SENSITIVITY WARNING: THIS POST ADDRESSES THEMES OF DEPRESSION, ANXIETY, BURNOUT AND SUICIDAL THOUGHTS
It’s been over a year since I posted, and I have to say, it’s been over a year since I’ve felt like myself. It’s been over a year since I’ve done a LOT of things that I consider important, things that I thought gave meaning and colour to my life. The truth is, that since my last post in June 2018, and probably for a very long while before that, if I’m honest, I was dealing with what started as mild, then became pretty-darn-severe depression, escalating anxiety to go along with it, and a nice side of professional burnout to really round out the situation.
It Begins With Burnout
The mental health issues started at work and started as far back as the summer of 2017, several months after I had started in that particular position. I had too much work to do, was working at a feverish pace to churn out huge amounts of work product, and was doing so in an emotionally charged, stressful, often toxic (for me) environment. I don’t want to say much more than that about the specifics of the situation, but it really began there. I expended so much emotional and intellectual energy to get through each workday, that when the day finished, I had no desire to do anything but lie on the bed, talk to Curriecat, maybe stare at a YouTube video or two. I didn’t feel a lot of job security, which meant I never relaxed at the office, was always trying to prove myself, was always working with worries in the back of my head that I had to keep this job, otherwise how would I pay my mortgage? How would I live? I took those laundry lists of worries home with me each night, and ran through them relentlessly.
So the depression really started as intellectual, emotional, and physical fatigue that I just couldn’t seem to recover from. Leaving one job, moving to another, establishing myself at that job, becoming disenchanted then horrified with the realities of that job, then frantically searching for another job, trying to actually engage in the practice of law, which is totally brain-taxing, at the same time that this was going on - well, it was just too much. I was operating at the highest level of stress, uncertainty and anxiety that I possibly could. And it wore me out, in every way possible.
All By Myself
I would tell myself it was temporary. “I’m too tired to go to dance class tonight, but I’ll go next week,” I’d think. When that friend’s birthday party rolled around, and I didn’t feel up for smiling and small talk, I would make an excuse as to why I couldn’t attend. “I’ll catch them another time,” I’d think. When Friday rolled around and I didn’t have plans, I was happy. I could go home, sit in my shower to decompress from the day, then go to bed. I would tell myself these were one-off occasions, as I dragged myself through another day of work, and felt too tired to do anything to improve the situation. One day became another, which became another, until I was quitting dance altogether because the thought of performance was giving me (ME!) anxiety. I was failing to renew my gym membership because I just couldn’t work up the energy to go. I didn’t audition for shows and I left burlesque behind and didn’t hear a peep from anyone in those communities, which made me feel righteously justified about my decision to walk away from them. I was not bothering to call friends or family for help, because, they’re not calling me, why should I go to the effort of calling them? I exited social media, mostly for moral reasons (damn you Zuckerberg) but also because I was tired of entertaining people with funny posts when those people saw nothing of what I felt I was suffering, and never reached out (of course, please know, there are a few good friends who are exceptions to this rule and have stuck with me through all of this, for which I am forever grateful). Life felt extremely hard and I didn’t feel like fighting anymore. And I resented that no one was stepping up to fight for me. I was tired, pissed at how much more difficult my life seemed than other people’s, and really really REALLY angry that I had seemingly done all the right things, my whole life, and ended up in this life, alone with a cat, with this job, with seemingly no way out.
Hello Darkness My Old Friend
Last summer was when it felt like the darkness that had been bubbling really set in, or rather, that I allowed myself to surrender to it. Last summer was when I started thinking thoughts like, “Curriecat’s 12 years old. She’s really the only reason I have to stay alive. When she passes away, I’m not sure what I’m good for. There isn’t really a reason to be around once Curriecat’s gone.” If you’d asked me then, I would have never called that kind of thinking suicidal, because, I wasn’t like, plotting my own death. There were no plans to actually die. These were just thoughts I was thinking, and hey, weren’t they just the truth? Wasn’t I just being honest?
Now, a year and a few months later, I know better. Those kind of thoughts, even questioning the whys of your existence, lead you down a dark path where suddenly you can start thinking very comfortably about how exactly you might make that happen. I never got there, but I know now that even standing at the start of that path was a dangerous place for me to be.
The Lifeline…or Rock Bottom?
Somehow, in the middle of this, last summer and fall, I managed to interview for a number of jobs, which resulted in me having number of opportunities to choose from. that would allow me to exit the work situation I was in. How I got through those interviews, I still don’t know, but I suppose I’m a better actor than I give myself credit for, or, that the people offering me those opportunities saw how desperate I was and were throwing me a lifeline. I thought a new job would fix everything: I just needed to get out of the job I was in, and everything would be fine. I chose the job that was the closest to home, that seemed to have the nicest people to work with, that had the most job security, and put all my mental, physical and emotional-health eggs in that particular basket.
