Since I was 15, I’ve been dealing with depression. I’m not talking about the blues, sadness, or simply the Mondays, but suffocating, full-blown depression—the kind that leaves you empty and hurting all at the same time.
Throughout early adulthood, I had to constantly force myself to go to high school, college, and eventually, a full-time job. But then at 19, I was diagnosed with bipolar and things got even more complicated, adding mania, anxiety, and rapid cycling to the mix of symptoms. It seemed impossible to be productive, and there have been countless days, weeks, and even months when I worried I would lose my job to the all-consuming force of my depression.
In 2013, MacMillan published Perfect Chaos, a memoir co-written by me and my mother, detailing my struggles with depression and her efforts to be there for me. Over the years, I’ve become an expert in my own symptoms and the hows and whys of leading a productive life under these conditions. And while the conversation is being brought further and further out of the dark with each person that decides to speak up, I’d like to offer up some practical advice that’s served me well, because here’s the thing, dear reader: In my many moments of debilitating depression, I have not once lost my job, nor even been reprimanded. Here’s how I make sure to take care of myself within the context of getting out of bed to go to work every day, even when it seems impossible:
1. I create the quickest morning routine possible, one painful, brilliant step at a time. The night before, I take a shower and choose an outfit. One that makes me feel comfortable, smart, and capable—that just says, “Yes, that’s me, a total badass. I got this.” The next morning, I dress, apply mascara and a bright punch of lipstick, and then I leave. No time to climb back into my closet trying to find body acceptance in a state of morning confusion. Out the door in fifteen minutes flat. No excuses.
2. Once I arrive at work, it’s time to make a daily task list. Tasks in general feel utterly impossible when you are depressed. The word “task” makes you want to cry on your desk. But this is important: I ask myself what needs to get done and what I can get done. I break each overwhelming, essential task down to the smallest possible steps and write an in-depth to-do list. Then I only focus on that task. I don’t allow myself to look further down the list. Once I manage that first task, I force myself to do two things: proudly revel in my success and—this is crucial—take a five-minute break.
3. Next—and this is the hard one—I decide if I need to inform my supervisor. Because depression is constantly recurring in my life, it’s important to let my supervisor know I have a chronic illness. On those days when I do call in, he knows it’s valid. This is also something that you can discuss with your HR manager. Your supervisor doesn’t need to know the gritty details of your struggles; they simply need to know that you are experiencing a health struggle and that you are doing your best to work to your highest ability. You may need to present a doctor’s note to HR, but management may surprise you and support you beyond your expectations.
4. Lastly, at the end of that exhausting day, I do my best to prepare for the next day and attempt some exercise (those endorphins do help!). Most importantly, I celebrate my victory. When you are depressed, the most powerful thing you can do for yourself is celebrate each accomplishment. You got out of bed; I’m so proud of you! You ate food; you are killing it! You stayed at work for a whole eight hours; you are a superstar! Never stop praising these steps, and slowly but surely you will find your way back out of that hole into the productive light of day.
–Linea Johnson is the author of Perfect Chaos: A Daughter’s Journey to Survive Bipolar, a Mother’s Struggle to Save Her.