Day to day routine became increasingly difficult. Mostly all I felt I wanted to do much of the time was to curl up on a floor cushion in front of the gas fire in my living room. Night times were often so restless that I needed to catch up on that rest during the day. I often felt as though the world and its dog were crowding in on me. Traffic noise felt as though it were physically hurting me. Many of the activities and environmental hazards of my normal working routine such as, noise, dust, dirt, fumes, which I usually would have found quite easy to dismiss, now became almost unbearable.

It started to get harder to hide my condition in work. On one occasion when I was left on my own in a room to get on with something, someone walked in to find me sitting on a chair and sobbing quite heavily. I decided to take the welfare worker I had spoken to initially into my confidence. She was able to reassure me that anything I told her would be strictly confidential and wouldn’t go any further than her. Sadly though, there was no possibility of her acting as a counselling resource. As a welfare worker within the personnel department of a large organisation under the direct control of central government this wasn’t part of her role, at least not to the extent that I appeared to need someone to be. Neither was there a counselling department that I could turn to as a resource and support in order to get through the working week. However she was able to act as a mediator between myself and the senior managers of my department. This proved a useful exercise since she was able to explain in terms that they could understand, that I was simply working through a stress related illness, that I had organised my own resources for doing this and that what I needed was a certain amount of time and space to get through the whole thing. Their response to this information had both positive and negative points: on the plus side I was given clearance to opt out of work for short periods if I needed to, and there were many occasions when I needed to take time out from work. I took to leaving my bench and sitting in the restroom, out of the general noise and hub-bub of my workplace. Sometimes, if they seemed significant, I would jot my thoughts into the notebook that had become my near constant companion. Other times I would try to sit out a panic attack, hugging myself or gripping the arms of the chair while wave after wave of fear swept through me. On the negative side, and this is something that I’ve found is a fairly common response to someone who is apparently ill, I was given jobs that were considered to be less demanding and which I could get on with quietly in a corner at my own pace.

While I realised this was done out of sensitivity and compassion, looking back on it now I feel that it wasn’t always the best response. Much of the time I think what would have been more helpful would have been for me to be given work that was more challenging, interesting and mentally demanding. The odd occasions when I was given a more responsible task, or had to work as part of a team with a definite goal or deadline, seemed to be those when I could more readily shelve everything I was going through.

I began to employ other coping strategies. I started to read up about other peoples experiences of going through similar periods in their lives and comparing them to my own current situation. I borrowed and adapted one or two ideas from the books I gradually collected. Relaxation and distraction seemed to be useful to many people. I bought a personal stereo and made my own relaxation tape that I based on a guided fantasy. I used this mostly at home but occasionally also in quiet moments in the rest room at work. I started to develop a taste for light classical music and light opera, and again the personal stereo came in handy at work here if I had a job that wasn’t particularly stimulating or sufficiently distracting.

I developed a habit of repeating reasuring phrases to myself over and over in my head as a sort of mantra to crowd out all the other stuff that seemed to invade my thoughts. In work I would try and find a quiet corner to lie down and do this but if I couldn’t find anywhere then I would simply do it while I was working. I even made a couple of tapes of these repetitive phrases which I would play back to myself. I viewed this as a sort of lazy man’s meditation, but they did seem to have a soothing and calming effect.

Looking back on all that behaviour now I wonder if much of it was simply acting out of fear of somehow losing control and ending up on some sort of continual downward (upward?) spiral. Was my behaviour at the time simply an attempt to push the cork back into the bottle. On a day to day basis, in work or outside of working hours, none of my behaviour could have been considered criminal. However it was sufficiently far enough outside of currently accepted social norms to be very close to dangerous. I was well aware that society still uses the weapon of the mental health system to punish those individuals who are courageous enough to challenge the currently acceptable norms of society, even if they do so in the simplest and most benign ways.

Adult males are not supposed to weep openly at all let alone take time out from work to do so. Even if he has lost a beloved life-long partner his compassionate leave allowance might stretch to one or two days, in order that he may organise and attend the funeral, but then he is expected to be back at work and functioning as if nothing had happened at all.

I wonder if many of the difficulties I had to contend with at the time would have arisen if I had been working in anything other than the male-dominated culture and environment I was in. Senior male managers were also finding my condition something of a problem. Their main concern, as to whether I should or should not have been in work at all, seemed to centre on the issue of health and safety. Whether or not I could be a danger to myself or my colleagues. I thought their position onthis was valid but also interesting and a bit hypocritical. There had been many occasions in the past when I had worked with individuals who had started their day at work suffering from a grand-daddy of a hangover or who had forced themselves into work even though clearly ill. It seemed obvious to me that they were functioning way below par, that their thinking wasn’t as quick or as sharp as it usually was and that their reactions were much slower as a result. Yet the question of health and safety was never raised in these cases, even when these individuals were quite clearly sustaining more than their usual fair share of cuts and bruises as a result. A hangover was considered a masculine thing to have and to force oneself into work through illness was considered noble and courageous. To cut or otherwise injure oneself in the course of one’s work was considered male but to cry if one cut oneself, well, that was another matter.

I reached the point where I began to wonder if my job was actually part of the problem. I’d not been entirely happy in it for a couple of years, and had even made some unsuccessful efforts to get out into another field of work. I’d long felt that I had much more potential than was actually being utilized by my employers. Individual roles within the organisation were strictly divided and defended to the degree that it was difficult to step sideways, forward or even backwards without stepping on someone else’s toes. The bureaucracy and top down management systems were stifling. Staff at shop floor level felt mostly powerless to do anything about their situation and this manifested itself in a ‘don’t move unless you’re told to’ attitude in many individuals. Anyone who showed any enthusiasm, energy, self-motivation and initiative was generally considered eccentric by many people at shop floor and management level alike.

