One of the hardest admissions I have had to make about the effect of depression was to say bluntly to myself, after years of denial, that my performance in my profession had steadily deteriorated under the impact of this illness. The truth had been obvious for some time to colleagues depending on me to be a consistently outstanding performer, but it only came home when facts kicked me in the teeth. The experience was a bit like what alcoholics describe as hitting rock bottom.
I was in danger of losing not just a job but a professional practice that I had built over years whether self-employed or working through an organization. Clients were unhappy, I was taken off assignments after fogging through meetings under deep depression, and I was not carrying my weight with colleagues in bringing in new work. That was hardly surprising since my basic will to act so often disappeared. The director who had hired me was deeply disappointed and angry at this mediocre performance. I, who had done so much in the past and come in the door with such great promise, was not measuring up, pure and simple.
Of course, the last thing I wanted to say to them or to myself was that depression might have something to do with it.
If I could just admit to myself what was obvious to others, I could begin to work with the people running my program to address these limitations. They were upset with me, but they were human and they knew exactly what depression was all about. God, what tortured lessons in humility have to be learned in order to do that! After all, how many sources of self-esteem does a depressed person have to turn to?
When I’m good, I’m really good – and that concept of being on top of things was critical to what sense of self-worth I had left. I wanted to keep thinking I was still at the top of my game. Instead I had to admit there were things I couldn’t be trusted to do without a level of structure and guidance I had never imagined needing. After some intolerable lapses, I could no longer trust myself to do the work that once had come to me so readily. When I could admit that, really understand that it was true, I could begin to get real about this part of my life.
I remember a line I read once in a newspaper story about Dwight Gooden. He had been the amazing young Mets pitcher of the 80s who won all the awards. Like every great pitcher, he might get himself into bases-loaded trouble, but then under terrific pressure he could methodically take out each batter to keep any runs from scoring. Sadly, he steadily lost his skills, apparently because of addiction problems. After a series of spells in rehab, comebacks, relapses, run-ins with the law, he lost forever the sharpness of his game. He said something like – it’s hard not being great anymore. He obviously had to come a long way to admit that and deal with the reality of his life and damaged career.
That was step one. Just admit the goddamn truth. So I did that to the director I worked with and a few close associates. For the rest of the world, it was just health problems. No, I can’t take that assignment for you because I have health issues to deal with. I’m pulling back for a time. We’ll see how it goes in about six months. And so it went. Lesser responsibilities, lesser rank – but also less worry about not meeting expectations, my own as well as those of others. It gave me a chance to work at a slower pace while trying to get better, look for new treatments, understand the full impact of depression on my life.
This answer has not been pretty, but it has given me a way to keep going. I also learned a new vocabulary that I never dreamed could possibly apply to me. That word is “accommodation.” It’s a term of art under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). When I was discussing with a therapist the mess in my worklife, he suggested I look into ADA. That started some investigating to see what relevance the law could possibly have to me.
I found out what others know so well, that ADA covers severe emotional and mental disturbances in its definition of disability. And the institution I worked for was a public agency with policies on all this, plus a handy form for applying for “reasonable accommodation” in the workplace. I also found a procedure spelled out online that advised starting with my supervisor to discuss the problem and attempting to come up with an informal solution. “Informal” for the institution was important. It was their way of expressing hope that I, and many like me, wouldn’t seek a medical review to get a legal designation as “disabled.” That could create long-term liabilities they clearly would rather not have to worry about. I decided to stick with the informal route I had already started on. It was hard enough having to deal with this at all, much less undergo whatever interviews and testing “their” doctors might put me through.
Though I had come far in confronting what was going on at work, I didn’t want to link myself to disability in this legal sense. I intend to get better so that I won’t need to operate with diminished expectations. But until that happens, I have to face what’s real. So I get help at work to get a job done because that help is available, and because I know I need it.
I’ve had to grit my teeth, though, every time a high pressure assignment comes up, and someone else gets it. All my instincts say – you can do it, despite what they think! Not being trusted at work, despite what I knew, felt like defeat. My ego can still boil with anger at being passed over.
My therapist heard that and helped me out with a story about defeat.
Once, he was doing a Buddhist retreat with uninterrupted days of silent meditation, and it was driving him crazy. Try as he might, he couldn’t sit still, his mind was wildly unfocused, his limbs ached for release from the confinement of the seated discipline. Having lost all patience, he talked to the monk overseeing things that day and explained that he thought it would be best under the circumstances if he just left. The monk said, I understand, why don’t you speak to X (the manager of the retreat).
So he went to X and carefully explained again his discomfort and inability to make good use of the experience. The manager said, That’s fine. Of course, you can see that there are others who are using chairs or pillows to help. Would that work? Oh, no, he said, I can’t see myself getting an assist like that. Either I can do it on my own or I can’t. I’d better go. And the manager replied, Good, but if you would bear with us, the Roshi always likes to see people before they leave. Would you mind?