I started at the new job last November, and found that well, yes, despite nice people and a quick walk to work, there were still stresses to be dealt with. There were and are still difficult clients, leadership failures that make my work extra tough, frustrating personalities, high-conflict situations that erupt on a daily basis, so, so, so, so much work to be done, and unreasonable deadlines to be met. Don’t get me wrong - I am still in this new job and it is not that my employer is awful, my team is actually great - it’s just that this is the nature of my field, and the work I do. I was naive to think that I could escape the demands that naturally come with my professional territory. I still believe the move was the right one, professionally, and that for right now, I am where I need to be, professionally. It is not my employer that is the problem, it is the nature of the career I’ve chosen for myself. I also think that, given that I was well into the Depression Zone already, trying to make a move and establish myself in a new position was probably the most batshit crazy thing I could try to do at that time. And, beginning fairly soon after this past Christmas, I started having full blown anxiety attacks on my way to work each day. Shaking, sweating, crying, gasping for air, anxiety attacks.
But, somehow I showed up for work, most days. My hair might barely be brushed, I wouldn’t have any makeup on, I wouldn’t have eaten anything before I got there, but I showed up. The worries about job security and desperate desire to avoid conflict came along with me every day. I continued to become more and more solitary outside of work, and less and less active, but it was starting to feel less like a choice and more like an inevitability. I was no longer interested in the things that I normally loved, like cooking, clothing, makeup, sewing, music, dance and theatre, let alone capable of participating in them. And then, the health menace that always strikes me down when I’m at my absolute lowest showed up.
The Nuclear Option
Ever since I was a kid, my lungs have been a big indicator of my stress level. Breathing problems always seem to show up when I’m at my weakest, emotionally speaking. And since I started my new job this past November, I’ve been down with pneumonia and bronchitis twice. It was after the second bout, this past May, that I really, really, knew that I had dug myself into a hole that I couldn’t get out of. I hated everything about my life. Everything. And I physically felt so sick and tired that I fantasized about being one of those characters in books who disappears to Switzerland to “take the air” or checks into a sanatorium full of nurses in fluttering white hats who would speak to me in hushed tones and wheel me about perfectly manicured grounds in a wheelchair as I recovered from “nervous exhaustion.”
I knew I couldn’t go on as I was, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do, what I needed to change, or how to fix anything, nor did I have the energy to fix it. I would spend hours sobbing on the phone to my parents, devastated at where I felt like life had dropped me, desperate for change. I was ready to quit my job, sell my home, move in with my parents, and maybe start life over again. Go to school, retrain for a new career, work in retail, maybe a bookstore, or a clothing shop, because retail was the last job where I could remember being happy. My brother actually invited me to come live in his basement suite while I got my shit together. And I actually considered it.
Still, despite the darkness that was telling me I was good for nothing, that I had nothing of value in my life, that I had no friends, no talent, that I was ugly, and difficult to love, and had nothing to contribute, that I might as well walk away from it all and try again, there was a small voice of reason that somehow prevailed. “If I’m going to hit the nuclear button on my life,” I thought, “I had better make sure I’m in my right mind before I do it.”
Say It Out Loud
I went to my family doctor, who I had avoided for over a year, even through my bouts of pneumonia and bronchitis (I would visit walk-in clinics and ERs only when I absolutely had to) because I had already given up on my health - and, truth be told, when I hesitantly had told her, two years ago, that I thought I was too anxious and needed some support she told me to “suck it up” (I love my doctor, please don’t judge her for this, she is a fierce warrior mama of a physician who sees me as the strong person who I usually am and she genuinely felt at that time that I could get through it on my own). I told her the thoughts I’d been thinking. I told her how I had stopped performing, stopped working out. All of it. She took one look at me and said, “Danielle…you’re not you. You’re not here.” She was right. I wasn’t there.
So. I said it out loud. She said it out loud. I was clinically depressed. I had severe anxiety, which was being exacerbated by my professional life. I was malnourished, because most days I couldn’t bring myself to eat, or if I did, I ate crap. We made a deal that I would see her every two weeks, and if I didn’t show up for that appointment she was going to charge me anyway, just to make sure I showed up. She gave me weekly homework. The first homework was to pay for a meal delivery service so that I would actually eat. “It’s not a splurge,” she said. “This is your health.” The second homework task was to start on iron and vitamins. And the third was to be cast in a play and be onstage by the fall. I had the summer to get my shit together, and then I needed to get onstage (you see why I love my doctor?! That third homework item was entirely her idea).
