Over the years there have been times when I have been unable to work because of mental ill health.
Looking back, these times have been so different to the times I have been absent because of the flu or after surgery, where there was a clear beginning, middle and end to my incapacity.
So, when the viral aches and chills, or pain from an abdominal incision left me unable to move from my bed, there was no mistaking the fact that I was not well enough to work, and I felt justified in taking the time off. This would be followed by a period of feeling gradually better until the point that I knew that I was ready to log on to my laptop and start delving into my emails again.
But as far as I can remember it has never been like that when I have been mentally unwell. For a start it has not always been me that has recognised that I needed to take time out.
For example, there was the time not too long ago, when my husband sat me down for long enough to explain that he was concerned about me and my mental health. How ridiculous! Here I was, busy congratulating myself on managing so many things so fantastically well, while managing to stay well.
Although I no longer remember the details, I do recall sitting fidgeting and annoyed at the interruption to whatever vital task I had been engrossed in. I felt angry and restrained – like a bargain hunter being held back just as they were about to get into the sale they had queued overnight for. I know that I resented his apparent lack of respect for my self-awareness, and that fact that he did not understand that I know where the lines between being well and unwell are.
At other times I have finally realised for myself that I was no longer able to work. Like the time I rang my husband and struggled to tell him that I had been sat staring at my computer for hours without moving, and was not being able to read any of the words on the screen.
"The need for sick leave is often without – for me at least – obvious build up or other signs"
My illness had crept up on me, and I don't know how long it had taken for me to go from being a ‘superwoman’ running things so efficiently to being an empty, inert shell alone in her office, silently sobbing while she waited for her husband to collect her, and take her home to safety.
So, the need for sick leave is often without – for me at least – obvious build up or other signs. And it often lasts much longer than leaves I have taken for physical conditions – weeks or even months. There is also often a lack of clear and progressive improvement. In the past I have spent days, weeks or months just feeling however I was feeling.
I will talk in another column about how I find it difficult to remember what it feels like when I am ‘down’ – all I can tell you for now is that I often felt like a fraud.
Other than perhaps looking pale, drawn and tired, I would probably not look ill, certainly not ill enough to be away from work for such extended periods of time. I cannot really describe now exactly what it was that meant I was able to wonder around parks and country lanes, but not able to do the job I was paid to do.
All I know is that something in my head meant that despite publishing tens, if not hundreds of thousands of words over the years, and having a PhD and a number of other qualifications, I was now unable to read anything more complicated than a weekly ‘gossip and chat’ magazine, or write anything more complex than an email – and not even that at times.
The awareness that I had somehow become well enough to think about returning to work also generally seems to creep up on me. For so long there may have been nothing, and then one day I notice that the sky looks just a bit brighter, and the leaves on the trees so much more green.
For the first time in so long, I might actually hear the birds singing and feel a lift in my heart as the early spring sunshine warms my cheeks.
In my next column I will talk about how my expectations of recovery from physical illness were challenged by Covid-19.
But until then....
*This was first published by the Nursing Times on 11th June 2021 (https://www.nursingtimes.net/opinion/my-illness-had-crept-up-on-me-11-06-2021/ ) and reproduced here with kind permission.