Working Depressed: Changing Careers

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

8 Responses to “Working Depressed: Changing Careers”

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  1. Anon for now says:

    John, I’m very pleased for you.

    You commented on Catherine’s remark about berating ourselves. Although I still do this (it seems to come and go), I seem to recall that at first it helped to go over my day at bedtime and dwell on each situation where I’d felt bad about myself. For each one, I’d try to see it more realistically and look for the good in what I had done. Or forgive myself for berating myself and make an effort to love the part of me that felt berated. Sometimes I would even hug myself, arms around my shoulders and feel my love for myself. It wasn’t an instantaneous shift, but it became easier over time.

    To others who comment (on all of John’s posts): I learn from what you share. Thank you!

  2. John D says:

    Catherine – I see what you mean about berating myself – my wife too points out how hard I am on what I do. After years of getting myself to accept fallibility and mistakes as normal and human, I put myself in a work situation where either you are “great” or you’re in trouble. And you hear about it. It’s not sustainable to stay there with all the impairments of chronic, major depression. I also see what you mean about your own tendency to berate yourself, as in your third bullet point. How do we stop doing that?

    Anon for Now – Your experience is much closer to what I have done during most of my life – either working as a consultant on my own or creating an organization that I run (not really my thing, though, since managing others is almost as bad as working for someone else). I like eu-stress as opposed to dys-stress. That’s a good way to put one of the great aims of a work life, to have all the energy and tension uplift you in a good way instead of tearing you apart! Yes, the pain in my back and left leg are on the rise, grief is near the surface – but the excitement of changing how I live my work life is showing me I’m long overdue for this.

    Thank you!


  3. John D says:

    As usual, these are all interesting answers that lead me to think more deeply about this problem.

    Evan – That’s a great line about not letting an eight year old ruin your life. It’s gotten me thinking about why we choose certain types of work over others, and I’ll try to post about that soon. It’s so true of me that I’ve always gravitated toward work that plays out the role I developed in response to my original family.

    James – For one, thanks for your blog, which I’m just now getting into. I love the humor and honest feeling in the midst of a difficult situation. And thanks for the empathy!

    Untreatable – I think it’s true that we who struggle with these disorders can come out stronger for the struggle. It certainly forces me to look into every nook and cranny of my existence to find out what the hell is going on. You also bring out that choosing work motivated by what we’ve been through with our families can be a positive, aware action instead of an unconscious drive to get something right that never worked out back then. Special thanks for that!


  4. Anon for now says:

    Over decades, it has become clear to me that I am a freelancer, not an employee. Being in charge of my own schedule and deciding who to work with (as clients, vendors, colleagues) and when is much healthier for me than doing the bidding of someone else – either a supervisor or a system. (Not to confuse my description, but I am currently experimenting with being an employee for an entrepreneur who runs her business like I would if I chose to have employees. So far, so good.)

    For me, working for myself creates eu-stress, whereas working for (nearly) anyone else – person or system – sooner or later creates distress. This may be because I haven’t learned to navigate the impersonal systems the constitute most business, but I’ve tried many times have not yet succeeded.

    I believe that, for me, depressive symptoms (and pre-depressive symptoms) are telling me that I’m doing something that’s not good for me. The longer I stick with it, the worse the symptoms get. Ignoring symptoms like tightness in my back leads to crying on the way to work every day, which leads to a meltdown.

    I commend you for finding another way to express your business/avocational self, John. May you find your best working circumstances and rhythm, and be rewarded with satisfaction — and, yes, I dare say it — joy in this new way of practicing whatever it is you do to earn a living.

  5. Catherine says:

    First and foremost, I hope that you feel better soon.

    You know it’s interesting that you berate yourself so much and yet I think of you as a very professional, polished, cultured, educated, honest and kind person. Please don’t berate yourself so much. It hurts my heart to hear that. I do understand though…I do the same to myself.

    Secondly, to answer your question, my illness has really showed me the following:

    1) I am no longer capable of doing all that I could do before and I just can’t work 20 hours a day anymore.

    2) I realized that I’ve really placed too much value all of my life on how I perform at work and really thought that my work defined me as a person. When I was sick and out of work I didn’t know who I was and didn’t remember how to have fun. I am discovering myself now. It is difficult to do this at 36 years of age.

    3) I just feel like I continually lose ground. I feel so inconsistent..some days I feel OK while others terrible and others good. I can’t even depend on myself anymore and I am so very tired of it.

    I wish you luck in the journey my friend. It certainly is difficult.


  6. says:

    My childhood which is a main reason for my illness was also behind the decision to go into social work. I believe that the experiences of going through a mental illness will make me a better worker in the long run, well that is if I ever get healthy enough to return to work.

    Depression definitely has its downside but I believe for the people that make it through we come out a lot stronger and more focused on what is important to us in the larger scheme of things.

    take care

  7. James says:

    It must be so frustrating to see your condition interfere with your career like that. I can relate. I jumped from job to job because of my schizo-affective disorder before finally being deemed psychologically disabled.

    I hope that your depression eases up on you. Know that there are many out here who understand.

    All the best.

  8. Evan says:

    Hi John,

    Great to hear you are feeling energised by the new venture.

    As to the choice we make about work. It has often been said: don’t let an eight-year-old run your life (that is, us and the attitudes we formed by age eight).

    I’ve never had a diagnosed mental condition – though I probably was somewhat depressed toward the end of my marriage. Once I left this disappeared. This was a huge change for the better – the mild depression possible contributed to me leaving.