Depression and anxiety are a poor mixture for keeping the engine going. So how is it that so many of us keep on going, day after day, without outwardly batting an eyelid at the multitudes of challenges being thrown our way?
Looking back, I can’t imagine how I kept going so long; how I did what I did. But I do understand why the engine gave out when it did.
It was Christmas 2010. I had just concluded a 3-year spell as the youngest ever national secretary in a volunteer organization, alongside my work and home life. Three years prior, on New Year’s Eve, my Mum had shown her true colors in an epic manner, and it had taken more than 6 months for me to go back home again. Relations remained strained for at least a year after that. I had long since pushed all of that away for the sake of restoring peace and harmony, but in hindsight, the fury with which I had thrown myself into this volunteer work was me running a mile from the glaring truth about my relationship with my mother.
Late 2010 my term in office ended, and I had time on my hands. Rather than facing the truth, I found other things to do in the organization and started doing excessive amounts of overtime at work. That, and building unduly complex policies and procedures around my position to secure it.
A few years earlier, as a very inexperienced manager, I had been transferred to a different line manager and life had been uncomfortable ever since. I felt utterly unsupported and left to sink or swim. Then one day, my assistant was signed-off on long term sick leave and I was left holding the ball, in the midst of a major legislative change program. I didn’t know whether I was coming or going.
Christmas came and went. Finally a bit of relief. I went back into work feeling somewhat refreshed, and soon enough the weekend came round again. And on Sunday, I had the first outright panic attack of my life. I just could not cope with the thought of having to go back into work. I felt bullied and harassed and unsupported, and the idea of having to go back in there left me gasping for air.
Long story short: I was signed-off for work-related stress. I only learned recently that the actual cause had been a major emotional flashback triggered by the sudden loss of my assistant and aggravated by the chronic lack of management support. My deepest trauma is that of childhood neglect and emotional abuse, even though I didn’t know that at the time. Every single abandonment button had been triggered. Luckily, I had amazing support from my GP, Mind and our local psychological services, and my wonderful husband and in-laws.
Here’s what I learned back then.
Depression and anxiety are our built-in defense mechanisms. It’s Scotty telling Captain Kirk that the engine cannae take it any longer, Sir, immediately followed a warning that structural integrity failure is imminent. All these complex systems have been running at full pelt for so long, that our trusty starship has finally run out of power, and we’re at risk of losing our life support systems. Faced with such a critical threat, the core computer shuts down all non-critical systems, so that repair and regeneration can take place.
It’s a terrifying experience. It feels like you’re slipping overboard into the ocean, and the cold instantly paralyzes you. You couldn’t call out if you wanted to. You watch as the water closes overhead and the daylight grows dimmer by the second. Sounds from the outside grow duller and duller as darkness envelops you. And somehow, you don’t feel a damn thing inside.
At that point, if I had not listened to my GP and accepted medication, I am not convinced I would have still been around here today. The anxiety was bad, but the depression was swallowing me whole. I needed a flotation device to survive this tidal morass.
Initially, I fought the anxiety and depression, labeling them my ‘inner demons’. But I quickly realized that was unfair. They were a natural part of me, and just like I had acted to protect my Mum and Dad from harm when they needed me to, so were these inner children of mine now acting to protect me from pushing myself beyond irreparable damage. They were nature’s healers of the wounded, weary soul, and I needed to trust in my own inherent ability to give safe harbor to my long-suffering self and ease the pain that had been haunting me all these years.
I stopped running. I gave in to the flow of life and trusted it to carry me where I needed to be.
Sounds like a platitude, right? It’s not. It was beyond terrifying, every moment of it. A 6-month terror thrill. Easily the toughest thing I’d done in my life up to that point. I’m a hyper-vigilant control freak and I felt like Indiana Jones stepping off the cliff in Raiders of the Lost Ark. But like Indie, somehow, deep inside of me, I knew it was the right thing to do.
Trusting myself, trusting therapists, trusting my employers to do right by me; trust, trust, trust … it was huge. And confrontational. The first two weeks of CBT felt like sitting in a small room where every surface was made out of mirrors. It was deeply uncomfortable and unsettling. But I pushed through my discomfort, and it paid off. I have continued to use my CBT toolkit all these years.
My journey isn’t over yet. This was just the first stage in my recovery, but it was a very useful foundation to progress from. If there is anything you take away from this first stage encounter, let it be this:
We Are Survivors. We have survived and overcome astonishing adversity. We are stronger and more resourceful than we give ourselves credit for. We can find a path to recovery.
In the words of the Prince of Egypt (Through Heaven’s Eyes),
No life can escape being blown about
By the winds of change and chance
And though you never know all the steps
You must learn to join the dance
You can do it.