There used to be a GP in my area who was highly regarded by all his patients. A very caring man, he ended up in the national press and television. He was called before a disciplinary hearing, because he was refusing to conform to the rules regarding sick notes. If patients had mental illness, needing time off work, he was omitting details. Experience had taught him that employers were unlikely to be sympathetic, and at that time people could be "let go" quite easily. He was putting things like "exhaustion" or "Acute pain". He refused to back down, and faced suspension.
His patients rallied round him, but by that time he was thoroughly disillusioned with the whole system, and went on to become a writer and broadcaster.
I found myself thinking of him recently when I was ill.
Two nasty viruses striking within days left my partner and I more weak than either of us could ever recall. He started to improve before I did, and I became angry with myself for still feeling dreadful. There was only one thing for it - I wrote myself a sick note. There was no need for discretion, I could openly declare my illness - "Norovirus and Influenza"
When depression strikes, I know I should rest and protect my health, but guilt makes it impossible to relax. This was different, I had a "proper illness". I would never feel able to email someone to say "Sorry I can't deal with this right now, I have not slept for 2 weeks and I am half mad with nameless fears." However "Sorry, I've got flu." is perfectly acceptable. The responses were instantly sympathetic. "Oh you poor thing, I had that last month, get lots of rest, don't worry about anything."
The days passed. I could stagger downstairs, matted hair, past the unopened post, ignoring the dust and muddy floor. No guilt, it was not my fault. Back in bed, too confused to concentrate on a book, I just lay there. Three days on just biscuits dunked in coffee, sod the 5 a day, no counting daily steps taken. I was ill, and had a sick note to prove it.
Having signed myself off for a week, I returned to part-time life. After one day I was too knackered to move. After a consultation with Dr.Google I extended my sick leave "Post-viral fatigue".
When by week three I started to feel a bit better, I was still careful not to overdo things. When depression illness starts to lift, I go into overdrive, get manic, rush around catching up, get exhausted, can't sleep, and the whole miserable cycle starts up again. "Don't do too much" said a local shopkeeper "My husband had that bug, went back to work too soon, now he's in hospital." Now what does that remind me of? Suffering from mental illness is no more a sign of a weak and inadequate character than catching a virus, I know that and tell it to others, but deep down I feel I should be able to fight it off.
I am going to try to take this lesson to heart. When mental illness strikes I doubt if I will ever be able to be totally honest with most people. I could however say I am a bit run down, an old health problem has flared up again. If they have any sensitivity they won't ask for details. I will tell myself that the "infection" will clear up, but the recovery will require me to go on sick leave. Maybe it would help to say I have got a nasty dose of depression, come down with the anxiety bug that is doing the rounds. I wonder if "fighting personal demons" would count as an illness?
A Moodscope member.