Feb 26

I thought that telling people I was gay was a tough gig. It still makes me nervous at times. The stigma around being gay is fading out, like a farmhand on a horse riding off into the sunset. Not that I’ve ever been a farmhand or ridden into the sunset. I have, however, been on a horse

Working in the 80s and 90s would have been so much harder for me if I was out. I well recall the homophobic jokes and teasing that I laughed along with. Being gay was not ok.

Until now. Being gay is ok for me.

The stigma around mental illness still exists. I know plenty of people who have an illness.

So, big breath, I too have a mental illness. I’ve been fretting about telling you. In some ways it feels like coming out. The stigma associated with a mental illness feels the same.

The same questions pop into my head

  • How to tell you?
  • What will you think of me?
  • What if you don’t want to be my friend anymore?
  • What if you change how you treat me?

And that’s just the start.

The answer to the first question is easy – “I wanted to let you know that I have a mental illness”. The real work is then afterwards, that’s when the stigma rolls in, or more importantly, that’s the perception. My perceptions, as I have often observed, are not always spot on, and like coming out, it’s an internal stigma, so the only logical answer to the next lot of questions is “Fuck you” if your answer is anything other than “OK, no probs” to question 1.

I have had depression for more years than I care to remember. For many of those years I have worked with my GP and psychologist to understand the nature of my illness and find ways to mitigate it. The last thing I have ever wanted to do is tell others. I didn’t even want to admit it to myself.

When I left Family Life in March 2017 it was after a long stressful period at work. There was so much going on at the same time, and this became a real turning point for me. I was there for 18 years, and I always enjoyed the job. As my mental health declined, so did my work, so did my mood and so did my interactions with others.

When I made my farewell speech then, I said to the staff that part of the reason for my leaving was my well-being. My mental health. I explained how I was trying to look after it, I had begun some medication, and need to stop and rest for a while.

I didn’t tell anyone else about my reasons, I said that I was leaving to complete my studies.

Work out of the way, I could focus on studying better. I muddled through, I really did. I don’t know how I actually passed. There were many dark days and while medication took the edge off, I was still not very well at all.

It was two years later when I started a new job. I was onto my 2nd medication, and it seemed to work, I was reaching a better equilibrium and felt ready to take on the next challenge.

And I love my job, I love the work we do, and the people who do it. It ticks all my social justice boxes.

Eighteen months into the job and I could feel the wheels falling off again. I tried hard to keep things under control, but I was slipping.

For a reason I don’t really understand, I came off the medication. While the medication helped, it really made me exhausted, to the point that my brain would just shut down by around 6 every night. I’d have to go to bed, which is just ridiculous, so I’d stay and watch telly for a couple of hours while snarling at Michael for chatting to me.

Initially, when I came off the meds, I actually was pretty good, for a little while. The crash sort of sneaked up on me. Little things at first. It was easy to say the pandemic was causing me stress, and it did, it kept me awake at night, trying to work out how to look after our teams and the people we support. I could put my mood down to that stress.

After I was particularly snappy in one of the leadership team meetings, not rude mind you, just snarky, Kon, the CEO, took me aside and asked me if I was ok. That’s an outrageous question to ask! Indignantly I said, “Yes, of course I’m OK”. The next words out of his mouth are the single most important he has ever uttered to me.

“No, you’re not ok”

Weak knees, tears welling up, head down and a slight stutter as I finally acknowledged the truth. “You’re right”.

What a precious moment. Another person cared enough, not just about my job performance, but me as a person, to tell me he was worried about me, to ask why my responses and actions were out of sync, to check in with me, really check in on a professional and personal level.

There are others too, of course, who have been trying to tell me. My husband, Michael, more on that soon.

I have to say that I love my job, I want to throw myself into it and work hard. I felt like I was working with a team that is making real change for people, and I find that important and rewarding. Furthermore, I didn’t want to mess this up, that’s an anxiety all on its own. The guilt of walking away in the middle of a pandemic was gut-wrenching for me.

Walk away I did, and this time, I thought, I’m pulling out all stops. First stop to the GP – I wanted a real diagnosis, not that his diagnosis wasn’t real. I wanted a psychiatrist to give me the once-over. I really wanted to put a plan in place to help me manage. I knew I could live with depression, I just knew I couldn’t do it by myself.

What’s essential to me in my leadership role is modelling behaviours. Over the course of the pandemic, I was aware of the huge impact it was having on the well-being of the staff. It was really a tough gig for all of us, locked up at home, trying to help some of the most vulnerable people in Victoria and struggling to make sure we could make ends meet.

It felt so wrong at the time to have to take leave. It is what I have been saying, though to the staff, if you’re unwell, take the time off. We’ve got this, and we need you back, so go heal.

Here was an opportunity for me to model a bit of self-care, and there’s little point in doing that if I don’t tell people what’s going on. So I did. I was quite upfront with people. I told them that I’m not well, and I’m taking a mental health break to look after my depression.

I hated taking the time off. I’m glad I did. I think it’s difficult for some people to do this. We’re so caught up in our bullshit that we forget we are only human. There should be no shame in not being at the top of your game. Nobody batted an eyelid when I had time off to have my skin cancers removed. Nobody cared I took time off to have my wisdom teeth removed. Nobody should care that I need time off to have my depression removed, or mitigated, or managed. I don’t know the right word.

So, I did take some extended leave, during a pandemic, where I got to sit at home and do nothing. A dose of mountains, trees, kangaroos and small goats would have been ideal, but impossible. So, home I stayed. Taught myself how to program in Python. Set up a Raspberry Pi, bought some lenses to take photos with it and read.

Diagnosis came when I sat with the psychiatrist who ran me through a series of questions about life. Mild to severe depression he proclaimed. Oh yes, he proclaimed, we had full trumpets, the unrolling of a parchment and the tolling of bells before the big announcement. Well, that’s what it felt like. At last, I had some words. I hadn’t realised just how important this was for me. I think that just popping a few pills wasn’t enough, I needed to know just what I was dealing with. The psychiatrist prescribed a bunch of blood tests and from that my third medication was introduced.

And this time the changes in my mood were so much better. The time off, seeing my psychologist weekly, the psychiatric assessment and a treatment course all helped me to get back on track. It was about a month before I returned to work, raring to go.

Now some months later, I’ve taken a couple of weeks off for an intensive program of TMS. Again, it was important for me to let the leadership team know, and the staff too.

I don’t feel mighty, I’m hoping that my little blog will help someone, I’m hoping that letting my team know they’ll know it’s ok to take care of themselves.

I feel like this is tough for me. Everyone’s journey and experience is very different to mine. I don’t want for a minute to undermine yours.

What I do want, is a world free of stigma. Stigma creates trauma, and we need to let go of the things that cause said stigma. It’s a nice way of saying, if you’re a misogynist, a homophobe, a transphobe, a mental health phobe (is there a word?) to pull your head out of your arse. Stigma sucks and has real life impacts for those at the other end, and you have no excuse for being phobic.

Finally, you know what’s vital to me? Michael. I have told him he is the love of my life. We have been on this journey together, and this wonderful man has waited for me, he has put up with so much while I’ve been to the bottom and slowly back to something near normal. He sees in me something that keeps him here. As I do in him. My relationship with him is an important part of my happiness. I just want to be with him. I want us to be happy. I’m grateful, happy, pleased, thrilled, I don’t know how to express it. I’m rapt that he is in my life.

You, you take care of yourself.

Tagged with:
preload preload preload