We had recently been taken over by central government and the decision had been taken to amalgamate and centralise the operations of my department and another department carrying out the same type of work. This operation wasn’t without its difficulties, not the least of which were the problems that arose in attempting to fuse together two teams, each of which had their own separately developed working routines and patterns of behaviour. Clashes were inevitable, with individuals jockeying for position and power within the newly formed group. There was an ongoing industrial dispute in the team that we were merged with and there was subtle pressure to collude and add weight to this particular power struggle from a couple of members of the other team. It was hardly the relaxed, healing atmosphere that I felt in need of.

I think the last straw for me was when some of this tension between workforce and management spilled over in my direction. In one of the regular weekly meetings that had become part of the new regime, someone raised an objection with management about my apparently being given leave to absent myself from work more or less whenever I wished and to jot down notes in a pocket book. Whether the objection was raised out of jealousy or paranoia I’ll never know but it was an attack that I could have done without at the time. It was suggested that the individual who levelled the complaint was simply using me as a pawn in his own attempts to further undermine management.

I began to think seriously about leaving. The more I thought about it the more I began to feel that the only thing keeping me there was my own insecurity and fear about the future. I had no dependents and the main financial tie I had was my mortgage. World-wide we were in the middle of a recession so from that point of view it seemed utter insanity to quit what in the eyes of many appeared to be a perfectly good and secure job. But the fact was that I felt as though I was suffocating in it. I could visualise being at the same work-station for the next twenty years with no sign of promotion or of doing anything different. It was a very cosy, secure, safe job and that was precisely the problem with it. I wondered if I was being a bit hasty. Given my condition was I in the right rational frame of mind to make a decision like this? But then is anybody ever in the right frame of mind to take a leap in the dark and a leap in the dark was definitely what it would be, since I had no way of knowing if I would ever work again and there was every possibility that I would lose my home. It was literally a throw of the dice and I decided to just do it and do it quickly. I sat down and drafted my resignation:

“Dear Sir,
Please believe me when I say that this is an extremely difficult and painful letter for me to write, but I’ve decided it was the only responsible thing to do under the circumstances.
It’s been blatantly obvious to everyone around me that in recent months I’ve not been entirely myself and that I’ve been struggling to function normally both at work and in my private life.
I’ve been struggling hard to stick at and keep up with my work. I’ve also become aware of the stress created amongst my colleagues. Created purely and simply by their concern for me and I’ve been touched by their compassion and sensitivity.
More recently though I’ve had to face the possibility that what I’m going through is something that will take quite a bit of time. I still get hit by the most awful fits of weeping and attacks of sheer terror and panic.
At the moment all my doctor can offer me when I’m at my worst is periods of time off sick. Because of national health service waiting lists I’ve seen a health service therapist on about three occasions over the last eight months, when I should be seeing someone on a weekly basis. To see me through the waiting period I’ve taken to private counselling and I’m finding this helpful.
However, I’ve decided that given the uncertain nature and outcome of what I’m going through that it’s no longer fair on my employers my colleagues and ultimately myself to continue working. While my struggle to keep going, sometimes through a veil of tears, may be admirable from one viewpoint it certainly doesn’t seem sensible from a health and safety perspective. Particularly given the job I’m doing.
Please let this letter stand as notice of my intention to terminate my contract of employment at the end of the next full salaried month.
I had hoped for a better outcome but this whole affair has gone on long enough. I can’t allow it to go on any longer.”

In the end my resignation was a gift to my employers. I had approached them to see if there was any possibility of taking a career break or sabbatical but it seemed that such things were not available to someone from shop floor level. Government cuts were hitting every department and I figured that my resignation would not be opposed because there had been a decision to cut staff by natural wastage.

On the day I handed my letter in I was summoned to the personnel department by one of the management team. She had been instructed to tell me that they were prepared to let me go within twenty four hours with a full months pay in lieu of notice if I wished. She also confided that I had won the admiration and respect of an awful lot of people during my time with them, and that if I should wish to work for them again at some point in the future they would have no hesitation in taking me back on in any capacity, provided that I felt fit enough to return. I was also told that they considered my employment record to be exemplary even over the previous few months and that nothing of what had happened in that period would go down on my record. I have to confess that I was left a little bit stunned by all this and was left wondering what I would have to have done in order to get a bad record, but perhaps that was a measure of my self-esteem at the time.

Over the previous couple of years I had occasionally entertained a fantasy of simply dropping everything I was doing at work, picking up my belongings and walking out of the door into bright sunshine and not looking back. In the end that’s almost exactly what I did, stopping only to shake a few hands and say some goodbyes on the way. And the sun really was shining when I walked out of the door.
A day or so later I did two things, the first was to make a note in my book:

“Why do I feel so agitated, restless. (Is the baby

fretting?) Feel like I’ve set something in motion I won’t feel in

control of. Soon the money will stop but the bills will still

have to be paid. It was the right decision, to pack my job in,

there’s no doubt in my mind. But still not sure where I want to

go. I think I’m hoping that something will formulate as I go

along. This is a success story. I’ve thrown myself into the

unknown, Wow!”

The second was more of a ritual. I decided that the only thing to do about such an apparently idiotic and rash action on my part was to celebrate it, so I met up with a friend in the same cafe that I first encountered Susan and cracked open a bottle of champagne. There didn’t seem much point in doing anything else!