There was a pivotal point in my recovery when I returned to work and a colleague gave me some advice. ‘This may be real life,’ he said, ‘but it isn’t your life. Play your part on a given day, and when it’s done, take off your costume and go back to your family.’ I’d failed to do that, disengage from work.
I started to take his advice on board and it gave me perspective, allowing me to pick up where I’d left off before depression and anxiety.
I’d been working for a project management company when my problems started, implementing the community engagement programme for proposed wind farms.
Some community members were aggressive opponents to these developments and I thought I had the resilience to handle them, but the sustained hostility started to wear.
I wasn’t sleeping, lost weight and couldn’t focus in the office. I began to question my competence and self-worth and felt I was letting people down. As I deteriorated over a couple of months I realised that I couldn’t continue.
The anxiety at work added to the stress of being a new parent, the depth of which I only realise in hindsight. As a father, I felt alienated at times — I could try to console our newborn, but I couldn’t comfort him in the way his mother could. Also, with our reduced income we were worried about me taking time off work. We needed to adjust a lot, cope with our health, and keep our two-year old happy.
As individuals, we only have a certain capacity for managing stress.
The combination of an challenging work environment and the unexpected challenges of parenthood tested my resilience and I became overwhelmed.
I tried mindfulness but soon realised I needed additional support so went to my GP. She referred me to a psychiatrist who helped me manage with medication. I also made a successful WorkCover claim which covered 50% of my income for the three months I was out of work. This was an enormous relief.
Before I took the decision to leave work, I didn’t share what I was going through with people close to me, I didn’t know what was going on myself. My wife provided unconditional love through this time, however it took the intervention of a close friend to break the ice and encourage me to talk about my illness.
When I returned to work colleagues thought I’d been on extended leave. Unhappy with the questions hanging over my absence, I took a slot at the next staff meeting.
‘I’ve had depression,’ I said. ‘This is what happened to me.’
I spoke for about five minutes. I didn’t do it for me, but for my workmates — to let them know about mental illness and how we're all vulnerable.
Afterwards about half a dozen colleagues approached me and said, ‘Yes I’ve been there.’ I felt really relieved having shared my story, and comforted knowing that I wasn’t alone.
I know depression has changed me as a person, I now prioritise family over everything else. I try to spend more time playing with my children and reading to them, those times when we forge connection. Parenthood can be a test of our kinder selves and frustration can get the better of us. It is those moments of intimacy with our children that are the most fulfilling.
Not long after my recovery I left my consultancy role to work for an international donor organisation. I feel like I’m making a difference in an area I feel passionate about. Of course it’s challenging, but I’m much more content. I’ve also begun volunteering.
If I was to give advice to someone at the beginning of the journey I’d say don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and reach out. If you’re challenged by depression and anxiety it won’t remedy itself, you need support.