And she started me on meds. Yep, better living through pharmaceuticals. “You need a little get up and go,” she said, and prescribed an anti-depressant, as well as anxiety meds that I could take to avoid the weekly morning anxiety attack, along with some treatments for my poor battle-scarred lungs. The “little get up and go” was IMMEDIATE. Within two days I had more energy than I had had in months, more focus at work, more ability to get tasks done at home and on the weekends (which had long ago been reserved for sleeping all day). I actually felt manic compared to how I had been feeling, when I saw how much I was accomplishing as opposed to even a week before.
I won’t lie and say I am cured. I won’t lie and say everything is fine now, that I took some meds and it made everything better. I won’t lie and say that I’m not still thinking about whether I need to change everything about my life, from my job, to how many belongings I have, to the city I live in. I won’t lie and say my job isn’t extremely stressful, not just for me but my whole team. But I will say that every day that I am able to get up, go to work, see a friend, do something caring for someone else, or whip through a to-do list in mere hours when it would have taken me a month before, I celebrate. I feel a huge sense of accomplishment. The need to evacuate my life doesn’t feel as immediate; rather, something to consider carefully, with the luxury of time.
Prescription drugs have not made everything OK. My doctor ramped up the dosage of some of my daily meds in the first weeks after I saw her so much that I suffered horrendous side effects - I was so nauseous that I couldn’t drive my own car without throwing up and had to be put on the nausea medication they give to chemo patients. One of my meds induces hot flashes so I always feel sweaty and gross, and I no longer bother to straighten my hair, because one hot flash and it’s instantly curly thanks to sweat (ew). This particular side effect is the one I hate the most, because I hate fulfilling that stereotype of the sweaty fat person. I like to be well put together, I like to take care with my makeup, and sweating it all off several times a day, sucks. I still expend my energy supply too easily and have “crash” days that I need to spend sleeping.
The Benefits of a Health Crisis
Sometimes hitting your own personal rock bottom in terms of your physical and mental health and speaking your truth about it, leads to interesting results.
My parents, who I admit I felt had always pressured me to be the best and to succeed and to overachieve, and who I felt valued my economic security and achievement more than my emotional health, proved that their thinking was unequivocally the opposite. “We’re on Team Dani,” my mother said to me on the phone one night. “Whatever is going to make you happy, we are going to support. If that means selling up, going back to school, and working in a bookstore, you should do it.” The pressure I’ve felt for 39 years to be, and to do, and to have, so many things that they approved, suddenly melted away and I just felt loved and supported. On my birthday, I was having a conversation with my mom where I half-jokingly said, “You know, despite evidence to the contrary, I do try to do things that make you happy.” She replied, “Live your life well - that’s the only thing that will make me happy.” And for the first time, I actually believed her.
I started being honest, with at least my few close friends (some of whom are also my family members) about the fact that I wasn’t OK. And I found that…they didn’t seem to like me any less. It was OK that I was pretty much a mess in every way that I could be. They still listened to me muse about different programs I might like to apply for, as I waxed poetic about moving to Victoria, or selling all my stuff and getting a tiny house, and they remain wholly supportive of whatever it is I decide to do. I also recently connected with several dearly loved, close friends from Pearson College at our 20 year reunion last week, where I also tried to talk openly about what I’ve been going through, and these people who have known me since I was 17 showed a compassion and insight I am so lucky to still have after all these years, and they reminded me of who I am and who I have always been.
And, I’m so excited to say, I completed my third homework assignment from my doctor, and will be getting onstage this fall, my first foray into the Vancouver theatre community since I performed in the Threepenny Opera in the fall of 2017, and over a year since my last participation in the Lawyer Show, in May 2018. As soon as I can share details I will, but I will be working with a creative team I have really wanted to work with for awhile, and I am extremely grateful for the opportunity.
Naming the Elephant
One of the reasons this blog has been so neglected is because, I felt like I couldn’t say any of the things I just did without repercussion or judgment. But they were the only things I wanted to say, the things I needed to say to explain myself, about what’s driven me and destroyed me over the past few years. I was afraid if I opened my mouth (or my blog), the words would come tumbling out.
But I have a desire to tell stories again and to share my adventures again, and I had to free myself to do that. I had to let down my guard, accept whatever judgment or consequences might come my way for speaking this out loud, in order to allow the rest of the stories inside of me to come out, too.
So I hope this isn’t my last blog post for a year. I hope that now that this not-so-secret secret is out I can live truthfully and authentically, whether that means working through more lows or celebrating new highs. So, I’m still here. And if you still are, thank you for reading.