I Keep My Bipolar Disorder Secret at Work
August 23, 2013 11:17 AM   Subscribe

The most frustrating part of my situation is that I can count on one hand the number of people who know about my mental illness. The stigma that surrounds mental health is suffocating, and I don’t feel comfortable talking about it with most of my friends and family, and certainly not my boss or colleagues. Writer opens up about mental illness stigma in the workplace.
posted by rcraniac (35 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
It seems like the most healthy thing she could take away from this is to realize that work is work, and one sometimes can spend way too much energy to please others for no good reason or return. Don't work for people who take health insurance for granted if that's going to weigh on you, and don't have expectations about working environments that are unrealistic. They don't need to know everything about you. Lie about the pills like you would with any other stranger. They pay you, and you do a job, the obligation ends there.

I found it sad that she apparently forces herself to drink wine she does not want just to fit in. In this very particular case, I think the problem lies possibly lies with her choice of profession or colleagues. There are a million and one excuses she can use, but apparently none of them is sufficient -- which speaks volumes about the work environment she's involved with. Maybe address the alcohol requirement(!) first, and then move onto mental diagnoses, if she wishes.

I understand that that she feels repressed, but it's work -- there are a lot of people who are ex-alcoholics, diabetics (yes, this isn't as judgement free as she makes it out to be) or on their 4th marriage with a kid from each who don't share that information readily at work either -- because they can't rely on everyone at work to be intelligent enough to process that independent of the job they're hired to do.

On the other hand, unless she thinks they are going to disown her in some fashion (and sometimes this is a good thing, esp. when you're on your own supporting yourself), she really needs to tell her family and friends.
posted by smidgen at 12:00 PM on August 23, 2013 [6 favorites]

Ummm, as someone who just this week had to fumble for a stupid exceuse when trying to step out of a meeting to go downstairs to get my meds from my wife after I'd forgotten them at home, I kind of identify.

The article is a little thin, because dealing with mental health is fucked up in pretty much every social situation, not just work (like the friend of two decades who told me he was "disappointed" when I told him I was taking meds), but what is said in the article is all good.
posted by Ickster at 12:12 PM on August 23, 2013 [6 favorites]

there are a lot of people who are ex-alcoholics, diabetics (yes, this isn't as judgement free as she makes it out to be)

I don't think she's trying to claim that no one is judgemental about those things. However, they're a lot less stigmatized than mental illness. I've worked with at least a dozen people who mentioned diabetes as a reason to choose somewhere else for lunch, or pass up dessert, or whatnot. I've worked with three or four people who mentioned former alcohol problems in relation to avoidance of work happy hours.

Co-workers often seem to think of me as trustworthy, so I may have had more of those experiences than you have, but I've never had anyone at work mention their mental illness, and I know I'm not the only one around here that deals with it.
posted by Ickster at 12:18 PM on August 23, 2013 [5 favorites]

When I had my major depressive breakdown in 2009, I almost lost my job. I was not showing up, but trying to log in from home - and then unable to concentrate enough to actually DO anything at all. My brain was just unable to process so many things that I had to do for my job. All I could really do was lie there and look at the ceiling, and sometimes think "I need to go to the bathroom" or "I think I might be hungry".

When I came out of it - mostly due to a "get your butt into the office or be fired for cause" letter - the second thing I did was call the in-company help/support line, and they helped me get help. But apparently the fact I had done this was reported to my manager, who came in a few days later and talked to me about the whole situation - he had no idea why I called the EAP, but that I was missing in action for a while, and that I had called.

I confessed about the depression diagnosis to him, and while he seemed to take it well, at the same time there was a decided downgrade in what I was assigned. I had to rearrange a lot of things - for example, find a therapist in New York City who would be willing to take patients in the evenings and who was on my plan (which is harder than you might think, the combination of the two), and a lot of other issues came up as a result. The work issues due to the breakdown also, I'm sure, contributed to my layoff the next year - while they gave us general demographic information in the layoff packet about who got laid off (age, gender, time worked for the company) probably to minimize the chance of discrimination issues, I'm pretty sure that anything else they could use that we couldn't outright prove was an issue would have been a factor. I regret that confession a great deal, but I had no idea how to say otherwise. I also had to say something, to explain why once a week I couldn't stay late because I had to go to my therapist, or the once every couple of months to the psychiatrist who was keeping track of my medications.

