Getting naked - the challenges of disclosing bipolar disorder at work

I have a reputation for being eccentric at work. alexMy desk is messy and I’m known for singing the same three songs in sudden unbridled outbursts. And yet I’ve managed to hold down the same job for over eight years, rarely letting a ball drop. For five years I masqueraded as unconventional but sane. If I ever needed to take time off to repair my mental health, I would blame flu, food-poisoning, migraines – anything but that. Anything but have colleagues look at me in pity, judgment or doubt. My absences were not received well, but I preferred the occasional verbal knuckle rapping to the stigma of mental illness.

Even when a happy future seemed like a possibility, I had to come to terms with what had happened

That all changed in 2011. I was on maternity leave and spent five weeks in a mother and baby unit, with severe postnatal depression. I had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder back in 2002 but this was my first hospitalization. I had no choice. The pain was too great and I needed the support and space that only hospital would offer.
 
There are no words to describe the length of each depressed moment, how each second throbbed with unbearable agony. How the hospital felt like a waiting room, where we all waited for the drugs to work, for the pain to go. And finally it did. But even when the pain left - even when a happy future finally seemed like a possibility - even then, I was left with the task of coming to terms with what had happened, and I needed to be on high dose medication for a few more months. I felt like a fly trying to wade through honey. Anyone who’s ever taken anti-psychotic medication will know what I’m talking about. Anyone who’s ever recovered from a suicidal depression will understand how it feels to face life not in pain, but flat: frozen and disoriented.
 

I had to say the words "I'm bipolar" to my boss

There is so much more to recovery than waiting for the drugs to kick in. And when the time came for me to return to work, I had no choice but to tell my line manager not only about my most recent episode, but also about my diagnosis. I hated having to do it, but my condition was so serious and my nascent recovery so fragile that I needed the legal protection afforded by disclosure. What’s more, I was not well enough to go back to work full-time, and I needed my employer to understand that.
 
When the time came to meet with my boss, I felt both frightened and ashamed. I didn’t want her to look at my ‘like that’. I didn’t want to see anything in her eyes beyond a reflection of how I wanted to be seen, which was as a committed and hardworking employee. I didn’t wait for the right moment. I just told her. I told her about my recent hospitalization for depression, and I told her about my diagnosis. I had to say the words “I’m bipolar.” I hated the way they felt in my mouth. I hated the space they took up in the air, as though the words were taunting me. But most of all, I hated becoming that employee, with that problem. But I was that employee, and I did have that problem, and there was nowhere left to hide.
 

Naked is how I felt

Naked, is how I felt. No longer harmlessly eccentric. I was certifiable, and certified. Flashing lights lit up a sign on my forehead that said, BIPOLAR EMPLOYEE.
 
“Please don’t tell anyone else”, I begged.
 
My boss reacted very sensitively, but I didn’t feel any relief. Nobody wants to be the employee for whom allowances have to be made, for whom adaptations and special measures have to be brought into place. And yet my head was still clouded by antipsychotic drugs; my reactions were blunted, my eyes were dull and my memory was impaired. I also knew that there may be some aftershocks following my depressive episode – absences from work for which I would need a good alibi.
 
And I was right. Less than a year after my return to work, I had a mixed episode, and I had to take several weeks of sick leave. I think at this point that not only my boss but also the rest of my colleagues must have known why. When I came back to work, I didn’t lie – I didn’t have to, no one asked. I chose silence and suspicion over the outright stigma of mental illness.
 

My boss reacted to me as a human being, but stigma is still there in the outside world

Two years on from my disclosure, I reluctantly recognize that telling my boss was the right move. Her sensitivity and the fact that she reacted to me as a human being rather than a label, means that I feel secure and understood in my working environment. But the stigma is still there in the outside world, and from time to time it seeps in within my office walls. I would advise anyone in my position to disclose their diagnosis to their boss, but I have continued to keep my diagnosis a secret from colleagues and others in the organizational hierarchy. Hiding means that I’m often criticized for my absences or that my commitment is questioned when depressive symptoms prevent me from mustering adequate enthusiasm. And I hate it. I hate everything about it. Deep down, I feel like I owe it to others with mental health problems to disclose across the board at work, to do my part to end stigma for those who come after me.
 
