I am so pleased to welcome Jessica to the blog today. Her story is one so many will relate to, with one exception. She now works for a firm who are embracing mental health as something which needs to be looked after!
I hope after reading this you agree with me that Jessica embraces what resilience means to the core, to keep coming back fighting is what many of us with mental health illness continue to do. We get knocked down but we just come back harder and stronger. Our illness is not a weakness and we must remember this.
In my professional life I have spent the vast majority of my career working in professional services firms and have had awful experiences when it comes to how I’ve been treated with regards to my illness. This story gives me hope that these firms starting with KPMG are starting to realise that mental health is something to embrace, nurture, and invest in.
Thank you Claire for letting me write this guest blog and hello to BrizzleLass’s followers! My name is Jessica and I have depression, also suffer from anxiety and borderline PTSD.
This blog post is about “resilience”, which is a very fashionable word right now. In fact I’m surprised there hasn’t been a gym chain or an energy drink called “resilience” launched to celebrate its word chic. There probably is, but I can’t be bothered to Google it. (Okay, so I Googled it. You can buy resilience products to keep your leather furniture intact and resilience chlorine generator for your pool. My post will be about neither of these.)
A couple of weeks ago at work I was asked to be a keynote speaker at a new training course for senior leaders on how to support employees to maintain good health – physical, but particularly mental – throughout what can be a pressurised city career with some tight deadlines, tough challenges and potentially long hours.
I agreed, but then I read the materials ahead of the day, and I felt completely unqualified to speak about resilience. On one page, the following dictionary definition was given (I’m not sure from which dictionary).
My experience of ‘resilience’ is that the dictionary definition is at best a ‘best day’ description, and, at worst, just total nonsense. Here is my story. See what you think. I think if you’re reading this, then you’re here, and that means that you’re resilient. Let’s see:
Dictionary Definition: The ability of matter to spring back quickly into shape after being bent, stretched, or deformed.
A person who is resilient:
– Sustains good health and energy when under pressure
– Bounces back early from setbacks – has mental toughness
– Overcomes adversities – thrives on challenges; optimistic
– Changes to a new ways of working and living when the old way is defunct, and
– Does all this without acting in a dysfunctional or harmful way – has a positive impact on others
I read this and thought I had better come clean to the audience up front. “I don’t know if I actually am resilient based on the material I have read accompanying this course, but I’ll tell you my story and perhaps you can tell me what you think.”
So here goes:
I have had depression on and off for the last twenty years (more than half my life). I had to take a year out from my Classics degree at Oxford University because I became very ill. I remember crying and crying in my bedroom in the shared set of two bedrooms and a sitting room I shared with my roommate, not understanding why I couldn’t stop crying and wishing I could just feel better and not face every day as if I were pushing a boulder up a hill. After a journey home to Nottingham by bus as no trains were running and where I could barely stand in line for my ticket, I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, but in reality my mental health was severely affected. I couldn’t even watch Richard and Judy on TV because it was too emotionally demanding.
Since then, life has had its ups and downs – life, after all, is what happens while you are busy making other plans. A friend died. I got bullied at work. I changed jobs. My father got cancer. I moved to London. I fell in love with my partner (now husband). I changed jobs again. And with me, on this journey, depression and anxiety came to visit pretty frequently, and I started my on-off relationship with anti-depressants because I knew I had to keep going through this, somehow.
I cannot tell you how many times I failed to get out of bed at the weekends when my depression was terrible, or how many times I cried on the way to work (or on the way back, or, while teaching, during, when my ‘challenging’ children, whom I fiercely fought for all the way lit matches in my classroom under the desk, locked me out of my room, accused me of being sexually interested in them for asking them a question about the book we were reading, or hit me over the head (by accident – I must say) with a baseball bat). I cannot tell you how many times I didn’t wash my hair because it was just too hard. Or how I left the house without makeup because it had been hard enough to get up and I ‘knew’ how awful I looked anyway, so nothing I could do could make it worse.
I left teaching after three years (including a promotion to deputy head of department in a new school) to learn business acumen in technology and strategy consulting. I took on roles where I had no knowledge of the subject whatsoever but relished the challenge to learn – and committed myself to doing the work to succeed. I looked at everyone around me and said to myself, “You see what they did, then, in that meeting / presentation / email? Do that. That is effective in business.” And I did it. But the depression and anxiety didn’t go away. I kept working as hard as I could and socialising in my (still new) life with my partner but I still cried on the weekends when he went away for the day. I still struggled to get out of bed in the morning quite a lot of the time, and still felt that I had – barely – made it through another day filled with those meetings, presentations and emails I had learned to handle through observing others.
