18 months ago, I was in a pretty bad place. I’d recently graduated from the University of Leeds and got a job as a recruitment consultant, moved in with my boyfriend and finally got myself a smartphone, but despite all of that, I was really very unhappy. For the last 7 years, I’ve battled on and off with depression, although thankfully more off than on. My last really serious episode had been back in 2008, and I felt like I’d put it all behind me – but there it was again. “The black dog” is how Winston Churchill used to describe his depression, and it’s a fair metaphor – a constant companion, both unpredictable and threatening. I had thought my own personal black dog was locked up in a kennel somewhere, but suddenly, bam. Hello, Rover.
It took me an awfully long time to realise what was happening – at first I’d put the way I was feeling down to the huge changes that had happened over the previous months. However, shortly after Christmas 2011, it became apparent to me that the “Big D” was back, and that it was taking over my life. I had no energy, and even getting out of bed in the morning felt like a major achievement. I couldn’t concentrate on anything, whether it was work-related or even something as basic as reading a book or watching the TV. I was incredibly irritable, all the time, and my self-esteem was non-existent. I know some people think that when you’re depressed, that means you’re sad all the time and cry a lot. I would have loved to have a good cry. I couldn’t really feel anything – everything just felt monotonous and grey. There were points where I was going to sleep hoping that I just wouldn’t wake up the next day. Any of the stuff I’d normally do to cheer myself up if I was feeling low did nothing at all to alleviate how I felt. I wanted to snap out of it, but I just couldn’t. As the wonderful Allie Brosh wrote on her blog Hyperbole and a Half:
“Trying to use willpower to overcome the apathetic sort of sadness that accompanies depression is like a person with no arms trying to punch themselves until their hands grow back. A fundamental component of the plan is missing and it isn’t going to work.”
My previous episodes had all happened when I was either at college or University. I’d been very fortunate to have sympathetic tutors who’d offered pastoral support and deadline extensions. I didn’t know what to do now that my depression was affecting me in my job, and there was no doubt that it was affecting me at work. Having to make phone calls would sometimes turn me into a hyperventilating, shaking, anxious wreck. My motivation and concentration was shot. A few months into my training, I’d made my first placement and had been told I was doing well, but now I felt less than useless. I knew when I was well, I’d been more than able to do the job, but it was clear that my depression was destroying that ability. It was awful, but having been through all of this before, I knew something which kept me going, even through the worst points – eventually, the black dog goes away again.
That being said, I knew that I needed to ask for help. I didn’t know if this particular depressive episode was going to last weeks or months, but I knew I couldn’t beat it on my own. I made an appointment to see my GP, who confirmed what I basically already knew – the black dog was back, and he wasn’t going away without a fight. My GP made arrangements for me to speak with someone from the Leeds Counselling service, to get on the (unfortunately quite extensive) waiting list for treatment. I knew I’d need to book the morning off work to go, so it seemed like a good time to bite the bullet and talk to my boss about what was going on. I’d already confided in my line manager about my depression shortly before going to see my doctor, and he’d been very supportive, but if I was going to need regular time off to attend counselling sessions I’d need to talk to the big boss.
Around this time, when things were at their worst, I had started emailing the Samaritans. I still had a lot of anxiety around talking to people over the phone, and it was a great way for me to try and get some of my thoughts written down and attempt to make some sense of the way I was feeling. Looking back over those emails, I can see that I expressed my concern that my boss was going to question my ability to do my job at all, even after I’d got better. Paranoid? Oh, totally. Justified? Unfortunately so.
So, the morning of the 17th January 2012, I got on the train to work with my heart in my mouth, knowing that I’d be telling my boss about my depression, and starting the long road to recovery. I got sat at my desk, booted up my PC and waited for her to arrive. I’d emailed her the day before when she’d been working from home, and told her I needed to talk to her about something that was affecting me at work. About five minutes after she got in, she popped her head around the door of my office.
“You wanted to see me?” she asked. I nodded, suddenly feeling a bit woozy. I followed her into her office, and sat down opposite her. We looked at each other awkwardly for a couple of seconds before I launched into what I’d spent the last 24 hours rehearsing in my head. I explained that I’d suffered from depression for several years, and after seeing a doctor I now knew that it was back. I talked to her about how it had made elements of my job really difficult for me over the past weeks, and how I desperately wanted to be better. I mentioned the counselling I’d be going for and said that I knew it would help me; I just wanted to ensure she knew in advance if I needed regular time off to attend. A few more awkward seconds passed. She looked up, stared me in the face and asked me if I thought the job was right for somebody with depression.
My stomach tightened itself into a knot, and for a few moments I couldn’t even speak. It’s exactly what I had been afraid of. I pointed out that at the start of the job, when I’d been well, I’d been coping just fine, and would cope just fine again once I was better. It fell on deaf ears. She explained that they were a small company, with “no room for passengers” – if I couldn’t pull my weight, maybe I had no business being there at all. I wanted to yell. I wanted to scream. I wanted to shout and rant and rail. I didn’t. I wanted to point out again that I wasn’t expecting to be a passenger, that I was going to get better, but I didn’t even do that. I didn’t know what to say. The conversation fizzled out, I went back to my desk, and my line manager went in to talk to her.
