I was going to write something about this week's beautiful Super Moon in this newsletter but as I began to type, something else flowed out instead. So here it is.
25 years ago I worked within the chemical and pharmaceutical industries in Analytical Chemistry and Quality Management Auditing. This had been my career for over 10 years and I was on what you would call a successful trajectory, climbing the career ladder over the years. It's what we're told we need to do to be 'successful'. But as time went on I began to question this path. I was not ambitious. I didn't care for career status. I wasn't interested in a work-life balance that was heavily weighted towards work and very little towards life. I was finding the additional pressures and responsibilities that came with a conventional career development in a field that wasn't aligned with my personal ethics increasingly damaging to my health. I reached a stage where I could no longer function, never mind live, outwith my job. I clearly remember an occasion where I was sitting on the floor in the corner of my living room, knees drawn up, blinds closed, feeling like a very large dog in a very small cage. Trapped, helpless, unable to run and not knowing which way to turn to escape. I had been signed off sick from work, and while this was necessary, the increasing time at home began to highlight how much I had lost myself. Who was I and what was my life?
My manager at this time was the epitome of an eccentric 'Mad Scientist' and he was wonderful. He was a man at retirement age, with white unruly hair formed into an endearing, untidy comb-over in an attempt to cover his baldness. He always wore a creased shirt and tie under a lab coat with leaking pens and sweeties in the pockets. You would never see him without his lab coat. He was the most interesting and funny person I had ever met in the field. He had worked with the company for over 40 years and was always close to retiring but never fully got there. He was a wonderful manager but not in the way that business demands because he didn't actually 'manage' anyone. He listened to them, supported them, empathised with them, gave them sweeties from his pocket when they looked like they were having a bad day. And although he was a friend to everyone, no one ever called him by his first name - he was always Mr. He was the most respected, beloved colleague to everyone except the Directors.
One day he visited me at home during my sick leave. He brought cake. He asked me how I was feeling. I tried to lie but he wasn't having any of it. He told me that we all have 'Black Dog' days. In 1995 I didn't realise this was a common term for depression but I knew what he was talking about. Many times I had walked into his office and saw him sitting at his desk with his head in his hands, blinds closed, unable to communicate. He could be not be encouraged or cajoled out of it. He would shoo you out and emerge, restored to his light self, when he was ready. There was no manager of his that would offer him sweeties from their pocket.
He also knew I was in the wrong job because he recognised similar in me - he had been there and was still there. He felt like there was no longer an opportunity for him to escape. This man was actually the linchpin of the company he worked for. Directors, managers, staff had all came and went in his four decades in his role, which actually wasn't one of manager but of counsel - keeping people together, helping them cope, supporting them with love and compassion in a whirling world of work where they were often treated like machines. He felt a deep sense of obligation. This man was actually a healer.
His visit was one of many important, transformative moments in my life, but like all new paths they take time to built. We must first skillfully carve and refine the building blocks given to us from the adversity we face and lay these now polished gemstones down in front of us as we go. It took another 5 years of refining, polishing and laying of a new path for me to be able to sure-footedly walk down it, when I finally stepped into who and what I was always meant to be.
Around 13 years ago I was viewing places to live in the southside of Glasgow and between viewings I sat in a cafe, next to the window with a cup of tea, watching the world go by and feeling how grateful I was for my life. It was mid week and there were lots of cars coming and going, people working, busy, busy, busy. Then a car pulled up across the road and out stepped someone familiar to me - it was Mr. I couldn't quite believe it at first but once I saw him running in and out of a shop in mere seconds - with the quickness and light footedness he always had, like an excited and happy child - I knew it was him. He had a joy for life. Like a flash, he came and went. Then I realised he wasn't wearing a lab coat or a shirt and tie and I smiled wondering if he had actually, finally, managed to retire.
We all have Black Dog days. They may or may not be depression but we know them when they arrive. They may be fleeting or they may hang around for a while. And in the situation we currently find ourselves, many of you may be feeling like the very large dog in a very small cage. Staying at home, physically cut off from family, friends, your social life and many of the things that you feel support you and give you joy, this is can be a very difficult time. You may be struggling to find a new way of being through this unfamiliar territory. This is natural because we are trying to navigate a new and very different life. So, how can we do this?
A pocket full of sweeties, that's how. Be the person who offers you a sweetie when you're having a bad day. Be the person who sits down and listens to you gently and with compassion. Have a whole load of sweeties that you can give yourself. These sweeties might be making time to read a new book, putting your favourite music on, dancing, feeding the birds, sowing some seeds, sketching and drawing, beginning to write the book that's always been in you, creating something out of those bits and bobs of things that you've kept in a drawer for years because 'I might need them one day'. Or they might be actual sweeties. As long as those sweeties make you genuinely happy and grateful to be alive, do what makes you feel good and gives you life and joy because this is what we all need right now. Ofcourse, there is fear and worry and we must acknowledge these because without facing our fears they will continue to affect us from the shadows. What will dispel these fears and make positive change is things like you having a dance and sing in your kitchen (yes, it actually will). We are facing a stark evaluation of our lives. We need to de-prioritise work and put ourselves and each other to the fore. We are being encouraged to separate what matters to us and makes us feel happy from what doesn't, and focusing our energies towards what makes us feel a valuable and valued part of life.
Go on, take a sweetie and save one for later.
Copyright 2020 © Andrea Doran, Flourish and contributors. Original date of post March 2020, newsletter March 2020.