Work and Depression


This is another reprint of an early post on this blog. It was one of the hardest to write, but putting it down this way marked another turning point in finding out what I had to do to begin recovering.

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.

Image: Some Rights Reserved by Thomas Hawk at Flickr.

12 Responses to “Work and Depression”

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  1. Julie says:

    I got depressed after my husband passed away but I was able to manage it. I have been working at my job for quite awhile. I received a new manager approx. 3 yrs. ago. All of a sudden I was sexually harassed by Co worker, involuntarily put in another position with no training. Physically assaulted by another Co worker , all being in the inner circle of my manager.
    I have become deeply depressed due to all this illegal harassment.
    I am a state employee and the management gets away with so much. I have gone through therapy and find that the doctors are getting paid for just listening to you. They do not show any emotions, care, or understands your depressed state. Maybe they are familiar with depression but just do not care. The system for depressed people are really bad. I am looking for options to fight this illegal harassment.
    I have put in complaints within my agency about this harassment but as soon as you say the “D” word (depression), you get frowned on. It is unbelievable as they are the ones who caused the depression. Has anyone gone through the same experience? Pls. Give advice. Thanks so much for listening.

  2. EratHora says:

    I have not told my employer about my diagnosis, because I was never sure what sort of “pillows” I would need. I am curious what other people have asked for???

  3. Tom says:

    Ten years ago, my chronic depression overwhelmed me and I went on medical leave, fully expecting to be able to find a quiet spot to kill myself. Instead, away from a miserable job and after completely failing my responsibilities to my wife and employer, I found some peace and a few years of recovery. I ended up in a job that, for several years, seemed like a dream come true.

    Now, that job has gone to hell and my ability to admit defeat has withered substantially. For several years, I had a supervisor who understood my limitations and gave me some slack in scheduling. My wife worked for five years, which finally took some of the pressure from me. She’s back being whatever women are being when they hang out at home and entertain themselves without making any substantial contribution to the household. I’m paying the bills, providing the health insurance, and thinking about pulling a trigger to end this misery.

    Those lucky circumstances that allowed me to drop out ten years ago are no longer available. My new supervisor is up to his neck in his own problems. The school where I work is mismanaged by arrogant MBAs who think teachers are a commodity to be abused for their own gain. I’m back thinking there is no shortage of humans on earth, so who would it inconvenience if I removed myself from the planet?

    Yeah, I believe that being defeated is worse than being dead. This disease has defeated me before and I was a lot younger and stronger then.

    • john says:

      Tom –

      First, if you get anywhere near “removing yourself” – find a hotline and call. Find out about hotlines now, in fact, so you have a number – and try to find someone you can talk with. I have no idea of your experience with treatments – but therapy can help with basic stuff like this. I’m glad you wrote down these thoughts because I can tell you it’s a straight depression script. I’ve said and thought the same things almost word for word. It’s hard to believe anything else when you’re in the middle of it, but there’s plenty of that else – another you lost in all that shame. I’ve felt so withered with shame and defeated, I couldn’t think past it – and unfortunately I projected it onto everyone around me. The place I lived was a wretched mess, my wife was doing everything wrong – and I could always find what seemed objective reasons for everything I felt. But it wasn’t true, and it wasn’t me. Somehow there was always a little spark of resilience – just enough to keep depression from winning completely and washing me out of life.

      I hope you can find that spark too. You’re worth more than you know right now.


  4. Marissa says:

    This story brought back some memories of when I went on disability at my last job. Your therapist sounds insightful.

    • john says:

      Marissa – Glad you could drop by. I never actually went on disability (they wanted to avoid that and I didn’t want the formality of it) but was treated as if I had. Did disability worked out OK? I hope your new situation is a good one.

      My best — John

  5. JS says:

    I just came across your blog for the first time today. Thank you so much for writing about such an important issue- depression and the workplace. As you can see from others’ comments, so many people struggle with how to deal with their depressive disorders at work. I hope someday soon the stigma surrounding mental illness will be reduced to a point that employees feel as comfortable sharing their struggles with mental illness as they do with physical illness. Thanks again for sharing your experience.

  6. Eileen says:

    I love the story about the meditation student, and the Roshi’s comment – But defeat is GOOD! 🙂
    I too struggle with work issues, and lose a lot of productivity when depression acts up and / or my medication starts acting wonky. I would also do a lot better in my career without this health issue.
    I do believe that people who struggle with life can have more empathy for others and can be more interesting to be friends with. There must be something to be learned in the depths.
    Congrats for finding accommodation that helps you.

  7. John D says:

    kbm022 – Revealing a condition is a tough decision. You have to get a sense of the likely reaction from an employer. If the place is big enough, it’s subject to ADA, and employers in that category should know they have to be responsive. Feeling the condition as weakness is unfortunate – it’s not what you’d probably think if you had an illness that fits the pattern most people can deal with – like diabetes. The idea of defeat and inadequacy is similar danger. I’ve found that I have to be honest about the work load and schedule that allows me to stay healthy. That’s a hard one.

    Thanks for your comment! – John

  8. John D says:

    Stefan – Thanks for coming by. Sharing these stories is a powerful way for me to stay alert to my own issues and keep them from getting the best of me.


  9. Thanks for sharing your inspiring story. I’ve always wondered what would happen if I told my employer about my bipolar disorder. I, too, would feel bad getting passed over for projects. I guess that’s the main thing, and appearing to be weak. But that’s my own issue — appearing to be weak. I’m trying not to think of depression as weakness.

  10. Thank you for sharing your experience with all of us.

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