She’s “off with depression” I hear people say, about others, and probably right now. Often said with a slight whisper or lowered tone, unlike being off with a chest infection. My last period of depressions which needed sick leave was four years ago, after my father died. I had a few weeks off, and on the day I was due to go back, collapsed and was rushed in to A&E with severe stomach pains, it turned out to be appendicitis. As I’d been so anxious about returning so as not to be off too long, I insisted to C that I MUST go to work, it was only because I was incapable of driving that he took me to A&E. I presumed it was a fuss over nothing and they’d tell me I had trapped wind. A morphine drip and appendectomy within 24 hours convinced me I may be wrong. But I remember the relief of being ill with something “proper”. I doubt anyone has rolled their eyes and said “Oh yeah” when being told someone is off because they had their appendix out. And when I spoke to my boss and others, the appendicitis explained my previous illness away. Of course, I must have felt wretched for a long time. You know, properly ill.
So this time, no appendicitis to explain it all away. If someone is on sick leave due to depression, what does this mean? There are no coughs or sneezes, no fever or vomiting. So why not just work? Well, let me try and explain how it feels and what it means to be unfit for work. This is entirely personal and about how I feel and I recognise others may feel entirely different.
Firstly, uncontrollable crying. Not just the sudden and generally triggered sobbing, but the crying that just starts silently and doesn’t stop. It generally appears on waking and continues at intervals. Any confrontation or cross word is a sure fire cause. But sometimes, tears just fall. If you’re a man, this is twice as bad, because women cry much more easily. But in any people facing job or one which involves pressure, it makes carrying out duties quite difficult.
Next, bone-crushing exhaustion and lethargy. It’s really physical. Imagine on waking that you are under rubble and before you move, you have to heave heavy objects from on top of you. Getting dressed or washed are the equivalent of running a marathon. A shower is beyond me, because it would mean standing up. Taking regular exercise can reduce the impact of depression and I do try this. Before Christmas I was running two or three times a week. But leaving the house to walk to the post office seems like a major event. Imagine a time when you are motivated and excited. It feels like your nervous system is full of fizzing champagne. When I’m this ill due to depression, it feels like my nervous system is filled with sludge, dirt and grit. And every bit of me hurts. Not a sharp stabbing pain, but an ache, that only goes away when foetal and wrapped up tightly.
And then, decisions. C asks me if I want any breakfast, but has stopped asking what I might want. Because I can’t decide. I am one of the most discriminating eaters – think Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally – but now that is replaced by hunger and the desire to mindlessly chomp on toast and drink tea. Fast food appeals more, because it is easy. But not just food – making telephone calls is a major event. Even calling the doctor to make an appointment. Much worse I have to phone the Community Mental Health Team and I resist it each day because it feels like a mountain I can’t climb at present.
Worst of all, is the Self Loathing Voice. Physically it feels like every bit of me is an irritant and in the way. I feel huge and bulky, as if the only solution would be not to exist at all. I hate how I look, how I sound and how I feel and everything feels utterly hopeless. I wish I could be removed from my body somehow and my mind wrapped in a warm blanket and left in a dark place asleep until things got better. I don’t want to die. I just don’t want to “be”, to be here, right now. It’s just too hard.
So, what time off does is give me a space where “being” involves as little effort as possible. Resting does work, being kind to yourself will make a difference and I set small targets each day – a phone call to make, walking to the postbox to deliver a letter or tidying out a drawer. I check my work emails, but feel detached. Checking them, however, reassures me that I can take this time and not worry. It doesn’t mean that there is therefore nothing wrong with me and I should get back to bloody work…
If one of your colleagues is off with depression, perhaps you might have wondered what that even means. This is my version of what it means. There may well be others, but this is mine. Trust me when I say I would so, so much rather be fit for work and back doing a job that I love.