Getting Serious about Depression and Work

John Folk-Williams Health Guide

  • My mind has a remarkable ability to distance itself from bad news. A small example: Once I was driving a colleague to a conference when I suddenly heard a roaring, whirring sound. I thought it was coming from overhead and said to my companion: “What’s that? It sounds like a helicopter right above us!” He looked at me and said: “Uh, no - one of your tires just blew. Better pull over.”

    That was a little embarrassing, and I kept wondering how I could possibly come up with such a fantastic explanation. But it wasn’t the only time I managed to separate myself from something I didn’t want to face. That mental trick became much more serious and long-lasting when it came to depression and the effect it had on my work life.

    Add This Infographic to Your Website or Blog With This Code:

    Even when I well knew I had depression and was being treated for it, I didn’t want to deal with the many ways it was undermining my effectiveness on the job. When I ran into problems, I could usually find a cause that didn’t have anything to do with me - but I couldn’t keep that up for long.

    LyraStorm responded to my last post on this issue with a thought that gets right to the heart of the problem. “I always give a 110% you see and that's that, but when I'm depressed 110% looks from the outside like I'm giving 25%... .”

    That’s exactly what I went through, working harder but losing ground. As much as I wanted to keep going, I had to face that 25% and what it meant. It became more and more painful to find out that the results of my work were falling short. Finally, I was able to stop denying an obvious reality and face the full scope of depression.

    It was then that I came up with the techniques I described in my last post about this problem (Battling Depression at Work). When I realized that those strategies weren’t enough, I agreed to a reduced schedule so that I could take more time for therapy and other treatments. But none of those gave relief for very long. Meanwhile, the stress and anxiety of even a partial workload were unrelenting. I had to do something else, but what?

    Sherwin Nuland, the best selling author of How We Die and The Wisdom of the Body, tells his own wrenching story about what depression did to his professional life in a video you can find here. He was a well-known surgeon when he lapsed into a devastating depression. Often, it was impossible for him to get out of bed to go to the hospital in the morning, so he had to schedule his surgeries in the afternoon. But he couldn’t keep that up for long, nor could he conceal his condition. To quote from the transcript of his talk:

    Well, you're in the university medical center, where everybody knows everybody, and it's perfectly clear to my colleagues, so my referrals began to decrease. As my referrals began to decrease, I clearly became increasingly depressed until I thought, my God, I can't work anymore. And, in fact, it didn't make any difference because I didn't have any patients anymore.

    The only answer for Nuland was hospitalization, and he eventually found a cure in the last treatment he tried - electroshock therapy. He was then able to resume his medical practice and later turned to writing.

  • After enormous suffering, that was a great outcome, but for most people the story takes a different turn. As I discovered after failing to find such a complete cure, my only remaining option was to rethink my whole approach to work. Could I even continue with a profession I’d been practicing for a couple of decades? By that time, the answer was a clear no.

    Add This Infographic to Your Website or Blog With This Code:

    That meant a radical change - retiring from a familiar work life and doing something very different. It also meant changing the pace and environment for work to find the balance I needed. Julie Fast has a wonderful book about her own experience with this same problem. In Getting It Done When You’re Depressed she describes how she came to terms with the fact that a 9-5 schedule wasn’t possible. She started working at home to control her hours and learned to approach every project as a series of small steps. Breaking a big job into manageable pieces helped her get things done in the midst of depression.

    I made a similar transition, one that I thought at first represented a kind of defeat. But I soon realized that this new structure to my life was helping me recover more effectively than any medication or therapy had ever done. Unending stress, anxiety and depression gave way to a new energy and sense of well-being. After so many years, it was hard to believe that I was really getting better.

    Everyone’s experience is different, but the key for me was to understand how completely depression could infiltrate and damage every aspect of my life. Work was no exception, no matter how hard I tried not to link the two. Fighting depression effectively often means going far beyond medication or other methods of treating specific symptoms - though those treatments are important. As Sherwin Nuland found, his therapy gave him enough strength and clarity of mind to get the work of full recovery done.

    The key steps to recovery may require radical changes, even in the way you earn a living. I had always assumed that sort of change was unthinkable or impossible. But in my case the unthinkable was exactly what I needed to do.

Published On: January 11, 2010