Four years ago this morning, I took the morning off from my job in the Staff Development Department of a local organisation to attend a medical appointment, and never went back.
Four years ago yesterday morning, I was sitting in my office crying my eyes out to my poor assistant, telling him I couldn’t cope with work, with life, with anything any more. He was very tolerant, even though I made him cry too. Sorry mate.
Four years ago yesterday, after talking to my assistant, I knew enough was enough, and I rang my mother (again in floods of tears) and in psychological desperation, begged her to put an appointment on with my GP (the reasons for my inability to do this myself aren’t particularly important or interesting.)
And four years ago yesterday, after making that phone call, I dried my eyes and marched down to the Personnel Department to sort out an epic mess some idiot had inflicted upon us. I was efficient, solution-focused, capable and personable, and no one there that day would ever have guessed that they’d never see me again.
Please note that there’s stuff in this post that some people may feel uncomfortable reading – I’ve tried to faithfully recreate the run-up to my four-year breakdown here, and have alluded to some uncomfortable issues such as job loss (obviously), benefits, depression and suicide (in passing).
Was it work that caused the breakdown? No: it would always have happened anyway, because I have recurrent, severe clinical depression (now realised to be manic depression [schizoaffective disorder, whatever – who really gives a fuck], thanks to observations of the joy of hypomania, the particular seven levels of hell that is the bipolar mixed state, and of course my old companions, the psychoses.) Further, I have PTSD, and that had never been adequately explored in therapy. But my job probably sped the whole horrible thing up a little, and maybe it was better to lose my sanity when I did. As it is I’m nearly 30 and lacking any meaningful prospects (as discussed in my last post), so just how bleak would the outlook have been had it taken another year, two years, whatever?
I think back to the period leading up to Four Years, and I feel sad. The job was demanding and responsible, it was endlessly frustrating and every day was a challenge. For months, I’d thrived on it. Pressure was my friend; it made me driven, ridiculously resourceful, the person everyone turned to when perplexed. Most of them were wonderful; I liked everyone in our building – save for one Arsehole (there’s always one) who was fortunately out a lot – and by and large I was very fond of everyone in head office and in the outlying branches.
I started off on a part-time position as the assistant to my retiring predecessor, but was promptly promoted to my latter position (nepotism #1), securing my own office and the promise of my own eventual assistant to share it with me.
Sounds good. Sounded good. Was good. I was good at it. I was well-liked, and I liked well. And then it all fell apart.
My boss, a wonderful woman in her early 60s, decided to retire early. I say ‘wonderful’ – she was a wonderful manager, though I’m not sure we’d have been particularly close had we socialised together. She afforded me a considerable amount of autonomy, letting me carry out my role as I saw fit. She saw when I was under pressure, telling the rest of the department – and often the rest of the entire company – to leave me alone for a while, whilst I got my head down and got on with my work. She – shockhorrorhowisthispossible – understood the flexi-time policy!!! She supported me at every juncture, and when my father died tried to insist I take extended compassionate leave at no cost to my yearly allowance (as it happens, I wish I hadn’t bothered to even take the statutory days [three], but that’s a story for another day.)
During her tenure, I had an equally happy relationship with the girls in the room next door. In fact, they are people I would have – and occasionally did – see(n) outside of working hours.
This all sounds so conceited and saccharine. The job wasn’t perfect, and I certainly wasn’t. It all came together, though. Work and I worked together.
With my boss’s retirement imminent, the higher-ups advertised her position across the local rags. It came as no surprise to any of us when one of the women from next door decided to apply for it. She had the qualifications and, I thought, the capability. I have no idea what the other candidates – if there were any – were like, but predictably, she got the position (nepotism #2). I was genuinely happy for her – we all were – and remember being the one to merrily saunter to the shop to buy her cards and cake in celebration.
