Last week there was a change in my fate: I was offered a three-day-a-week sales job locally, starting at the end of the month. It is miles away from what I had envisaged as a longer-term profession but it will help tidy me over nicely, while I wait for a more permanent and career-boosting opportunity to arise.
In my mind I am still unemployed, but in practice, I can finally sign off the JobCentre, which is almost enough reason to celebrate.
Later, at home, as I busied myself telling the good news to all and sundry on Facebook and Twitter, I saw a friend had sent me the link to a blog post by Bristol-based unemployed journalist Steven Baxter. It was one of those amazing serendipitous moments. Once I opened the link, I instantly knew it was all meant to be.
I read Steve’s blog and cried like a baby. All the anger, the frustration, the sadness and despair that had been festering inside me for the past seven months came spewing out in one massive flood of tears and emptied me of all the heavy weight I had been carrying around on my shoulders for so long.
It occurred to me it was the first time in months I was crying at all.
Woman on the verge
Only the previous day, I had googled “nervous breakdown” and was dismayed to find out I could tick almost every single item on the symptoms checklist. I had been having inexplicable outbursts of anger, unable to cope with the simplest domestic tasks without injuring myself and screaming my head off each time, partly in pain, partly as a desperate cry for attention… Worst of all, my behaviour pattern reminded me of someone I knew well from my childhood: my own mother.
My mother was an intelligent, ambitious woman, good at languages. Before she married, she had dreamed of becoming a career woman but my father was an old-school Japanese man and would not allow her to work. She was forced into a lifetime of domestic slavery and her frustration at being stuck at home, as I am now, led her to several nervous breakdowns when I was a child. I remember them vividly: the constant screaming and hostility, the hysterical crying, objects flying about in the living-room followed by days in bed shunning the entire family, completely indifferent to the world.
It frightened me to think I could be becoming the kind of woman I had dreaded turning into all my life…
I devoured every word on Steve’s blog with the emotional craving of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Every question Steve had asked himself, every thought and every emotion he describes in his blog I had had too. He had translated into words sentiments that had been tormenting me for months but I had not dared express in public because I was concerned about the risks to my employability. What if a prospective employer saw my blog and found me too psychologically unbalanced and unfit for work?
Steve, however, with disarming honesty, goes on to admit on a very public platform that he is on anti-depressants, 40mg to be exact, and gives two fingers to any employers who may find out and object.
“The weeks of not having work have felt like a heavy load. Sometimes it’s felt like disappointment, and sometimes it’s felt like despair. Sometimes it has just felt OK, like nothing, like a glass of water, and that’s probably the most dangerous feeling of all: the time it feels all right to be like this is the time to worry. This isn’t all right. This isn’t good enough. This isn’t what I should be doing. I should be doing something – anything – rather than this. But mainly it has felt sad and dispiriting. I am a little broken.”
His candid words liberated me. Thanks to Steve, I am no longer afraid to share with all who care to read this that, in the past few months, I too have been receiving regular counselling (but not drugs) for what the GP diagnosed as ‘moderate to severe depression’ – a direct consequence of being jobless for so long for the second time in three years.
I am sure I am not the only person, unemployed or not, suffering from this very common condition. But I also know that, unless you have experienced it, you may not be fully aware of what depression actually means (see video at end of this post).
It means your sleep patterns are disrupted, you are constantly exhausted, your zest for life gone, as if the lights in your house were being put out one by one. Women may find their menstrual cycle has gone haywire. Maybe you constantly have digestive problems. You may have panic attacks or feel extremely uncomfortable in social situations, so you avoid meeting your friends; you may feel you are not in control, that each task on your to-do list seems so overwhelming, it can take you weeks or months to complete – if at all.
Depression incapacitates you because, in trying to cope with the extreme stress, your brain and your body slow you down to a halt.
I had promised people I’d write blog posts for them (sorry, Shirley), or do the copy for their website (sorry, Pete), that I’d write an article after I interviewed them (sorry, Glenn), I’d respond to an email query (sorry, Ben). Although I am not one to to promise and not keep my word, I have been pathetically unable to accomplish ANY of those things. I let everyone down, including myself.
You may be a high achiever but currently you feel like an underachiever; you are paranoid people are judging you, labelling you as lazy and incapable, when, in reality, you are simply too unwell to get out of bed in the morning. Some days you may be too down to write a job application letter but some people, even your immediate family, may suggest you’re not finding work because you’re not applying for enough jobs and ‘what do you do with all that free time during the day anyway?’ You know that is not true, but your self-esteem is so low, after so many job rejections and what not, you don’t bother to explain, in fact you are not even sure you are not actually a total failure…
Well, the good news is: it is perfectly okay to feel like that. If you recognise some or all of the signs above, embrace them, own them. Acceptance is the first big step towards healing.
I love the Japanese expression‘kokoro ga arawareru‘. It translates as ‘the soul/spirit gets cleansed’ and it perfectly describes how I felt that day. The cry I had after reading Steve’s blog cleansed my soul of all the resentment I had been harbouring for months. I felt every single ball of pain inside me explode, then dissolve, until there were no more knots left.
It felt so good to know I wasn’t alone where I was.
We feel bad about feeling bad because there is a social stigma associated with depression and all mental health issues. It is almost like a homosexual “coming out”, done with trepidation, unsure of who will accept and who will not.
Unless you are a celebrity like Stephen Fry, whom no one would dare call unfit for work despite his bipolar disorder, admitting you are so low you need medical help can make people nervous. Perhaps you are hiding too?
The UK government has just released the latest ONS unemployment figures: 2.51 million without a job, an increase of 80,000 in the three months to July 2011. Last May the think tank IPPR had already reported that 850,000 people had been unemployed for more than 12 months, the highest figure since 1997.
How many of those are feeling the same way as me, or Steven Baxter, or worse and are terrified to say “me too”, afraid to ask for help, confused about where to go for help?
With the upcoming part-time job, I feel slightly more upbeat, less anxious, and definitely less angry, but I still have some way to go until I am completely back to being my old self.
While I mend, my sincere hope is that this blog, like Steve’s, can inspire others in a similar situation to open up and share without fear of prejudice, to form a community where people will encourage one another not to give in. It may not help you get a job, but it might serve as a little respite from the bitter pill of unemployment. Or your own 40mg.
Dr. John Hague explains the difference between having a bad day and being depressed.
Links that may be useful if you think you may be depressed