Last year, I took a photo of the Alpaca that wee James was leading around the Alpaca farm near Stirling. The bright sunlit whiteness of its head contrasted beautifully with the dark storm clouds in the distance. I was delighted; a fab thing to put up on Facebook when I got home!
Wendy, my partner, had been organising lots of things to do during our holidays now that our visit to Disneyland was cancelled; as many other peoples were, due to the pandemic. Although, those holidays were so needed. I had already extended them because I had been getting very irritable at work; being more challenging in response to innocent emails than I had ever been before, less able to complete pieces of work to my satisfaction. My boss had given me her blessing to take leave at short notice; it was a great relief. I had thought it would solve everything.
I was also delighted for another reason. Wendy had got me to talk the night before, and I had confessed that I still couldn’t go back to work at the end of my holidays. Somehow it was like I had run full tilt into a brick wall and was stumbling around, dazed, no longer knowing what direction I was facing. I didn’t know what to do. I was contemplating resigning and trying to work out how we could all manage on Wendy's part-time wages; whether I could get any benefits.
I wanted to take time off sick but didn’t think not being able to work was a good enough reason
After all, I could cook meals, wash the clothes, talk, laugh, and walk Dash the dog. I could more or less function. Wendy told me to speak to my CPN. My boss told me to speak my CPN.
I do not know what caused this sudden shift for me. Maybe, as with lots of people, it was the stress of the pandemic. I know I was finding facilitating and taking notes of zoom calls with people I had never met before increasingly tiring. I also know that I could no longer laugh off the frequent harassment I had been getting for over a year from a few people who were very angry at me about what I do in the world of mental health. It may have been as simple as the fact that a year ago, almost to the day, my Dad had died while I was on holiday and I still had not shed a tear about it, or talked about it that much.
Whatever it was, I went for my fortnightly injection with my CPN, and she immediately told me there would be no problem with taking sick leave; that I needed to speak with my GP.
Later, just as we were queuing to go up Dumbarton Rock, my phone rang. After less than thirty seconds speaking to a GP I had never met before, I was signed off sick for a month. After all, I think there are some advantages to having a diagnosis of Schizophrenia and being on a Compulsory Community Treatment Order.
For me, this signified a massive shift in my thinking and way of living. I was incredibly proud that despite my diagnosis and hospital admissions, I was managing seven staff at one point; that I had never used up my sick leave entitlement. It pains me now to say it, but my approach to work has been very unhealthy. I immerse myself in it fully. I can be so consumed by what I am doing that I pay no attention to life outside of my laptop.
Until now, I have never voluntarily taken time off because of mental illness; working right up to the point that I am sectioned and taken off to constant observation in hospital. When I am discharged, I always go back to work within days of getting home. It absorbs me at the expense of things that are far more important, such as the people I love in my life.
Furthermore, now I was taking sick leave just because I couldn't face work! It didn't make sense to me. I felt incredibly guilty, and out of that guilt, I made some critical decisions.
First of all, I have a past close colleague who told me she took time off when she was depressed and was reported to her workplace when she was seen outside, walking in the street. I have a friend who I sometimes go walking with when she is off sick. She knows I am always posting on Facebook and always tells me not to post pictures of her looking happy. She says some people cannot be trusted and she could be in huge trouble if seen out enjoying herself when she is meant to be ill. I find that confusing.
It seems such a short-sighted way of dealing with life and dealing with such things as mental illness. I knew full well that the worst thing I could do would be to lose myself in my thoughts and let those thoughts I try to avoid, gain power when I was feeling vulnerable. The very worst thing to do would be to stop and isolate myself, as I was very tempted to do.
I told my boss that I would be doing everything I could to enjoy myself while I was off sick: giving myself treats, going out, as far as the restrictions permitted, posting photos of me being happy, laughing, looking carefree.
To my delight, my boss said: “Please do, take a break; do what you need to do to get well again. Only come back when you can face work again and are well.” And so, I did!
I think my favourite times were walking Dash the dog. We have many places we go, but I love Ardmore Point; a couple of miles from our house. Dash loves it too; he goes wild in the back of the car when he realises we are about to turn down the small road to the edge of the Firth. We walk. I look at the geese in the field, take photos of my favourite solitary tree; listen to the curlews and oystercatchers, watch the lumpy flight of the herons, the sudden swirl of water where a seal has been peering at us.
The number of times Wendy took me to the café in the square in Helensburgh! I ate so many heart-attack-inducing cheese toasties and wittered to the wonderful waiting staff who always came up to give Dash the dog, treats and water where we sat talking in the gazebo that they had erected for covid.
I posted on social media when wee Charlotte gave me great big hugs and said she loved me and when James managed to look up from his Xbox and say “Thank you” when I took his tea to his room.
As I write this, two and half months later, I am contemplating starting work again; only half a day to start with and with a long break at Christmas, but I can face it now. I can relish the fact that work has said I can now block some of the people who send the most abusive emails if they carry on sending them. I have agreed to stop making my days when I am working so intense that It takes me ages to get back to the real world when I finish at the end of the day.
I can also remember those Zoom calls I cancelled where my peers said: “Of course you should cancel; you need to look after yourself." Furthermore, this time, really take what they say to heart.
I remember Wendy saying she was very proud of me because I had taken responsibility for my mental health for the first time in almost ever and avoided one of those admissions I hate so much. Because, of course, those realities I hate did sometimes overtake me. I did worry that I was destroying the world: responsible for Covid, Syria, global warming. I did email the church to tell them, although I was a devil and an atheist, could I come to their church for sanctuary? I tried to get my CPN to understand that I was ruining my family's life and needed to leave them but felt trapped because that would also ruin their life and so couldn't leave.
I have had a chance to relax, get up late, listen to the radio and music; to tell work I was doing all I could to enjoy myself. To witter about all the things, I was up to on social media and have a consistently supportive response to that.
Isn’t that how it should be?
I paint a rosy picture; it isn't quite like that! I still feel guilty for taking time off sick, my frequent trips to cheer me up, they didn't always cheer me up, my walks in the hills and by the shore, sometimes if I was alone, thoughts I had hoped to avoid, overtook me. My refuge in my room upstairs; sometimes wasn't that at all, instead a place to stare at the ceiling, not listen to the radio and remember things I don't want to remember. I did still worry about the reaction I might get if I was too cheerful on Facebook.
Is it still possible that when people are off sick because of poor mental health, they feel they need to look sad, miserable, and exhausted? Never leave the house, do nothing at all for fear of being seen as frauds and malingerers?
I think it is. I must admit I still feel guilty at my walk with my sister in Arrochar and our meal at the Village Inn. Indeed, if I could drive there, talk away; I could also log onto my emails, attend zoom meetings, write reports?
Of course, I couldn’t. I need to understand that I still subject myself to all the stereotypes of what poor mental health looks like and how we need to deal with it. However, finally, it seems, I have made a start, and my workplace has made sure that coming back to work will hopefully be the best start in a long time!