Anyway, she took over in February. At that point, I was entirely and singularly responsible for a major departmental project (without my much promised assistant), and had never been so busy in my life. I was in the office at the earliest possible time (8am), leaving at the latest possible time (6pm), and I only occasionally took time to have lunch or a tea break. I didn’t mind; again, I thrived under the pressure. But there were problems. Arsehole was becoming increasingly demanding; when he was in the office, his name flashed up on my phone all day long – either that or he was suddenly in my office unannounced – either way, he was complaining about something. When he was out of the office, he’d ring in all the time asking me to conduct menial tasks for which I did not have time, especially given that they were things he was meant to have damn well done himself on his ‘in’ days. More importantly, without someone to take the calls, deflect the emails, and sort out the crap, I was having to do that as well as the mammoth task that realistically required all my attention, all day. At first my boss was okay with me putting the phone straight to the answering machine, or putting an out of office message on my email account. I was gratified and happy with the arrangement.
However, I dared to do this a second time, a few weeks later. To my surprise, my boss was not happy. I wouldn’t say she was furious, but she was very sceptical of my need to devote myself to the project, even though by her own sodding admission she could have never taken it on herself. From there, everything went to hell.
In fairness, I eventually got my assistant. He was great (he still is – he’s the only person I’m still in touch with), but my boss refused to let me have direct management of him (why?!), thus meaning that, in theory at least, we were supposed to consult her every time I wanted to delegate a task. She spent quite a bit of time out of the office – time I increasingly grew to cherish – but when she was there, she began to micro-manage everything. That autonomy I’d been given previously, very much on a but of course you can do this your own way basis, faded into the recesses of memory.
And team meetings…oh, God. I still shudder when I think of each one in the immediate run-up up to Four Years. Almost without exception, my boss would sit at the table listening to complaints from Arsehole, and say, “sure, Karen and [my assistant] can do that.” My assistant and I would steal looks at each other, frowning. For some reason, I lost my ability to adequately stand up for myself in these meetings, and I’d just sit there, looking aghast. Sometimes my assistant spoke up – he’s never been one to mince his words, and I hope he never is. She hated it. “What’s wrong with asking you to do x?” she’d enquire angrily, genuinely mystified as to what the problem was. We’d try to make our case, but somehow we were always shouted down. Occasionally other members of staff would stick up for us, but it was never enough. One well-meaning but clueless woman, relatively new to the place, would unwittingly back up our boss’s increasing demands.
Then the accusations began. In a one-to-one meeting one day, she said:
You’ve changed, Karen. You’ve become so unapproachable.
I was uncharacteristically incandescent with blinding red rage at this. I snarled:
I guarantee you that if you pick up that phone right now and speak to the people that I deal with daily, both within and outside of this organisation, they will vehementlydisagree with that. Just who is it claiming that I’m ‘unapproachable’? [I practically spat the word out.] Arsehole?
She didn’t reply, but had the grace to drop her eyes. Confirmation.
The next one was that I was ‘late’ one day. I calmly pointed out to my boss that I had arrived in the office at about 9.15am. I told her to ‘feel free’ to check that time with the receptionist, to whom I’d spoken briefly when ‘clocking in’.
So? You’re supposed to be here at 9.
Noooo, I’m supposed to be here between 8am and 10am. Head office operates a flexi-time policy for all non-reception staff, except at particularly busy times [by this time departmental business had calmed down, though my role was still very busy, not that she cared.]
I reached to the shelves on my right and pulled out a copy of the flexi-time policy, plus a record of the excessive amount of time owed to me. She eyed me suspiciously, took them from me, and walked out. I never heard anything more about flexible working – not until I’d left, anyhow. Then, apparently, she frequently criticised my assistant for being ‘late’, despite (a) the existence of this policy, for which he was eligible and (b) the fact that the poor man (who didn’t have a car) walked – up and down hills, for over five miles – into work during some of the most adverse weather conditions Northern Ireland had seen. I think he said the very latest he arrived was about half nine. She, on the other hand, didn’t leave her house for fear that she’d crash her poxy car. I still can’t believe the hypocrisy of that.
