Yesterday I read a tweet from @itvchanneltv highlighting the issue of seasonal affective dissorder (SAD). It was concerning what Guernsey Mind were doing to highlight this problem. The story is available here should you wish to read it.
Last year the States of Deliberation discussed the Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy that we would implement and it was during that debate I revealed my own mental health issue of having SAD. The speech I gave is available on my website should anyone be interested, but what I wanted to talk about in this post was my experience of SAD and how it hampered my life, career and relationships until I was diagnosed and treated.
The Mind UK Website describes SAD as follows:
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that people experience at a particular time of year or during a particular season. Most of us are affected by the change in seasons – it is normal to feel more cheerful and energetic when the sun is shining and the days are longer, or to find that you eat more or sleep longer in winter. However, if you experience SAD, the change in seasons will have a much greater effect on your mood and energy levels, and lead to symptoms of depression that have a significant impact on your day-to-day life.
Most people experience SAD during the winter. Less commonly, some people find that they experience SAD in reverse – with depressive symptoms occurring in summer.
and I would recommend anyone concerned to have a look at the rest of the website to understand what the signs of SAD are and what options are available for its treatment.
The first thing I’d like to say in relation to my own experience is that I simply didn’t think I had a problem. I displayed very erratic behaviour, frequently confrontational and in hindsight I can confirm that I was irrational. But at the time I simply thought that I was right and that the other person was wrong. I would even go so far as to justify my behaviour and refuse to listen when someone criticised.
There’s one occasion that I’d like to recount here. I was working on the IT service desk in a finance company, answering the phone and trying to resolve the problems of the company’s users. It became evident that the number of people phoning the service desk had reduced considerably, but when we did receive a call the person was either exceptionally irate or very timid. It was only when my managers discussed this with various people in the company that it became evident I was being rude and difficult when people phoned, to the point where they wouldn’t even risk phoning for assistance (for anyone working in IT, this doesn’t make for a good IT strategy).
A few examples were when people had forgotten their password, I’d ask them if they’d manage to forget their credit card pin number. When someone told me that they’d done something and it no longer works I told them that it was their fault and that they’d get lower priority because of stupidity. One person asked for different access rights to their computer, I promptly told them that it simply wasn’t possible, even if they were the MD (and it was).
I’d like to highlight these as the worst examples. I was capable of excellent work as well, taking on the most difficult members of staff and their issues and resolving them to everyone’s satisfaction. Undertaking fairly large projects successfully with good user engagement and buy in. It was this bizarre dichotomy that led to my managers failing to understand why I would be so difficult one day and so calm the next.
Without me even noticing, the problem of my attitude was affecting the IT department’s engagement with the company. There was even one occasion when I remember shouting at a member of staff in the middle of the floor, something I still cringe at when I think about it now, but at the time, as I said previously, considered this behaviour to be acceptable and rational.
This wasn’t the first time that I’d had such problems at work, but the difference on this occasion was my manager’s engagement with me about the problem. Rather than call me into an office and give me a dressing down, I was advised that they’d like me to see the Learning & Development officer. I undertook a test to assess my behaviour and then had a discussion. It was through discussing matters with him I slowly came to realise that this was irrational and destructive behaviour. I learned about Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) and realised that I needed to take ownership, not only for my actions, but also for the way other people perceive my actions (still working on this by the way).
It was as a result of this approach and further discussions I came to realise I had depression, but that it wasn’t constant. I saw my GP who offered anti depressants, but I thought it was worth making some lifestyle changes and exploring alternatives before starting on a course of Seroxat.
The behaviour that I displayed at this work place was no different to the behaviour I’d displayed in previous workplaces. I am known for having gone from one job to another over a period of around 13 years, some jobs lasting a year or less, with me always leaving because of annoyance. I’d wager that each and every one of my former colleagues, from a number of employers, would be able to recount a string of occasions when I was difficult, argumentative and even down right rude. The difference on this occasion was the approach of the management, they wanted to engage with me to resolve the issues rather than confront me about my issues.
