Overcoming depression and trying to just ‘get on with it’


Because in my case, depression (& my long term recovery from my 2012 mental health breakdown) means I need to use up reserves of emotional energy to do even some of the most basic tasks – such as sending an email.

I struggled to begin this blogpost for a variety of reasons. This paragraph being about the fourth attempt.

On Tues 18 Nov we’ll be having another Be the change – Cambridge gathering of interested people – see details here if you’re free. Arranging this took far more emotional energy than it should have done. From going into the venue to make enquiries, to getting everything announced, then having to rearrange. Hence one of the things I’m going to be looking out for at this gathering is for interested people to be able to step in and support me/compensate for my shortcomings.

Perhaps being a co-ordinator is exhausting in itself?

‘When you become an adult you realise that the main thing you had in common with your school friends was that you went to the same place every day.’ I can’t remember where I read it, but I remember feeling this as soon as I left college. I didn’t expect to experience the same at university – assuming that people choosing the same course as me would have similar dispositions and passions. With hindsight, I picked the wrong course for the wrong university, but didn’t have the courage at the time to fight any of it.

The difference between such an institutionalised life vs co-ordinating projects remotely is that the institutionalised life has everything timetabled for you. You know at what point of the week you are going to meet who, and where. When you’re running your own project, you don’t have that. The bit that I’m finding a very big challenge at the moment is trying to do the micro work of co-ordinating while at the same time trying to work through the substance of this idea of making Cambridge greater than the sum of our parts. And the substance is ***huge*** – and following a couple of meetings last week just got even bigger, more complex but at the same time, more clear.

‘Oh I’d love to do that!….but it’s in London’

I saw a vacancy in Parliament that normally I’d jump at – the digital engagement manager (see via external candidates). Although it’s below the salary I was on when I was in the civil service, it’s the sort of role that would be right up my street. But health-wise, I couldn’t manage a full time job, let alone one that required a commute to London. And if you look at what has happened with London house prices and rents since I last lived in London in the late 2000s…I don’t know how some of you do it. I really don’t. Combine this with the various conferences, concerts, events, workshops and the like, the cost of train fares (little change from £40) …and you wonder why so few people can access not just the big policy gatherings that happen in London, but also the ‘soft networking’ that happens.

“There’s more to life than London though!”

The Scottish independence referendum catalysed and brought together social forces from the rest of the country – in particular in England – to make this point. One of my ‘selfish’ drivers for Be the change – Cambridge is that the city could be far more interesting than it currently is. Community groups could be larger, more diverse and more exciting than they currently are – if only the public institutions could give them that safe space, support and robust challenge with which to grow.

Dealing with one disappointment after another

Over the past five years, I’ve been out and about to lots of places. Unlike what I call ‘my roaring twenties’, I’ve not come across nearly as many awe-inspiring jaw-dropping events that make you stand back and go: ***Wow!***

The reason why I think it has an impact on my mental health is I sense I am/we’re going backwards. Whether it’s things like turning up to a music or a dance event that has hardly anyone turning up to it, to a community group covering an important part of our city’s life but – despite their hard work keeping the group running, not reflecting the diversity of our city…yes, that gets me down. Perhaps with the political and media rhetoric, I am now much more conscious of ‘being the only brown face in the room’ whereas fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t have noticed. The thing is – and as I found out the hard way – I’m often not the best person to be making the challenge. Mental health means I have limited time and energy to devote to any one thing. Hence going for something that might energise more people to be that challenge inside that safe space. This is despite a number of offers/requests I’ve received for me to join various different groups, organisations and even political parties.

Back to the top – ‘just doing it’?

I discussed this with some friends in my school community. The difference between me and perhaps most of the rest of the governing body is that they are in and around school pretty much every day. They are either teaching, picking up children or helping with their homework. Being a single bloke, I have no reason to go into school unless I have a meeting there. I’ve also found I’m at my most productive for the school when I’m working on something for it with a handful of fellow governors. I’ve also found the same has been true with past projects – such as my first digital video training guides.

This is the recurring theme: I’m struggling emotionally with what is a solitary existence – one without structure

Interestingly, the part of life where I’m most content is with the Dowsing Sound Collective. I know that once a week I have to turn up to rehearsals, not think too much about what I have to do, and contribute towards something greater than the sum of our parts with dozens of friendly people – with a very clear goal in sight. This term it’s a sold-out concert at the Corn Exchange in Cambridge in a room with about a thousand people in it.

With my past in the public sector, in my early days I found the opposite with its structure – it was too rigid and inflexible. The organisation’s rigid structure & grade hierarchies meant people only did what they were allowed by their grades or job descriptions. This was amplified by being in an office with too many people charged with doing too little. Hence people in middle and senior management who found themselves with something reasonable interesting or useful all too often jealously guarded such functions from others who might otherwise have helped them. Too much structure can be just as damaging as too much. What made too much structure bearable was the regular salary.

How do you build something that you’re comfortable working with?

This is what I’m trying to figure out. I’ve picked out things that make effective director-PA partnerships work well. For a start, the two have very different talents and dispositions. The other thing is that both should trust and respect, but not fear each other. In terms of structure and processes, both are important for me because the various things I am working on right now are all interlinked with each other. By this I mean that if I were to disappear overnight, all of those things would still be interlinked. It’s not just me that is the common factor that joins them all. It’s more.

