How do you work when you’re depressed?

I get that question a lot. Here’s the honest answer: I can’t.

At least at my rock bottom, I wasn’t able to work. My efforts failed miserably because my self-confidence was way below sea level – so all it did was bring on more frustration.

I remember sitting down at my computer every morning, making the same effort, hoping that if I led with the body then the mind would follow. But the mind wasn’t interested in going anywhere, and was rather pissed off that I would even try. I performed this ritual for months on end. Butt to the chair. Crying at the computer. Then one day my (then) two-year-old poured a cup of apple juice over my keyboard. The hard drive made a funky noise, and the screen looked like a black-and-white film from the 70s when they got to the end of the tape, which I took as a sign from the universe to stop for a while.

So I did. For about a year.

And every day of that year I cursed myself for being so weak to cave into depression, to toss out every productive cell I had in me.

It was only with the help of some very good friends and mentors that I could tip-toe my way back to work. And I mean tip-toe.

One of my friends was a bestselling author who had gone through a serious bout of depression himself.

“A bulldozer,” he’d say to me every month when I took the kids for a drive in the country to see him. I didn’t realize it at the time, but these were essentially sessions from a life coach on how to get your life back. “When you hear the negative voices, you have to be like a bulldozer, and just keep on going, no matter what they say.”

So that’s what I did.

I started very small and tackled projects that didn’t require a “full” brain. In other words, because writing was clearly not working, I sought work at a nearby college as a tutor. That way I didn’t have to come up with the words myself. I only had to tell the student that he was using the wrong words, and to come up with better ones before our next session or whenever the paper was due.

Those two hours a week were the beginning of a climb back to productivity and made a world of difference to my self-esteem. The fact that I was able to not cry for two hours, and to concentrate enough to give guidance was nothing short of a miracle at that time in my life.

Whenever I get down on myself today for having an off day, I remember my two hours a week at the college. And I realize how far I’ve come.

But what do I today when I hit a rough spot? A few things:

1. Break it up.

When the project I need done feels too overwhelming to begin, I break it down into very small pieces, and I give myself a deadline for each piece. For example, take a book. Now the mere thought of writing a book gives me a panic attack. So I don’t think about the whole book. I think about a chapter, about 10 pages. And then I break that down. When could I find time to write the first three pages (750 words)? I give myself a tentative due date. This was especially important as I was just surfacing to the working world again. If I didn’t break it down, I had to get out the paper bag and breathe from it. But divided into itty-bitty chunks, it was manageable.

2. Solicit a cheerleader.

I’m not sure how my future would have turned out without Joe (my life coach in the country) and mentors like Mike. When you are the type of living organism that thrives on affirmations, like I do, it’s crucial to have a set of cheerleaders in your life to motivate you to get to the finish line, and to remind you that you have it in you to do it. Especially helpful are friends who have lived through the same hell of depression and have emerged as productive people today.

3. Be around other people.

I know you can’t always choose your work situation, but if you have any control over it at all, I suggest you work on projects with other people, and physically be in the presence of other people. I think that is partly what was so helpful about working at the college. The isolation of writing is not conducive to pulling yourself out of a depression. Too many temptations to ruminate and obsess. When someone is talking to you, on the other hand, you really should be listening. Which means you are not rolling around a week-old thought in your mind. Even if it means working in a coffee shop, as opposed to your house, getting around other people is almost always helpful.

4. Have a venting buddy.

To clarify: Your cheerleaders are people outside your work who can “raw raw raw” make you feel better. A venting buddy, on the other hand, is someone within your work organization with whom you can be completely honest. This can be a dangerous step, so please proceed with caution. But I know from the very recent experience of working at a rigid consulting firm that I would have completely lost it if it weren’t for three women in whom I confided everything: That I absolutely hated it, that I was looking for a job, that I was bipolar, that I might go postal at any moment. One woman, especially, my “new hire buddy” was a humongous support, as I would text her that I needed to have a cry outside, and she would just put her arm over me as I bawled. If you can find one person you trust, you will feel as though you aren’t totally alone. And that will make you less depressed.

5. List your excuses.

Prior to working at this conservative consulting firm, I might have advised you to be perfectly honest with your co-workers and supervisor and divulge any depression or mood disorder. Yeah, well, I’m changing my mind on that. I thought I was doing the right thing by passing out copies of my book The Pocket Therapist: An Emotional Survival Kit to all my co-workers who I felt needed therapy, and setting up a blog where I could tie in research related to my job with my current bipolar status. Um. I got laid off. Not explicitly for that. But it really didn’t help my case.

So, for those people just entering a new job, I would seriously come up with a list of health issues you have, and use THOSE as your excuses. Don’t don’t don’t mention your depression or bipolar disorder. Everyone has funky stuff wrong with them. Geeze, I don’t know which to choose – my benign brain tumor, my aortic valve regurgitation, my Raynauld’s syndrome? In hindsight, if I were having a rough day at that firm knowing what I do today, I’d pick from the list and say I have a doctor’s appointment. I would not utter anything about a psychiatrist. I guess I just didn’t realize how backward corporate culture can be. Wow.

6. Don’t blow your nose.

This is another way of saying “fake it til you make it,” but since that phrase is overused, I thought I’d try another expression. In other words: The day that my boss told me that I had to shave off a layer of myself to fit into the firm – and that I shouldn’t breathe another word about my mental health history – I was trapped. I didn’t have a pass to exit the floor, let alone the building. I couldn’t even go to the bathroom. So I sat in the room next to her with three other co-workers and I cried my eyes out, but since I didn’t blow my nose and kept my head down no one even noticed. If you can avoid crying altogether, that’s preferred. But I am a crier, and so if you are trapped in a situation where you can’t cry outside or in a bathroom, there is a way to sit at your desk and cry without anyone noticing. And if you type, even to a blank sheet that is not going nowhere, that looks (and sounds) even better. Like you are productive! When, in essence, you’re having a serious meltdown.

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