How depression changed my life
Posted by
7th Nov 2014

Black Dog Tribe's longest-ever running intern, Laura, is sadly leaving SANE. This blog - a poignant and honest account of how depression has affected her career, relationships and finances - is her parting note.

On Monday, I had what will probably be my last ever face-to-face session with my counsellor, Jennifer. She asked me to reflect back on what had brought me to her in the first place, and whether I now feel proud of the 'journey' (her word, not mine – as I joked today, it is far too X-Factor a term for my liking – yuck) I've taken. Anyway, I realised that, when contemplating how far I've come, what initially led me to seek therapy isn't entirely the cause of my recurrent depression; the strands of causality and effect have been far more involved than that; it wasn't, as I originally thought, just a work thing.

I remember the first time I questioned my mental health. It was two years ago and I was on holiday in Barcelona. A holiday I had been looking forward to, planned to the last detail, scrimped and saved for. It was beautiful and sunny, my ex and I were renting a gorgeous modern flat in the vibrant business district, and I was in foodie paradise... but all I wanted to do was sleep. I couldn't lift my head off the pillow, let alone entertain getting up. I slept all day long for more than two days. My ex was understandably upset. We fought. When I was awake, I cried.

Once home, I went to my GP and was diagnosed with depression. Hello antidepressants.

A month prior to this, I had quit my job as a sub-editor. No one understood why; they still don't, not really. (I kinda hate that.) I quit because I couldn't face another second there, in that negative, pressurised, sexist environment. For months, I'd wake up and – bam! – it would hit me that I had another day in that office ahead of me, and I'd be filled with this all-consuming sense of dread... Palpable anxiety that, over time, became unbearable.

I had been bullied by a guy at work – bullied and sexually harassed. I'd tried to talk to more senior people about it (my manager, his manager and, later, HR) but they gave me the distinct impression I was just overreacting to the lively banter of a male-dominated environment. I started to question everything I was thinking and feeling, every instinct I had: maybe it was all in my head. Maybe it's normal for guys to have hardcore porn on their computer desktops, or to have them comment on your figure constantly and then call you “Emily Pankhurst” (sic) if you answer back. Perhaps it's okay to be called a bitch over the phone or to be pushed up against a wall in the bathroom corridor because you disagreed with this guy publicly humiliating another female colleague. It's possible that it's standard for HR to tell you that you need another female member of staff to back up your claims, and to warn you that taking a complaint further might “make things uncomfortable for you in the office”.

The thing was, I didn't want to get the guy sacked – I just wanted things to change for the better, so that he would realise the effect his behaviour had on the people around him (and hopefully end up happier in himself, too – he was clearly an angry, miserable guy); so that women would stop leaving the company, and freelancers would return (and not cite him making them cry as the reason why they wouldn't accept more work). I wanted someone, anyone, to back me up and agree that all of this was not acceptable.

But that didn't happen so, I snapped... I handed in my notice.

I went freelance for six months after that, but then the work dried up and we were struggling to make ends meet, so I accepted my job back. Everyone said it was stupid not to go back, but it was the absolute last thing I wanted to do. I had spent half a year having nightmares about this guy and now I had to see him again. Everyone around me told me that being employed was the most important thing, and I mustn't end up on benefits, and happiness or good mental health didn't come into it. My instincts said otherwise, but by this time I'd pretty much learned to ignore them, so I did as they advised.

I still can't believe I returned to such a toxic environment... It's no surprise that my recovery was immediately back to square one. I struggled on as best I could, receiving warnings from HR about the number of sick days I was taking and no longer bothering to report anything the bully did. I felt like I was sinking into a black hole – my energy sucked out of me, no hope, no spirit, no point to anything. I was clearly over-sensitive and a freak for not being able to cope. I spent hours with the same questions going round and round in my head: What is wrong with me? Why can't I just be 'normal' and count down the hours until the weekend, then have a big drink to forget that Monday is looming? How do others manage to work without being invested in what they're doing?

The probation period for my new role was extended to six months. Around month five, day 20, I experienced another breakdown. This time, I just wanted to disappear. I started fantasising about ways to get out of work: when walking under bridges, I would imagine them toppling on me and the relief I would feel. If I were in hospital with a physical illness, visually disabled, people would understand why I couldn't work or function. They wouldn't look at me funny or question my judgement. I didn't just want to sleep, I wanted to no longer exist.

Experiencing suicidal thoughts like this was terrifying. It took me a while to identify them, but once I confided in my then-partner and he said, “But I don't know what I'd do if you died”, it hit home.

My GP signed me off work for the remainder of December 2013 and said she would review my suitability to work in the new year. When I told my manager, she was understanding (she was a great support through all of this and is a good friend today), but the company said they had no choice but to let me go.

It was a relief to lose my job. I felt like I had lost who I was because of it, so it actually made me hopeful that I could get back to being me now that I was free from the shackles of the place. Upon reflection, even if I hadn't been bullied or the company culture had been more welcoming, I realised that the enormous amount of unpaid overtime wasn't for me and I loathed the power sales had over the articles we created. It was cash over quality every time – a sub's nightmare (sub-editors are the perfectionists of the journalistic world). Plus, I wanted to gain more digital editing experience: I'd heard this newfangled internet thingy might just take off...

