Depression. It’s been something I wanted to write about for some time. Particularly given the recent series of tragic high-profile suicides in the media. In a way, I’m glad I waited. For a week or two, there was a public outpouring. Then most people moved on. I don’t mean that in a bad way. But if you suffer from depression you can’t really ‘move on’. If you don’t suffer from depression, I hold no absolutely grudge in you being able to.
The thing that really spurred me to write this, however, was because of what other people had written. Unfortunately, in my view, there is still a big misperception in how depression (and other mental health disorders) manifest and affect people. Things have certainly improved, particularly over the past 5 years. But I was disappointed by how many writers I really respect, just don’t ‘get it’. So today I’m sharing my story about depression and working in finance.
A history of me
I’ve suffered from depression (and anxiety to a lesser extent) since I was a child. I wasn’t formally diagnosed until my late teens. But with the benefit of hindsight, I’ve suffered pretty much my entire life.
I’ve had two major ‘depressive episodes’ in my life. The first was when I was at uni. I couldn’t tell you what started it. But it was gradual then sudden. To some extent, I’m a ‘high-functioning depressive’. On the outside, I look like I’m holding it together. On the inside is utter chaos. That chaos is finely held in balance – I often describe it as ‘being held together with sticky tape’. But a bump, sometimes minuscule, can set things off.
I was holding things together. Day-drinking helped take the edge off of things. I was seeing a uni counsellor and going to group therapy. Then suddenly I wasn’t keeping it together. I then caught flu and ‘the bottom fell out’. I went home for over a month to recover and lost about 3 stone (20kg) in weight. My GP prescribed anti-depressants to me as well as sleeping tablets as I was regularly going whole nights without sleep.
I went back to uni, but effectively missed most of the second half of my final year. Somehow, despite being drugged up to my eyeballs I managed to get through the rest of my year and pass all my exams.
It’s an unquestionable beauty of the human spirit that we can pull ourselves through the mightiest of ordeals. Mine were trivial to what many people go through each day. I think for those who suffer from mental health illnesses it’s just that the margin of error is much finer. A bump that is minor for a non-suffer can be an insurmountable setback for someone with depression.
Starting in the City
About a year into my first job I suffered my second major depressive episode. Again, I don’t know what the trigger was. I just found myself uncontrollably sobbing in the toilet. However, this episode was much worse. Whilst I had stopped the drinking, I was not coping at all with the stress and pressures of a job in the City. I started developing shakes, rashes and rapidly lost weight. However, none of my line-managers noticed. It was only when one of my colleagues saw how bad I was that it came flooding out.
This is a cruel element of depression. For me at least, it actively stops you from reaching out. You think that if you to express your inner turmoil the fine-balance that keeps you operating would be thrown out. Your world comes crashing down around you. And in my first workplace, it was true. The unrelenting focus on being ‘confident’ ‘sure’ and ‘bolshy’ meant bottling up that chaos. Until it can no longer be contained.
Is it right to ‘bottle up’? Probably not, but for me this steps onto one of the biggest misconceptions about depression.
This is a generalisation, but many non-suffers think that depression is about failure. And for many, but importantly not all, failure is a major component in our suffering. But it’s a subtly different type of failure. Most people are afraid of failing because it will either make them look bad or negatively impact them in an unpleasant way. For someone suffering from depression (or at least for me), I’m not afraid of failure. That’s because my brain tells me I am a failure every single day. Being perceived as a failure is moot. I am a failure. Being a failure means I am a bad person. [p.s. it’s this last leap, failure = bad, that is the thing I have to work on the most]
This is the thing, I find, that those who don’t suffer struggle to comprehend the most. I’m massively generalising here, but they think that if you don’t take risks, if things don’t go wrong, you’ll be OK. That failure is something you can step away from. But it is inescapable. My brain will find a way to find failure – even in the most tenuous of circumstances.
Getting back up
After my second episode, I took some time off work (only 4 days – the masochistic nature of depression). Thanks to the help of some colleagues for whom I am eternally grateful for, I ‘got help’. I saw a psychiatrist who helped me to understand and classify my suffering (unfortunately/fortunately, I’m one of those people who is self-aware which can exacerbate depression and anxiety). I also saw a therapist and went through a series of Mindfulness Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (MCBT) sessions. My psychiatrist changed my medication to something that has worked much better for me since. Unfortunately, all this treatment is a salve rather than a cure. I know that I will live with my illness for the rest of my life.
