I have been declared unfit for work due to my mental health numerous times. Sometimes I would be signed off, go back to work and be signed off again after one shift. That was in my last job, a job I enjoyed but didn’t really care about. It meant nothing to me to miss a few weeks or months and then go back. Around 18 months ago, after just graduating university and after a crazy (quite literally) year I landed a new job. A job that I cared and still care about. In those 18 months I have phoned in sick twice, only one of those times was mental health related and it was just after my dad passed away so I kind of let myself off for that, and, even then it was only a couple of days, not long enough that I could no longer self certify.
A few months ago, maybe more than that my mood took a turn for the unstable, I was carrying on as normal and keeping myself on track enough to still be working. Then I wasn’t. In mental health world theres a fine line between struggling and in control and struggling and no longer in control. Right now, I find myself in the latter part. I may be in control of my actions but I am completely out of control on an emotional stability level. It started to effect me at work and a few weeks later I found myself declared unfit. It hit me hard, I didn’t ever expect to be back in that place again. Lets talk about the issues and the positives that come with being signed off shall we?
So, before I get into the issues, here are the positives that I can think off.
- Being signed off gives me more faith that my doctors know my illness. They know when its time to say stop and time to say go. My doctor advised I be signed off a few weeks before I was, he left it with me and I was adament I wouldn’t do it, but on my next visit and the worsening of my symptoms he took the option out of my hands. Looking at the situation that was the right call, and that helps me trust the system a little more.
- Being signed off takes some of the pressure out of day to day life. For now I don’t need to think about going to work and functioning on that level. I have time to focus on keeping myself safe and that can be full time job in itself.
- I have the time to work out an updated plan for keeping myself well. The last one I did was a couple of years ago and included things such as ‘go out of the house at least once a day’ and ‘make sure you at least shower.’ Those things are no longer an issue for me now I can swap them out for skills that help me in my higher functioning lifestyle. In looking at those plans I can also appreciate how far I’ve come, and praise myself for it. Like, at one point I was that unwell I couldn’t function without hospital stays and friends monitoring me and actually one hard time in 18 months is fucking good going. Recovery is never a straight line.
Now lets talk about the challenges, and to do that lets start at the beginning of the being signed off process.
Firstly is the visit to the doctors, I don’t have a massive issue with this, I’ve always trusted my doctor, more than mental health professionals in some cases, but it can be daunting for some people to go to there GP and tell them there mental health issues.
The next thing is one which I struggle with, the dreaded phone call to work. Like hey, I know I’m meant to be on shift tomorrow, I know I’m screwing you over massively and someones going to have to work extra hours but I can’t come in tomorrow, or for the next 3 weeks. I had so much anxiety over doing it, and it makes me feel like the biggest dick on the planet, but truth is it’s better that I do that than come in in the non functioning state I’ve found myself in ( I should also add that if you have a good employer there shouldn’t be 20 questions or any guilt led by them, luckily for me I am in that position). Currently Ive been signed off for a week longer than expected with a note on my sick note saying I need to be reassessed at the end of the two weeks. That scares me even more, because once again in 2 weeks time I may have to ring in again saying I’m not going to be back in at the last minute, leaving me with the, you’ve just screwed everyone over once again feeling.
Then theres the ‘I feel emotionally naked’ feeling, I am open about my mental health but theres something really degrading to me (and I’ll admit its my issue) to hand in a sick note that discloses my biggest secret, the thing I try hardest to hide.
An issue I faced today was the wording of my sick note, which just says ‘depression’ when I actually want to explain. Yes depression is an issue for me, but right now its instability which means depression, hypermania, impulsivity, anxiety, inability to function in relationships, flashbacks, addiction,dissasociation and so much more. My doctor always puts the least possible on my sick notes because of confidentiality but sometimes it feels more of a hinderance than a help.
Then theres the actual time off.
How do I explain to the people around me that Im not working for the next couple of weeks? To my mum (who I now live with) I’ve gone down the line of stress. Theres a lot the older generation don’t understand about mental health, my mum falls into that category, which I don’t blame her for at all. She actually tries really hard to understand and support me but I can see the panic and confusion when she tries to talk about it, I think thats a problem with the education in mental health rather than her, but still its there. So for now I’ve gone with stress, then theres the rest of the family, they understand a lot more, but do I change my story to them and risk exposing myself to my mum?
What am I meant to do with my time?
Theres something about being crazy that turns you into a child, like have a spent the last week doing jigsaws and puzzle books just to keep myself distracted? Yes. Have I being spending 18 hours in bed? Yes. Have I been painting and colouring? Yes. There is another panic, what if when I get back to work someone asks me what I’ve been doing? When I answer it won’t sound like I’ve been ill, it will sound like I’ve had a bit of a jolly, but actually I’ve being doing those things to distract myself from my own thoughts and pain.
I 100% don’t want people to know that I’ve spent the first week of my time off reliving every moment of my last 2 weeks at work questioning every decision I’ve made whilst at work. Like have I fucked everything up. When I said that, was that me or my mental illness. When I snapped at that co-worker, was it justified or was that my illness. Then theres the bits I don’t need to overthink, I know I fucked up because of my mental health and I feel guilty 97.34% of the time.
Being off work means any small amount of motivation I had to keep it together has gone. Like, do I want to start drinking as soon as I wake up? fuck it theres nothing to stop me now, do I want to stay in bed all day? Yes and now theres nothing to make me get up… I was going to make more examples but I’ve reconsidered in case they disclose to much, sorry about that I guess. Truth is in the job I work, it would be selfish of me to carry on going in, barely aware of reality just to keep myself going.
And lastly, you’ll be glad to hear, heres my massive concern, what will people do when I get back? Will everyone treat me like normal and pretend I was never off? I hope so. Will people ask me if I’m Ok? please no, because lets be real, I’ll be better, I’ll be functioning and I’ll be back to doing my job, hopefully well. Will I be OK? probably not, just better. Worst off all, will people question my ability to do my job? Will I be seen as less? Will my time off be judged? With everything I’m hoping the answer is no. But thats part of the issue with mental illness isn’t it? If I was signed off sick because of a stomach bug, or the flu, would I have the same issues, the same questions?