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How I kept my job while battling anxiety and depression

By Mary Clare

I live with a mood disorder called clinical depression. I’ve probably had it my whole life. And probably because of it, I’m what they call a ‘bright underachiever’ – I’ve always worked at low-level clerical jobs. When I was 30, I got a better-paying job as a parking attendant. Better paying, but I worked all kinds of crazy shifts – one week I'd start at 7 am, the next week I’d be on the afternoon shift until 3 am, then a week on the midnight shift. I couldn't sleep. I was having a lot of anxiety. I work with the public – hundreds of people every day – and take a lot of abuse from frustrated, irate customers. I’ve always been pretty sensitive, and a people-pleaser, so having people swearing and hurling personal insults was really hard on me, and sometimes pretty scary. I work alone, and felt isolated. I didn't have much of a social life.

After a major upheaval in my personal life, I started seeing a psychiatrist. It really helped to talk to someone, and I gradually started to make sense of things. But lack of sleep because of the shift work, exacerbated by Restless Legs Syndrome and severe PMS – in fact, PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder) – made it hard to function. I was having more and more anxiety, crying a lot at work and calling in sick more often. My employer warned me that I faced dismissal if my attendance didn’t improve.

I didn’t think I needed medication. But one day I saw a story on TV about a depressed young woman who started taking Prozac (a SSRI or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor). She said it didn’t make her feel sedated or overly happy like some drugs – she just started feeling ‘normal’ and stopped crying all the time. I talked to my psychiatrist, and we decided to try one of the SSRIs.

Well, it seems it wasn’t the right one. I had even more anxiety, and was close to having panic attacks at work. One night on the job I started feeling increasingly nervous and frightened. I broke down crying and terrified. I called my brother in hysterics, and he came to my workplace and sat with me in the car when I finished my shift. I felt desperate and hopeless.

The next day I called my therapist and said I couldn’t take it anymore. She recommended taking an extended leave from work. I was off for a month and then gradually went back to work a few days a week. My employer demanded full disclosure of the nature of my illness. I called the Canadian Mental Health Association for advice and they advised against it. But I decided to allow my psychiatrist to disclose my condition. I filled out a form consenting to the release of my personal information and my doctor sent a letter to my employer. She explained that I needed time to get on my feet and required accommodation in the workplace – such as working on a steady shift. Fortunately, my employer agreed.

My psychiatrist referred me to a specialist in psychiatric medications, who recommended Zoloft, a newer SSRI. After a few months I started to feel better. Within a year I was finally back to work full time.

I had been really scared of dealing with my employer, but with the support of my doctor, I was able to feel more confident and to stand up for myself. Although it was a little unnerving knowing that my boss had the full diagnosis of my mental illness on file, I felt it gave me protection as they had proof of my medical condition.

It’s twelve years later, and I’m still struggling, but now I’m managing my condition instead of it wreaking havoc on my life. I used to feel like I was always running to nail down a corner of the floor and always having the other three corners flying up in my face. Now I feel like I’m walking on solid ground, and taking the ups and downs of life more in stride. I’ve learned how to better deal with difficult customers, not to take it personally, and to realize that someone who screams at me because of the price of parking probably has worse mental health issues than I do.

I am forever grateful to my psychiatrist. She saved my life.

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