I Confessed My Mental Illness To My Coworkers And The World Didn't End

Would they fire me? Would they judge me? Do they think I'm just making excuses? Was this a mistake?

Sep 10, 2013 at 6:00pm | Leave a comment

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I'm sure some people may find me strange for unapologetically calling myself “mentally ill”.
 
“I’m a madwoman,” I say. “And I’m okay with that.” (Even though sometimes I’m really not, and that’s okay too, but I keep telling myself I am in an effort to maintain a grasp on my ever-evasive sanity.)
 
In my experience, those who deny and pretend as though they aren’t living with an illness are just working against their own progress and potential to get better. Though I would certainly never blame those in denial for being unwilling to accept their fate - I have been there, said that, done nothing before. It’s what we’re taught to do, after all. It's what stigma dictates.
 
Every time I succumb to denial and guilt myself into thinking I should be able to treat my mental illness as if by magic, I recall all those times I’ve been shamed in the past:
 
“Just suck it up and snap out of it.”
“You just need some self control.”
“Can’t you just try harder?”
“Your life isn’t even that bad, so many people in this world are worse off than you are.”
“You’re not REALLY sick.”
“Yeah, I’ve had a panic attack once.”
“Why are you making this into such a big deal.”
 
Admitting my illness is a constant struggle that I have to work up to every day, especially when my life is turned up to 11 and everything feels beyond my control even more than usual. 
 
I'm currently in the process of planning and saving up for a wedding that doesn't have a set date; my fiance and I are at the mercy of US immigration accepting his official statement of marriage and declaration of intent to move from Edinburgh to Detroit. We've been apart for months without physical contact - but I suppose after 5 years of long distance, we're as used to the struggle as we can be.
 
In the past few months my grandmother passed. As a result, I've been dealing with a lot of inescapable family drama - and coming to terms with losing someone I loved so dearly.
 
I think it's safe to say that anyone, regardless of mental state, would be experiencing a fair amount of stress in my situation - and I've only given you a glimpse into my world of chaos.
 
Most of the time, I know how to deal. When life is somewhat normal or less turbulent, I can at least replicate some sense of normalcy within myself. However, life is seldom normal - and when shit gets intense, my anxieties multiply until no amount of medication or therapy will help keep me from the brink of a meltdown.
 
A while ago, after spending a day in bed feeling physically ill and debilitated by anxieties triggered by such life-and-death matters, I decided I needed to stop feeling guilty about calling in to work even when I know it is best for my health.
 
When my mental illness manifests itself physically as migraines, muscle pain, stomach issues, and nausea - there's no denying that I am actually ill, yet I pause before admitting it. I think of another way to word it. I take the "anxiety" out of the equation to blame it on a "stomach bug" that doesn't actually exist - so I decided it was time I stop tell half-truths and start telling full-truths. And the prospect scared me at first.
 
There's an article at The Atlantic in which the writer describes why they decided to keep their bipolar disorder secret at work, detailing some of the finer points of this struggle between truth and secrecy:
[While recovering from a hypomanic episode] I was able to keep working without letting anyone know I was sick. I was and continue to be just as reliable as the rest of the employees at my company. I work hard, constantly get stellar reviews, and hardly ever take a day off. I have always shown up earlier and left later than most, and am confident that despite the extra work it requires, I have never once let my mental health affect my job.
 
But I still feel like I can’t tell anyone. At my former company, everyone gossiped in mock horror about a manager who 'had a mental breakdown' and went away for awhile, as though he had a contagious disease no one wanted to catch. And he was a manager. As a millennial in the early stages of my career, I can’t afford to be seen that way.
These sorts of thoughts are always in the forefront of my mind, but for once - I ignored them.
 
In a burst of courageous energy summoned by a life-altering shower (when you spend days on end not taking care to wash yourself because you're convinced you don't deserve comfort or cleanliness, emerging from the shower after such a stint makes one feel like a shiny new person capable of superhuman-like things), I wrote an e-mail in which I essentially confessed my mental illness to the people I work with directly.
 
I explained my anxious-depressive diagnosis that I've been living with it for years, that I'm medicated and in therapy and working very hard not to let my illness get in the way of my work but some days are hard and they just happen and there’s nothing I can do about them except try to work from home or take a break. And could they understand?
 
Because that was all I really wanted - was to be understood.
 
And although I usually edit everything I write about fifty times over before I send it, this time I didn’t. I wrote it, read it once, edited a few words, and hit send - then promptly agonized over it ALL WEEKEND.
 
Would they fire me? Would they judge me? Do they think I'm just making excuses? Was this a mistake? Why did I have such faith that they'd understand, when history tells me that most often - no one will? WHERE THE FUCK IS THE OFF SWITCH ON THIS BRAIN OF MINE?
 
But one by one the following week, after days of irrational thinking and speculation, I began to finally talk with my coworkers and managers. They called me things like “brave” and “talented” and expressed how much they understood and valued me. They accepted and want to help me.
 
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Some explained how they'd been touched by mental illness themselves. They acknowledged the stigma and nodded reassuringly when I told them, “I don’t want to be treated any differently, I just want to open up a dialogue and not be ashamed about it anymore.”
 
They totally fucking get it - and I am so thankful to be working alongside people who are capable of valuing who I truly am and the good work I bring to the table over the personal struggles that plague me. 
 
In fact, weeks after confessing, I ended up getting a raise and a bit of a promotion. My employer's confidence in me never wavered - it only grew.
 
If other companies around the world could treat their mentally ill employees with such respect, perhaps these barriers wouldn't seem so intimidating to overcome. As it is, many see the risk involved and, taking their own situation into careful consideration, would still rather not take a chance. And that is okay.
 
However, my fellow mentally ill babes: I beg you to consider vocalizing your own struggles, in your own time, if you feel the urge and the confidence that you will be properly understood.
 
Please, don't be afraid to let your voice be heard.
 
I truly believe that people want to understand, that they have the capacity to change.
 
We are intelligent, worthwhile, beautiful human beings. We are mad, and we are living with it. We are working with and against it because we don’t have to fight it anymore. We don’t have to be silent anymore.
 
I don't know that I'm brave - I'm more inclined to say I'm blissfully naive, or hopeful that people are not truly as dismal and judgmental as I know they are capable of. I want to believe that this world is moving past the stigmas that condemn us.
 
In my own life, I am seeing proof of that - and it encourages me to speak louder.