I went back to work last week. I had been off several weeks after a tough, two-week, out-of-town assignment that brought me to my knees on the edge of my black hole.
In all, I was gone five weeks – some pre-planned vacation and some comp time. Still, when you’re out of the office for that long, for any reason, people are going to wonder why you have been gone so long.
If you don’t have a mental illness – whether it’s depression or alcoholism or an anxiety disorder – you’ve probably never been confronted with these questions: How do you call in sick when your mental illness prevents you from work? What do you say when you go back to work after an extended absence because of your mental illness?
When you have to answer these questions, you realize how much stigma there is about mental illness.
If you had to take off a couple of weeks because you had pneumonia, you would simply tell your boss that you could not work because you had pneumonia. But what do you say when your depression prevents you from working? How do you call in sick with depression?
Every now and then I get a glimpse of what my mental illnesses look like.
It’s been a long time. I have taken my medications without fail for years. I exercise, eat healthy foods, get as much sleep as I can, visit my psych-nurse practitioner every three months and I get on my knees every night and thank God for my sobriety. In other word, I do what I am told – an unnatural act for me.
As a reporter for a daily newspaper, I am accustomed to stress. For nearly 30 years I have lived with a deadline hanging over my head. I took six weeks off to have a baby, 8 weeks for my last major depression but other than the one- or two-week vacations, I have had a deadline over my head.
Recently, I accepted an assignment which today I realize I should not have done. I agreed to leave my home and my dog, suspend my exercise routine and healthy eating habits and forego nights of 8-hours of sleep to cover the Florida legislature’s last two-weeks in session.
I did this once before, nearly 30 years ago when reporters were only expected to write a story for the newspaper. Now, we must also Tweet, blog and make videos. Despite my degree in political science, after 30+ years in journalism, I’m kinda disallusioned with politics.
I was stunned.
My mother had rarely spoken about her childhood. She grew up on a farm in northern Wisconsin. They did not have hot water and she and her three sisters and two brothers took baths one-by-one in a tub in water that had been warmed on a stove. You wanted to be the first in line to get the cleanest, warmest water, she used to tell me. They didn’t have much money. They worked hard. They churned their own butter.
I could not recall her ever speaking about her father – my grandfather, who died when I was very young. About all I knew was that he drank a lot. So I asked. She rattled off stories – none of them happy or funny. He took all six kids to school in the morning and then started drinking. She had seen him drunk, sitting on a curb. She was so embarrassed that if she needed to go past his watering hole she would take a different route to avoid seeing him.
He took the money she had saved to buy herself a car. When she announced she was going to college – the only one of the four girls in the family who did – he kicked her out. Women didn’t need a college education, she recalled him saying. She went on to get a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree.
I have a few questions about Urban Outfitters controversial “Depression” shirt – like who the heck would wear that?
You’ve got a cropped t-shirt (who even wears those anymore?) covered the word “depression” in a busy pattern of different size letters. In the t-shirt’s defense, “Depression” is the name of the clothing line. Really? Who names their clothing line after a mental illness? What’s next?
Well, I don’t know what’s next but I can tell what the last shirt that got Urban Outfitters in trouble. It’s the one that said “Eat Less” on an emaciated teenager. REALLY? I mean, REALLY? You tell me that there was a photo shoot at some studio and the stylists put an “Eat Less” t-shirt on an emaciated teenage model and SOMEONE in the studio didn’t say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. This is not cool. We can’t do this!”
And there is some buyer at Urban Outfitters (who apparently didn’t get the memo about the Eat Less shirt) who saw the Depression t-shirt and thought, “Ooooo! We just have to carry that shirt!”
Don’t get me wrong. I like a lot of the stuff that Urban Outfitters sells. In fact, I just got a pair of tangerine Chuck Taylors for $10. Obviously, I don’t have much fashion sense but I love a good deal. But what little fashion sense – and common sense – I have were thoroughly insulted by the “Depression” t-shirt.
I don’t do resolutions but apparently a lot of people do because the gym was packed this morning.
If something needs to change, I change it. Relying on a number on a calender has never worked for me. Trust me. I’ve tried it. You can ask any alcoholic and they will tell you they have set deadlines and then either missed them or got sober for a few weeks and then they’re back at it.
It’s the same with dieting. If you can go ON a diet, you can go OFF a diet. You want to lose weight or quit smoking or drinking, you just do it – not because it’s a certain day of the year. Because it needs to be done and every cell in your body is convinced of that truth. In the words of the philosophers at Nike: Just do it.
Of course if you are as hard headed as I am, it may take some time to convince yourself that you really need to make a change. In fact, I brain has concocted truly ridiculous arguments to prove to myself that I didn’t need to quit drinking, take antidepressants or see a therapist.
And I shall go forth into another holiday season with this mantra: Expectations are premeditated disappointments.
I shall also turn the frickin’ channel when a jewelry commercial comes on the television or that chipper song Feliz Navidad plays on the radio. I will do my damndest to avoid sugar, especially M&Ms. I will avoid the mall and its DMV-ish lines and battles for parking spots.
I’m not doing this because I am a bah-humbug kind of girl. I’m doing this because I know that my depression is smack in the middle of the bullseye this time of year. After umpteen years of therapy and medications, I know that my expectations about Christmas – fueled by the American advertising industry – can push me over the edge.