When it goes right
I’ve focused so far on much of the negative in my journey. But there is a positive. I left my first job after qualifying as a Chartered Accountant. My first workplace wasn’t right for me. I was much more careful in deciding on my second workplace. And whilst I quit the day job not that long into my career; I think I could only have made that call because I reached the right frame of mind to do so (you can read more about it in my post: I’ve got a confession to make). A lot of that is down to the positive aspects of my second job.
The turning point was when I could have had another episode but didn’t.
I was sitting in a foreign courtroom and I suddenly felt myself shaking (I primarily worked in corporate finance disputes). I had been so engrossed in proceedings that I hadn’t noticed that I had drenched my writing pad with sweat. Apparently, my eyes were bloodshot and I had gone deathly pale. In my rush to get to the airport the previous day, I had forgotten to take my medication. Having then been on a plane for 12 hours, in the rush to get ready for court I again forgot to take my meds. I had never done this before, but in effect had now gone over 2 and a half days without medication. I was getting withdrawal symptoms. Now I’ve never taken heroin, but those who’ve tried to come off both heroin and anti-depressants say it’s pretty comparable. I felt like I was dying.
But I was in the middle of a courtroom session. You can’t say anything. Do anything. I was paralysed. At that point, however, my boss turned to me and saw my suffering. And he whispered: “it’s OK”. He knew. Immediately, the tension in my body released. During the adjournment, he took me to one side. And we talked. Rather than the flood coming out and leaving me a wreck; the flood was a release.
How you can help
It was all by circumstance, but it showed me what I help I needed. My boss took the ‘weight off my shoulders’. He didn’t make out things would be easy. But he promised – and a commitment he always kept – that he would make sure it will be OK.
That’s what worked for me. And without trying to be Captain Obvious, it varies person to person. A big part of my depression is always feeling the need to take on everything – to not let people down. What I needed was patience and my boss/colleagues to step-up when I couldn’t. There are just times when I can’t do it. Unfortunately, there are lots of people in finance (and all professions) who think that that is not acceptable. You’ve got to be 100% at all times, every single hour of the day. It doesn’t matter for them that I can work 150% most of the time but only 50% in the remainder.
I was fortunate that my bosses at my old firm ‘got it’. We worked great as a team. In writing this it did make me slightly miss working with them. But for now, the (semi) retired lifestyle is too enjoyable (they continually try to tempt me back to work). Reflecting on it, we found a way that meant my depression worked (as much as it could) in a positive way. That doesn’t mean there were no negatives. As I mentioned in my confession post, those negatives contributed to me quitting my job.
The reality of life in financial services
Part of the reason I decided to join my second employer was their commitment towards tackling mental health issues in work. Whilst the firm was good, I did get quite lucky with my bosses. It worked out for me. Whilst it worked for me, I know it didn’t for other people in my old team (and for that matter, people in my first workplace as well). This is the reality of the world. Until things get a bit better for those who suffer with mental health illnesses, there will be workplaces and bosses that just won’t work for sufferers. The odds are more challenging in the City where many employers impose a culture and environment that it is counter-productive for suffers (and I think to all young employees).
I can’t promise to young sufferers who may be reading that things are perfect. There are going to be setbacks. There are gonna be struggles. My advice is finding an employer and team that has a commitment to combating mental health issues in the workplace. I’m more wary of giving personal advice, because I know that what works for one person, doesn’t necessarily work for others. What worked best for me was finding ‘rabbis’ – senior people (bosses or not) who can offer their guidance, wisdom and counselling for succeeding in the workplace. They can help you develop a way of working that fits in with your mental health situation. I was fortunate that my rabbis were my bosses, we created methods of working that brought out the best in me (and I hope, in them).
If you’re an employer, I’ll copy some advice from Mind, who say it better than I could:
Sometimes people can worry about how to approach a conversation about a person’s mental health but there are no special skills needed – just the ones you use every day as a people manager like common sense, empathy, being approachable and listening. If you do nothing, problems can spiral, with a negative impact for individuals and organisations.
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading. I can tell you, it was bloody hard work writing this. But I hope it was worth it. If you are willing to share your story in the comments, please do. Don’t be put off if you don’t suffer from a mental health illness – personally, I would really like to hear your viewpoint as well.
Mrs YFG and I are going on holiday tomorrow, but I’ll be reading every single comment – even if I’m not responding.
It’s somewhat a shame I feel like I have to say this, but here it goes: I see my blog as a living room. Feel free to come in and share your thoughts – even (especially) if you don’t agree with me. But there’s no need to be negative or rude. Don’t be a dick.
All the best,
Young FI Guy
[p.s. If you feel like things are getting too much, try to find somebody to talk to – even if you don’t know them that well. You can also go on the Mind website: https://www.mind.org.uk/ which has been helpful for me.]