The experience of many ‘superwomen’

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Depression is an illness. But because it is so stigmatized, people are often ignorant about it. They don’t want to know about it. They don’t want to talk to about it. They don’t want to talk to depressed people about it. Only reactive depression is about circumstances. Clinical depression is indiscriminate. It has nothing to do with your life at all. You can have the most outwardly perfect life but still be dying inside. You can be surrounded by people and still be utterly alone. You can be beautiful and feel like an empty shell. You wouldn’t tell someone with serious diabetes ‘buck up there is nothing wrong with you’. Clinical depression is also caused by faulty levels of a substance in the body over which the sufferer has no control. So telling them to buck up is really not going to help. In fact it is going to make them feel worse.

There are several kinds of depressives. The one most people know about are the ‘extrovert depressives’ or ‘noisy depressives’. They find some form of relief in talking about their depression. They show that they are depressed and often talk about committing suicide. They often talk to anyone who will listen. They go to the doctor. They are signed off sick. The ‘introvert depressives’ or ‘quiet depressives’  are the ones who withdraw, don’t talk, carry on as normal. Work even harder, sleep even less. In many cases they are high achievers who are seen as invincible. I often think of the extrovert depressives being the squeaky wheels that get the grease while the introvert depressives are the non-squeaky wheels who have to take over the weight and the burden when the squeaky wheels are being seen to. I also think of them as ducks gliding gracefully on the water. No one can see the frantic paddling of their feet below the surface. Or the huge stress of being there for everyone else while feeling like you are drowning. Often when I see someone who is the life and soul of the party, or an overachiever, I know instinctively that they are about to drop off the pier referenced in the picture above.

Why? Maybe because I have experience of this myself. But probably because some of the best people I have dealt with – my former doctor, the brilliant person at the Migration Authority, the fantastic third secretary at the South African Embassy in Stockholm – have all done such a good job that they have burned out. Usually because people know they are good and get the job done, and thus prefer to deal with them if they can.  But also often because these super-efficient people end up doing the work of lazy or passive colleagues as well. They don’t complain. They just put their heads down and get on with it.

And this is why many people say of those who burn out ‘but she didn’t say anything’ or ‘he seemed fine’ Yes they did say something, just not in words. Sleeping or eating less or more, working harder, talking less, taking less care of their appearance – these are all signs that something is not right. But most of us are not used to listening to non-verbal signals. Or we avoid and ignore anything to do with depression. Or stress. We need to listen to what people are saying even if they don’t talk. Many people are not talkers. Others are so debilitated and exhausted by depression and stress that they just cannot form the words.

And most important of all – we need to learn not to shy away from depression (particularly depression related to overwork) and people who are depressed. We need to stop ignoring it.  We need to start talking about it, and we really really need to start LISTENING to depressed people – particularly the quiet ones. We need to understand depression, even if it frightens us. And then maybe we will be able to help in some cases or make the person feel understood and accepted.

In many cases, depressed people are not the gloomy ones mooning around. They can also be funny and larger than life – the life and soul of the party. The successful executives. The ones everyone goes to for help and advice. The perfect mother and daughter. The perfect employee or employer. The ones who seem to have 48 hours in their day.  The ones on every committee. The ones with the perfect homes. The more they give the more people take. The more they give the more people expect.

In a way I think the extrovert depressives are the ones who are the face of depression. Maybe because they are so vocal about it. We imagine that if people are depressed they would show it. And in many ways the quiet depressives do. Just not by telling everyone who would listen about it. For them we really need to watch and listen.

I have burned out twice. The first time I was back at work in four months. The second time I was in such bad shape that I was away from work for nine months and it took a further four months before I was back at work full time. I had been told I would never work again but I refused to believe that. I had to relearn to read and write and I vowed never to let it happen again. And I have not. I have had to learn to say no. To say no when people try to take advantage of me. To let go of destructive and selfish people in my life. To get rid of the drains and embrace the radiators. It was hard but my life is so much better now.

