‘I should have sought help a lot earlier than I did. But it’s sort of admitting to yourself that you’re not coping, and by admitting that, you’re admitting that you’re not perfect, and that was very, very hard for me.’
But the morning she was to start, Maddie said ‘I was ill—physically sick and panicky getting into work’.
Maddie Sutton ‘knew things weren’t quite right’ when she couldn’t sleep at night.
A Comcare officer responsible for reviewing disputed cases, Maddie was getting by on just one hour of sleep each night. A confessed workaholic who would often go into the office on the weekends for a few hours, Maddie slept with pen and paper by her bed in case she thought of something for the case she was working on. ‘I would watch the clock all night long’, she said.
On the way to work she would suffer severe panic attacks.
‘I’d arrive at the car park and start to shake and find it physically difficult to open the car door and get out and walk to the office building. I had dreadful chest pains, vomiting, nausea, my hands would shake and I’d burst into tears over nothing. It was that feeling of not being in control of everything.’
Maddie said she just, ‘didn’t want to accept … that it was all getting too much and I had to slow down—I just couldn’t accept that.’ She was determined to remain her ‘bright and cheerful’ self, at least at work. A single mum with a 12-year old daughter, Maddie said the mask would fall when she got home, but still there was no one to really unwind with on the domestic front.
Ultimately the mask fell at work too. Asked by a supervisor to take on a new project, this request proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
‘I went back to my desk and I just couldn’t stop crying. I was shaking and crying. It seems so silly now. It wasn’t a negative thing at all it was just this “oh my goodness I’m not coping at work … there is this thing they want me to do at work and I don’t think I can do it, oh dear!”’
Maddie’s supervisor sent her to see a doctor.
Maddie said while the new project request was the ‘trigger’ for her to admit she needed help, ‘it had been building up for some time’.
‘There had been heavy workloads, you were dealing with negative cases all the time and in my unit it was only the disputed cases you dealt with, not the ones that had been successful and people had got back to work. There was a whole range of injuries—physical and mental—and I put my heart and soul into it.
‘I should have sought help a lot earlier than I did. But it’s sort of admitting to yourself that you’re not coping, and by admitting that you’re admitting that you’re not perfect, and that was very, very hard for me.
‘And I didn’t want someone else to have to pick up the slack if I wasn’t doing the job. Everybody was under pressure and the thought of someone going off work and not having someone there to back fill for you made you keep going I think.’
Maddie said that in hindsight, ‘there was no “me” time’. ‘I was always doing something for someone else and not for myself. I guess that when it did happen I should have anticipated it because that was the sort of work I was involved in, but I didn’t. It was the “that can’t happen to me” sort of thing.’
Maddie’s breakdown occurred in 2003 and she took the next 12 months to ‘rest, regroup and recuperate’. Supported by a psychologist, her GP, her Comcare case manager, workmates, a sister and children, Maddie worked hard to apply the strategies she’d been given to improve her mental health.
Advised by her doctor to ‘find something different to do’, Maddie decided to go back to Comcare and work in the jurisdictional policy area to work on amendments to the legislation.
But the morning she was to start, Maddie said, ‘I was ill—physically sick and panicky getting into work.’
While ‘everyone was very nice, very supportive’, Maddie realised she just couldn’t do this new job. ‘I just collapsed in a heap again and was scared and couldn’t do it’. Maddie felt it was ‘very important’ to go back to her old job that she knew she’d been good at. ‘I wanted to go back to my job. That was my aim and what everyone was working to.’
Six months later she did a graduated return to work in her old area.
‘I wasn’t doing full caseloads or anything like that, I was just doing reconsiderations and helping out some new starters in the unit. I had a new manager—who I knew—and I just progressed from there. I increased my hours a little bit each week—by half an hour, then an hour, and by the end of the year I was well and truly back to full-time work and full-time duties, after having done a lot of work with the psychologist. In just under a year I was back to doing case work in the tribunal again.’
Maddie said while she felt nervous returning to her old work area, her colleagues were very welcoming and supportive. ‘Even though I worried about letting people down, my work colleagues and my manager never ever made me feel like that. It wasn’t as frightening as a lot of people find it and I think that had a lot to do with the supportive work environment.’
But in 2007 Maddie suffered a second collapse. Comcare organised for her to see an occupational health and safety specialist, who described her symptoms as ‘battle fatigue’.
‘I realised I had to make the decision about what I was going to do. I knew I still needed to work as I still had a daughter at home, and I wasn’t ready to retire, so I talked through it with my employer and we did a reduction by consent, so I dropped levels. And they found me work in an area where it was completely away from dispute resolution but where I could use some of the skills I obviously had.’
This new job saw Maddie work a four-day week in a far less stressful environment, and she stayed there until she retired in 2010 at age 59.
Now happily settled on a farm outside Bega and with a new partner, Maddie says life ‘is pretty wonderful’. While she still has her ‘bad days’ and would prefer not to have to take any medication, she says life on the farm is ‘like a dream come true’.
Asked what advice she would give others suffering a mental illness, she says quite simply: ‘tell someone’.
‘Whether you think it’s work or home related, let your supervisor know if you’re suffering a mental illness. You know you do have pressures at work, you do have pressures at home, you do have financial pressures, especially if you’re off work and have children to feed and a mortgage to pay, so you do need to let someone like your manager know.’
She said getting a work life balance was ‘extremely important’, and that she hadn’t had that the first time she got ill. ‘Work can become all consuming and you’re focused on that so much you’re not letting your brain or your heart have time to see the green grass or the blue sky or enjoy life. I think that’s when there has to be more to life.’
Maddie said then it’s a matter of ‘taking the advice of your treating practitioners and rehab providers’. And importantly, ‘try and remain positive and believe in yourself, that you are going to get better and there is going to be a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s very important to be happy.’
'Stop and smell the roses'