When tidying some things, I found an undated essay I wrote around 2009. I was diagnosed with treatment-resistant depression and generalised anxiety disorder and fibromyalgia at the time. Now diagnosed bipolar 1 disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and coeliac disease. Although the generalised anxiety and fibromyalgia diagnoses are still current.
Also, now divorced. The essay was called 'Struggling to Find My Niche' (retyped below unedited, other than changing to indented paragraphs, plus read on video). I have self-published two books since.
Struggling to find my niche
"You stupid...stupid...STUPID girl!' he sneered.
He stomped his feet and waved his arms like a child having a tantrum. With his bony frame in a white lab-coat, grey tuffs [sic] of hair and glasses, he was the quintessential mad scientist. I stared at him hurling insults and suddenly released how absurd he looked. I had a trump card: I was leaving because I was accepted into teacher's college. This fool no longer had any power over me.
I laughed. Out loud. Previously, this pathetic man would have made me cry with his condescending, belittling, caustic comments. This time I was calm and his attacks failed to penetrate.
Flustered, he stalked into his office and slammed the door.
By far, the most stressful factor for me in the workplace is authoritarian, bullying bosses with over-inflated egos. They must be quite prolific in the workplace, as more than half my bosses were of this type.
Extreme stress is the catalyst for the re-emergence of my mood disorder. I have had several relapses of depression. Each relapse is linked to escalating stress: bullies, surgery, chemical exposure, long-term undiagnosed autoimmune disease. Ever since I first discovered depression while studying chemistry at university, I have had a low threshold for stress.
When the depression is managed, I am a conscientious worker and no-one can guess that I have battled such an affliction.
Secondary teaching would prove to be an unwise move.
I survived the first year, with an 80% teaching load and a reasonably supportive school with excellent resources. During the year, my doctor deemed me 'cured' of depression, and I weaned off antidepressants. I didn't noticed that I gradually became more exhausted as the year wore on.
I changed schools for my second year of teaching. The new school was smaller with friendlier staff. I was now on a 100% teaching load with two-hundred new names to learn quickly (I find name recall demanding). Unfortunately, the school lacked resources. I was run down, exhausted and was even starting to resent the students.
I had one particularly taxing class of 14-year-olds. Their mission was to provoke the teacher - they were constantly noisy, rowdy, back-chatting. One day, I did the unthinkable - tears blurred my vision - I was going to cry in front of the students! Embarrassed and angry with myself, I left the room.
After a few minutes, I heard someone ask, 'Where's Miss?'
'I think she's crying,' said another. A few of the girls, including the chief trouble-makers searched me out. They were apologetic and started weeping too. They hugged me and dragged me back to class.
Silence: quieter than during an exam; concerned faces; expectant eyes.
'I chose teaching because I wanted to help people, to make a difference; but to get treated like crap, it's not worth it,' I said. There were a few smirks but most of the students were sincerely remorseful.
I took several days off to reassess whether I could continue teaching. When I returned, a 15-year-old boy jeered, 'Heard you had a nervous breakdown, Miss.' Straight for the jugular, some students are.
I supervised a test. My mind was foggy; the roll took forever to work out. I felt panicky; I wanted to escape. I can't do this, I thought. My confidence was gone. I now loathed teaching - all the pressure and constant people contact sucked the life out of me. I had to finish - now.
I found myself sobbing in the deputy principal's office. I confessed that I was depressed and had been off my medication for several months. She said that to teach, one needs to be 110% fit, as teenagers sense weakness. I knew I couldn't go back.
Distressed, I phoned my husband. He said my health is more important; we would survive.
My boss was empathetic. She arranged for me to be paid out several weeks of sick pay and sent me flowers and homemade plum sauce. Recuperating at home, I felt mixed relief, despondency and disappointment.
After three months back on antidepressants - still fragile - I tried to find a job. I had the delimma of possessing tertiary qualifications, but the inability to handle stress. Employers were suspicious of why I had qualifications but was working 'below my capacity.'
