The guy in the photo above is on his honeymoon. He’s taking the train just outside Naples, about to spend the day walking around the ruins at Pompeii. He’s isn’t thinking about Pompeii though, nor his honeymoon, nor his beautiful wife in the seat across from him. He’s thinking about work. The guy in the photo is me, about 5 years ago.
It’s been about 4 years now since I left the job I hated (with the fire of a thousand, blazing suns).
I’ve only ever talked about it with my closest family members, and even my closest friends probably don’t really know the extent of the burning hatred. It’s taken me most of those 4 years to realize it, but I didn’t just have a burning hatred back then – what I really had was very likely some kind of mild depression. Given that today is Bell Let’s Talk day, maybe it’s a good time to…well….talk about it.
Let’s start at the beginning.
About 7 or 8 years ago, I began working in health care — on the computer side of things, not on the people side of things, of course. It seemed like a great opportunity, and although I knew almost nothing about what I was getting myself into, I knew that I was a quick study, and was sure I’d be ok after a few months. Skill-wise, I certainly think this was the case: I soaked up the massive amount of information swirling around me like a sponge, and within the first 6 months to a year, I was able to at least speaking the language, and able to do what was required of me.
Even early on, as expected, it was a pretty stressful time. A brand new job, in a brand new environment, with whole swaths of brand new information and processes and completely foreign things to learn. Imagine yourself starting work today for a department in a hospital. Imagine all the things you’d need to know! Normally, this wouldn’t have bothered me at all — having a whole new set of things to learn and discover is precisely what gives me energy and enthusiasm.
Trouble was, I wasn’t feeling any of this energy and enthusiasm. Trouble was, I was getting more and more stressed and anxious every single day.
In fact, everyone around me seemed much the same. It felt like the water coolers were filled with liquid malaise, that we all drank thirstily from. No one around me seemed hopeful — no one talked positively. It wasn’t long before I felt the same.
I don’t want to get too much into the specifics of what caused all of this, because I’m not sure that would be useful in a general sense. Discontent is personal, and reasons for which will vary from workplace to workplace. But suffice to say that in my circumstance, the combination of several grotesquely awful managers and an overall poor fit were what contributed to how I felt.
So how bad did it get?
Oh, it was bad. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to live with me back then. Every single day, I’d burst through the door and “regale” my wife with stories of the day’s atrocities — of exchanges with my manager(s), of terrible email’s I’d gotten, of nasty, threatening voicemails I’d received. Every day — literally every single work day — I’d walk through the door seething. My heart would be racing, my blood pressure would be up. Every day! I must have exhausted her.
At work, I’d often stare at the phone, wondering when it was going to ring. I had so much anxiety around getting new email, that I would only open Outlook for certain periods of the day. Not that it helped much – my manager would usually send off an email, and followup with a phone call to ensure I’d gotten the message.
At quittin’ time, I’d normally get a phone call from that same manager— at precisely 5:00 (no doubt to make sure that I stayed till the end of the day) to help really set me off before I left for the day. Most evenings I’d walk slowly across the parking lot to my car, trying to take deep breaths. Desperately trying to shake it all off before I got home.
You don’t just hate your job
There comes a point where you no longer just hate your job. You certainly can “just” hate your job — and many make a career of that — but I was well past that stage. I just didn’t know it. Looking back now, I was completely and utterly depressed. By year 4, I was waking up in the middle of most nights—sweating, my jaw and fists clenched, my heart racing.
In the evenings, all I could think about was going back tomorrow. On the weekends, the sense of dread for Monday morning overshadowed everything else that happened. And none of this occurred as a sideline in my brain. When I say “I was thinking about work”, I mean I was literally obsessed with thoughts about work. No amount of joy could come in and wash away that obsession. Spending time with my family couldn’t, being out dancing and partying on Friday night couldn’t, a wedding and an incredible European honeymoon couldn’t. There was literally nothing in the world that could overpower that obsession.
Even writing that last paragraph gives me a new understanding of depression. I guess I’ve never thought about it that way before. It’s truly all-encompassing. It’s an infinitely deep and wide ocean of despair, and you just can’t swim out of it.
A false bottom
You often hear about people hitting bottom in circumstances like these. They find themselves at the end of a marriage, or they start gambling or drinking or some other, visible sign appears before them to say that things have gone off the rails. I don’t recall having one of these moments. I remember at times thinking — “Surely, this is the bottom?” — but it wouldn’t be. I would actually see many different bottoms before things started looking up. I do remember a few of them:
I remember sitting down for lunch one day over a bowl of chilli with good friend and just talking like a mad-man. I just spewed everything I had in me. I still remember the look on his face — a look of confusion and sympathy and helplessness. I’d said so much, that he had no idea where to even start. My despair was so deeply rooted by then that I don’t know what he could have done if he’d tried. Looking back on this now, I should have asked him for help.
