Surviving Work, Surviving Depression

A few months ago, Therese Borchard of Beyond Blue was describing in one of her insightful videos the nature of her belief in Catholicism. She had been accused of being a “cafeteria Catholic,” picking and choosing which of the Church’s teachings she would accept. She emphasized that she read the Church Catechism as a bipolar person, and, as she was clarifying what she meant by that, started with: “Staying alive is my first priority.” That stopped me.

I’ve watched that video a couple of times since then, and, though I hear and respect her thoughtful discussion of Catholicism, that simple statement about staying alive is what cuts right through me. There is no getting away from that stark reality. The deepest depression turns on the neon light of suicide.

It doesn’t take that much to set in motion an obsession with some setback and to start hearing the poisoned thoughts: I’m no good. Why don’t I just stop, end it all – kill myself? And such thoughts become, briefly thank God, alluring, as if promising relief, a road to peacefulness. Most who think of suicide, though, do not kill themselves in a single act of desperation. As Karl Menninger pointed out 70 years ago in his classic study, Man Against Himself, a much greater number destroy themselves slowly over time with alcohol, drugs, reckless behavior. Or they choke off the fulfilling lives they might have by undermining themselves at work, breaking up loving relationships or exercising a strange genius to design failure into almost anything they do – as if to prove over and over again that they’re hopeless, worthless, don’t deserve to live. I know my mind can be twisted into fighting against the force of life itself, and setbacks drive me to extreme thinking. So I resonate with Therese’s simple truth: Staying alive is my first priority. That is the blunt, daily reality, and I live with the danger that I might lose sight of it.

This past week I had another of those setbacks at work that push me closer to the edge. The details don’t matter. My reaction is what matters, and the initial tendency is to despair, getting to the point of thinking, Maybe I should kill myself. First I’m scared, then grieved, then angry that I should let depression push me that far. And I ask instead, why do I keep getting into these no-win situations and then wonder why I run into the same sort of trouble, over and over?

There are times when a work situation is so wrong, so badly matched to the state you’re in that the best solution is to get out of it altogether. Putting blame elsewhere may seem justified in the short term, but in my case it’s clear that I bring these problems on myself. Staying in the wrong job can become completely self-destructive.

That realization leads me to speed up the transition to a different career I’ve been planning. Trying to keep on even temporarily with the intense work I’ve been doing isn’t compatible with the limitations I’ve been learning to live with. Time to listen to Julie Fast who admits she’s depressed more than she is well and can’t work a 9 – 5 job. Instead she has had to be more productive with the limited time she has. By accepting that reality she’s turned her mind around to focus on what she can do, not what she can’t.

The idea of an orderly transition to new work has looked so good on paper, so financially safe. But the reality is I’ve been using work to destroy myself, slowly. Each setback drives me to extreme and dangerous thinking and a level of despair to match. And everyone sees so plainly my bright and shining energy and optimism when I’m talking about the field I’m getting into, and the leaden, wearied, run-down descriptions of what I’m doing now. I’ve thought about this transition as a choice between playing it safe financially and bursting impulsively into a different career before everything is organized (read safe). But that way of framing it is depression talking, siren-like: Stay a little longer, you can do anything for just a little longer (I’ve almost got you).

Time to reframe, thanks to the clear-headed Therese: The choice is between a little more money and staying alive. As my favorite aunt might have said: So that’s a choice? What are you, crazy?

Well, I’m trying not be.

Image Credit: Some Rights Reserved by |spoon| at Flickr

9 Responses to “Surviving Work, Surviving Depression”

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  1. Pooja says:

    Hi John

    Just adding my experience. This is my second job and i have been working for 10 months now. The salary is comparatively low, but the work conditions, the flexibility and the relatively small and secure work place has given me something to look beyond my long held notion that i will never be able to work.

    It is one thing that makes me get up from bed every morning. I know i wouldn’t otherwise. The financial support just takes some edge out of the general despair.

    I am perceptive enough to realize which aspects of the job that make me anxious. As much as i try to fight them, I also know the reality that i will be always be vulnerable to certain situations. For instance days when am put in a socially evaluative situation like a training or an inspection. But am also learning to remind myself how there will be other days and work is only a part of my life.

    I recall a thousand times i have wanted to leave on a impulse.i am so prone to feeling ashamed over any supposedly negative and personal feedback. But quite frankly i am so glad that i have managed to stay. It has just given me a perspective that the darkest days are only in between a lot of other days.

    For as long as i have been aware of my depression i know i have tried to run over it, postponing a lot of things because i did imagine a time when my depression will be taken care and fixed by a suitable job/house/city/guy etc etc. Lately when it hasn’t i have started to look at solutions differently.

    Your every blog helps me relate to so many things and it forces me to think differently. I wish someday i can have your clarity .

