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Dublin: 18 °C Tuesday 30 September, 2014

Opinion: There were days I struggled. I wished I could call in sick and not have to pretend

Should employers be receptive to employees calling in sick for a mental health issue – they should be, writes an anonymous contributor.

Anonymous

I OFTEN WONDERED how receptive employers would be if employees called in sick, the only reason: a mental health issue.

There were days that I just couldn’t handle. Days that I just had to push on with.

In hindsight, it was probably better this way. But I had often hoped I could call in sick to work and not pretend it was anything other than what it was: this constant, obsessive voice in my head, my own, telling me that the best way to feel better was to give up and take my own life.

I wouldn’t have to walk the aisles holding my clipboard of meaningless information and pretend I was fine. I would never have to repeat and endure my days, like a hamster on a hamster wheel running out of breath, falling off and getting back on to finish the chore.

In a bad way 

Anyone could see the pain and doubt in my eyes. People knew I was in a bad way.

My dad would ask if I was fine; I’d lie and keep staring, not blinking, at the TV I wasn’t really watching. My work colleagues, the nice ones, would say “things will get better” and I would nod in agreement, inside telling myself that they were wrong.

I couldn’t talk to my employers – in this particular job most of them had proven to be unfeeling, calloused things. I just couldn’t face more meanness.

I had convinced myself over time I couldn’t go on if I couldn’t leave – it was the recession after all, things would be far worse without a job. But I couldn’t hack the environment. If it wasn’t a manager jumping down my throat, it was a colleague trapping me in the freezer until I became so frantic I couldn’t breathe – which normally took only ten seconds, nothing to write home about. It was only “banter” after all.

Suicidal thoughts

I often walked to work late, leaving my house at the latest possible moment to delay the dread of making it to work. Suicide ideation is the worst. I wish I could be graphic in my words here, but I won’t let myself. We all know what suicide ideation is like, how moments of death are glorified beyond the brutal, ugly, fatal reality that they are – for you, your body and everyone you know.

I had built this misery up for so long that it began to take a physical toll on me. I couldn’t digest food properly – it came out again quickly, one way or another. I became embarrassed about this. I can handle the misery – I kept telling myself, not really understanding what ‘handle’ meant – but the physical toll? People would know, they would find out how selfish and shameless I am.

To this day I know life is a gift and I have the power to control my emotions and my actions towards unsavoury characters – but in careless moments it takes only a second to forget these things and go through your day with struggle in the foreground.

Seeking help

After frantically blubbering all over my doctor, that I couldn’t think straight, that I couldn’t tell where my thoughts would be within the hour, I was sent to therapy. For months my counsellor and I talked about my issues: my lack of self-esteem, lack of confidence, a sudden death in my family, bullies from school and last of all, work.

I’ve been thinking about her again, my counsellor. “Where is the evidence?” she would ask. I would earnestly state: “I feel like suicide will just happen to me anyway, some day I’ll just do it impulsively,” or “I’ll never become what I want to be, the mean ones in school were actually right.”

Every time she would ask what evidence there was that had me so convinced of these critical, personal judgements of my life so far. And I would have to answer. It was a revelation to find that my personal criticisms were mostly absurd and unfounded.

When you ask yourself what the evidence is, there can be no answers. Some of these statements turn out to be irrational fears stemming from the build up residue of thoughts and feelings that have come before and have been left unchallenged, to fester and grow in your mind unconsciously – for me, anyway.

Workplace

I eventually plucked up the courage to hand in my notice to my employer – I kept reminding myself that given a choice, the people in my life would prefer me unemployed than dead – a choice, that before my counselling, seemed in doubt.

My manager was uncharacteristically cheerful that day, but when I couldn’t answer her question (Oh, this is great news, where’s the new job?) she became grave. She couldn’t understand why I was leaving without a job on the horizon.

And then I burst into tears, of the uncontrollable sobbing sort. Mortifying.

She had me in her office for what felt like an hour. I think we both knew that if I had done something irreversible to myself questions would be asked of her role in my misery. I was surprised though; she was consoling me and telling me about her own daily misery.

Everyone’s got his or her own sad story to deal with. She told me I could take personal leave – a shocking thing I never knew existed. She would also change my hours to something more sociable, and move me into a different department, away from the people she and I both knew were harassing me.

I carried on working there for some months later. Though I still had suicidal thoughts, I felt lighter as if a great weight had been lifted from me. I felt better for pouring myself out to my therapist and personally stronger for facing my head manager. I think the bad thoughts will always be a part of me – it creeps up every now and then – but it’s the management, the self-awareness of ourselves, that we need to be mindful and respectful of.

It’s important to check yourself of suicide ideation and I’m glad we live in a country in which we’re quietly becoming aware of mental health and the needs around it. Personally, I would love to see more emphasis on mental health in the work place. I don’t know how to make this happen, but I guess talking about it is always the first vital step forward.

Helplines:

Samaritans 1850 60 90 900 or email jo@samaritans.org

Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634

Console 1800 201 890

Aware 1890 303 302

Pieta House 01 601 0000 or email mary@pieta.ie

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