Why this matters beyond the world of work for me

It’s a vicious circle. I don’t know when/if I’ll be able to work full-time again, which makes me more anxious about the future, which makes my anxiety and depression worse, and so on. Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64? (As Paul McCartney once asked). The prospect of being in a relationship and settling down seems light years away from my current position, so in my case it’s more thinking about familial relationships with extended family. But this is also where decades of housing policy failure is having a very real impact on the life decisions I am taking. Nationally, Shiv Malik and Ed Howker quoted soul-destroying statistics on the percentage of young adults choosing not to settle down or have children because housing costs are too high and because the jobs market is so unstable.

21% of 18- to 44-year-olds without children (2.8 million) admit they are delaying starting a family because of a lack of affordable housing. (Shelter – The Human Cost 2010, p10)

Why would you want to commit to such huge life investments if you don’t know if you’ll have a job next week?

“So…what’ll be different for 2015?”

Creating that structure to work within – & make sure that those who I am working with know about it. This means people will be able to find out very quickly & easily what I am working on, how I am working on it, why I am working on it, with whom I am working with, what the resource/support gaps are and who I need what sort of support from – and what they will get out of it in return.


6 thoughts on “Overcoming depression and trying to just ‘get on with it’

  1. If you miss the structure of full time work, have you considered part time voluntary work? You’d have the structure and the regular contact with other people, without the anxiety attached to paid work where absence can undermine your position. You’ve got so many skills that local groups need, and the regularity of such work might give a framework that you’re missing – I know that I really struggle when I don’t have a set place to be most days.

    1. Many thanks for your reply Carina – re: voluntary work it’s one of the reasons why I became a school governor. After finishing university and moving back to Cambridge over a decade ago I tried volunteering with a variety of local projects. The problem I found was that I struggled – & struggle inside small organisations. Since then having been inside central government, I can see myself struggling even more. My worldview is very different. Hence my role on the governing body is one that looks outward to the rest of the city rather than one that’s more inward, overseeing some of the more day-to-day functions.

      The sort of impact I want to have is one where I’m helping change structures, systems and processes rather than a person-to-person role. I can – and do the person-to-person work well – certainly going by feedback. But I don’t get the personal satisfaction that comes with it. This is why I kept on pestering your side about the Communities Fair. Rather than go around from local group to local group (which as we both know requires a massive time commitment), my desire is to bring them all together in the same place to see what they can share with each other. Richard quite rightly has added a corporate focus of getting people involved who would not normally volunteer for community groups or activities.

      In an ideal world, there’d be a space within local government for the things that I want to work on, but with the current austerity agenda it’s simply not going to happen. Also, the cultures within public administration are still in a state of flux. Even if a role became available with what I want to achieve, would the organisational culture be one that would enable me to make a success of it? (I’ve seen others walk away from posts/roles because even though they said the role/post was right, the culture within the team or organisation was not).

      The other thing is that being a very ‘intense’ person even at the best of times, I’m also emotionally high-maintenance. As a result, in every job that I have been in, no one has ever really been able to get the best out of me.

  2. The job advert says “Consideration will be given to candidates who wish to work part-time or as part of a job share.” – have you considered negotiating p/t or for working from home on some days? (I’d have thought your track record on digital engagement would outweigh any disadvantage that requesting p/t might be to your application)

  3. As it took you several attempts to write your post, so too for me writing my comment! I don’t want to put too much of myself in my suggestion as it might not work for you but I’ve tried to think of a way to develop a routine and be around people and still get to focus on the work you want to do.

    Could you approach one or more local charities or voluntary groups, perhaps ones that work around mental health, and ask if they have desk space for you in their office for you to work independently (not to involve yourself in the organisation as volunteer or anything else unless you agree as an exchange of space for time)? This could be a desk for you to use a one/two/few times a week and all it would require from the organisation is providing wifi and access to a kettle and, of course, the space itself (which may be hard for some organisations although most organisation’s with part time staff usually has an empty desk for part of the week). You could contribute towards tea and coffee and milk and a small amount towards wifi costs or you could offer a number of hours of volunteering a week in return for the space either on something the organisation wants to do probably around digital/comms or something extra like weekly/fortnightly social media surgeries for their beneficiaries.

    This is effectively negotiating a free hot desk within a space that is likely to be supportive of you.

    You said in one of your previous comments about being intense at times so you would need to think how this could affect others around you and you may need to have a chat with the organisation’s staff about how they can best talk to you about this if they need to. I also get the impression that you are very ambitious for your self and others so it may be too that you could have a bit of a think about you keep any appropriate boundaries between the work you may be independently doing at the desk in the organisation’s space and what the organisation is doing and are able to do within their capacity. You could perhaps think about a trial for a few weeks to see how it works for you and for the organisation- a trial may make it easier for both/either parties to say this isn’t working out as we thought.

    I did something similar earlier in the summer with an organisation developing an empty office project in Newcastle and it has worked out well for me.

    I hope this is a useful suggestion.

    With good wishes, Stephanie

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