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6 Things I Learned While Taking Time Off Work for My Depression

I have struggled with depression on and off for the last 10 years. From the outside most people wouldn’t know — I have prided myself on managing to keep going with a smile plastered on my face. But over the last year, stressful situations at work combined with the ongoing pressure of living with chronic illness caused my mental health to deteriorate to a point where I needed to take time off work. What followed were eight weeks where I was signed off work to start the recovery process. Here are some of the lessons I learned during that time.

1. Reach out and ask for help.

Being away from work can be incredibly lonely. As someone who lives alone with limited energy for social activities, work was the place where I connected with people. Without that the weeks stretched before me frighteningly empty. People do care, they care deeply. But a lot of people will struggle to translate that care into a form that is useful for you. Thoughts and prayers of loved ones alone won’t get you through the dark days. You have to learn to reach out, to let other people walk alongside you during this time, people who can bring you hope and comfort on the days you can’t find it yourself.

2. You will have good days and bad days.

Recovery from depression is a rollercoaster. One day you may be able to experience the joy in life again, the next you could be so low you’re not even sure you want to be alive. On the good days, you will feel like you should be running straight back into work, as though you are a fraud for being off work in the first place. On the bad days, you will worry you will never work again. The key is to not over-promise or overdo it on the good days or wallow in the hopelessness on the bad days. Take your average day as the best indicator of where to go from there. 

3. Don’t listen to the guilt.

One of the most debilitating symptoms of depression is guilt. The weight of it can make you believe you are a bad person, that you’re letting everyone down, that you’re a burden and don’t deserve happiness. You can be so overwhelmed with it that you are unable to recognize it as just a symptom of your illness. But the truth is that, whatever words guilt is speaking, it’s lying to you. It’s not your fault you are ill, the brain gets sick just like the rest of the body does. It’s not a sign of failure or an indicator of your value as a person. This may be a season where you need to lean on other people. But this doesn’t make you a burden, it just makes you human.

4. Celebrate the small things.

It’s easy to get caught in the trap of setting unrealistic goals for your recovery. As a perfectionist, I wanted to do recovery “right.” when in reality there is no right way to do it. Instead of planning too far into the future, it’s important to take each day or even each hour at a time. And celebrate the small things. It may be that you got up and dressed, it could be that you spent some time doing a hobby you would normally enjoy or it may be as simple as texting a friend. Every victory is a moment where depression didn’t get to dictate all the rules, you fought back and took care of yourself in spite of it. That takes a huge amount of energy and should be celebrated.

5. Recovery will take longer than you think.

In my mind I was going to be off work for two weeks and then I would be back to my usual self. Safe to say after two weeks I was far from better and it would be another six weeks after that before I was ready to gradually start working again. It’s scary to stay off work until you actually feel better, especially when you have no idea how long it could take. I had to keep reminding myself that no job is as important as my health. Work can come and go, but we only have one body. I wish there was a magic recipe for a speedy recovery from depression, and everyone will need different things to recover. But the one thing we will all need is time. 

Recovery is a journey rather than a destination, it doesn’t end when we walk back into the office for the first time. However long it lasts, we need to be kind and patient with ourselves, giving ourselves the time and space to heal.

6. There’s always hope.

Depression wants you to believe that the situation is hopeless, that you will always feel this way and recovery isn’t worth it. But that’s simply not true. These feelings will pass. No matter how dark the night you find yourself in, the dawn will come and scatter the darkness. Some days hope may only be a whisper, but it’s still there in the embrace of your loved ones, in those little moments that spark joy or in the promise of brighter tomorrows. Don’t give up on hope.

Those weeks away from work recovering from depression were hard, but I think every day was worth it. It made me realize that my mental health is just as important as my physical health and needs just as much care and attention paid to it. I believe giving my mind the time and space to heal will make me stronger and happier in the long run. 

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Header image via Galina Zhigalova/Getty Images.

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