Brand building through storytelling

When depression comes to work

Perhaps it’s partly because I never had a daughter that the greatest joy I found in corporate life was mentoring gifted young women who today are leaders in their field. Then there’s the protege I will call Ellen. Her blazing intellect, zest for challenge and seemingly unquenchable energy made her the go-to person for the toughest projects—until the light went out of her smile. What looked at first like a bad day became a sour week and then a spiritless month in which Ellen rarely emerged from her office. She kept the door closed and the window covered with paper.

I told myself she was trying to focus on a complicated assignment. But when she started missing her deadlines, I had no choice but to confront her. My star employee looked at me with red eyes and tight lips, as if she’d been bracing herself for this moment. In a toneless voice I barely recognized, she confessed that while we all thought she was working, she’d been staring at her computer screen, unable to write or even read. She mentioned a history of depression that had come back to paralyze her. I saw her shame, and I ached for her.

Some bosses would have put Ellen on notice. That’s not the kind of boss I wanted to be. I was not about to punish her for having a life-threatening illness—one that had plagued me from childhood until my mid-30s, when I finally found the courage to seek help.

Like most people who suffer from depression, I had bought the myth that the cure for my despair was pulling up my socks and looking on the bright side. In my hopeless days, I’d tell myself, “If this gets any worse, at least I’ve got a bathtub and a razor blade.” Recovery had not only set me on the once-undreamed-of path to the Editor’s chair at Chatelaine; it had given me a sense of mission. I wanted to speak for those who’d been silenced by cancer of the soul, which claims 4,000 Canadian lives every year. By the time Ellen fell ill, I had already shared my own story of depression in a Chatelaine editorial—a fairly bold move for 1997. Hundreds of letters poured in from readers who viewed me as their champion. I intended to be Ellen’s champion, too. But I had no idea how to do it, nor did Chatelaine‘s now-defunct parent company.

With the best of intentions, we denied and deferred. The HR director advised what was essentially benign neglect. Is she seeing a therapist? Check (no one asked what kind of therapy). Give her some time to get away and forget about the office.Check (she took the time but couldn’t get it together to pack a suitcase). Meanwhile Ellen’s colleagues began to ask me what was ailing her. One woman confided that she’d seen Ellen frozen on a curb with tears in her eyes while the light kept changing from red to green and back again. That night I lay awake wondering if Ellen’s depression could kill her. She hadn’t said anything about suicide to me or anyone in the office. But we had all felt the chill of the abyss that had opened around her.

Ellen ended up on disability, getting sicker and less engaged with her colleagues. I forget just when the company health department got wind of her condition—dismayingly, HR had not involved the resident experts. So her illness had already dug in when she was finally referred to a top-flight therapist. The first four to 12 weeks of treatment account for fully two-thirds of the capacity to come back to work, according to the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health.

Ellen did come back, but not as the woman I remembered. Once when I was coaching her and getting nowhere, she said with a look of resignation, “That’s exactly what my therapist tells me.” I was steeling myself to let her go when a senior member of my team talked me out of it. “You don’t have to do this,” she pleaded. “Ellen can report to me. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll be the one to break the news.” Instinct told me that Ellen was already lost, but I seized the opportunity to duck an excruciating task. When the inevitable moment arrived, all I had to do was sign the papers.

Last weekend I told this story in a keynote speech at the Canadian Mental Health Association’s annual conference in London. In 13 years of advocacy, I’d never shared it before. Unlike my other stories about depression, this one portrays me as defeated and regretful, not as triumphant and purposeful. I don’t blame myself for what happened to Ellen; I blame a devastating illness that too often goes ignored because it leaves no signs on the body. And yet I’ll always wonder what the company and I could have done to save her career.

After the standing ovation, a bright-eyed woman in a pink suede jacket came up to shake my hand. “I just want you to know that I’ve been on long-term disability for depression,” she said. “I’m back now, doing great.” Here’s to her—and her employer.

Posted by Rona

Previously posted comments:

Kerri Wheatley
October 29, 2010 at 8:08AM

Thank you for telling that story, I can still feel the pain from your words about how much it affected you, still even today.

I have had depression on and off for over 30 years and have facilitated groups and workshops on learning to manage your life with depression. I think that anyone with depression needs to learn many coping techniques that work in different situations and levels of depression.

My goal right now is to put together a depression kit (don’t have a name for it yet!) that highlights many of the complimentary therapies that are now out there and so easy and successful that most people don’t know about. There are so many new technologies that can make amazing differences in 5-30 minutes, we are not even talking hours, days, weeks or months.

The medical community and mental health does very little for the average person going through mental health challenges UNLESS AND UNTIL you become a danger to yourself or someone else. Imagine if we could help people learn to recognize the very beginning symptoms…how much time, money and quality of life we would save. The same for quality of their day.

Anyway, best wishes and thank you again for your unending effort to make depression constantly aware.

Wishes of wellness, joy and laughter
Kerri Wheatley

Rona Maynard
October 29, 2010 at 11:11 AM

Kerri, I wish you success with your depression kit. You’re already sending a hopeful message just by leading your workshops as a forward-looking survivor of what I call “soul cancer.”