I married my partner – my best friend in the world and love of my life – and then took on more challenges because I wanted to keep learning and growing to ‘the next step’, to keep going and achieve more. I went to Africa to work for three months (amazing months) and my passport was stolen. This was horrifying, stressful and took 5 weeks to get the Ghanaian embassy to grant me passage to leave the country – which I finally received on the day I was due to fly out. I came back and struggled with the “repercussions” of the mental aftermath and the severest bout of depression I have experienced for a long time happened. I recovered with more medication. I kept working. I kept crying and sleeping too long or not enough but I kept working and got promoted in my job.
And then I decided that I wanted to do an overseas project in the USA – the ultimate test (I felt) of my ability to succeed in business in (what I thought would be – and were) the toughest possible circumstances. After confirming their support for this move, my UK firm completely turned around on this and said I couldn’t go, so after support from the USA part of the firm I decided (with my husband, of course) that I should transfer and he would come out to be with me. I still believe that my decision to go and undertake what would be double the project I thought it would be (since I got asked to take on double the work after just a few weeks there) was the right one for my career: I learned so much, have never worked so hard, worked with some of the most brilliant and inspiring people and faced some of the toughest professional challenges of my life.
But the price that I paid was the loneliness. I was so, so lonely without my husband. We travelled to see one another every six weeks or so – either him to me (in his holidays from teaching) or me to him (over US holidays or weeks where I’d agreed to work ‘from home’ in the UK. The marathon of a project I was in continued and I got sicker and sicker with depression and loneliness. The fug of anxiety that was a gum-like fist in my chest never shifted. One day I cried at work and told my manager: “I need to go home for this afternoon, I don’t feel well.” She looked shocked and concerned, but it was not clear whether she was concerned for me or for the project over which I had so many leadership responsibilities. The next day she said, “I think it’s best that you don’t continue on the project after July, when your allocated time is up.” I wasn’t consulted. I wasn’t invited into this discussion. I was told. “You are weak,” I told myself. “You are a failure.” “This is why you won’t succeed.” “Your depression makes you ‘less than’.”
I had tried therapy in the USA (with the world’s worst as far as I’m concerned) and dutifully took my citalopram, but I didn’t get better. I got promoted, again, in August 2014, which was great, but at that point after nearly two months off work I knew I was still so ill and I wasn’t sure I could see an end point.
I took a role that allowed me to be back in the UK working remotely and I spent spare time (while really ill, on no medication, having ditched the citalopram as all side effects and no benefits to my mental health) applying for UK positions. I have no idea how I got any of them given how ill I was, but I did. I got a few offers, and chose one I thought would work for me.
Last year, at my new job (with KPMG) I had a negative experience where two non-KPMG non-client people on my project bullied me with silent treatment, negative comments about my weight and ignoring me. Having been bullied as a child I tried everything – EVERYTHING – I could to try to change myself so they would like me, but nothing worked. Eventually I had to admit that I did not want to live like this – in fact I did not want to live at all – and I needed help. I am lucky to have a husband who listened and a doctor who helped me get admitted to hospital and receive treatment.
I can’t count the numbers of times I cried and despaired, and it isn’t helpful to do so either, but while I remember that these things happened and that I felt so lost, distraught and adrift during these times I suppose I have to admit that I am here and telling you this story.
I still do not feel resilient. Read above. See how many times I have fallen down during my life. I’ve tried 6 different kinds of anti-depressants. I’ve seen two psychiatrists and six therapists. I’ve spent many days wishing that I wouldn’t wake up the next day. I’ve hidden my sad self from the world and hated myself for my failures.
But, I am trying to learn, resilience is not about the fact that we keep falling down and struggling. It is the fact that we keep trying – somehow – even semi-reluctantly – to live through it and hang on. So, with all due respect, dictionary, bollocks to your definition of ‘resilience’. I may not be bouncing back, but I come back eventually. Maybe I’m more like a blade of grass trodden down by a forceful foot which delicately, so slowly, regains its elasticity and looks towards the sun. Maybe I’m more like a frosted window which shines again when the sun comes up to melt the ice crystals that have formed upon it. Maybe I do sometimes act in a dysfunctional or harmful way, whatever the hell you think that means. But I am here. So, resilience, isn’t that worth something? I believe it is. You are resilient. You are here. You matter. #PleaseStay