Out of the Shadows
Cherish simple acts of kindness whenever, however, and from whomever they come.
Over the late part of this past spring, as I convalesced and sought treatment after my emotional breakdown back in March, I found that I was often reinforcing feelings of guilt and shame, feeding the very gray flames of depression my therapist, psychologist, doctor, wife, family and friends were all helping me try to get under control. I was absent from my work during a time when I was needed there more than ever, and I felt so terrible that my co-workers were enduring so much while I sat at home.
Don’t get me wrong; this was no extended vacation. I acknowledge that those months were some of the most arduous, painful, and transformative of my life. In fact, I was in the fight for my life, undergoing such a monumentally challenging series of crushing lows and traumatic revelations about myself that I would not wish the experience on anyone.
I wasn’t making things any easier on myself by carrying the weight of guilt for all the time I was missing at work. Under normal circumstances it might not have inflicted so much shame or added nearly as much to my ongoing struggles.
However, this was 2020, so whenever there was a problem, boy oh boy was it ever going to be the mother of all problems.
Sequestration is not a word I have often said, nor heard, nor thought of. However, about three weeks after my March Meltdown, with the pandemic causing great concerns in my company regarding how to mitigate the chances of people in my department succumbing to COVID-19, a decision was made that my work group would be forced into mandatory sequestration.
For long periods of time, they would be confined to a hotel, kept from all face-to-face contact with their families, friends, and loved ones, and restricted to moving to and from the hotel and our place of business. They were forced to work extremely long hours, denied access to the outside world save for a face-time or a phone call here or there, and there was no definitive plan as to when this scenario would come to an end.
They could not go to the store, or stop for take-out at a restaurant, or hug their kids, or pet their dogs. I had all those things, and they didn’t, and I hated myself all the more for it. I had no idea how I could show my face to those people when, or if, I ever made it back to work.
Sometimes, I still feel pangs of that guilt. When I heard stories about how challenging it was for them, I forgot how challenging my situation was for me and found myself focusing on how terrible a person I must have been to let them face those challenges without me there, standing beside them, helping bear their burden.
By the time I got a chance to go back to work, which I was and still am, truly, grateful for, I felt so inferior to them all. I was certain that they must hate me for not having gone through all they had. I didn’t even consider for a moment whether any of them knew what I had gone through; that wasn’t as important, because I wasn’t as important.
I was just in the way, I thought.
Whatever talent I had for the job seemed to have been replaced with ineptitude and indecision. I was a burden… a waste of everyone’s time. I didn’t deserve this job, anymore. I didn’t deserve any of the good things in my life. Someone out there was meant to live this amazing life and have this great job, and somehow, I had them all fooled, up until March of this year, that that person was me.
As much progress as I had made from home, I was not going to be able to accept myself as being worthwhile until I faced the challenge of returning to reclaim my normal life. When I did go back, however, it was initially with my head held low, ashamed of myself for the stigma of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder that I carried back with me. The façade of the Mike they all knew had fallen. I was exposed as the flawed, broken, desperate-for-acceptance version of me that lie beneath.
I was just annoying them, I could tell.
I was just in the way, I could tell.
I was a failure, after all, I could tell.
I wrote a Facebook post in early July that addressed these feelings, but I was still ashamed of how I felt so I deleted it mere moments after I posted it.
Then I received a text, out of the blue, from one of my co-workers, and it honestly meant the world to me.
It was July 8th, just past 4:30 in the afternoon. I had been making mistakes at work, and there was a heightened level of scrutiny due to some issues concerning another of my co-workers, so the guilt and shame I felt over the tiniest flaws in my job performance merely magnified in scope and scale within my mind as a result. I was a victim of my own fragile sense of self worth. I knew that someone else was drawing all of the heat and causing all the friction at work due to their own mishandling of issues in their life spilling over into their job performance. I didn't want to be part of the problem, and in that state of mind, from my flawed, gray perspective, I had no hope of being part of the solution.