    Many thanks

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Pooja –

      I’m glad you’ve been able to find a positive perspective, even from the painful situations at work. I was just wondering, though, if you have tried any sort of psychotherapy. I’ve found it to be quite effective for dealing with incidents at work that evoke deep anxiety and shame. It’s encouraging to hear that you’ve started to look at solutions differently, rather than waiting for the right job or guy to fix things. Perhaps sometime you could share the solutions you have been trying.

      Thanks for writing.


      • Pooja says:

        Hi John,

        Thanks for replying. I have been to two different psychotherapists but have not continued the therapy for a long time. Both times i was referred to a psychiatrist who put me on mild anti depressants and that was it. I discontinued the medicines ( impatience and a lot of excuses ) so i cant say whether they helped or not. The sessions were not accompanied with any therapy at all and it din help me to go in there as a subject.

        Recently i experienced panic feelings (some panic situations too) and took help immediately from a psychiatrist who again put me on anti depressants. She has asked me to follow up after a month which i intend to do. I think i need to seriously. If only am ready to change the script of my life that “no one can or cares or knows how to help me”. I

        Some of the things that worked for me at work are here. They seem mundane but helped me greatly in countering my own negative line of thinking. Feelings that stem from low self esteem, social anxiety and lot of shame and guilt. I would have listening to them had they come from anyone else. But since they are based on my own experiences i believe in them. I do not always act accordingly , its tough but am trying.

        1. Always check your assumptions once in while about your boundaries at work, what you can and cannot do, esp when you stop doing something based on what people are thinking about you, anything that’s causing u misery and making you want to leave.
        2.Everyone is more or less insecure about something. Learn to observe , don make anyone god like and yourself a avid fan. Maintain your self respect even if you think you don deserve it
        3.What others think about you is probably what you think about yourself.
        4.Not everyone deserves an explanation. No one really cares also why you came late, or are looking sad etc etc. You are not there to make anyone happy.
        5.Never miss an opportunity to learn. Make Learning self motivated
        6. Be consistent. Even if your being a bad person in your own view be a consistent one. You will make your life simpler. The idea is not be arrogant closed to feedback, its just to develop a habit of conversing with yourself as a priority than listening to others all the time.
        7. Honesty is good. It always stays in your life. let it be sufficient in itself.
        8. Remember the darkest days are part of package. They are also based on your perception and understanding of events which can change. Sounds cliched but hang on. Tom you might feel differently. Be patient.
        10. If u feel like crying. please do. its okay
        11. You are your first priority. Take only as much as stress. At the end of the day you are all you have.


        (I try to write in paragraphs but ends up in sentences. Its a little difficult to have a sustained chain of thought and reproduce it. I have postponed writing for so long because i thought it was very important for me to write three pages than one. . But now i think let me begin with what i can. )

  2. Jane Doe says:

    this is my first time and your site and I just wanted to thank you for telling your story. It’s encouraging. I’ve been browsing now for hours just pouring over your site. It’s helping to lift me from the sinking depressive feelings I was having earlier.

    I chose to comment on this article in particular because my job is such a burden for me. I have always felt that it contributed to the frequency of depressive episodes I have been having. It’s not a 9-5 job but working nights for 12 hours shifts in a very stressful environment. With this article, I feel like I have finally gotten the permission I have been looking to leave this job. No one from my family or friends understand my need to give this job up. I’m often hearing how in this economy you need to be grateful I have a job. I am, but I feel like it’s leading me down a path of slow death. Unfortunately, I have no clue what to transition to. I’m 43 years old with no clue as to what I like doing. I use to say reading was my favorite hobby, but I’ve only just recently learned that I have been using that as my escape from those deep dark depressive thoughts that would try to take me under.

    But as you said, trust in myself, the future, God and this will take me a long way.

    Once again, thank you for this blog.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Jane –

      I’m glad this site has been helpful to you. I sympathize with the problem you’ve had at work. So many of us stay with jobs or professions that take more out of us than we can ever get back. So few have choices or opportunities, not just to leave a bad work environment but to go into something different than will support health rather than undermine it. I hope you can find a good alternative.


  3. John D says:

    Marissa – Realizing that 9-5 was part of the problem was a key piece for me also. Julie Fast has written a lot about adapting worklife to depression as well as bipolar. Great, practical advice. The money issue does get scary, but trust in yourself, the future, God – go a long way.

    Best of luck to you as a freelancer!


  4. Marissa says:

    I had to leave my job for the sake of my mental health. Thank God, I’m very fortunate. I have a husband who was willing to trust God and let me leave my job (where I had coworker conflicts) to try and freelance. I currently work part-time but I have those extra 2 days of the week that assist in keeping me sane. I always wondered if I was the kind of person who wasn’t fit for the 9-5 job. I now know I’m not. I only hope you can find the right fit for you.

    Depending on my financial situation, I’d try to choose sanity over money but when you have a family to feed…

  5. Evan says:

    Great to hear you are making the transition.

    Looking forward to hearing how you enjoy your new work.


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