My other dilemma would be whether to disclose my mental health issues, as I noticed that if I disclosed, I did not get the job. I learned that I was not legally obligated to disclose but if something happened, then the employer would cry foul and use it against me. So it was a no-win situation.
I gained employment in an office doing accounts, which I concluded was repetitive and boring. It was much lower pay than teaching but it was better than not getting paid at all. My depression resurfaced when I became pregnant; any impairment of cognitive function and mood was conviently blamed on pregnancy hormones.
After having my baby, I taught piano part-time from home and also worked part-time as a laboratory technician at a local high school. I was fortunate to have supportive bosses in these capacities - they provided guidance, valued my unique contribution and trusted me to execute tasks in my own style.
Unfortunately, my health continued to deteriorate. I now had a pain disorder - chronic and severe soft tissue and bone pain - as well as a mood disorder. To make matters worse, we were suffering from mortgage stress.
Reluctantly, I gave up my two part-time jobs and returned to work full-time. I was again working with chemicals. This coincided with a disasterous antidepressant change (an attempt to manage the pain disorder). Ths new antidepressant lowered my blood pressure dangerously and I experienced distressing side-effects.
My supervisor and I clashed immediately. She was very controlling and manipulative, alternating between micromanaging me and totally abandoning me. I felt so guilty that my young son was in day-care full-time. I became extremely anxious and depressed, and quit my job, devastated we would have to sell our house.
I had worked with chemicals for many years. Even at university, when I suffered my first episode of major depression, I noticed I was more sensitive than other students; they would get a headache from solvent fumes; I would get a headache, plus 'high.
Another time at work, I became dizzy and nauseaus while testing a pine concentrate. I bolted outside, gasping for fresh air, my heart pummelling. I was moody, depressed and suicidal for days - all from an odour.
Only in the past year did I discover how sensitive to chemicals I am. Not just occupational and environmental chemicals, but food chemicals too. I have multiple food intolerances, including coeliac disease: an autoimmune disease requiring a strict gluten-free diet. Some foods, including natural ones make me very depressed. The pain disorder disappeared [edit: significantly improved] with many other symptoms when I adopted a gluten-free diet.
I am now working part-time as a merchandiser visiting supermarkets. The people contact is minimal, I don't have a horrible boss breathing down my neck and I have flexibility. I chose the days and hours I want to work. I work during the day when my son is at school. The world doesn't fall apart if my son is sick and I need to take a day off. I work up to a maximum of 17 hours per week.
I didn't disclose my history of depression when I interviewed for this job. I stated that I had tried working full-time while being a mother and it didn't work out. I wanted something part-time and flexible during school hours. Health wasn't even discussed. My boss knew I had qualifications but accepted my reasons.
I don't utilise all my talents at work. I didn't expect to rearrange supermarket shelves having a university degree. But reality is: I can't handle stress. Yes, I feel frustrated at times that I'm not in a challenging and well-paid job. I feel frustrated that I haven't travelled the world and don't own a house.
My student loan from teacher training is still accumulating interest. But I feel thankful that I have the love and support of my family and am reclaiming my health.
Depression in the workplace is very difficult - and not just for the person suffering from it. Relapses can strike when one least expects.
Looking back now, I was more vulnerable when working with jobs that didn't suit my personality type. Teaching requires a lot of people contact. I am an introvert; trying to act like an extrovert and giving out constantly exhausted me. Working for bullies was soul-destroying. I have decided never to work with chemicals again.
I need to work part-time for my self-esteem. Autonomy, flexibility and creativity are important to me. I would like to continue merchandising and try freelancing writing: perhaps some health articles for magazines. I feel inspired to write and share my insights. I ponder writing ideas when I am driving my car merchandising, which provides mental stimulation. Maybe I've found my niche.
Xanthe finds creative expression including writing and painting to be therapeutic and helps her to manage her diagnoses of bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).