My Other Black Dog
During Mental Health Awareness Month, our founder Emily shares her personal story.
Winston Churchill talked about it as his ‘black dog’ so it seems only fitting that I now write about mine, not the whirling ball of fluff with the over-active tongue, that is my cockapoo, but the depression and anxiety that troubled me for some time now.
In 2016, I found myself sitting blankly in front of the family GP having hit the proverbial rock bottom. My depression can be disruptive, destructive and lonely. I can’t quite believe that I got to 38 in one piece, and I hate to think about the ripple effect my illness has had on those closest to me. But strangely it is also the making of me. The good times were bright, vivid and I lived in a creative swirl of productivity and non-linear thoughts and ideas.
The dark times were physically painful and yet I hadn’t the energy or resolve to go and speak to anyone who might be able to help. I cut off friends, stopped those who loved me getting close, it was like I wanted to shut out the world and wallow in my dark thoughts – alone. When the ‘noise’ in my head wouldn’t stop, I’d think, I know why people end their lives.
Now I manage my depression with a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) – I don’t like using the term anti-depressant as it has such a negative connotation - I have embraced Talk Therapy and I try (not always that hard!) to live a relatively healthy life.
I believe that my depression is a part of me. Rather than fight it, I choose to understand it and work with it. Much like other illnesses, there is a cause and, luckily, known treatments.
I still have my dark days, and that’s fine, but if they become too frequent, I know what things I need to put in place to help balance me out again. And like diabetes there are ways of managing it and making things easier for yourself.
This is a little of what I have learnt:
Being unable to function to a basic standard isn’t ok. Not wanting to get out of bed for weeks on end, wash, see people you love, or do things you know make you happy, is a sign that something is wrong. I used to know when things were getting darker when I would stand in a supermarket after work, stare at a shelf and be unable to pick something to eat. Going into work, and not being able to do the simplest thing over an extended period of time, isn’t fine either. Feeling emotionless, when you are used to feeling something, isn’t right. For goodness sake, see the doctor, and if you aren’t happy with what you have been told, seek a second opinion or push to see a specialist. Use your health insurance if you have it. It’s not an easy conversation, because it feels so lame to say to a doctor that you just don’t feel like you, but trust me, if you don’t check in when the symptoms are mild, they can get out of hand.
Take bloody medication. I believe the drugs do work but I get it: not one pill fits all. I didn’t want to take medication - I was worried about what they might turn me into. Would I still be me, with my personality and feelings? I need not have worried. I will say though, it’s not an overnight cure, and it takes some tweaking on dose, but meds have certainly helped me achieve a more moderate balance. I do think there’s a job to do with the medical profession who casually call the meds anti-depressants, which is so negative – might the pharma industry call them by what they are? Afterall, insulin doesn’t have the same stigma.
Self-care isn’t lame, it’s essential. I was thrilled to land my first big agency role, and I loved everything that went with it. The intense pitching, and late nights, celebrating the wins, making new friends and staying up all night, and then going into work after nights out as a team. Fuelled by coffee, adrenaline, re-toxing and team spirit, looking back, I’m not sure how I did it. At the time, I didn’t know the toll it was taking on my mental health. So: use your holidays, take that cheeky afternoon off when your boss gives it, hell, if you want to spend the day doing nothing, do it. I quite like a planned PJs day and catching up on Billions or listening to podcasts.
Run your own race. As the promotions came, so did the pressure I put on myself and the increase in pace that I wanted to keep up with. As comms changed and our roles became 24/7, I just tried to keep up. The bottom line is that you can’t. Your career is a marathon not a sprint and it’s your personal journey, no one else’s. If you want to stop running and change course, that’s ok.
Be careful of what you hide behind. To steal a catchphrase from Hastings, for the love of god, be careful with alcohol. Yes, it can add the sparkle to the good times, but it can also heighten the bad stuff - when I was on the brink of a dark patch, a big night out would bring it on, faster and more intensely. But equally, it could be work. I know that my depression impacted my sleep and when I couldn’t sleep, instead of resting, I’d fire up the laptop and work, work, work.
Your employer needs to wake up and do you do too. Leaving the 9-5pm, or rather the 7-10pm rat race, has made the biggest difference to my life and mental health overall. But if I still worked for an agency, I would be far more realistic about my own working hours and productivity.
I would love to see a major company put its money where its mouth is and think more practically about flexibility. I’ve always found it extraordinary that an industry that relies so much on its people and creativity, still structures its working day like those factories in the industrial revolution. Who will be the first to embrace true flexible working, and I don’t mean letting people work from home once in a blue moon? If you’re interested in this, please read Flex by @Annie Auerbach – I loved it.
At SESAME, we are more focused on outcomes. I don’t work set hours, I guard my private time and my partners do the same. We have a philosophy and culture that works for us all, if that means working around school, godmother/ doggy duties, parent duties or just needing a day off, so be it. I appreciate we have the utmost trust amongst us but it’s amazing to see the difference in productivity and happiness.
But most importantly you need to take responsibility, call out unreasonable workloads, clients and colleagues, when this behaviour is evident it must be corrected, otherwise you are in danger of fuelling a toxic culture.
Your mental health is not an excuse. I think we need to be a bit careful that mental health doesn’t become a scapegoat for when you can’t be arsed, need an excuse for a hangover, or want to label feelings. I wouldn’t have wanted to be treated differently by being labelled ‘fragile’ either. I’m also a dyslexic, but I’ve never told anyone in the workplace proactively because I didn’t want people to think it was ok to get spellings wrong or write sentences that didn’t make sense. I had ways to cope and knew when I needed to ask for help – for example not being scribe in an important brainstorm or having to sight read in public!
In short, I wish I had gone to the doctor sooner, got myself on the meds and the counselling quicker. I wish I had learnt to manage my symptoms earlier. I wish when I was struggling, I could have flagged it and taken the time out to get better, without it impacting my career and promotion prospects, and making me feel like I was failing. Above all though, I wish this disease hadn’t taken my Dad.
If you would like to talk to someone about your mental health, please contact your GP or call Mind on 0300 123 3393.