So, I’m working on having a Charlie Brown kind of Christmas this year. I’m going to focus on putting a single bulb on a pathetic little tree – metaphorically speaking – and remember the nativity. I was raised Catholic, which likely explains a lot of other issues that we’re not going to go into right now, and taught that Christmas is about Christ’s birth.
Santa is supposed to be a side-dish, not the main course. I am going to focus instead on the lessons of the nativity, namely humility and giving.
And in that spirit, I give you this: a simple reminder of the simplicity of Christmas.
Pathetic Christmas tree image available from Shutterstock.
It is November 14 and I am on vacation. It is the first vacation I have taken this year and I will never – ever – go so long without a vacation again.
Normally I take a week in the spring, two or three weeks in the summer and a week in the fall or during the holidays. This year, I took a week off in the spring but it was no vacation. I felt myself slipping into a depression and took the time to deal with that. Throughout the year I have taken a day here or a day there when I wasn’t feeling well or needed a long weekend.
I realized in September that working so much with so little time off was affecting my mental health. Some mornings I woke up and wondered what day it was. Sometimes I tried to figure it out but I got to the point where I was like, f- it – it really didn’t matter what day it was.
I had to work – either at the newspaper or in the yard or on my 85-year-old house, which seems to be falling down around me. I felt that the only thing saving me from falling into my black hole was the floor beneath me – my medications. And I was flat on my ass on that floor.
The last two months have been hellish. As journalist for 30 years I’ve seen a lot of nasty stuff. However, September and November brought two new cases that raised the depravity and brutality bar. I won’t go into details but both involved mothers who ended up dead – one without a head – and orphaned or dead kids.
I am a newspaper reporter. In the 30 years I’ve been doing it, I’ve seen some horrific stuff – crimes and atrocities that grab headlines and break hearts. Last week I covered a case that knocked the emotional wind out of me.
I am hoping that my editors don’t read this. If they do, I’m afraid they will say I’m too weak to cover these kinds of stories – which I am not. Just the opposite.
Anyone who is regularly exposed to grisly violence and depravity and tells you it doesn’t affect them is either a liar or a sociopath. Yes, you can train yourself to disregard emotions and focus on your responsibilities – your job. You can wear emotional oven mitts when you have to reach in and touch the searing reality of what has happened.
But you cannot stuff your feelings or bury them forever. They are there, waiting to be acknowledged. If you ignore and deny them long enough, they will haunt you and stalk you until you either give in or become a mean, nasty, sarcastic and heartless son-of-a bitch.
It’s your choice – and it is a choice. I learned that lesson the hard way. Some people will drink or take drugs to take the edge off what they have seen or heard or smelled or touched. Some will become violent themselves. Many will become depressed.
I covered criminal courts for 12 years, which meant I hunted down the by-product of rage, terror and inexplicable tragedy every day. I trolled the hallways of the courthouse every morning in search of the saddest, most horrific, bizarre and violent stories on display that day.
In south Florida, where I have worked for most of my career, that’s saying something.
My mother, who lived her life in the midwest, would read my stories and say, “Things like this just don’t happen in Grand Rapids.” In my head I responded, “No shit.”
Fifteen years ago tonight I got very, very drunk. I don’t remember much of that night and what I do remember sickens me. I really hope that if my life flashes before me as I’m dying, this night is left out. I don’t really want to know what else happened that night.
Nothing has been the same since that night, August 27, 1998. It was simultaneously the worst and best night of my life. I hit bottom. I surrendered and started a new life- without drugs or alcohol. That night the first domino fell and since then I have learned that alcoholism is not my only mental illness. I also have hypomania – a kind of bipolar disorder with less dramatic and violent mood swings that bipolar I but my tendency is towards depression.
Getting sober was the beginning of my life making sense to me. If you do not have a mental illness, you may not understand how important it is for your life to make sense. Your life has probably always made sense to you.
My life was a disaster. I wasn’t even 40-years-old and I had already been through two marriages. I was a bitch. I had a lot of anger and spent a lot of time feeling sorry for myself. Removing the alcohol made life even more raw – like someone had taken a potato peeler to my soul. I not only had to learn how to live without alcohol, I had to learn to live. Period.
Having grown up in an alcoholic household and starting my own drinking/drugging career at 14, my social skills were a little lacking. I had to learn how to play well with others instead of conquering others. I had to learn to do things like apologize and mean it, tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and learn how to dance without a dozen Coronas in me.
Fourteen years ago today I took my last drink. I’m not sure exactly what it was because much of that night remains a blur – in and out of a blackout. I remember going to a party where there were massive martini glasses on each table filled with goldfish. I was determined to SAVE THE GOLDFISH! when the clean-up crew started flushing them down the toilet. Ah, the joys of being the last one at the party.
I have a few other snippets of drunken debauchery from that night but I clearly remember waking up and my neighbor coming over and asking if I was okay because my front door was wide open when he went out to get his paper that morning and some of my clothes — the kind of clothing that neighbors usually aren’t privy to seeing — were strewn about my front yard.
I stumbled into a 12-Step meeting later that day, sat in the back and realized I was in the right place — even though I thought it was insane that these people could be laughing at stories like mine from the night before! How dare they take this so lightly! Can’t they see how much pain I am in? What is wrong with these people?