I’ve just gone through a six weeks experiment to see if a moderate dose of lithium would strengthen an antidepressant that’s been fading in effectiveness. No such luck. Instead, I went through a tortured sequence of headaches, dizziness, muscular wobbliness, loss of balance, tremors and thick mental fog that always hits in depression but this time was intensified by the strange poison in my blood. I felt mentally impaired for several weeks, with difficulty retaining enough organizing facility to give a short presentation. Try doing your job when you’re under that influence. The crisp one-two-three main points at a meeting become uh, one is something like this or maybe that and somewhere in here is two and was there another point, uh, let’s see, uh, well, never mind. Eyes glaze over, exasperation is high, things are said, I am called on the carpet afterward. That’s humiliating, though plainly justified, and it’s just not the way I’ve been regarded by my peers before the onset of this last period of illness that now adds up to several years.
The lithium experience may have intensified the sluggishness of thinking that always comes with depression, but that symptom even without the impact of lithium has done more to undermine my effectiveness at work than any other. I’ve written other posts about this problem, but things have only gotten worse in terms of performance. Since I can’t function at anything like the top of my game anymore, I’ve decided to pull back from active practice and instead focus on using the knowledge I’ve gained through 25 years in a profession to write and mentor younger people trying to learn the ropes. Those are things I can still do quite well.
And how do I feel about that? As you might imagine, it’s storm and anxiety time in soul-land. Part of me feels a gnawing sensation of failure and frustration, but another part feels total relief. I just can’t predict when my mind will be working properly or when it will either drift in a cloud or put glue in my thinking and speaking. So it’s a relief to stop trying to do something well when I can’t count on my own talents to be there when I need them. And I get it that depression is doing this and that it’s not just me, but I still have to work at believing that – hence the bouts of feeling like a flop.
The depression I live with is full of an obsessive way of thinking so I dwell on what others think of me and constantly project a stream of negative judgments about me into their minds and slightest glances. I’m obsessed with every mistake I make and take it as further proof of what a worthless jerk I am. Part of the relief I feel is escaping from the trap of thinking that every business meeting is always all about me when the reality is that people are pushing hard to get what they need. And if I’m looking sanely at my role, I know it’s to help them get there, not to give a great performance. I’ve been so unable to separate depressed thinking from doing my real job that I’m no longer providing the service that’s needed. It’s genuinely a relief to face that reality and focus on what I know I can do well.
But the most important thing is that I feel a lot of excitement about writing and mentoring.
Talking about these ventures, planning them, writing the new material, all generate a wonderful sense of possibility and fill me with energy – great weapons against depression. True, that high is countered by spells of anxiety and fear about the prospects of financial success with these new activities. Coming through those ups and downs, though, is a determination to make this work and a powerful hopefulness and – if I can use a word I usually shun – joy – at doing something deeply in line with what I want.
All this has me thinking more about why we choose the work we do in the first place. The reasons in my case clearly flow from my formative years as a kid in a troubled household. Perhaps stepping back from that career, determined by a half-understood past, is a positive step in achieving my own independence. I no longer need to play that particular role, and depression is simply the mechanism that has made this clear to me.
Work is such a testing place of dreams, ambitions, obsessions and ideas of self-worth. It’s hard to know what the key driver is in my own work history, but it is clear that I’m feeling now a kind of excitement about the prospect of new work that I haven’t felt in years.
Has a mental condition like this pushed you into new activities or work that feel like positive changes, or has it felt like you’re losing ground?
Image: Some Rights Reserved by fdecomite at Flickr