I often find that when I tell people that I suffer from depression, their first reaction is surprise. Just as there are high-functioning alcoholics, I think I must be a high-functioning depressive. Or perhaps there are loads of us, and we’re all hiding it so well that we all think we’re the only one?
Mental ill-health is a heavy burden to carry. I find myself avoiding telling my employers at all cost in case they think I’m not up to the job (I work in TV, and there are so many people working in the industry that it’s easy to find a replacement). This can lead to lies and awkwardly answered questions when I’m feeling too down to go into work.
Not that long ago, I was so anxious and depressed that I couldn’t leave the house. It coincided with a bout of the flu, or perhaps the flu was brought on by stress, and I felt so weak and tired that just walking to the bus stop took all my energy out. In the end, I was off work for six weeks. I had tests for glandular fever, which came back negative, but which provided me with an adequate excuse for my prolonged absence from work. My doctor wrote on my sick note that I had been absent due to ‘post-viral exhaustion’, even though we both knew it was for anxiety. I specifically asked him to do this for me. Most people assumed that I had glandular fever because I was off for so long, and I had mentioned that I was being tested for it. Glandular fever can leave you reeling for months or years afterwards, so it was a convenient story to tell.
In actual fact, I never once mentioned that I did have glandular fever. People just assumed, and I didn’t bother to disabuse them of this notion. A white lie, as my mother would say. This situation is not usual, I imagine. The question is, what is the best way to deal with it?
Another issue I have – and this is quite a big issue in my industry – is the fact that I don’t drink (alcohol). I choose not to drink alcohol in order to better manage my depression. I know that everyone’s different, but I find that alcohol can send me spiralling down into depression no matter how good I feel.
It’s awkward not drinking for several reasons:
a) my family loves to drink wine, especially at dinner, and it’s hard to be the only one left out. My parents also keep telling me that ‘one drink won’t hurt’ when I know it will.
b) I live in Northern Ireland where nearly everyone drinks as a social activity, and not drinking is considered to be prudish and unsociable (even when socialising!)
c) I work in the TV industry where alcohol is the socially acceptable lubricant that everyone uses to network and socialise all the time!
When I go out with work colleagues I find myself in the distinctly awkward position of having to explain to them why I’m not drinking. I’ve used all sorts of excuses:
1 – I’m on medication which I can’t drink with (true, as I’m not supposed to drink with Citalopram) – this one is only works for a certain length of time before people think either I’m suffering from some terrible disease or I’m lying.
2 – I’m driving – this one is great as I actually do drive, and I find myself driving intentionally so I can use this excuse. People often come back with “ah, just leave your car here and pick it up in the morning” and the stereotypically Northern Irish attitude “well you can always have one drink”. I often have to use some other excuse with this one, such as “my mum is coming up to visit me and I can’t be hungover” or “I need to pick someone up at the airport in the morning”.
3 – I’m not (much of) a drinker – people then think I’m a bore and anti-social, or, if I say I’m not a drinker, they’ll think I’m an ex-addict or some sort of social pariah.
4 – I’m on anti-depressants and I can’t drink with them. This is my last resort and one that I try to avoid using at all costs because it’s such a mood killer. People’s faces drop, they look concerned, or they’ll start to tell me, in a hushed voice, about how their friend is also on anti-depressants and it’s helped them.
I’d like to say that option number 4 is the best one to use, but when I was trying to be really open about my depression, I found that people would avoid me and/or would become really concerned about me and watch my behaviour all the time. Sometimes this meant being asked (again, in a hushed, or mother-like voice) how I was feeling. While I appreciate this concern, if someone tells me that they’re on high blood pressure tablets, I don’t act like they’re on their deathbed. It’s depressing!
So, again, what’s the best way to deal with this? I’d be interested to hear how other people have managed being out/not out in their work environment about their depression, and how they’ve navigated this sticky area!