I didn’t know what to do – I had no intention of quitting the job, and I didn’t know if she was legally allowed to fire me because of my depression. After a few ultimately futile Google searches, I turned to Twitter. Anyone who knows me well will gladly tell you that I tweet a lot, arguably perhaps a bit too much. But I’d never been open about my depression online before. I’d used Twitter to vent and to talk about how crappy I’d been feeling, but I’d never labelled it as anything other than just me having bad days. But there I was, typing this out:
I didn’t even know if any of my couple of hundred followers knew anything about employment law or mental illness, but for a couple of seconds, I felt a bit less powerless.
My line manager came back into the office, and recommended I go home for the day, and use the time to make myself feel better. He said that I should come in the following day feeling ready to show the boss that I was able to do the job, and I agreed. On the walk to the station, I called the Samaritans and spoke to a fantastic advisor who made everything seem a bit less futile. I also rang my friend Lucy, who tried her absolute best to make me feel like things would work out in the end. I opened up the Twitter app on my phone to see if anyone had been able to give me any legal advice, to discover that my cry for help had been retweeted a hundred or so times, and had attracted replies of both advice and support from dozens of people, both friends and absolute strangers. For the first time in about 2 months, I cried. I was terrified about losing my job, angry at the reaction I’d received from my boss, but it took a couple of innocuous tweets to finally coax some visible emotion out of me.
I got home, and spurred on by some of the messages I was getting every few seconds on Twitter, I called ACAS (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) and the legal helpline of the national mental health charity Mind. They told me that under the Equality Act, my depression constituted a disability and as such, was a protected characteristic, and it would be illegal to discriminate against me on those grounds. I felt safe. They couldn’t fire me.
Then the phone rang.
It was my boss, and I answered it, thinking she was perhaps calling to apologise for the way our chat had gone that morning. Instead, she fired me. It had been barely three hours since our meeting, and she was telling me that they’d made the decision to terminate my contract. The letter of notice she emailed me explained that it was on performance grounds, but as I’d never had a meeting telling me my performance needed to be improved or else I’d lose my job, it came as something of a shock.
I didn’t even know what to do. I called Lucy again, who came round to sit in my flat with me until my boyfriend got back from work. She helped me sift through the messages I was getting thick and fast from friendly tweeters, as well as a variety of journalists and lawyers, and generally helped me stay sane. It was Lucy who got me in touch with the legal firm who helped me do something about it, but I don’t know if I’d have let her go through with it at all if it weren’t for the thousands of messages I had on Twitter, encouraging me to not let my former employers get away with it. My follower count steadily climbed up to about 5,000 within a single day. Many of them told me they’d been through similar experiences and had never known there was anything they could do about it until it was too late. I resolved to take them to employment tribunal, and make my ex-boss realise that when you fire someone just for having depression, there are consequences.
Over the next few months, I tried to put my life back together – helping my barrister put the case together, looking for a new job, as well as just trying to keep my sanity. As you can imagine, I wasn’t in the best place, mentally speaking. It was hard, it was horrible, but I did get there eventually. After a couple of months I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. I got a new job, a better job, with people I got on with, and I threw myself into my work. They were so happy with my performance, they made me permanent after 5 weeks rather than their usual 3 months, and I felt validated. I might have depression, but when I’m well, not a lot gets in my way. I’ve since moved on to an even better opportunity that’s more of a career than simply a job, and I’m genuinely happy.
By the time the employment tribunal finally rolled around, I was a new man. It was a harrowing experience to see my ex-boss again for the first time since that ill-fated conversation, but I’m glad I did it. I gave my version of events, they gave theirs, but thankfully in the end, the tribunal panel made the right decision. They ruled that in dismissing me, my former employer had been guilty of direct disability discrimination. I’d won. But for some reason, it didn’t really feel like winning. Afterwards, my boyfriend pointed out that I’d already moved on in my life– when I got a new job, when I finally realised the black dog wasn’t there any more, when I got back on my feet – that was winning. This was closure, the icing on the cake.
I will more than likely suffer from depression again at some point in my life. According to Mind, every year one in four people will experience a mental health problem. It’s not some niche problem that is likely to go away – millions live with mental health difficulties, yet the stigma surrounding those issues is pervasive and hideously damaging. It can be incredibly difficult to get people to talk about their problems in the first place, and when people do open up about their mental health, they are often faced with misunderstanding, prejudice and fear. If you’re worried about your own mental health, talk to someone; whether it’s a friend or family member, your doctor or even just somebody on the other end of a Samaritans helpline. It’s tough to deal with the black dog or any other mental health problem on your own – get help. I know that my ex-boss won’t be firing anybody else with depression in a hurry, but there will be other employers out there who haven’t learned that lesson yet. Know your rights, and know what you can do if what happened to me does happen to you.
I don’t even recognise the person I was 18 months ago. I’ve battled my black dog, and come out stronger for it. He’ll be back, but I’ll be ready for him. Bring it on, Fido.