Of course, he couldn’t say no, so off he goes to explain yet again what was going on. The Roshi greeted him silently, and he launched into his explanation: I understand that I can use a chair or something to help, but that seems all wrong. It would feel like a complete defeat to get artificial assistance. Whereupon, the Roshi smiled, leaned forward and boomed in good humor: Ah! But defeat is GOOD!
That was the end of his complaining. He went back and finished the retreat – with a chair and pillows.
Thanks, Jim, for that story. I hope I got it right.
Carol, I appreciate your comments and share that feeling of relief at acknowledging that this illness gets in the way of consistently great job performance. Congratulations on making that break-through.
As to your question about what I requested from my employer – since I elected not to go the formal disability route, my accommodation consisted of a written agreement about my responsibilities, performance measures and pay. Under my management position, I already had a lot of freedom to work from home as needed and to set my own hours so long as all the work was done well. I do wind up using a lot of sick days and vacation days since I just don’t work as efficiently as I used to. If I had a formal plan, I’d do something about that for sure. On the whole, I can’t complain, especially after reading the horror stories others have mentioned.
If you need more details about my experience, I would want to do that offline. Just send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
My finding your article on Beyond Blue was incredibly timely; I had just started to realize that, “No, I’m not as good as I once was at work; and, I may never be that good again.” I had just begun to figure this out for myself when I found your article – it was as if you wrote it specifically for me! What I’d REALLY like to know is: What kind of accomodations did you request? And what kind of accommodations did you receive?
It seems like I’m always either running late or having to take leave for another appointment; and although my boss hasn’t really said anything about it – other than to say she would not authorize any more advance sick leave – I’m very self-conscious about it and I get stressed out about it.
Did your accommodation request involve a more flexible schedule?
I’m slightly amused (or bemused) by my situation at work. Before my “breakdown” earlier this year, I had been doing the job of two people for, literally, YEARS! And, I didn’t have any problems keeping all those balls in the air. The only “problem” was when I couldn’t take time off because no one else “could do my job.” With the continuous increase in workload, management requested, and received, permission to hire a second person in FY08 (This was requested in FY06). I had my “breakdown” in Febuary 07. I was out of work half of Feb and all of March. Since management suddenly found themselves in a bind with my not being there, and no one else prepared to do the job, they requested, and received, special permission to move that new hire up to FY07. So, since before I came back to work in April, they’ve been telling me they’re hiring help for me. Well….here we are in November of FY08…and I still don’t have any help! But everytime I’m pressured because I didn’t get something done timely or just couldn’t get it done at all; they tell me…”But we’re hiring help for you!” And I want to keep saying to them, “OK. Well, when the help GETS HERE, we can expect a change!”
Anyway, the point of the story is; I was in a no-win situation, I could no longer keep up like I used to and yet I couldn’t get any help either – just the empty promise of help.
I had been racking my brain trying to figure out what was wrong with me, why, if I’ve been doing this job for 10 years, can I not keep up with it now??? My memory seems to be mush; I feel like I’m constantly saying, “I don’t remember.” Before, one of my huge strengths was that I could keep six or seven balls in the air and remember all the details of every one of them. So, in the last two weeks, I FINALLY realized that I have really changed and that, that is part of the illness. Just coming to terms with that has taken a huge load off my mind and freed me up to give myself “permission” to not be the super, extreme, over-achiever – and what a relief that is!
You have been very lucky to have such a supportive work environment. Many many people are not so lucky and the ADA is often not taken seriously and people are let go in sneaky ways or forced out. I’ve been lucky for the most part too in my career.
When I lived in CA I had three social service jobs for which there were times when I had to take long breaks due to something akin to depression. I had a bipolar diagnosis, but I often feel my drastic over medication was the real cause of my disability—a long story.
CA has “state disability” as a stop gap before needing to go on SSDI. I would use the family leave act and take 3 months off at a time and get state disability about once every year and a half, so inevitably each employer I had eventually knew of my condition–a real risk many people should not take. For only one of the three employers did that become a problem. They made my life miserable even when I was doing well and I was forced out by intolerable working conditions because I was treated so badly. (I quit—they avoided firing me by making it bad)
My two other employers, both mental health social services were incredibly supportive and wished me well while I was out and welcomed me back with open arms. So I have encountered both horrible discrimination and complete support. I have to say at the first job the first time I went out on disability leave they were very supportive but the management had all changed by the second time I went out.
For the most part I think I’ve been very lucky. Even my last employer before I went out on disability here in NC, for whom I only worked four months waited for me and wished me well and wanted me to come back. Unfortunately they were an awful bureaucracy and weren’t willing to offer accommodations. But my immediate supervisors were kind and wanted to help out. Ultimately I wouldn’t have been able to work even with accommodations this time around as I’ve found out. The drugs just finally kicked my ass. So it all worked out for the best.
Defeat? Awe…a concept I continually struggle with. I often feel defeated, but then I try to keep an open mind as I move towards recovery. And like your therapist at the Buddhist retreat, I have lots of assistance for which I am grateful.