Or… “Yes I’m sure it’s not COVID because it’s depression, you idiot.”
It’s easy to call in sick when you have the flu. Boy, do I long for a nice bout of the flu. Fever, vomiting; these are the symptoms our culture has decided will both allow you to stay home and excuse you from the day’s tasks. Boy, does that sound nice. Even if you have a job that you can do from home, nobody expects you to bring your laptop with you into the bathroom. Food poisoning? Great. These are America’s rare gold-medal excuses: No one expects you to power through them. You are really, truly, excused.
The pandemic made a lot of people realize they didn’t want their co-workers’ (or friends’ or family’s) lesser illnesses like colds, either. (Not to mention the new awareness that greater illnesses can be disguised as lesser illnesses.) So now, slowly, maybe, hopefully, it’s also becoming normalized to stay home when you’re even just a little sick. For this cold that you could power through (and would have in the Before Times™), but now you’re nursing at home, I award the silver medal. You’re excused only if you’re lucky, but you also might feel guilty for skipping out on responsibilities when you didn’t “have to” rest.
Some colds are just the sniffles and don’t interfere with your brain and body hardly at all. You might appreciate an opportunity to stay home with easy access to orange juice, soup, and your sweatpants, but really, you’re still fully functional. You can sit at your desk and get your work done. You can do the dishes. For this mild, barely-an-illness I award the bronze — a potential work-from-home-free pass, but you’re definitely not excused from productivity.
I used to think I was coming down with a gold-level illness fairly regularly. For years, mostly in the winter, I’d sporadically get this weird not-flu that made me super fatigued and achy all over, but the runny nose, cough, fever, or gastrointestinal symptoms would never arrive. I’d just have this very-flu-like desire to crawl into bed and stay there forever. Cancel our plans, I am not moving from under this blanket. I want comfort food, or no food at all. Nothing helps. I’m just going to lie here and not move. I don’t know what this is, I just know what sick feels like and this is definitely VERY SICK.
Depression. Apparently this is depression.
And now I have an additional problem: Other people aren’t necessarily going to consider depression a gold-level excuse.
For years I kept the details of my sicknesses to myself, in hopes that other people would infer I had something more socially acceptable — like the actual flu — that would excuse me. My depression comes on hard during flu season, once a blessing that always aided my mild ruse. I could tell people I was feeling sick and they’d make assumptions and ask no follow-up questions.
“Feel better,” they’d say. “Rest up!” Gladly. “Get well soon!” Boy, I hope so.
COVID has totally ruined this. Now anytime anyone is feeling sick, people are on high alert. Is it COVID? The people demand to know. Have you been tested? Why not? What are your symptoms? When did they start?
Suddenly you can’t tell anyone you interact with in person that you’re not feeling well, or even recently weren’t feeling well, without proof of a negative COVID test or a willingness to explain that your depression is not, in fact, contagious. You can’t “feel sick” for a few days without being bombarded with questions and urged to see a doctor. It’s no longer socially acceptable to casually volunteer that you’re “not feeling well.”
I’ve hidden my depression under the guise of seasonal illnesses for years, but it seems that chapter of my life is coming to a close. If I don’t feel like telling someone about my depression (which is literally always), it seems like I can’t even bring up the fact that I am, in fact, very sick at the moment.
I hate it when people talk about taking “mental health days.” I think mental health is important for everyone, and being able to use sick time when you’re super stressed and just need to chill and focus on self-care is a great idea. But I think that concept gets grouped in with actual illness too much.
If I’m calling in sick because my depression is on overdrive and I can’t function, I am not taking a bubble bath and doing yoga and drinking mimosas and watching movies and painting my nails. I am not de-stressing and living my best life. This is not “me time.”
If I am calling in sick, it’s because I am unable to perform my work, because my brain and body won’t do it. I can sit my butt in my chair in front of my computer all day, but it won’t matter. It’s not happening.
A lot of people describe their depression in emotional terms, focusing on feelings of sadness, hopelessness, apathy, and the like. Maybe they’re weepy. Maybe their thoughts are super negative, hyper-focused on fears and what-ifs, even violent. The bad thoughts come for me, too, but the physical symptoms and how they affect my day are way, way worse. Only rarely will I cry, and even then, it’s usually because I feel, physically, so, so bad.
For me, during the worst stretches, the lights are on but nobody’s home. It’s total game over. My limbs are made of lead. It hurts to lift them to type. I can’t think complete thoughts. What am I supposed to be working on? I try to power through but nothing happens. How long have I been staring out the window? Am I dying? What if I feel like this forever? I am stuck. I can’t stand up. I can’t move. I should call out to my husband for help, but I can’t find my voice. I am a statue. I am made of stone. I am nothing.