I had to be careful about a lot of things - for example, I had a huge amount of rage at my co-workers who kept talking politics and trying to rope me in to find my opinions (which were, uh, decidedly at odds with theirs to say the least). I think a lot of what caused the actual breakdown was, in part, the terribly toxic environment at Citigroup.

But there was a huge amount of fear and anger I lived with, before and after my breakdown. I feel much better now. I still have moments where I fall down and need to get up, but they're not as bad as they were when I was there.

But the business world doesn't care about your problems, unless you can use them to make more money. (Borderline personality disorder, sociopathy, stimulant addictions...)
posted by mephron at 12:34 PM on August 23, 2013 [5 favorites]

"I want to be the person that uses my real name and admits what I’m going through to put a face to the stigma of mental illness in the workplace ..."

The thing is, most of your coworkers don't really care as long as you're doing your job.
Just like most of them don't care if you are diabetic, an alcoholic, have hepatitis, or are in therapy to deal with your coulrophobia.

Honestly, if you don't socialize on a regular basis with your co-workers outside of work, then they aren't the people you need to share your medical or personal struggles with.
posted by madajb at 12:40 PM on August 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

I don't think she hides it as well as she thinks she does. You can point out the coworkers in my office who have emotional issues, it's pretty easy. They are hyped up emotionally or all over the place. As long as they can manage their illness, and get their work done then it's not a big deal. In fact, we regularly tell one guy (in the gentlest voice possible) "you're getting kind of worked up, try calming down for a while" and he's like "oh right! thanks!" It's kind of funny. The other people you just avoid because they can't handle any kind of confrontation or non-validation of their feelings; they will flip out and / or bully you. Stay away from those ones.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:41 PM on August 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh, hey, relevant to my interests.

It's interesting- as someone who is both gay and mentally ill, to hear the "it's nobody's business, your co-workers don't care". It *feels* similar to me, though I'm still mulling over the comparison and don't know how well it works.
Everyone at work knows I'm gay- or should, anyway. I have made a conscious decision to be out at work, always, because I was forcibly outed once and that was enough, thanks. And because if there's going to be a problem, I want to know before I've made an emotional investment in someone.

And you could argue that it's none of their business, but... there's a difference between not mentioning something because it's not relevant and *hiding something*. I don't like feeling like I'm hiding something. It makes me twitchy and paranoid. So I drop a few casual references to ex-girlfriends, count on the office gossips to let everyone know, and then I don't bring it up unless it's relevant to the conversation. And then I'm not hiding.

Mental illness is different, of course-people have spent years making others understand the difference. being gay doesn't have a negative influence on my life outside of homophobia and a smaller dating pool. I wouldn't stop being gay if given the choice, whereas I would give up a limb (any one but the right hand) to not get pulled back into the friggin' swamp of sadness again. And being gay doesn't negatively affect my work, and depression sometimes does. It's different. I don't actually want the office gossips spreading it around. But right now, when I feel like that damn horse sinking into the swamp I don't feel like it's irrelevant, I feel like I'm hiding, and I don't like hiding.

Like I said, no real conclusions. *shrug*
posted by insufficient data at 1:16 PM on August 23, 2013 [6 favorites]

I was hired at my current job by people who already knew that I have Bipolar Disorder. So I'm very lucky in that respect. I was also lucky that I was out of work when I had the episode that landed me the hospital. I can't imagine what it would have been like to disappear from work for a week like that without serious judgement. I am currently very open about my condition, but if I worked someplace new I am sure I would have to be more circumspect. I work with children, and I know many people would not be comfortable with a Bipolar person having interactions with their kids. People hear Bipolar and think "crazy" more so than they do with just straight depression.
posted by Biblio at 1:22 PM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

For all the negative things about working for a public agency (having very public fights regarding wages and benefits every four years when our contract expires would be one of them) one thing we do right is accept and accommodate employee's needs.

I have coworkers who have mental health issues, regular health issues and just plain life issues and for the most part, we roll with them--work schedules are rearranged, our health plan covers medications and treatments, physical accommodations are made when necessary.

We were one of the first organizations to have domestic partner benefits and I believe our health plans cover gender-reassignment surgery--I know we have a number of trans folk here (probably more than I am aware of) who have transitioned while working here. Our benefits pay for a full stay at residential addiction treatment centers (in fact, we will pay multiple times).

