I am not featured in my high school yearbook as person most likely to be giving career advice. In fact, people were probably thinking, as they signed my yearbook, that I was the person most likely to never even find a career. This is because I have had bouts with mental illness since I was a teenager.

So I am enraged at Tom Cruise's crusade against effective treatments for depression. Depression is serious: Fifteen percent of clinically depressed people die by suicide. If you are depressed you need to get medical help immediately.

The World Health Organization ranks depression as the fourth most common disease (after lower respiratory tract infections, diarrheal diseases, and conditions arising in the perinatal period.) Research from Yale University showed that 70% of people who saw a doctor for depression were successfully treated.

Unfortunately, most people who are depressed do not seek help. Probably because the world is full of lunatics like Tom Cruise who belittle the illness and its treatments.

Statistically speaking, depression is a workplace issue: One in five working women suffers from depression. It is twice as common in women than in men, and among women, high intelligence is a risk factor for depression. So I am probably not the only woman you know who has been depressed.

Depression at work feels like depression anywhere else: A wave of hopelessness overcomes you and you have no idea why it's there or what to do to get rid of it. But if you are working, it's more likely to happen at your desk. If you have a door on your office, you lock it. If you have an opportunity to “work from home”, you announce you're taking it. These are tactics I have used. But believe me, they don't work for very long.

I never realized how optimistic getting out of bed was until I had depression. Getting out of bed is an act of hope — that there is something to look forward to in life. When depression came, hope and faith left. For no apparent reason.

Depression was immobilizing, and when I was depressed I spent most of my time at work covering up my inability to get anything done. For a while, people assumed I was taking care of things because I was a person who always took care of things.

But it's hard to hide depression at work. I started looking weird. People noticed, for example, that I couldn't have a conversation about anything because conversation requires interest and depression made me uninterested in everything. Everyone has an off day during an important lunch. But you can't have too many of those.

If career success is about building a strong, competent image of yourself over the course of time, then depression is the antithesis — it destroys your image relatively fast. People started to wonder who I really was. And so did I. I couldn't make decisions, I couldn't keep a schedule, I was not reliable and no one knew why.

Depression made me hide. I was not a mom or a wife when I was depressed, so hiding was relatively easy. The only people who needed me on a day-to-day basis were my teammates at work. So the office was my barometer for how much I was falling apart. I went to a psychiatrist because I didn't want to lose my job. In my depressed mind, I felt that if I destroyed my career, the feelings of hopelessness would kill me.

When friends ask me, “How can you write a career column? How can you care THAT much about work?” I remind them how my work saved me. Work has been a mirror reflecting myself back to me, and my career has been the thing I ultimately sought to save by getting medical help for mental illness.

So for goodness sake, don't listen to Tom Cruise: Listen to yourself. Depression is a common, treatable illness. If you think you might have it, get medical help now.

And keep an eye on your coworkers. Someone in your office is depressed. He or she might be hiding from friends and family, but it's much harder to hide from work. Don't be afraid to recommend that person gets help — stepping up at work to say what you see just might save a life.

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8 replies
  1. Susan
    Susan says:

    Also a good post, and as Tom Cruise demonstrates there’s still a stigma around psychiatry. Here’s an idea for a new blog post… if you’re missing work for regular therapy sessions (or any kind of medical appointment or if you’re “going to the doctor” as you interview for a new job), your coworkers are going to notice eventually. Legally, you don’t have to explain, but on a personal level, you feel obliged to offer some sort of explanation. What’s the best approach?

    * * * * *
    Interesting. I wonder what other people say about this…

    I have mostly (until now) lived in cities where going to therapy was a sign of intelligence and self-awareness, so it was totally fine to talk about going to therapy at the office. In New York City and LA, for example, people who lead perfectly healthy, normal lives go to therapy because it’s interesting and makes life more enjoyable.

    So I am probably a bad person to ask this question of. I have always said the truth — that I’m going to therapy.

    I have found, however, that after asking for tons of time off to go to my favorite yoga class every day at 3:30, I would try to hide when I was taking even more time off to do yoga. I didn’t want to seem unreasonable :)


  2. Leese
    Leese says:

    This is such a lucid, insightful post and terribly topical even if it is almost three years old.

    My depression was largely caused by the fact that I loathed my job and the upper management style.

    So many of the things you discuss here mirror my current situation except I think my depression also made me angry on top of everything else. And since it’s not ok to be bad tempered at work (at least not if you are a woman without a supervisory rank), I took it out on my partner. Such a bad idea.

    But there’s hope. I made the decision to move to a different department in a totally different field starting next week. Yes, a cut in pay is involved so this move is not without pain…but if it helps alleviate my crushing depression, my partner and I will breathe much easier.

  3. Aviva Gabriel
    Aviva Gabriel says:

    Penelope, I’m feeling more optimistic already. You describe the unreliability and indecision in the depressed person that turns other people off – and away – launching a viciously-downward cycle of deepening depression in the face of increasing isolation and alienation from the world.

    I have been depressed for a few years now, although I didn’t quite realize it. I now understand that my increasingly hermetic and isolated lifestyle was exacerbated by family and friends who not only stopped calling, but got so angry or discouraged with me that the phrase “I gave up on Aviva” was a badge of honor, an assertive stance that made the “giver-upper” feel proud that they wouldn’t stand for my bad behavior (my failure to answer the phone, or show up at events that I’d promised to attend).

