Simply getting to work when you’re depressed can feel like an impossible task. Dealing with people in the workplace and doing the most basic parts of the job seem to take more energy than you have. The routine becomes hard labor, and the stress and depression feed off each other.
Over the past year, several readers have added their stories of frustration, even desperation about trying to survive in their jobs when depressed. They’ve offered their hard-won insights, and I’d like to highlight some of their experience in coping with a difficult worklife.
Some have found ways of keeping a balance. Others have not. Some have had to change the type of work they do. Others have withdrawn from regular jobs altogether. In every case, they have had to face the reality that depression becomes the central problem of work as well as personal lives and relationships.
A Cycle of Frustration
One reader found that work and depression were inextricably linked in a pattern she hasn’t been able to break. She would start a new job with a lot of energy and do excellent work. Her bosses loved her for being great at what she did and always surprising them with her commitment. But after a while depression would set in. The job would come to feel hateful. She’d fight with people and wind up quitting or getting fired. She had been caught in this cycle for years.
Whether it’s the specific kind of work that stirs up depression or depression that sours the work experience is hard to tell. Depression tends to make the mind blur all difficulties together, and everything about a particular job can feel wrong or impossible to do.
Sometimes depression is a sign that you are doing work that goes against the grain of your personality in some way. Or you might be able to do this type of work well but don’t like doing it anymore. Whatever the reason, the stress and tension become unbearable, and all of us who have been in this situation hit a crisis point.
Performance suffers, more problems with colleagues and supervisors develop, home life becomes more tense, and we can barely get through a day. There were many mornings in that period of my life when I wanted to drive to a hospital instead of the office.
The crisis usually demands a new adaptation to work that can be one of the most difficult challenges in your life.
Cutting Back Isn’t Avoidance
When I first learned about mindful acceptance of difficult feelings, I thought that I would be able to handle a high level of stress in work. Anything would be better than the old strategy of avoiding every situation that intensified depression.
In fact, I was able to recuperate only by separating from a normal work life through partial retirement. Without the ability to work on my own, I’m quite sure I’d be groaning once more with stress and anxiety and the multiple plagues of depression.
The experience made me realize that every step back from stress isn’t avoidance and that achieving mindful acceptance shouldn’t become another measuring stick for self-worth.
I like Tom Wootton’s description of gradually expanding your comfort zone. The first step is to manage and stabilize your symptoms. That often requires separating yourself from the full onrush of living by restricting the types of activities you engage in. Once you have the worst problems under control, then you can gradually learn to expand the range of experience again as you become better able to handle things.
There is no timeline or pace that fits everyone. Nor is there any point in passing judgment (a depressive habit of mind) or expecting fast results when it has taken years to get to the state of depression you’re in.
Here’s how two people did it.
A Break from the Working Life
Following several hospitalizations, Donna left a high pressure position and tried many different jobs. Eventually, she realized that all steady work was impossible and made the huge decision to stop working altogether. She needed to find out if she could heal without the demands of a regular job. A combination of disability payments from Social Security and a former employer gave her enough to live on.
Then she went well beyond work to eliminate for a time all the other sources of stress in her life: social gatherings, family get-togethers and community activities.
After that, healing became possible. She never had to be admitted to the hospital again. Her worst long-term problems with psychosis began to fade. She had time to reflect on her life and rediscover activities, like writing, that she had long neglected.
She has now returned to a life that includes socializing, hobbies, volunteer work and caregiving. Medication helps keep her stable. She has a new sense of purpose and can expand her activities at her own pace, but she’s also had to deal with many up’s and down’s with her illness.
Deal with Depression First
An anonymous commenter described the torturous experience of staying with a demanding teaching job even as depression was making it harder and harder to function. Like most of us, she didn’t want to stop work because it would seem like defeat or weakness or a disappointment to family. Whatever the reason, success at a killing job becomes the test of one’s self-worth.
In her case, the predictable happened. A combination of inner troubles with depression and conditions at work that she had no control over pushed her over the edge. She broke down at her school and had to be taken to the emergency room. The school administration let her go not long after.
Fortunately, her response was to focus on healing, and her advice now is clear on this point. Take care of depression first. Start by talking to your doctor and getting a referral to a psychiatrist who is best able to deal with the medical aspects of the illness.
She’s been fortunate enough to have the support of all members of her family. Her husband always gave her a lot of support, but for a long time she had been afraid to talk about her condition to anyone else. When she did, they came through for her.
Perhaps most important, she came to realize that it was a losing battle to measure her self-worth by her employment status. That’s a hard one to come to since our culture drills it into us from an early age that we only become someone through success in work. It can take a crisis with depression to get you back in touch with the most basic parts of being human, but that’s a powerful lesson she has learned.
Neither of these two stories end with miracle cure but rather with a realistic sense of depression’s ongoing impact and considerable progress in healing and restoring a sense of purpose in life.
Taking Time to Heal
Both of these readers found, as I did and as Tony Giordano described in his story of recovery, that stepping back from an intense worklife, whether by choice or not, was essential in order to begin the healing process.
Although stopping work eliminates one of the biggest sources of stress, that step alone wouldn’t accomplish much without an all-out effort to get better in which you play the leading role.
There are many practical and financial limitations to this approach. Disability programs aren’t available to everyone, and financial obligations may make it impossible to reduce the pay level. There is no easy answer, and many have to learn to cope as well as possible with a current job situation.
That can be done, especially with the help of medication and therapy, but most people come to the realization that something has to change. The mix of work and depression can ultimately bring about a crisis when choices that once seemed impossible now have to be made. It can takes years to get to the point of crisis, and it usually takes years to get out of it.
As these recovery stories emphasize, dealing with depression as a serious condition, sooner or later needs to become the top priority. What has been your experience with work and depression?