The first time it happened I was working full time with my own job, as well as filling in for someone at work on parental leave (which is 480 days in Sweden) and another person whose mother had died and who was away on compassionate leave. I can remember one cold dark December evening where I was exhausted from working almost round the clock, I was alone with two stepchildren who were going through HUGE personal crises in my kitchen. One of them crying buckets and about to make a very very unwise decision. My cat had just been hit by a car and was suffering from kidney failure. I had to force feed him every hour. Everyone in my life just piled more and more on me and expected more and more of me because I seemed to cope so well. Inside I was dying. One day I walked into a classroom and couldn’t remember why I was there. That was that, for the next four months. I couldn’t get away from the situation here in Sweden so I was sent back to my family in South Africa to rest and get away. Unfortunately none of them really understood that I was not on a holiday because (as always) I never spoke about my problems and never wanted to bring other people down by being anything less than happy and smiley. They wanted me to go around visiting everyone and be happy and play with babies and participate everywhere, when I could barely raise my head off the pillow. This was a huge mistake because I never dealt with my issues, just rested and went straight back to my old life and my old behavior.

The second one was even worse than the first. I had a fire in my apartment building where I both lived and worked, a very difficult development occurred in family and friend relationships in South Africa where I felt I was being taken advantage of and had to cut ties to concentrate on myself (this was incredibly hard to do), I had a serious breast cancer scare, someone I loved very much broke my heart, I discovered something shocking about someone else who was very close to me and was then given notice that unless we worked much harder at work, we would lose our jobs. As it was, I was teaching full time, doing all the social media plus writing three books for my employer and was given extra tasks when one colleague went on parental leave so I could not really do much more and survive but I tried, and the company continued to go downhill. I usually worked at home but with all the renovation after the fire I asked for office space at work and was refused it. I tried telling everyone – from my boss to my colleagues to my family – that I was not doing okay. But they all just said ‘oh you’ll be fine’.  My ex husband moved out, leaving me with all the extra running costs that came with that. And then all the permanent staff at work lost their jobs, including me. Even though we knew it was inevitable, it was still a shock when it happened.Cue: burnout. Bad burnout. This time I was in worse shape than previously and utterly totally alone. I decided that I would not survive a third time and started to work on my behavior so that I could stop being my own worst enemy.

After the second time  I decided to let go of all the things dragging me down and making me feel like the pic above. Everyone that was taking advantage of me had to go. I had to learn to be my best friend and not my worst enemy. It was so hard but it worked. Right now I work, I volunteer at an animal shelter, I blog and I admin about 7 Facebook groups and it is STILL like a holiday compared to my life before. I say no to those who ask too much of me, I only have people in my life who support me – all the ones who were only around when they needed something from me but mysteriously missing when I needed something from them are gone. Now when the past or my life drags me down and threatens to drown me I imagine letting all those ropes loose and floating to the surface where I can breath again. The biggest and heaviest weight to let go of was toxic people in my life. The second was my need to be a superwoman. And I can say, from the bottom of my heart that I am happy. I am glad I went through all that because I came out the other side a stronger, wiser person.

Nowadays when people say to me ‘It’s easy for you. You…

  • have degrees
  • are always on time
  • are well educated
  • are clever
  • are thin
  • are so efficient
  • are so good at everything’

I actually say to them ‘no I bloody am not and it has not been easy for me. I have had to work harder than most people for  because I am a woman and have had no family support behind me. Don’t take the fact that I don’t complain about everything and say how hard it is as meaning it was easy.’ I no longer give chronic complainers and people who take advantage of others any of my precious oxygen.

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Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

10 thoughts

  1. Thank you Janet for your kind words. I am trying to do my best. Just the realisation to have to do it all by myself makes me a little worried, because it seems to be a battle on more than one frontier.
    To me it is fighting a chaos moving one step foreward and two back. I guess I will have won the battle as soon as it’s two steps foreward and one back. 😉

  2. Beautifully written and bravely done. May you continue to grow into the person you were always meant to be.

  3. The picture you chose shows exactly the situation one is in but how can you get out of it if the people around you ignore the fact or just turn around and walk straight out of your life because you don’t function the way you used to anymore? It sure is a stony and lonely way, isn’t it? A battle against failure of body and mind………

    1. That is the hardest part, unfortunately. And why it had to happen to me twice before I realised that people like that had to go from my life. I knew I would not survive a third time. When I told people the second time that I could not cope they ALL just ignored it. Afterwards, having worked on myself a lot, I was able to deal with it. Big hugs and I hope things work out.

  4. Great post Janet. I’ve been there myself but so lucky I had family, friends and a wonderful doctor who supported me.

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