I’ve had depression since I was a teenager, and for a long time, it was the most private part of my life. I managed to deal with it (or at least I thought I did) without anybody’s help, apart from the doctor who signed a prescription for antidepressants every three months, although I use the word “help” very loosely in that case.
As a student, it’s pretty easy to keep mental illness a secret. Nobody bats an eyelid if you miss a couple of days of university. It’s not like school; nobody’s going to call your mom if you don’t show up for a lecture. So those days when I couldn’t get out of bed didn’t really set me apart from the dozens of other students who were doing exactly the same. Some of them were depressed too, but others were simply hungover, lazy or just not in the mood for Shakespeare’s sonnets that particular morning.
I managed to hold down various part-time jobs throughout my student days, but when I entered the world of full-time work my illness became more of a burden. I got my law degree and started my two-year training contract with a law firm in one of the U.K.’s biggest cities. With the responsibility and pressure came a whole lot of stress, which inevitably led to a serious deterioration in my health.
For a long time, I refused to stop and acknowledge what was happening. Burning the candle at both ends, I worked hard and played even harder, self-medicating with alcohol while making regular trips to my doctor to keep up my stock of pills. I was in the right profession — most of the lawyers I knew were finding release from the pressures of the job at the bottom of a bottle.
Despite the anxiety attacks, bouts of depression and more or less constant hangover, I somehow managed to meet my targets and keep my bosses happy. A few months before I was due to finish my training, I had a meeting with one of the partners of the firm. There were no guarantees, he said, but I didn’t have to start looking for a job elsewhere. They wanted me to stay on as a permanent member of staff.
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With the end of my training in sight, I carried on working hard and ignore all the warning signs shouting at me to slow down. Eventually, I burned out. I went to bed and didn’t leave it for two weeks. Initially, I told the company I had a virus. It never even crossed my mind to tell them the truth. None of my friends, and only a handful of relatives, knew I had depression. And even those who did know never spoke about it. It was my dirty secret and I definitely wasn’t ready to share it with a bunch of men in suits who had my future career in their hands.
However, a two-week absence period isn’t exactly the norm (even for overworked, underpaid, self-medicating lawyers), and as soon as I was back at work I was summoned to the managing partner’s office. At this stage, I was numb. Going through the motions, desperate for help but unable to articulate that to anyone who was actually in a position to support me. I’m not sure exactly what happened in his office that day. Maybe I was just too tired of carrying the weight of my secret. Maybe I secretly knew what would happen if I came clean.
Boy, did I come clean. I told him everything. And then I got sacked. Or as good as. The following week, a letter dropped onto my desk, letting me know that unfortunately, there wouldn’t be a permanent position for me at the end of my training.
I’d love to say that I put up a fight, that I called them out for their discrimination, or that I at least made a point of seeing that managing partner again to tell him, politely but in no uncertain terms, exactly how judgmental and parochial he was. But depression doesn’t give you confidence — it destroys it. The 2016 me wouldn’t have walked away with her head down, but the 2004 me did.
The 2016 me still has depression, but I’m not ashamed of that anymore. I’m not scared to talk about it, and I’m sure as hell going to stand up for myself against anyone who thinks that having a mental illness is a sign of weakness. Because I’m not weak — I’m strong.