I received a text as I sat at my computer desk at home, having just posted and deleted a cry for help. I was desperate to escape from this hole I saw myself at the bottom of. When I saw who sent the text, my initial reaction was confusion. The previous text I had ever received from this person was on November 30th of 2018. This person had no reason to reach out. There was nothing in it for them. They didn’t ‘owe’ it to me. They just knew that I was struggling.
This person, whom I had not received a text message from in a year and eight months, whom I had not seen since before my March Meltdown because they, too, had been away from work for a long time for medical reasons, had a clearer perspective of who I really was than I did.
The message read:
Hey Mike. How are you? I saw your post on Facebook & I’m hoping that everything is okay. If you ever need anything, please let me know. I am always here.
My reply (with their name redacted for their privacy):
Blank, I’m sorry. I am really depressed. I don’t mean to bother you.
Remember, I wrote and deleted the post that prompted this text message very quickly. I was mortified that it had elicited a response, at all. I had hoped that I deleted it in time that nobody would see it and think ‘how pathetic… he’s just looking for attention,’ or something of that nature.
I was embarrassed, then, even more than before. It felt like I could do nothing right, and kept getting everything wrong.
“Omg, you’re not a bother!” they replied. “Please. I just wanted to reach out to make sure everything was okay. You are NOT a bother, not one bit. So please don’t think that. I’m sorry that you’re going through a tough time. You are loved, wanted, & needed. Don’t EVER think anything less of yourself. EVER.”
It is one thing to hear all of that from your wife, your mom, your brother… but from someone like this, who broke a long silence to reach out to me out of the kindness of their heart…
What did they have to gain by just telling me what they thought I wanted to hear?
What did this person see in me that I could not?
It might not make sense to you when I say that I could dismiss kind words from the people closest to me but took to heart a kind gesture from someone whom I have had so little contact in so long a time. Of course I value and cherish my wife's efforts.. However, in my lowest moments, when the gray is so thick that I can see little else, I tend to assume that when someone is nice to me it is out of a sense of pity, loyalty, or obligation rather than anything resembling the truth.
Clarity comes with a change of perspective, and this unexpected dialogue helped me see myself from a different point of view than I had in some time.
I chatted with this person for quite a while, opening up about all that had happened to me. They were the only person I worked with that I told everything to, including my work partner, who was and is one of the best friends I have ever had in my life. I had initially shared a lot of my struggles with him, but after a while I felt so guilty burdening him with my problems when he had so many of his own, and it seemed like I was just annoying and disappointing him so much. In my lowest moments, one of the things I dreaded most about going back to work was the possibility that I would find that we were no longer friends because of all the ways I let him down. So I couldn't tell him everything. I was terrified to tell anyone, really... but somehow, for some reason, it felt okay to tell this person who reached out on their own and offered their ear.
It felt so good, freeing myself of the burden of what had transpired, sharing my journey to recovery with someone else. I would not be writing a blog, today, if I hadn't already seen the value of overcoming my fears of exposing my flaws and shortcomings through the discussions I had with this person.
They sent me an image, and an accompanying note:
“YOU ARE ENOUGH MIKE!”
Two days later, I received this:
An edible arrangement. It was a gesture of kindness that changed my outlook and made me stop focusing on all the ways in which I felt like I was inadequate, insufficient, or burdensome.
I let myself step away from my own flawed, gray perspective of myself and entertain the possibility that this great person I worked with had a better grasp on who I was than I did, myself.
If they thought this much of me, I owed it to them, and to myself, to believe they were more right about me than I was.
Opening up about my problems was a terrifying prospect, but in the end it acted as the catalyst for a series of dramatic improvements at work.
I still struggle, sometimes, feeling like I am not cut out for my job anymore. I still am pretty hard on myself when I make a mistake. I am still battling my depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, but thanks to this person, and now, this blog, I am not fighting my battles in the shadows, anymore.
So, thank you. You know who you are, but you might not have realized until now how much you helped me, and I will always, always be grateful.