“Mental health day” my ass.
I don’t think I’ve had the actual flu in years. If I’ve told you I was “coming down with something” or “not feeling well” any time in the last decade, there is about a 1% chance was a cold or the flu, and a 99% chance it was depression. For most of that time, though, it wasn’t even a fib. I was, in fact, coming down with something. I did, in fact, think it might be the flu. I was, in fact, about to get really sick. I just didn’t understand with what.
I’ve been feeling pretty sick for about a week now. It’s that time of year. If the shorter days don’t get me, a week of overcast dreariness will. And it’s not like I look outside and think “this makes me sad” — I don’t even notice the change in season until the sickness comes on. And then I remember: Oh right. October.
My day-to-day even mirrors a bout of flu. I might have an extra hard time waking up, feel pretty gnarly for a few hours, then take a 4-hour nap, then have a small burst of energy during which I wear myself out doing something simple like the dishes. Then I’ll sit back on the couch for what I intend to be a short rest, and won’t get back up for a long, long time. Then it’s time for bed, and after 10-12 hours of sleep, I’ll do it all again. Some days and some moments are worse than others.
Now I’m a freelance writer and there’s no boss to call in sick to, but the deadlines are still there, along with the expectation that I’ll meet them. But when I’m feeling really sick, it doesn’t feel like I have a choice: The time off happens whether I want to take it or not. I can sit at my desk and pretend to work, but nothing will happen. Lately I’ve been trying to power through more, which has just made it even more clear that I am unable to power through.
“Sorry I missed my deadlines,” I say. “I haven’t been feeling well,” I say. I type the words into emails and Slacks and they sound like bullshit to me, but that’s as much information as I’m willing to give. What would I even say? “My depression has been so severe I haven’t been able to move?” That’s a little… dramatic, don’t you think?
“I haven’t been feeling well,” it is. At least my editors are geographically distant strangers who won’t ask me if I’ve gotten a COVID test.
This week, as I’ve done so many other weeks, I spent way too much time Googling phrases like “how to get out of a depression funk” and “what to do when you’re really depressed,” hoping for some quick tips that would magically snap me out of it. Or at least make me feel like I tried something. But these answers, apparently, don’t exist. All Dr. Google says is: See your doctor if your symptoms persist for two weeks or more. Find a therapist. Take medication. Exercise more. Drink more water.
I know all these things. I’d love to exercise more, but I can’t get up, you see, for I am made of stone. I can’t refill my coffee cup because it hurts too much, you think I’m going to leap up and exercise? Ludicrous.
Now I’m bracing for my first winter as a freelancer, with no clue how to handle being sick. I’ll need some semblance of a game plan. Here goes nothing.
1. I’ll need to work ahead as much as possible on my better days, so that the bad days don’t result in so many missed deadlines.
2. I’ll need to admit to myself that I’m about to have a sick day when it’s starting, not when it’s over. The bad days will be unproductive whether I attempt to power through or not. Realizing this will allow me to tell my editors before I’ve missed my deadline that I’ll be late, rather than after. It’s still bad to miss a deadline, but it’s less bad with advance notice.
3. I’ll need to actually tell my editors when this is happening. Let’s practice. “Hi editor. Today is my deadline, but today I am sick and unable to complete the assignment. I will check in again tomorrow.” That wasn’t so bad, was it?
4. Quit promising to complete assignments soon when I’m not feeling better yet. I am TERRIBLE about doing this. “Sorry I missed the deadline, I wasn’t feeling well. I’ll have it to you in a few hours / tonight / first thing tomorrow.” I most certainly will not! Why do I do this? I must stop.
OK, seems like a reasonable list.
Today was a medium-bad day. I thought writing this out might make me feel a tiny bit better, and it did. I certainly don’t feel good, but my limbs are working, and I only got stuck a few times. I am not made of stone. I will email my editor and tell them, “today I am sick and unable to complete the assignment. I will check in again tomorrow.”
And with this, I guess my ruse is finally over.
*Yes, I know gastroenteritis (stomach flu) isn’t influenza. Don’t @ me.
**Yes, I’m on medication, though technically a doctor gave me that for “anxiety” when I couldn’t breathe and felt like there was an elephant on my chest. That got better!
***Yes, I take vitamin D in the winter. And have a happy lamp, which I should remember to use.
****No, I don’t have a real diagnosis, no doctor or therapist has ever seemed to care about that.
*****No, I don’t see a therapist. Last time I tried to get one it took a literal year to get a call back and get approval from my insurance and make a first appointment. U.S. healthcare is such a scam, I don’t have the energy to jump through the hoops needed to find a good therapist that won’t cost my life savings.
Musings on science writing, from a scientist turned writer.