She emailed me one day.
Do you want to be on this steering committee?
I looked at the attached documentation. The committee (which was head office-wide, not specific to Staff Development) could have been very career-enhancing, and in its own nerdy way was quite interesting – but it involved at least weekly three-hour+ meetings, plus a lot of independent practical testing and research.
Well…actually, I do, if you’re okay with that. But you realise that if you put me forward for this, there is no waythat I can continue to undertake the level of work this department gives me?
I stared at the screen.
Well, we can shift some of your stuff onto [my assistant].
Okay, but it’s not enough. This steering group is going to demand…I don’t know, by the sound of it, something like half my hours! We can’t give half of my workload to a part-time staff member who’s already stretched to capacity.
She didn’t respond. I wanted to run down to her office and smack her, but of course I didn’t. I got on with my job.
And I got on with it well, despite the fact I’d stopped sleeping. When I say that, I mean it more or less literally – on a good night, I might have dozed for 20 minutes. Most nights I didn’t sleep at all, and I somehow survived on nothing more than adrenaline and caffeine. I got on with it well, despite the fact that I now left the house in tears every morning, with The Man holding my hand, desperately trying to offer words of solace, all the way to the office, and turning in concern as I dragged my shaking self through the front door. I got on with it well, despite the fact that all I wanted to do was sit and cry and sigh and even die.
The fortnight before Four Years was okay. My boss was on holiday, and Arsehole was out training. However, they were both due back on the morning of Four Years – for a team meeting, something I had begun to dread with burning agony. In my sleep-deprived, despairing state, I’d become hypersensitive, and managed to surreptitiously pick up enough tidbits of information to determine that I’d got my place on the steering committee – and that the only concession to this 50% extra workload was going to be that the trainers would ‘do a wee bit extra’.
As I sat contemplating the meeting, silent tears rolling down my cheek, I knew I couldn’t go. I knew I couldn’t so much as speak to her without hyperventilating and sobbing hysterically. But I knew more than that: I knew I was utterly spent, and falling head-first down the darkest tunnel I’d ever known. I knew that the violent, splintering crash at the bottom was coming rapidly, and that if I valued the last vestiges of a sound mind, I had to act quickly.
So, Four Years ago yesterday, I rang my mother. And then I went downstairs to sort out HR’s mess.
The moral of that vignette: don’t assume that just because someone seems okay that they really are. There’s nothing much you can do about that in advance if you don’t know what to look for or if the person doesn’t tell you something’s wrong, but please, please, don’t start bitching after the fact that just because you couldn’t see it means that claims of it are false. It isn’t true. We are very good at façades, us crazy people.
At 6pm that evening, I checked that everyone had left our building and locked it up. I went to reception in the main building to clock out. I closed the door, not knowing that I would never set foot in there again.
My first day of my New Life began four years ago today. My sobbing mother held my hand as I sat practically catatonic in front of one of my GPs.
I have to ask, Karen. Please try to answer me, and honestly at that. Do you see yourself continuing to live after today?
[Long, dazed, pause.] [Slowly.] I want to die.
I know you do. But do you see yourself being alive or dead? [Why he didn’t just ask if I was going to commit suicide was beyond me.]
[Dazed but thoughtful pause.] I can see myself continuing to exist, but not live.
[Cocks his head.] That’s a good way of putting it.
I’m too depressed to kill myself. It’s too much effort. I just want someone, something, anything, anyone, to let me die.
Okay. You’re ill, do you understand that?
[Long, dazed pause.] [Nods.]
Okay. Stay with your mother. Do not leave her side. I will get someone that specialises in this area out to see you today.
And he did, and that was the start of my first proper, regular contact with mental health services, and the advent of Four Years was the start of the New Life (or, as suggested, new existence). There was, inevitably, a saga at work about my absence and a potential return, but as things went from worse to even worse to worseryworstestworstworst, over a year later, they (reluctantly, in fairness) had to dismiss me on the grounds of incapacity.