I don't think this is too much to ask--this is the way it should be for all workers.

I hope that at some point we get universal health care so at least that part of the equation is better.
posted by agatha_magatha at 1:28 PM on August 23, 2013 [5 favorites]

Does the article actually indicate the author is female? Honest question, because the comments both here and on the article seem to indicate that they are, yet I managed to read through it all imagining them to be male (probably just because I am and felt I could identify to some degree with it).

If it doesn't, I do think that says something consistent with what I've observed about how people view mental illness (i.e. as a form of weakness), and that the author is generally right about why to keep it a secret.
posted by pace at 1:31 PM on August 23, 2013 [6 favorites]

The article doesn't seem to indicate the individual is female, and neither does the pen name they use.
posted by rcraniac at 1:39 PM on August 23, 2013

I'm struck by the fact that the commenters so far have referred to the author as "she" when there is no indication that the author is female. In fact, it seems that they went out of their way to keep gender out of it altogether. The byline says, simply, "CJ Laymon is the pen name of a writer based in Los Angeles." It's intriguing that people will assume a wholly anonymous writer writing about mental illness must be a woman.

Managing symptoms to the degree required for employment is absolutely the hardest thing about this life; it is also the most worthwhile. Work is the only place I feel like a worthwhile human being, like I can contribute and do well, and I am sure beyond a doubt that it would change in an instant if I told my co-workers that anything was officially amiss. There is a vast difference between your co-workers treating you differently because they believe you are touchy, irritable, or sad, and your co-workers knowing that you have a confirmed diagnosis related to those issues. As the article states, "...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." You can tell others if the difficulties you are experiencing are physical; you can explain your limp by telling people that you sprained your ankle. You cannot do the same with bipolar disorder. I don't think I will live to see the day that changes.

It doesn't matter that people with mental illness are much more likely to be the victims of violence than they are to be the instigators: sufferers, particularly those with ailments perceived to be very serious (like bipolar disorder), are still demonized to a degree that makes an admission of diagnosis incredibly risky. This is especially true when it comes to professional development. Many high-level corporate jobs require you disclose whether you have ever been treated for a mental illness, even if it was years and years ago; clearly, they do not do the same for any sort of physical disease. It is beyond crippling to know for a fact that you will be trusted less, seen as less capable and even less intelligent, if you choose to disclose.

And please don't think that we believe we are hiding it successfully -- it's really the opposite, and it's scary to the point of distraction. I live in teeth-chattering fear that I will be "found out," that I will blanch or twitch too visibly when a co-worker refers to someone as "schizo" or "bipolar" simply because they seem disagreeable or short-tempered, that someone will hear me crying at my desk and I will not be able to blame it on allergies or dust. It is the largest fear in my life. Having a job is the only way I can reliably tether myself to the waking world.

Along the same lines, are a couple of great NYT articles about remaining gainfully employed while suffering from severe mental illness: A High-Profile Executive Job as Defense Against Mental Ills, Successful and Schizophrenic.
posted by divined by radio at 1:41 PM on August 23, 2013 [11 favorites]

The article doesn't seem to indicate the individual is female, and neither does the pen name they use.

This is what reads as "female" to me.

I am 26, do my preventative screenings like clockwork, and have no physical health problems.

What exactly to 26 year old males get screened for on a regular basis these days?
posted by sparklemotion at 1:59 PM on August 23, 2013

On the other hand, what do 26-year-old females get screened for on a regular basis? And I say this as someone who once was one.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:34 PM on August 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Could be wrong, but I just took "preventative screenings" to mean that they have regular and thorough physical exams/check ups. I also thought young men were screened for testicular cancer as young women are screened for breast and cervical cancer.
posted by divined by radio at 2:39 PM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

what do 26-year-old females get screened for on a regular basis?

HPV and other cervical baddies

Boob cancer

Lumpy ovaries
posted by sparklemotion at 2:44 PM on August 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

"bipolar" simply because they seem disagreeable or short-tempered

Many people use the word bipolar to colloquially refer to someone whose emotions are all over the map over the course of a day, up and down. Real bipolar at its worst typically leads to emotions that are disturbingly stable: months of nothing but bleak depressive down, weeks of nothing but terrifying, accelerating, speed-demon up.