I rested, and took solace in my two new kitties, and tried desperately to make ends meet while we waited for the council to sort out my benefits (grr)... My then-boyfriend took up two jobs, which he was doing alongside studying, to keep us financially afloat, and I felt really proud of him. I missed him, though. We passed like ships in the night.

One night in January, he came home and said he couldn't take it any more. He couldn't handle my depression any longer; he couldn't cope with looking after me, working all hours and worrying constantly. He didn't know if he wanted to break up, but he had to go. So he packed a bag (well, I packed it for him while he cried) and went to his parents'.

I felt so f**king angry with him. Betrayed, abandoned, shocked. I couldn't believe it. I was so mad at myself for not seeing the signs, realising he'd been pulling away, that he resented having to support me, that he was probably getting ill himself.

I couldn't pay the rent on our wee two-bedroom house in Bromley on my own. I had to move, and ended up lodging with a friend of a friend in south London. The cats couldn't come, though, so my ex and I agreed his folks would cat-sit them until I found a cat-friendly place. They'd always been my cats more than his.

He said he wanted to get back together a month or so later, but I couldn't do it. It didn't feel right. I could never trust him again, and he kept saying things like “Once you get better, we'll be happy again like we used to be” and “I just wish things would be like they were before you had depression”, which is ridiculous. Anyone who has depression knows they may recover, but it never goes away. I am not the same person. I never will be again. And I wouldn't want to be because then this would all be for nothing! I became depressed because I needed to change my life and I can't ever contemplate turning back the clock.

'Change' is a scary word; an intimidating prospect. I was literally rebuilding my life from the ground up: no job, no boyfriend, no permanent place to live, no cats (my ex refused to give them back after the break-up), no sanity (well, that's how it felt). I needed some help.

I got some great advice from a whole host of organisations, including SEEC and the Oxleas Trust. Their advisers recommended I go on Employment & Support Allowance (a benefit for people who are ill and want to gradually return to the workplace as and when they can) rather than Jobseekers Allowance, as I wasn't fit to return to work yet (the thought of doing so made me visibly shake). I found a local low-cost counsellor, who provided therapy for those on benefits, through Clapham's Awareness Centre and started sessions.

As my recovery progressed, I decided I wanted to change my career completely. I realised through counselling that I need to work somewhere where I feel valued, supported, listened to and like I'm making a difference. My counsellor suggested that if I wanted to work for the benefit of the greater good then I might consider the not-for-profit sector. Loads of charities need good writers and editors in all sorts of roles, she suggested, so why didn't I contact some and offer my services?

That's how I ended up volunteering for my local branch of Cats Protection. In helping them revamp their website and improve their social media, I had found my niche. I loved it and couldn't wait to get up, go to meetings and events, cuddle kitties, meet all the lovely fellow volunteers and work the helpline. A few months later, I saw that SANE were advertising for a communications and media intern to help run Black Dog Tribe, and leapt at the chance.

I got really emotional during the interview, recounting my story and what had led me to change my career direction, and was sure I'd blown it. But I got it. They admired my strength, honesty and passion for the cause. It felt amazing.

The BDT community helped me during my darkest days and now I get to give something back to the tribe. I adore every minute of it, from choosing inspirational good morning posts to studying the analytics to make sure we're giving you what you need to keep the black dog at bay. This sounds daft, I know, but I credit SANE with bringing me back to life. Working at SANE has restored my faith in the workplace, and showed me that charity communications is where I want to be from now on.

Two weeks ago, I found out I've secured my first paid charity communications job – Web and Digital Communications Assistant at United Response, a brilliant charity supporting people with disabilities and mental health needs. I start on Monday, so this is my parting note.

If you're currently doing your damnedest to scrape by on benefits, as I am, you'll understand my relief at having an income again. It means I can afford to move out of my shared house (12 people, including four kids under the age of two, and one bathroom – in short: hell and, yes, oh so illegal) and get a wee studio of my own. Calling Lewisham Council to tell them I no longer need housing benefit is going to be a weirdly poignant moment for me. Being on benefits in this country truly does make you feel like a second-class citizen.

When I told my parents I'm back in paid employment, they cried. My friends seem relieved that I'm 'normal' again; I think my situation embarrassed them a bit... or at least threw them, as they never quite knew what to ask or say to me. I worry that they saw me as lazy, choosing not to work, just shirking off during all this time.

But I am not ashamed: I needed that time off and the safety net of government support because I was mentally ill. I will not beat myself up for an illness I cannot control. I am strong for seeking help, and for being honest about needing to live in a new and different way. I feel so bloody lucky now: I have to pinch myself to remind me that it's real; it really has all worked out how I hoped. I've got a new fantastic paid job doing something meaningful that makes me glad to get up in the morning. I'm seeing a supportive, hilarious man who I trust entirely and can truly be myself with. And I don't have to share a bathroom with 12 people ever, ever again.

Man, I sound like a smug bitch. But, no, it's okay to be proud of yourself and the progress you've made, tribe. It's important, from time to time, to take a moment to toot your own horn.

So, bye. This is me, Laura, signing off and returning to the tribe as an ordinary member. Thank you for having me.

You can connect with Laura on Twitter @laurahazelcook.

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