October 29, 2010 at 8:08AM

Ms. Maynard,
My 26 year old cousin committed suicide when he was unable to cope with the breakup of a relationship. The girl he had been living with also took his checkbook and wrote bad checks all over town and as a result, he also ended up losing a job he loved.
He was two days away from having his car repossessed by the bank when he pulled up in front of the girl’s grandmother’s house where she had been living and shot himself with a shotgun. He had intended to kill her as well, but she was not home. The grandmother called the police to report a strange car parked in front of her house. When the first policewoman on the scene told him to put his hands up and get out of the car, he shot himself just as she walked up to the car. She had to leave the police department shortly afterwards.
His mother made the statement at his funeral that when he left her house drunk with a sawed off shotgun at 11:00 that Saturday night, she had thought nothing of it! That should have been a red flag right there, if nothing else. It later came out that while he had been in college, several of his friends had taken turns watching him when he broke up with his old high school girlfriend , because they were worried about him attempting suicide then. As far as I know, there had been no attempt to get him any help at all after that fiasco, even though there were counselors and therapists he could have talked to at his college.
I sometimes wonder what kind of life he would have had if he had not died. He died in 1992 and it seems like 100,000 lifetimes ago now. I also wish that he had thought enough of me to confide in me and maybe I could have gotten him the help he so desperately needed, when his own mother could not see that he was in trouble. That is the worst part of all about suicide. The survivors are often left wondering if there was something they could have done to stop it.

Rona Maynard
October 29, 2010 at 11:11 AM

What a terribly sad story. If you still wonder whether you could have steered your cousin to the help he so urgently needed, I hardly bear to imagine the guilt that afflicts his mother ever day of her life.

M. Claudette Sandecki
October 29, 2010 at 9:09AM

Two of my relatives have suffered from severe depression, but both are fine now and living productive, satisfying lives.

The first was teaching when depression felled him so badly he didn’t have the energy to water his wife’s house plants while he stayed home.

The second relative, half his age, was so debilitated he had to undergo stringent counseling along with medication. He was asked to journal, and from that process he came to understand his demons and is now a sunny, supportive Dad and husband, enjoying his work once more.

Too bad depressed people are in much the same boat as homosexuals — musn’t talk about it or they will be penalized on the job and shunned by friends and society.

We need to enlighten our society about both these issues.

Rona Maynard
October 29, 2010 at 10:10 AM

Claudette, your relatives have proven that even people immobilized by depression can and do go on to lead rewarding and productive lives. This is a treatable condition–the tragedy is that so many are deterred from seeking help by the shame that still surrounds all mental illnesses. Just two years ago, a survey by the Canadian Medical Association found that 42 percent of people in our supposedly tolerant, enlightened country would stop socializing with a friend who had a mental illness.

ruth pennebaker
November 02, 2010 at 6:06AM

This story breaks my heart. “Cancer of the soul” is the perfect description for depression. Bravo to you for talking about it.

Rona Maynard
November 02, 2010 at 6:06 AM

Oh, I do seem to be striking some melancholy notes these days. I guess it’s because I’m venturing into areas I haven’t explored before. My heart did break for Ellen but I’m glad I finally told this story.

Carol Harrisono
November 02, 2010 at 10:10AM

Rona, I really feel for the young woman,”Ellen”. You can be treated but for some, their personalities change and they’re not the person they once were.

Depression has been part of my life since the 80’s.
My Mum died in 1979 and during the last two years of her life, she wrote letters to me where I was woking, with a friend.. September of this year, I decided to re-read the letters she’d written to me and I had no idea, after the fact, how reading them would affect me. On a particularly overcast day, I hadn’t been sleeping that well, I went to see my psychiatrist (been seing him for 10 months now) & as my spouse and I walked into his office, the first thing he said to me….”you look exhaused!” My hubby realized why I hadn’t been sleeping and I’m SO glad he picked up on it. I had decided to read those letters from when my Mum was in hospital, dying.

One thing stood out in one of her letters, that she was being somewhat critical. I knew that by her words. I had complained to her about my best friend among other things & perhaps, without understanding me or really knowing me, I guessing she thought I should stick it out with my friend and the job I had working for her. We didn’t get along that well, the friend and I, through no real fault of mine.

Those letters and their content, haunted me for some time, so I became tired from major insomnia (which I’ve had for years!) The doctor asked me about my mother, how I felt in her hospital room, watching her die? I told him and the “floodgates” opened.

My father suffered from depression (as well as endogenous depression) after my brother accidentally died from an overdose of alcohol/prescription drugs (one too many times) He had a family history of mental illness (schizophrenia – a silent gene which my brother was affected by, but as a “latent” schizophrenic) So, mental illness, depression in particular, runs in the family, except for my Mum.

Dysthymia is a long-term, year-round depression as well as reactive depression because of loss of independence through physical disability. Add atypical seasonal affective disorder to that and “you’ve” got a major, complicated mess going on inside “your” mind.

I struggle w/all these types of depression & my psyche & myself, we’re still looking for an anti-depressant that will work for me. I’ve gone through so many meds sine the 809’s.
Between my Relational psychotherapist, my GP who referred me to the psychiatrist I now see (he’s a gem) I’m finally getting the support I’ve desperately needed.
I guess I will probably always have depression, probably until I die. I don’t think mine, being genetic perhaps and reactive, will ever fully go away. For some people, they can overcome depression. Not sure I will, it will just be controlled.

I feel sad for “Ellen” because she changed to someone unrecognizable from the woman you first remember.

Although I’m now getting the restorative sleep I need (psyche prescribed a sleeping pill to clear my mind at night. Without the sleeping pill, my thoughts would race at night, too much thinking.) I’m also sorry Rona, that you had to go through depression. It’s an ugly feeling when it has you in its tentacles, it can be overwhelming.

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