(caveat: there are some rarer forms of bipolar that produce more frequent mood changes, but even "rapid-cycling" means four manic/hypomanic episodes per year)
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:54 PM on August 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Wow, you're right -- I'm sort of ashamed to admit this, but I think it was a combination of "bipolar" and the mentioning of the female co-worker priming me and then the preventative screenings bit locking it in.

I think it's because all of the people around me who admit to taking meds (of *any* kind, not just psych) are female -- which is actually a whole other can of worms relating to men, showing of weakness, etc.
posted by smidgen at 3:16 PM on August 23, 2013

It looks like men and women have more or less the same number of annual tests we probably should be having done, so I think that isn't a clue to the writer's gender. Although I suspect women are more likely to actually get the tests done, so maybe it is.
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:32 PM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

There's no recommended universal screenings for men between 20-30, actually, whereas pap smears are quite a hard guidelines for every three years, even if you're a virgin nun with no positive findings ever. Gynecology is truly closer to sorcery than science if anyone was at all curious as to my opinion.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 4:28 PM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

My amazing and wonderful Crim Law prof when I was a 1L was schizophrenic. When I was in her class, she hadn't come out to the faculty yet. I had no idea until she wrote her memoir (Maybe if I'd been super involved in some of the alumni stuff, I would have known, but maybe/probably not). She won a Macarthur (Genius) grant, too.
posted by janey47 at 4:46 PM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

> whereas pap smears are quite a hard guidelines for every three years,

Something that happens every three years really isn't a big deal. If she's 26 and goes every time she's supposed to, that would be what, three times in her life?

I'm stuck on this thought, which I know has nothing to do with the article, because I dislike the idea that women need to go to the doctor all the time because of their fragile and mysterious lady parts.
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:20 PM on August 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

> Gynecology is truly closer to sorcery than science

No, it really isn't.
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:29 PM on August 23, 2013 [9 favorites]

It's definitely generational too; older co-workers (which often means bosses) are just really really uncomfortable with any discussion of mental illness, whereas younger ones have seen depression, at least, become commonly discussed and openly treated, as well as things like ADHD. Which gives me a little hope.
posted by emjaybee at 6:07 PM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's funny, my first reaction on reading it was, "find another job". Then I started thinking about how even though I work in the public service in a country which has universal health care that actually includes some mental health cover, I am guarded at my workplace - and it's a pretty tolerant and broad-minded workplace. I had to make an appointment with my doctor to get my mental health "care plan" reviewed (so I can continue to get my psychologist appointments partially covered by Medicare). When the receptionist asked why I needed the longer appointment, I was cagey. "I'm at work," I said. "Mental health?" she asked instantly. Yep.

That said, my close friends and some of the not-as-close friends know. Most of my family doesn't, but that's because we don't talk much in general. Those I'm close to know. I can't imagine feeling quite as isolated as the author must feel.

I still think that the author would be better off working in another industry, the world being what it is. But I get it, and also the feeling that there may be no industry in which it feels safe to be open or unguarded. We need more understanding and more awareness. It's a long road.
posted by Athanassiel at 6:19 PM on August 23, 2013

Finding another job is not always the easiest thing to do, especially when you have insurance to worry about. And what if the new place is as bad as the old? You can't ask about it in an interview. It'd be some time before you cold suss out the attitudes of your co-workers. I think it's a case of the devil you know vs the one you don't.

There are things about my job that really make me crazy (ha!) and I think about leaving, but then I think about how I can tell my boss I won't be in because I'm cycling and need to see my doctor and she says "be well" and I don't have to sweat it. I don't know how many other places would be like that, so I put up with the other stuff.
posted by Biblio at 7:30 PM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I personally feel quite free to discuss my anxiety, but I've never spoken about my depression at work. I'm not sure why I feel like having anxiety is less private than depression, I guess because I've heard a lot of know-nothings talk about how depression isn't a thing or whatever, but anxiety is much more recognized.
posted by windykites at 7:54 PM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm kinda confused by the idea that this is something you *should* be talking about at work. Most of the time I'm lucky to even find out if my coworkers have children, much less what personal illnesses they have. This seems like a lot of oversharing.

My general rule is that anyone who is welcome in my house on a regular basis is someone worth the trouble of educating.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:52 PM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

You can point out the coworkers in my office who have emotional issues, it's pretty easy. They are hyped up emotionally or all over the place.