I started making changes to my life, eating a more healthy diet, exercising more frequently and lowering the alcoholic intake, but that in and of itself wasn’t sufficient to deal with my health issue. I now take St John’s Wort every winter and I manage my symptoms well, I can honestly say that I don’t recognise the person I was. I’ve also learnt to recognise when I start to behave in the old way and take remedial action before things go too far. This usually starts anytime from September through to November depending on how good the summer was.
Now, when I look back, I notice that the workplace wasn’t the only place I had a problem. There were occasions at home when I would become argumentative to the point of insufferable. Getting out of bed was simply an exhausting task that I can’t really describe how awful it was. I would eat large quantities of bread and cereal craving carbohydrates and neglecting all other food groups. I would resort to alcohol on frequent occasions, feeling that having a drink somehow made me feel better about the awful day and allowing me to relax from the anxiety I felt (only to feel worse the next day). There were days when I would be racked with guilt and anxiety about something I’d said or done in the past, from the previous day spanning back to my childhood. There were occasions when I’d simply cry uncontrollably and try to lock myself away. There were the days off work with illness, both physical and sheer mental exhaustion or anguish. Finally there were the odd occasions where I simply wish I wasn’t here, had never been, those were the darkest days of all.
As I’m sure you can imagine, a lot of these behaviours made the situation worse. If you do eat badly, drink lots of alcohol and refuse to leave the house you’re likely to get worse. They allowed me to enter into a personal vicious cycle of self destruction. It also wasn’t advisable for anyone close to confront the problem since I would lash out at them as much as anyone else.
I look back and I can’t believe how bad things were. But now that I have set myself a set of rules for diet, drink, exercise and the daily dose of St John’s Wort it’s all manageable. There are the odd occasions when I notice I’ve stayed in bed too long, drank too much, eaten nothing green for a few days, have been a little argumentative or felt a welling up of emotions that result in my crying, but I recognise the problem and correct the situation. Instead of months of destructive behaviour I now have a couple of weeks a year when I don’t feel too well, but know that I’ll be fine in a few days.
In relation to my work, I know that I had a poor sickness record and that my productivity in winter was bad (to say the least). Once I started treating the issue, my sick days became virtually non existent, my productivity soared and I enjoyed the prospect of going to work again.
Given all of the above, I suppose I’m sharing this for a number of reasons.
- Firstly I’d like to assist Guernsey Mind in highlighting this particular issue.
- Secondly, those who may have SAD should know you can change things and manage the situation so that you enjoy life a lot more, no one should feel it acceptable to write off six months of the year for the rest of their lives, the first step is to recognise the problem.
- Thirdly, I’d like to advise employers that if someone displays erratic behaviour, work with the person to resolve the issues, nothing could be worse than confronting the person and asking them to explain their behaviour.
For more on this, Guernsey Mind have a wonderful training course that they offer to managers and employers to assist them in identifying and working with people who have mental health issues. Guernsey Mind are running a workshop on the 17th January next year so please contact them to book your place. When I identified my issue and treated it, my sick days became vanishingly small and my productivity soared, something every employer wishes of their staff.
The last thing that I wanted to say was sorry to all those people I worked with and had to put up with my behaviour; and a very big thank you to those managers and colleagues who helped me identify the problem and deal with it. My life now is almost unrecognisable to those years when I allowed SAD to rule my winter, that happened because of people whom I’m no longer in touch with, but to whom I’ll always be grateful.
Given my reference to my taking of St John’s Wort I’d like to clarify that this works for me but may not work for everybody. I’d recommend anyone thinking of taking it to discuss it with their GP and do the research, a good place to start is the Mind UK website. I’m more than content to discuss both SAD and St John’s Wort with anyone who’d like to, but I can only offer my personal experience and direct them to the best service and research.