    The more they proudly proclaimed to me, “I’ve given up on you,” the worse I felt, and the more inclined I was to be a “lone wolf,” or try and fix myself without help. I was deeply shamed by the criticism and labels coming at me from family and friends. I tried to bootstrap my way out of the depression – without help – because I had been told I was unredeemably “not OK.”

    Now I’m beginning to understand that this “shaming,” which probably began inside of me and allowed my depression to “take hold,” was highly intensified by friends and family who not only confirmed my “badness,” but actually lit a fire under my shame by bitterly turning away from me, claiming that I was “hopeless” and not worth contacting anymore.

    My reputation with friends and family – which I tried to change during happier, healthier days or weeks – has been difficult to turn around. Having earned the labels “unreliable” and “hermit,” almost nothing I did to change that reputation – no amount of showing up for events, no amount of answering phone calls, no amount of initiating visits and activities, no amount of remembering birthdays and showing up to help with household projects or cook dinners when someone was sick – none of it has changed the family/friend legend that Aviva is a “lone wolf” or “never shows up” or “never answers the phone.”

    Just the other day, my mother said, “I don’t understand why you’ve only come for dinner once, and we’ve been here now for six months.” Despite my recounting of all the meals I’d had at her dinner table during those six months, with details about the menu and highlights of conversations we’d had, she simply couldnt – or wouldn’t – remember that I’d driven through several major snowstorms and an icestorm to honor my committment to come for dinner. She simply couldn’t – or wouldn’t – remember that I’d stopped by three times with basketfuls of novels for their “paperback swap” club – purely on my own initiative and for the joy of sharing.

    My mother’s story about me – and by now, it’s just that – a “story,” a “fiction” – takes precedence over the reality.

    Depression, along with all of the self-involved behaviors that accompany such depression, puts you at risk for being permanently labeled “unreliable” or “a recluse.” For whatever reason, many people who were hurt by your depression will lock you into that role, and will be unable to remove the negative labels that they’ve attached to your personhood – not your behavior, but your very “being.”

    It’s hard to win against depression when the people you’ve disappointed or hurt are now conspiring against your recovery – however unwittingly and innocently – by maintaining their negative impressions and unchangeable stories about how “bad” you are.

    Being placed in a box – a prison, really – labeled “BAD” – and having that box sealed forever by your “tribe,” your community, your colleagues, friends, and family, makes it very hard to sustain a recovery from depression.

    I feel relieved to know that someone else out there – Penelope, in fact – has experienced at least some of what I’ve experienced; the capricious, uninvited, and illogical state of depression that makes it almost impossible to get up in the morning or “care” about anything.

    It sets me free, a little, from the categorically negative labels and unyieldingly bad reputation I now have – even with my own sister, with whom I’ve had a lifetime of loving relations – that have so deeply shamed me and increased the difficulty I’ve experienced in fighting my way free of this depression.

  4. Lou
    Lou says:

    thank you so much for this post. I wish there were more people out there who thought like this.

    I’ve been depressed in the past – but never admitted it to myself. The way I dealt with it was by either getting a new job, or choosing something new to study. Weird, I know.

    I’m now in a situation where I have moved 2000km for my fiance to take up a promotion. And I am yet to find work in my field (I’ve just finished a law degree). So, I find myself sinking into this depression again. Your blog (and others like it) is helping me to start to think about a way to navigate myself out of it.
    thank you.

  5. Lisa Bieniek
    Lisa Bieniek says:

    PT – thank you so much for this post, even though it’s an older one. I found it by accident, but it is so a reflection of my life recently. I am now coming out of a huge depression, thanks to therapy and medication, but have had to hide that from not only coworkers but friends and fmaily. I have tried to bring it up for discussion, but I am apparently surrounded by more Tom Cruieses than I ever realized, and in order to protect my reputation, I have to pretend that I am okay. Which, as you know, is completley exhausting and makes my depression worse. It adds a cloak of shame to my disease. Which has me so frustrated. My brther has cancer, and I have organized a benefit for him. It was so gratifying to see so many people come together to support him and help him fight his disease, both spiritually and financially. I wish there could be that kind of support for me.

  6. Nick
    Nick says:

    This post struck me to the core. I thought my problems were all about anxiety and stress but I didn’t take account of the hidden demon that accompanies those problems and that is depression. When my anxiety was displayed to friends and my partner and I saw the way they looked at me that broke me to the point where I attempted suicide to “get back at them” and ended up in the assessment ward of a hospital with a suspected mental disorder. All I have wanted to do lately is stay at home and let time pass by and getting out of bed has been a real effort. Even my long term partner, who I would jump in front of a bullet for, was telling me she hated me and wished I had died. That broke my heart. I could see it happening, I could see my relationships breaking and my reputation sinking but I just couldn’t stop myself from making it worse. It did make me realise one thing though and that’s people are not always who you thought they were and that my love for another person and my dependance on them was part of my downfall. You can rely on friends and loved ones only so much.

    As it turns out my partner was grieving for the person I was and I was telling her the whole time that I am still that person and that I never left. When I called her from the hospital to say I had leave to return home she was so excited but she didn’t realise that I was still not really better and that I couldn’t feel anything. I’m getting better and improving all the time but to be honest I also miss that person I “was”.

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