I wanted to go back to work with a bang, not with a whimper. To show them all that I was “fine, thank you. Absolutely! Really, really well.”
I looked well. So well, in fact, that old colleagues did a double-take when they saw me. I’d been off sick for eight months, during which time a neurological condition had caused me to lose seven stones in weight and gain some on-trend glasses and a (less fashionable) walking stick.
I looked like a new me. Well – not exactly ‘new’, but different. Definitely different.
I was nervous about going back. I dreaded all the conversations that I had ahead of me in our open-plan, anyone-can-listen-in, office. Cheery conversations like; “So you’re not dead then?” and “Oh, you’ve *really* been sick? We thought you’d just had a breakdown”. Just?
No, I hadn’t had a mental health problem and no-one was more surprised about that than me. All through my illness, particularly the months when I was practically housebound, I kept expecting depression to wangle it’s way in. But it didn’t, and I was very conscious of that; cocky even, that i’d kept it at bay when things were at their worst.
What I didn’t know was that the old black dog was lying in wait, licking its balls and planning to cross my path as soon as I tried to make it back to the mythical place known as ‘normal’.
I had been longing to get back to work. I love my job. Unfortunately, in my absence someone else discovered that they loved my job too, and they took it.
Of course they told me that it was all for the best. That I needed to think of my health. That I couldn’t possibly work full-time for a while and, well, I didn’t need the stress of managing a team any more, did I?
I tried to protest. First I lost my temper, then I lost the plot. Finally, I started to lose my hair as well.
And I cried. A lot. All over the place; at work, at home, at the fish counter in Waitrose.
In between the bouts of crying, came the screaming, when I would completely lose my shit over anything and everything; imagined slights, insignificant asides, the kids taking too long to “GET IN THE FUCKING CAR!”
It finally dawned on me one morning, when I flew into a rage at someone for ‘being suspiciously nice to me’ that my long-forgotten depression had returned.
My GP wasn’t surprised. He wrote me a prescription for a stock-pile of ‘happy pills’ with almost indecent haste. “Take them” he admonished “and take any other help you’re offered as well”.
He meant counselling, which the Occupational Health team at work were eager to usher me towards. I wasn’t keen, but I went along with it anyway. I made an appointment with a therapist and cried on cue, just to make her feel like she was doing it right.
I’m about 12 weeks on now. I’ve taken the tablets and completed my counselling course. Ironically, the depression has triggered a recurrence of my physical symptoms and led to me agreeing to take more time off sick “so that I can *really* get better”, so eventually I will have to face the trauma of returning to work all over again.
Not yet, though. The depression may be off the menu, but it came with a side-order of anxiety which I definitely didn’t ask for.
It’s interrupting my life like a needy newborn, stopping me from doing anything productive during the day and preventing me from getting any meaningful sleep at night. Why – my raging brain asks – would I want to sleep, when I could be designing tiny trampolines for cats, or writing a Netflix blockbuster starring John Barrowman as a hot priest with a shady past? Why, indeed?
Some days – the good days – I remember how bloody brilliant I am at my job and that I still have something to offer, even if I can only work part-time for a while. Other days I tie myself in knots worrying about how we’re going to manage on my smaller salary, and how my colleagues will react to my drastic drop in status.
Family members tell me to focus on getting better; the work will still be waiting when I’m ready to go back to it. Friends suggest that I walk away and “try something different, less stressful”, as if I can magically conjure up an entirely new, dream career that can be managed from my kitchen table.
I don’t know which way to go. I just know that for now, I’m not going anywhere. And that’s ok. Maybe the world *does* need those tiny cat trampolines after all…