I had never known a breakdown like this one, and I thought I’d seen the worst of times, having suffered from severe mental health problems since my early teens (and, in hindsight, a lot earlier – for example, I first tried to kill myself when my age was in single figures.) This isn’t really the post to talk about it in any detail, because this is more about my regret that Four Years later, I’m still not capable of returning to work (again, beyond the small amount of professional writing I do – thank God for magazines and other commissioners that are willing to take on occasional freelance pieces.)
I hate what I’ve been in the Four Years, but it’s also made me. Or so I think. I know my limits now. I’m more aware of what I can do to mitigate my array of symptoms – well, generally speaking. They can, of course, have a mind of their own when they’re really determined, and the efforts of my care team and I are then rendered utterly redundant, but still: ‘generally’ is better than ‘never’. I’m working through the PTSD in therapy – and with some success, I tentatively think – though the bipolar disorder is, in my view (and what the hell do I know), a permanent part of me and of my life.
I’ve despised being unemployed, but at least I am getting somewhere, and Four Years of absence and benefit-claiming has enabled me to do that. It has made me more likely to go back to work when I’m ready, because I know what medication works for me (at least for now) and have gone through many rough hours facing demons I barely knew I had. I’m stronger for having had time to fight the internal battles without so many of the external ones. This is what the UK government doesn’t (want to?) get. A fair benefits system helps people back to work not through box-ticking and alleged targets, but by giving people the infrastructural space and time to find to find ways of stabilising or, in occasional cases, remitting their illness. And, of course, it needs to recognise that there will always be some people who can never work, and that that is not their fault, and that they are still human beings, as worthy or otherwise as everyone else.
So for now here I am – still a benefit claimant, because I have to work out what stability means for me, and for how long I can expect it to last. Winging it and failing would serve neither the potential employer nor me. So I’ll keep working at finding, and then maintaining, a stable euthymia, and then we’ll see. For now, Four Years will continue, probably into five…maybe more 😦
Do I blame my ex-boss for all of this? Given that most of the nearly 3,000 words (!) of this meandering dross is about the crumbling of my relationship with her, you might very well think so. But honestly, as I noted above, I don’t blame work, nor her specifically. If I were being cruel, I might say that she opened the floodgates. What she did not do was create the reservoir of illness that waited impatiently, bursting to its seams, behind them. I’d experienced trickles and rivers of its escape before, but it wasn’t going to be sated until it flooded my whole entire bloody life (and of course it isn’t sated even then, but let’s keep this crappy metaphor nice and simple by pretending that it is.) So no, my boss and my job weren’t to blame. Catalysis is not the same causation. Manic depression and PTSD caused this.
I do miss it in some ways, and in closing this vast post I find myself longing, pathetically nostalgic, and desperately sad. This was not how I saw my life panning out. But it’s what I’ve got, and I’ve come this far so am not going down without a fight. As I recall that, during my overnight insomnia throughout which thoughts of Four Years plagued me relentlessly, The Man rolled over out of his sleep and tenderly rubbed my weary, aching shoulders, I try to remember that things could be worse. Mental illness and all its myriad consequences destroy lives, and leave a sufferer feeling isolated and helpless.
But, despite the Four Years – and quite possibly because of it – I am not alone in this any more.
EDIT: My former assistant has commented about his experience with my former boss below. If you found that any of the above resonated with you, or if for whatever reason you just found some of interesting, I’d highly recommend that you read his account of things 🙂
Sorry this is so ridiculously long, but I didn’t want to make it into two parts because Four Years is today, and a part two would not have been on the anniversary. If you couldn’t be bothered reading it, I totally understand 🙂 To those of you that fought through it, sorry. Normal service will be resumed next time when I feel less affected by something 😉
Picture credits: see outgoing links.