By Catherine Stagg-Macey, Director of Team Coaching
I have had bouts of depression since my twenties. It comes and goes and, in my view, is a mild version of the illness. I call it my black dog. He sleeps in the corner and I forget about him for months, and then sometimes he snores, and it grates. And then other times, he wakes up angry and creates chaos.
What might you see should you meet me? Probably not much different to the usual me as I’ve become so good at hiding my black dog from the world. I am someone who can function with a mental health challenge.
I want to challenge the entrenched notions about people who live with depression. When I speak of my depression, people are usually shocked which leads me to assume they have images in their mind of what a depressed person looks like. What is it that they are expecting? A haggard woman with madness in her eyes? Someone with an outfit that is badly put together? Perhaps some nervous tick that gives away the craziness of the mind?
The truth is that those of us with depression have it to varying degrees. It can be debilitating and result in the person being off work for some time. For some of us, and I count myself in this subgroup, it’s a milder affliction and so we are able to hold down jobs and relationships. We show up in the world looking like we usually do and apparently coping. But often, the internal battle with the black dog is consuming. Getting out of bed becomes a significant challenge. Things we take for granted like eating and sleeping become monsters of their own. Sleep either consumes us or we can’t sleep at all. It is the same with food. What used to excite or interest us now seems meaningless and pointless.
It can be hugely comforting to be able to talk about depression with someone who gets it. And there are plenty of forums and therapists that make this possible.
One place where it is still a challenging topic is in the work place.
Mental health issues show up in the workplace. And it’s messy. That you have a mental illness is no-one’s business unless we choose to make it your business. There is more empathy and understanding for a broken arm than a broken mind.
At times, it can be useful and necessary to share with your boss and colleagues.
However, to talk about depression and mental illness at work is to invite sympathy (usually not helpful – we aren’t wanting to be saved), fear (it’s not contagious – really!), misunderstanding (I pull my socks up every day and it makes no difference). With the best intentions, people want to “make it right” for us. That’s not possible and it’s challenging to accept that.
When I worked for a corporate, I would have liked a conversation with my boss to let him know that sometimes I would need to go off grid and to ask for some understanding. I didn’t want to lie about some undisclosed illness but I usually did. I never told him the real reason for fear of being treated like I was broken or somehow less of a human being.
Let me share with you the experience I would have liked in the office (had I ever had the guts to share):
Acknowledge the courage it took to even mention depression. My own experience was that I asked for help from my therapist before I asked my friends. There is so much shame and stigma around this illness.
You don’t have to pretend to understand what it’s like to have the illness (unless you do). We don’t need understanding but rather space to just be ourselves.
Know the language of depression is messy. Is it a condition or an affliction? An illness? Do we “suffer” from it? I don’t know the answers. The chances are the person you are talking to doesn’t feel strongly about any of those terms so don’t let them get in the way of you reaching out.
Offer a compassionate space. There is nothing you can “do” to help and that’s ok. We didn’t tell you because we expected or needed a fix. Know that we can’t ask for what we need – that’s a feature of the depression. Putting ourselves out there is so hard. I suggest just checking in occasionally. Drop a short text or an email to say ‘hi’. Send a postcard with some fun update from your life. Avoid asking “how are you doing?” as that question sends us back down the hole. Keep the tone light. Know your attempt to connect may not be taken up but it’s made an impact. Try again.
I am not a medical professional and I don’t claim this is the only way to create a space at work. Depression is a serious illness. Anti-depressants and therapy are immensely helpful interventions that we can get from the medical profession. And from the rest of the world, I speak for myself and hopefully others, we would like compassion and space to work through what we need to. Have patience with us as we will be back, and hopefully soon.
If any of this resonates with you, I’d love to hear from you. It’s a challenge to live with depression and it’s also challenging to be around those we care about who are depressed. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.