It was autumn 1998 when I first considered that I might be suffering from depression. I was 13, and had come across an article on the condition while flicking through a newspaper before school. The idea that my exhaustion, desperation, lack of interest in or motivation for the after-school activities I’d previously loved, desire to be alone all the time and strong urges to harm myself might be part of an illness with a name rather than some sort of character weakness was momentarily a revelation, and a relief. Maybe being bullied had put me under so much stress that it had actually made me unwell? But as soon as this had occurred to me I shoved it all back down with the thought that I was just making excuses for my laziness and weakness. I wasn’t being bullied, the others at school were just being honest. If I was one of them I’d be forced to bully me too, for being so disgusting and worthless. I honestly believed that. It took me years to accept that I might HAVE a problem, rather than being a problem.
There’s still a lag time now, between the point at which I start genuinely struggling and that at which I realise I’m trying far too hard to blame myself for circumstances beyond my control. For the last few months, although I’ve whinged about my job quite comprehensively, I’ve been operating under the assumption that someone without my history would be able to cope with things much better. That although my job is pretty stressful and difficult, someone with better social skills or more confidence or the ability to think a bit more creatively would be just fine.
Actually, you know what? My job is shit. Maybe someone without my history wouldn’t suffer from quite the psychological wobble I’m having, but taking everything into consideration – the challenges of the client group, my responsibilities vs. my hours, the pay, the expectations of the management, the constant negative feedback and complete lack of praise or even constructive criticism, the fact that I have no practical support when it’s impossible to make things work solo in the time available – I don’t think anyone would last very long without starting another job hunt or telling the manager that things need to change.
Also. It’s been ELEVEN MONTHS since I’ve had any problems with the eating disorder. Eleven. Last year I was lucky to go two or three without some sort of lapse, and sometimes those lapses ran into each other without me returning to my set point in between. In the last couple of months I’ve started a new degree, moved house, flown to another continent by myself, dealt with all sorts of work-related shit, survived another “anniversary” of the rape, had my income slashed in half and adjusted financially – and there have been all sorts of other random ongoing stressors. Frankly it’s a bloody miracle that it took me this long to even start restricting, because a couple of years ago I would have relapsed fully by now. This time I caught myself more quickly, within a fortnight of the real slide beginning. The eating disorder didn’t even get as far as it did in January – bearing in mind that for me, a normal intake for many adult women is one I’d lose weight on, and that my relapses have always started with small decreases in daily intake which gradually add up, rather something along the lines of suddenly slashing my usual calories in half or trying to avoid eating anything at all.
Of course, there’s a difference between not beating myself up and trying to justify continuing to restrict. I’m not doing the latter. After telling the eating disorder to get back in its box I increased back to where I should be within 24 hours of writing that last post. It was hard behaviourally – making myself actually DO it – but once I got going things sort of snapped back into place naturally. It’s only been a couple of weeks of eating crappiness and I’ve worked hard over the last few years to make health my default setting, not anorexia. It’s definitely paying off, because I’m not anxious about having eaten more over the last couple of days, and the eating disorder has gone from attempting to stage a coup to shutting up completely. It’s like a switch flicks in my head and it’s business as usual again.
This purely behavioural intervention works for me with the eating disorder because I’ve been in recovery for almost three years, I have a good foundation of being at a healthy weight and eating enough/intuitively for most of that, and I’m well practised at recognising and challenging symptomatic thoughts, urges and behaviours. But there is nothing similar to help with the stress reaction, sadly. I felt like utter shit going into work yesterday morning – twice as bad without the eating disorder distracting me. I had to cope with alternating feelings of panic and hopelessness all day and nearly burst into tears during lunch. Earlier on today we had a bit of a fiasco with some pantomime tickets and I came very close to quitting on the spot, I felt so anxious and tired. It’s like I have no psychological reserves left; they are all focused on keeping me afloat.
Over the last few weeks I’ve managed to conveniently overlook several “meltdown imminent” warning signs: that not only do I not want to go to work, I don’t want to go anywhere else either; that I have stopped reading for pleasure and all my other miscellaneous hobbies have fallen by the wayside; that there are only about two people with whom I can communicate without it feeling like a chore; that I have started worrying about not having a personality again; that I feel quite sick with anxiety not only on my way to work but all through the evenings and weekend too; that I am having all sorts of intrusive, obsessive thoughts (not directly PTSD-related, bizarrely, although they have that sort of traumatic feel, if that makes sense); that although it’s not uncommon for me to take 30-60 minutes to fall asleep, now it’s equal to or more than that every night; that I’m not particularly hungry, can’t be bothered to make anything more complicated than a jacket potato and my weekly baking sprees have dwindled to monthly occurrences, and so on. These are not just signs that I’m struggling – they tie in with many of the criteria for depression, and have definitely been present for more than two weeks. Low mood, anhedonia, changes in appetite, sleeping difficulties, fatigue, guilt, poor concentration. I’m becoming worryingly diagnosable.
So I need a plan. I’m going to continue as usual for the next week, because I only have five more shifts at work before I go home for Christmas. I’m at home for six days, then I’m working for a couple of days before new year (including New Year’s Eve, sob. The price I agreed on for not working the Monday-Wednesday after Christmas). Once I get to January 2nd I’m going to talk to my manager. The way I see it, she has one of three options. The most sensible seems to be to increase the hours for my position to thirty and make it a jobshare, because this will happen once we reach a certain number of residents anyway and we are getting close to that mark. Not only would I have some back up at the home then, I’d also get to cut my working week down from four days to two and a half, which I would cope with much better in conjunction with college and the student placement I’ll hopefully be starting in the spring. Secondly, she could just fire and replace me, but that would mean training someone new and in all likelihood having the same problems, since the job is stressful as hell. Thirdly, she could do nothing, in which case I will get myself signed off for a couple of weeks to recuperate, talk to the citizen’s advice bureau to see if there’s any way I can quit without forfeiting my claim to jobseeker’s allowance for six months (you get no welfare support if you make yourself voluntarily unemployed, however awful your working conditions are) since the job is making me genuinely unwell, and email an employment and disability charity I was just beginning to get support from before I started working to see if they can help. The lady I saw there back in June did say that I could call or email if I had any problems with my new job which could affect my health.
My plan also entails trying to force myself to keep up my usual social activities, since it seems that no amount of hanging around at home attempting to relax is helping me feel any less tired and run down. I went out for the Christmas meal the charity I volunteer for organised on Monday, and I’m having a little Christmas party with some friends on Friday. I’ve gotten into the habit of spending every evening listlessly refreshing Facebook again too, so last night I started making some Christmas presents. Conserving my energy by doing very little is a bit of an own goal when the lack of energy is caused by mild depression. Taking my mind off my shitty job and spending time with friends will be much more effective at this stage. I do recognise that in the past things have gotten so bad that I became incapable of socialising/forcing myself to do stuff, but I’m nowhere near that point, and I intend to do everything I can to ensure that I don’t reach it. So there, job of doom. Go fuck yourself.