Dealing with Ups and Downs

Every so often I experience unexpected and unwelcome down periods. My episodes are, thankfully, relatively brief (rarely lasting more than a week) and relatively mild, so officially I don’t suffer from depression. But my symptoms, when they occur, are consistent with depression… apathy, discontent, sadness, avoiding social interactions, struggling to sleep, going over the same thoughts repeatedly, and restlessness.

What’s really frustrating is that I can’t usually predict or preempt an episode. I know tiredness can be a contributing factor but I don’t realise it’s happening until I’m lying awake one night (and by then it’s too late) or I feel a bit down and realise I’ve been getting to bad late a few nights in a row. But which came first? Is my mood trending down because I’m not sleeping well or am I not sleeping well beause my mood was already trending down?

Also frustrating is that it is SOOOO irrational. I’m not saying this to brag, and I know that circumstances can change in an instant, but I am very blessed right now! Spiritually, I have full assurance that Jesus died for me and rose again, and that I have nothing to fear in this life or the next. Personally I have an intimate relationship with my amazing and loving wife, two healthy and happy kids that I love dearly, a wide family support network on both sides of the family (our kids have 8 great grandparents, 4 grandparents and 2 parents who are all still alive and married!), and friendships with a variety of people I’ve met through church, school, sport, and work. Materially I have a home to live in, a good job (more on that later), sufficient money, and everything else I need. Physically I eat a balanced diet, I exercise daily, I am not dependent on any substances, and I (usually) sleep very well. I have no reason not to be happy and content and yet every so often my mood swings down and I start to fixate on relatively minor negatives… and that’s usually work.

Now, to be clear, I am not saying my job is the problem. I spent almost 8 years in the Australian Army and frequently wanted to leave, even though I effectively changed jobs every two years as I got posted around. During my third posting I was referred to a psychologist to investgate if my tiredness and frequent cases of tonsilitis were psychosomatic. A little while after returning from a six month deployment to Afghanistan I requested to see the psych again after a few cases of spontaneously crying for no apparent reason. It wasn’t hard to convinced myself that the job was the problem and so I sought out a better job… and found it.

I next spent three and a half years working in a P-12 private school. It was an 8 minute walk from home, it paid pretty well, I worked with some amazing colleagues, I got to see every performance, fun day, and other event my kids were involved in, I was part of a strong network of other IT professionals working in education, and it was an exciting time to be working in educational technology. All that and still, within about 12 months, I would periodically start fixating on things I didn’t like. On one occasion I felt so down that I felt physically unwell at the thought of having to face anyone at work. I tried doing some work in a deserted computer lab for a while hoping the feeling would pass but it didn’t. I left work at about 10am that day to go and see a doctor about it. He gave me three days stress leave and set me up with a Mental Health Plan (so I could visit a psych with Medicare assistance). After a few days off doing odd jobs around the house I felt completely better but I visited the psych several times over the coming months. We weren’t able to identify any specific issues and over time it felt like the lows were getting lower and the up times in between were getting shorter. Once again I convinced myself that changing jobs was the answer so I started looking for a job where the direction and strategy were clearer and where it would be easier to leave work at work… and found it.

Which brings me to my current job. I now work for a Community Housing Provider that helps provide affordable, community and emergency housing for people with wide ranging needs. I get paid pretty well (quite well once you factor in some tax exemptions I receive as the employee of a charity), I enjoy working with many of my colleagues, it’s only a 30 minute commute on public transport, the hours are good, uniforms were provided, the work/life balance is great, and there are plenty of opportunities for growth. There are so many good things about this job and yet within 6 months I was questioning my decision and fixating on one or two downsides. I even spoke to my boss just before my 6 month probation period was up to discuss leaving. It’s been four months since then and I’m still here and still periodically convincing myself that maybe I should change jobs.

There’s a saying I like (which can apparently be attributed to Ian Fleming, through a character in Goldfinger) which says “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.” The only thing my last three jobs (Army, private school, and charity) have in common is me. That suggests to me that the “enemy” is within. I know I should start seeing a psychologist again to try and get to the bottom of what’s going on, probably a different one than last time to try a different approach. On the other hand I am relcutant to do so. One aspect is the expense… even with a Mental Health Plan it’s still almost $90 a visit. [We can afford it but it’s a lot of money! If I’m to spend $1,000 this year I’d much rather buy a half decent drone than visit a shrink every month! :)] If I’m honest I think I’m also a little bit nervous about the outcome. If there’s nothing chemically wrong with my brain then I’m potentially going to have to deal with this for the rest of my life. If there is some chemical imbalance, that’s a whole other can of worms I’m not too keen on opening.

Instead I’m persisting, mostly unhappy with my job, even though it’s got so much going for it. There are so many things I’d like to do and try instead… I really like the idea of working for myself, but I fear that the lack of external structure might be unhealthy for me. I’d love to be able to work from home, but it’s difficult to find remote work and I currently don’t have a space I could set aside at home, particularly of an afternoon once the kids get home from school. I like the idea of starting up a business on the side and trying to build it organically, but I don’t know what to focus on and historically I have struggled to do anything consistently, preferring instead to throw myself at things in bursts or phases. I miss being involved in Educational IT, but positions are few and far between at the types of schools that demonstrate the vision and leadership that is currently needed. I have always liked the idea of being a teacher, but what would I do for work while I study for 8 years part time?

So each day I decide to just show up at work and do what needs to be done. But each day all these thoughts, ideas, and options are potentially just a setback away. A frustrating colleague, a pointless meeting, someone panicking unnecssarily, or a baffling decision might push me off kilter and make me question why I’m here. Before long that simple question swirling gently around can pick up speed, gathering other thoughts and turning into a whirlwind. It’s at this point that I start being preoccupied or distracted at home… I get irritated by little noises at the dinner table that don’t normally bother me… I get frustrated with myself that I’m not playing with the kids, doing the washing up, or otherwise pulling my weight around the house. And that’s when the whirlwind can turn into a maelstrom that crowds out rational thought.

My usual coping mechanism, at least I suspect that’s what it is, is to avoid myself, to prevent giving my head the space it needs for those thoughts to gain traction. I checked today and realised I have 33 podcast subscriptions, 21 RSS subscriptions, 69 people I follow on Twitter, and 2 games I play regularly on my phone. Combined, that provides me with an endless supply of other people’s thoughts and ideas with which to anaesthetise my own thoughts and feelings. If work starts getting to me I’ll often take a 10 minute walk, sometimes alone but more often accompanied by a podcaster or two. My commute to work, my lunch break and every other possible moment of introspection is shared with interesting and successful people from around the world.

I started writing this article as a way of processing my feelings, as an attempt to find my own voice, rather than constantly listening to the voices of others. By that measure I’d call this a success. It’s taken a few days (on and off) to write it but as I type these words I’m feeling calm and in control. It also helped me realise just how much I’m bombarding myself with other people’s thoughts. I still don’t have any answers about why I keep fixating on work or whether it’s time for a change but at least I’m in a better position to think about it more clearly and discuss it with my wife more openly.

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