To be fair, this is sort of a biased sample, in that if there are people who have emotional issues but hide them well, you won't know (unless they tell you) because... they'll be hiding it well.
posted by insufficient data at 9:00 PM on August 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

And for those going "find another job"? Go read, really actually read, the first two paragraphs..

The ones where she talks about being rejected for insurance due to her bipolar disorder.
posted by mephron at 9:03 PM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I thought it was no longer legal to reject people for pre-existing conditions. Does that not start until next year?
posted by Anonymous at 9:17 PM on August 23, 2013

Starts in 2014, so the writer needs to go until January.
posted by mephron at 6:12 AM on August 24, 2013

I'd like to invite everyone who says "get another job" to try to deal with the intense destabilization that comes with changing jobs while also dealing with bipolar disorder. There's an entire therapy designed just for us which pretty much boils down to "make no changes if at all possible ever;" it would take an extremely severe situation for me to be willing to risk that kind of change (especially since there's absolutely no way to tell whether the new situation will actually be better than the current one is.) My therapists (EAP and private practice) and doctors are all very much on team "Keep Fee At This Job Please" because at least right now, I'm stable-ish for as many as six months in a row.

Part of me regrets my supervisor knowing about my "issues" (it wasn't voluntary on my part) but I also know that if she hadn't found out, it'd be because I left my job rather than get the help I needed. I'm still not sure exactly how to manage the dynamics that come from it, and to be honest I'm looking forward to life after her retirement almost solely because of this issue. I have an extensive list of changes in my work environment (mostly negative - denied raises, reduction in challenging work assignments, etc.) that exactly coincide with her finding out.

But I have a job, which means I can afford to see therapists and doctors and get medications, and when I do all of those things and also have the job, I can pay rent and car payments and so forth. I'd literally be in my mother's basement, or some kind of supportive housing (group home,) if it weren't for all of that. So I tolerate the unfortunate stuff - like being asked about my medications and symptoms and stuff at almost every encounter I have with my supervisor.

No one else that I work with knows my diagnosis or why I disappear for months at a time periodically; if the HR people who know me personally know about it, they are absolute saints as far as keeping it quiet is concerned. I am about to lose my private office for at least a little while, but I have timed my meds so that I almost never need to take them at work anyway, and I think there's a file closet near my new work station, so that should suffice until I put in an ADA request to be moved someplace less disastrously bad for me.

Oh, and the only people in my support group who have any coworkers they've confided to... work in some kind of mental health care setting.
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! at 4:27 PM on August 24, 2013 [5 favorites]

The best people to confide in are people who are in the same boat, because they understand.

I know it's not good to armchair diagnose, but sometimes you can tell from the way people act, their body language, their gaze, etc, that they've gone through something similar. Or if that doesn't work, there are dating sites and online message boards, and you can word your profile in a certain way... people often don't state their diagnosis outright because of the stigma, but it's pretty common for people to talk about it in code, at least in my experience. There must be tons of people with bipolar II and ADHD in LA, I hope the author is able to find a space where she can be open about who she is and what she's dealing with soon.
posted by subdee at 9:56 PM on August 24, 2013

I have rapid cycling bipolar disorder. I'm a weird case in that, due to being raised in a very unpredictable environment with a parent who was likely undiagnosed bipolar/borderline personality (or whatever the DSM-V is saying it is these days), The defense mechanisms I've adopted is to either to hide what I perceive as vulnerability by either disassociating or exploding. At work I can usually hide my feelings by completely detaching.

Interestingly, to me at least, I've been rather successful at work and enjoy the environment for the low level of emotion that is expressed. People get excited, or bummed and have moments, but no one screams or throws things or acts in a violent way. I definitely don't want to contribute to that.

That's why I can't hide that I have this issue. After 8 years of silence, 2 years ago I came out. I don't want to have people to lack context when I act weird. I really think that the lack of a framework to explain behavior is the most damaging thing. In fact, there are a couple of folks who I'm close enough to that let me know when they think I'm out of wack. Other people have confidentially told me about people they know, or issues they have themselves, like anxiety disorders.

I realize that I am extremely lucky to work in such an environment. No one expects less of me, probably because I had already proven myself before coming out. Despite periodic fits of paranoia, I'm extremely happy that I did.
posted by WASP-12b at 11:16 AM on August 26, 2013

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