Workplace isolation, West Coast grey and the "black dog"
Reprinted from "Workplaces" issue of Visions Journal, 2009, 5(3), pp. 15-16
It was supposed to be an ideal solution. My husband had a new job in a new city. I could keep my old job by working from home. Having flexible hours meant more time for my four-year-old little girl. However, the ideal turned out to be a set-up for disaster. I work as an interaction designer (i.e., I optimize how people interact with the Web) and market researcher for an online company. Before our move, I was heavily involved in a big project that required me to work long hours. I loved it. Despite the pressure, I was keenly aware that I was helping build an educational product that would one day help kids make good decisions about their future.
Toward the end of the project, we moved from the sunny Okanagan to the Fraser Valley. And I settled into my new home office.
The big slide
It didn’t take long for me to show signs of a slide into depression. I started sleeping a lot during the day. I gained weight. I was short-tempered—jumping between anger and lethargy. Nothing seemed to matter anymore. I felt disconnected from face-to-face contact with friends and co-workers. My husband was working terribly long hours. I knew no one in the new city—and it was gray and rainy all the time. I felt trapped in an oppressive, ceaseless darkness and couldn’t muster the energy to drag myself out of it.Things got worse. I started avoiding work and just stayed in bed. My husband couldn’t understand what was going on and wanted me to “get out of bed and do something!” It all came to a head one day when I found myself yelling incoherently at my innocent daughter. I knew then that I was in deep trouble and that if I didn’t get help I risked losing my family and my life. I went to see my doctor and essentially broke down in his office. There’s nothing quite like having someone ask “So how are you?” and not being able to answer because you’re sobbing so hard. Needless to say, he recognized I was in crisis.
I was in enough control that hospitalization wasn’t needed, but was promptly put on antidepressants and referred to a counsellor. Both helped immensely. The medication took a few weeks to kick in, but the counsellor was able to see me almost immediately. His guidance helped me deal with the depressive thoughts that were constantly swirling in my head. I learned how to recognize those thoughts and how to challenge them.
Not yet out of the raincoast dark
I still struggled with my work situation, though. I couldn’t get anything done; any attempts were half-hearted and lacklustre. I asked for two weeks off—and received it—but these few days weren’t going to help. I needed a serious break from work in order to recover. I didn’t know what to do. We couldn’t afford to live without my income—yet, I was in great danger of losing my job if I didn’t get some healing time. After much despair, I approached my supervisor in person, explaining my situation. It was difficult to do; I felt I was risking a lot by talking to him about my sickness. I was afraid it would tarnish his image of me—and that I might lose my job.
To my great relief, my supervisor was sympathetic; his mother-in-law had suffered from depression* and he was well aware of the various issues associated with the illness. He talked with our human resources (HR) person, and they and my doctor applied to get me on short-term disability. This would stabilize my financial situation while I worked to recover.
At first, the insurance company rejected my claim for short-term disability (six months), expressing doubt about my doctor’s diagnosis. It was like a punch to the gut. I felt they thought that I was faking it. That I just wanted to have some good time off. Any doubts I had about myself were pushed even further into the darkness. Maybe this wasn’t real; maybe I was just an inept failure. Maybe the world and my family would be better off without me.I would have given up if not for the support of my HR person, doctor, husband and counsellor. They insisted that I appeal—which I did. My doctor filled out a disability appeal form, reiterating his initial diagnosis. He was quite frustrated with their paperwork demands, as it was impeding my recovery. And, the delay was creating additional stress about finances. My husband realized that I wouldn’t be able to work until I was better. But if I had to resign from my job in order to heal, our family would take a financial hit, and it would be difficult for me to find a new job later.
Apparently, many insurance companies initially reject depression suffers’ claims. And the insurance company did accept my appeal application for short-term disability. But, it seems that only those with enough support, will and stamina to continue the application in spite of their illness eventually receive assistance. It took over eight months for me to recover. I learned many things about the journey of life during that time. I learned how to recognize the depressive thoughts and how to challenge them and combat them with exercise. I recognized that some aspects of working at home (i.e., isolation) can help trigger depression, so I try to get out and interact with other people in places like my favourite coffee shop or the local library.I will always have the “black dog of depression” in my life. Sometimes he will be far away, and other times he will be much closer. I need to be vigilant against him, keeping safeguards—such as exercise, meditation and sunshine—in place.
I’m now back at work. I’m still working from home—but I’m back in the “sunny” Okanagan. This is, indeed, an ideal situation.
* Editor’s note: Although Gwen had a supportive response from her employer after disclosing her diagnosis, it’s important to note that the employer was only required to know how Gwen’s health condition affected her work. An employee does not have to disclose information about the diagnosis, the history of the illness or its treatment.
About the author
Gwen could be described by accomplished deeds (a few), time volunteered (a modest amount) or minutes worked (too many). However, her most memorable and meaningful hours are spent with her family or out in the beautiful BC wilderness, running or cross-country skiing