Now I would like to add some more to my post about a day in the life of depression (and thank you for the comments!).

Not every day is like that. I tried to describe one that was a balance between the absolute worst times, the times I spend all day in bed, all day either unconscious or wishing to die, the times I can’t believe in any future that isn’t hell on earth; and the times I feel relatively okay for a few weeks, the times when I can get engaged with something and feel lighter.

Yes, there are times when I feel energized, passionate about something, more positive. I try to get everything out of those moments that I can, because I know I can achieve a lot when I’m in that kind of a flow state. Also, because I know from experience that they’re not going to last. Some outside stress will find its way in, panic me, and down I’ll go.

I live in a Catch 22 situation on benefits, because in theory not having to work should allow me the time and space to get better, and sometimes it does. The constant stress of not having enough money often cuts in to that of course, and so does the constant pressure to be working towards getting a job, not because I’m a lazy scrounger but because in my long experience of myself and my struggle with depression, I’ve found that when I’ve started part-time work there’s been an initial high of “I can do it!” that after a few months turns into a fearful spiral of worsening depression, until I’m back in the pit of suicidal feelings and utter despair.

I can be on benefits and go between times of relative wellness and times of fear and depression, or I can do part-time work (which isn’t nearly enough to live on), and be suicidal and end up hospitalized. What good does that do me, or the taxpayer who funds the NHS?

The trap of the “benefits culture” we so often hear about should be seen as equally a trap of the work culture. At the moment I do some voluntary work, and that means that when I hit a slump I can phone them and say I won’t be in for a couple of weeks, and that’s okay. Can you find me an employer who’d be okay with that? Since it’s only one day a week sometimes I can drag myself in even when I’m not feeling at all good, because it’s low pressure, it’s doing something I feel is worthwhile, and the other people are open and friendly and share some of my views and interests. I feel I can at least partially be myself, and I feel appreciated for who I am.

Contrast that with the average modern work place. To start with I couldn’t get any very great job, I’ve been out of work too long and lack any great formal qualifications. The kind of jobs the employment people have suggested for me have all been service industry, working in shops, on my feet all day and dealing with people. These set off all my major stresses, all my trigger points for depression, and believe me I’ve had years of therapy figuring out what those are. I’ve tried these jobs, and it has never taken me more than a few weeks to become severely suicidal.

What, aside from the degree of social phobia I have, is the problem with them? They are the opposite of my voluntary work. They are inflexible, high pressure, I am surrounded by people I have little in common with, I cannot remotely be myself, I have to put all my energy in to maintaining a false “cheerful” face, and the only way I can get through them even for a day is to completely deaden myself. Then there is the stigma of depression or mental health problems, and of having been on benefits in the first place. People notice you’re different and make cracks that constantly remind you how poorly you fit in. Managers hassle you to smile more. An ill-tempered customer can crash your self-esteem for a week.

My first suicide attempt came after 3 weeks being a waitress in a hotel restaurant. My boyfriend stabbed himself after 4 months working in a pub. My best friend’s brother committed suicide not long after being fired from a cart collecting position with a supermarket for looking too glum.

I’m not saying our jobs caused these things. We all had (and have) many issues contributing to our states of mind. Our working experiences just reinforced our feelings that things were hopeless, that life wasn’t going to and could never get any better, that the pain we were in from whatever variety of causes simply couldn’t be borne. It told us we were always going to be misfits, we’d never be able to support ourselves, and no one really wanted us anyway. It was the worst thing possible for our sense of self-esteem.

Of course work doesn’t do this to everyone. If you can find work that you feel is rewarding, if you get on with your colleagues, if people are accepting of your limitations, if you can work enough hours to make enough money to survive, work may boost your self-esteem and give you a reason to get up in the morning, rather than make you dread it even more. Whether you can find such work depends on what’s available in your area, and also on your personality, your skills and abilities, and what you find worthwhile.

It’s often said that creative people are more prone to depression. I wonder if that’s partly because, in today’s world, it’s much harder for us to find fulfilling employment unless we also have good business skills, or the energy and drive to get on a higher rung of the ladder in a creative career. Our world also rewards extroversion, and depression is a very introverted kind of problem.

If you’re well paid and can afford to take a sabbatical, if you’re far up enough in a stable career with a good company, you may be able to take time off or be given the leeway you need to recover. If, on the other hand, your mental health problems strike early, disrupting your education and your chance at even starting a career, you face a very different picture. Poverty and hostility do not help anyone’s mental health.

So there is my Catch 22. If I get better, I will be forced into a job that will make me a hell of a lot worse again. If society or the government wants to get me out of the “benefits culture” they should start making more workplaces less hostile towards people with disabilities, in my case particularly towards mental illness. They need to offer more than depressing low-wage work, not because we think we’re too good for certain jobs but because forcing us into jobs that we cannot cope with just makes us ill again, and puts us back on benefits (if it doesn’t cause us to kill ourselves first).

I don’t think this culture change is ever going to happen while we have constant headlines generated by politicians and well-fed, second-home-owning columnists telling everyone that people on incapacity benefits are mostly liars and scroungers who “moan” about stress and depression. These politicians, and their pals in the tabloid and right-wing press, are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

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