shoulder (don’t forget the Dude is on my back so this is a difficult maneuver – I often miss) to keep him from colliding with a wall or something more dangerous.
With these guys, it’s hard even getting out of the car – we’re usually trying to go in three different directions. But I manage slowly and with great determination to yank them all with me and stand on the parking lot pavement. Then there’s the issue of walking through the office with all the nice hello’s to my truly friendly co-workers. They look at us a little strangely, but I smile as if everything’s perfectly normal, barely avoiding a desk here, a wall there as I grab at O-Man’s shoulder, and ignoring the odd comments from above and behind my ear. What the f-! What are you doing, man? I mean what’s this place? I mean…it’s … I don’t know, man…what the f-? Hey, she’s cute! Need any help there?
Then I get into my office room and shut the door. I’m already tired from walking around with these two burdens. The Dude finally slides off my back and starts shuffling through my papers, especially the ones with the most urgent tasks in triple underlining. Oh, man, what is this? Weird! It looks all blurry! I’m reminded of a Woody Allen movie where he’s playing a director trying to shoot a scene with his leading man. He says, “Oh, no, it’s not working – you’re blurry!” And he steps out from behind the camera to talk to his actor, who is, in fact, a walking blur. I followed the Dude’s glance and, sure enough, everything I was trying to work on was totally out of focus – nothing was clear! Everything else in the room stood out in sharp relief, but all my papers were blurred and impossible to decipher. What was the point of trying to get anything done with this mess? It had no meaning whatsoever – why bother? It’s all useless. I was about to toss that pile of blurry paper into the trash when the phone rang.
O-Man answered, listened carefully, then stared fixedly at me through those impenetrable lenses of his. I took the phone, listened to a client ask for some information that he needed. I assured him it was coming and hung up. Then that paper came sharply into focus, and that file folder and that triple-red-underlined reminder. I had forgotten to do this! And this was the client I had been losing sleep over, convinced he despised my work, worried sick that he would complain to the program director and give her one more reason to stick me forever in her niche of the incompetent. My mind was sizzling. I thought I had put that behind me, but this knife-like reminder was burning a hole in the center of my mind all over again. Try as I might, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. …
So there I am, depressed for success, ready for a dynamo day at work. And that’s what I mean about being realistic. I do better if I can forget words like “disabled” or “success,” or quite a few others (“normal” and “happy” come to mind) and just think about all the time it takes to divert D-Man and O-Man. I have to put a lot of energy and precious work time into trying to stop listening to them, trying to get a clear and relatively objective picture of what it is I’m trying to accomplish. (Of course, my first big step is to think of them as them – trespassers I need to fence out of my mind.)
It doesn’t help to beat myself up about falling short of my dreams of success or waiting for someone to praise me or give me a raise to feel good about what I’m doing and who I am. It’s a daily struggle. I still do good work, but it takes a bit longer. And there are days when I can’t get into the car, much less out of it. So adjusting to this reality is another step in recovery. After all, healing has to come before everything – that’s my most important work, my real job, and for now, all the success I need.
I’ve struggled with the word “disabled” for quite some time now. I appreciate reading your take on it. My personal conclusion is that I don’t like the word, and that I’d describe my self as able. My life may feel disabled–broken somehow–,especially when in the midst of a depression or mood event–but my mind is not.[disabled].
I really started taking the word disabled apart in my mind in recent weeks, due to working with kids that are bodily disabled–but their minds are not.
Which gave me a whole new perspective for mental illness, that we are in fact not disabled.
It’s true, Stephany – the mind keeps doing wonderful things despite the physical impact of the conditions people have to live with. Too bad about the terminology of the ADA. It’s a good thing to ensure that people with these mental and physical conditions have the same rights in the workplace as others. But the words “disabled” and “disability” don’t sit well with most of those covered by the act. We need words that don’t get internalized with damaging results. What could those be?
Thankfully I work from home and I can’t even begin to imagine how I’d manage to leave the house to get to an outside job.
Once again your post made me think. I don’t believe I’ve ever considered myself disabled though I’m sure many use that term. I openly admit I have a plethora of disorders, but not disabled. In fact, in many ways I consider the bipolar a gift. I wouldn’t swap my biloar brain for a ‘normal’ one. Of course…there are times I argue with myself over that!!
please know that others are sharing in the endless slavery to depression and that your thoughts reflect what so many have been holding inside for a lifetime. Your adventures of self-defining moments are appreciated and, at times, too close to home.
Your writings leave me curious about your childhood leading up to the moment of crossing the threshold into this unspoken illness.
How can we make a difference so our children do not have to suffer our fate?