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 onthis 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:
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
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!