I remember another day, having a normal conversation with an older friend and mentor when he asked my how work was going. I remember staring blankly at him for a few moments, before saying— “I don’t know”. I remember that exact moment so vividly, it’s like it just happened. I stood there, tears coming down my face, and I just said — “I have to go”. I didn’t even know where to start to open up. He would have been the perfect person to talk to about all this, but I was just too ashamed to even get into it. Again, looking back on this now, I should have asked him for help.
The bottom that still stings the very most, is around the time I got married. I still remember being in the church on our wedding day, thinking about work. I remember the first day of our honeymoon, walking around the canals in Venice, thinking about work. I remember the joy-killing numbness I felt through all that time, and it still really gets to me. I remember my wife asking me “whatcha thinking about” a few times when she must have noticed I wasn’t present, and me lying about it.
The last bottom I’ll share came one day as I was walking across the parking lot to my car, where taxi cabs park along the perimeter, waiting for fares. I walked past these same taxis day after day, and this one day I just remember thinking that at least I’ll be able to drive a cab. At least I can still sit in a car and drive it.
See, the trouble with depression isn’t just that it affects the immediate circumstances you’re in, it affects your very core. After 4 years, I didn’t just think I couldn’t do this job, I was convinced that I couldn’t do any job. I truly believed that I was about as close as you could get to unemployable.
Save the middle for last
I haven’t yet mentioned the turning point in this story. Finally getting a new job was obviously the biggest turning point, but there was a moment in the middle where things really turned around for me. After many months and months of what was really borderline harassment from one of my managers, I decided I had to do something about it. I combed through my emails and voicemails and memories of all meetings and 1-on-1s I’d had over the past while, and constructed a trail of awfulness that I took to a meeting I’d scheduled with an HR representative. The HR person was nice, and sympathetic — she took notes, asked me questions about the things I was telling her. In the end, she said she’d review the notes with her manager, and she gave me the name and number of someone to call.
That someone-to-call was someone with the Employee Assistance Program — a program I knew literally nothing about. So I gave her a call, and got together and we talked about pretty much the same stuff that I’d talked to the HR representative about. When that meeting was over, she also gave me a name and number of someone to call—Pat. So I called Pat and we got together.
I’ll never forget sitting in Pat’s waiting room and looking at the name plate on her door — Pat R., Psychologist. I vividly remember the shock of seeing that. I thought — I’m not crazy! I don’t need a psychologist! — but in fact a psychologist is precisely what I needed. Within about 10 minutes of our first meeting she’d assured me that I was not in fact worthless and crazy, but rather that I was simply in an ill-fitting work circumstance that seems to have clouded over all other aspects of my life.
By our 3rd or 4th meeting (of 6), we were well on our way towards figuring out what I’d actually like to do with my life, as well as putting together some concrete plans towards setting a quit date, and moving on. After so long, I was unable to make any sense of the predicament I was in, and truly felt helpless to climb out of it on my own. But she saw the issues at hand as completely normal and linear and escapable.
Why am I telling you all this?
I always knew I’d get out of that job. It took me almost 2 years of very active job searching and intense misery, but I knew I’d either find a new job somewhere else or just snap one day and quit. But there are people out there who don’t even have this faint glimmer of hope to look to. Almost all of my co-workers at the time would fall into this category.
I’ve told you all this to get to the one, simple lesson I’ve learned from it all: you need to talk about it. You need to be open about it. You need to reach out. If you’re finding that people aren’t helping you, reach out further. Keep talking, keep telling your story. I guarantee you will eventually find someone who can help you — and the day you do, it will be like you’ve won the lottery.
Even writing that sounds so cliche and meaningless, but it’s hard to put it any other way. The day I truly opened up about how I felt — to someone who was skilled and experienced enough to help — was the day things took a 180. I can pinpoint that very moment as the one where I started to turn things around.
I just wanted to say that I’m mostly normal guy. I haven’t struggled with mental health issues all my life. I haven’t been diagnosed with anything. I’ve never taken a single drug to help combat any imbalance. I never even talked to my doctor during that time. For all those long 4 years, I was trying to convince myself that it was just a bad job and it would all go away when I left it. I thought that it was just a bad job or a bad manager or bad circumstances or whatever else. But the honest and obvious truth of the matter is that I was depressed, and I did almost nothing to help myself during that time.
Finally, if any of the above sounds like you and your situation, you really need to try and get help. If you feel this way going to work every single day, you need sort this out. You owe it to your spouse and to your kids and to your co-workers. Most of all, you owe it to your future self. Be honest about how you feel, and instead of being obsessed with your job, get obsessed with finding someone who can help.
Thanks for listening — and good luck out there.
Happy #BellLetsTalk day.