But for now, I choose silence over having my colleagues look at me, and see me naked.
 
Nakedly bipolar.
 

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Comments

Stigma

I know how you feel and reading this felt very close to heart... generally experience of stigma. unarguably stigma is there - people fear the unknown..it creates the 'us and them' culture because of that unknown...because of that lack of understanding and knowledge and because of us too... Our own difficulty to to talk about our experience. Sometimes there is that barrier that stop us talking about our experience because of that fear of feelings of nakedness. Because it feels unfomcomfortable and scary. And it will be... But if we try, we might come across the sensitivity you have had come across. Sometimes it takes courage, talking about our mental health, showing what we perceive to be our vulnerability. But as we have physical health, we have also mental health. Understanding that this part of being human, hopefully can break that notion of stigma. Educating all of us and talking about mental health...time to change is bringing both together. Slowly breaking the silence and stigma with simple hello and how is it going...

Thankyou

Thankyou for your very raw and realistic honesty. I too choose to hide my Bipolar disorder from most people, particularly colleagues. I have been open in the past and lost friends (and jobs!) but have also gained understanding and support from others. I have lost count of how many colds and stomach upsets I have had to fake when calling in sick to work or cancelling social engagements and it just adds salt to the wound. I recognise so many of your experiences and feelings and wanted to say Thankyou for writing and sharing this. Gemma x

Coping

I was diagnosed with Schizophrenia a little over 40 years ago, that diagnosis was eventually modified and at various times it has been anxiety, social phobla and clinical depression. Recently a psychiatrist decided that I was bi-polar all along. I don't know what the truth is or if it even matters. I know that I found it difficult to interact with others although I believe I was quite good at hiding that. I started to deliver art workshops to people with mental health difficulties in the '90s and I know that some people thought that was a coping mechanism, perhaps it was, but I know that I was always more comfortable in the company of people with mental health difficuties. We had a lot in common and that helped. Since I became unable to work, I find my own blog ( oldthoms-curios.co.uk) helps quite a lot, I'm not sure that anyone actually reads it! but its the writing of it that has become important. Anyway this is quite a dry comment, I'm usually much more amusing, honest!

I hope it gets better

I really enjoyed reading your article - very close to my heart. I have a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, and I always disclose at work - not because I want everyone to know, but because I need the support of my boss and my colleagues to make sure I can copy with working full time. Stigma, of course, always creeps in, but I promise it does get easier to challenge it as time goes by...and you would be surprised how many people in your workplace might be experiencing the same fears and worries. I wish you all the luck in the world :)

Openly Bipolar in everything I do

Hello, my name is Gemma and I think the level of braveness you have shown is marvellous. I to have Bipolar Disorder, diagnosed in 2006 in a shocking escapade & have had 2 severe episodes leading me to rehab during that time. I have been lucky in a way that I had not long started my current job when the 1st episode hit and I was diagnosed. The company I work for were, and have been amazing since that point. Obviously HR needed to know and my management team, but since i went back to work the 1st time (after dealing with many demons) I decided that this is not my fault, I've never done anything inadvertently to trigger these episodes, sadly they were built it. Therefore after coming to this decision decided that I would not hide it from anyone, the illness, the circumstances of the diagnosis, the way all of the above makes me feel etc. I would say that the majority of people I work with 90+ know that I have bipolar disorder (and if they don't, I just must have not talked to them in passing) Don't get me wrong, I don't not shout it from the rooftops, but neither will I ever hide it. It's an illness like any other despite the fact you can't always see it, it can't be operated on & you can't get a band aid! I hope that more people find the strength to openly discuss this & all other mental illnesses - this is the only way to increase understanding and minimise stigma!

I think you're very brave

I have never told any employers about my diagnosis (major depressive disorder, recurring type) even when I had to be hospitalised for being suicidal. That one time, my friend rang my boss for me to say I was in the hospital and could not be reached, but my boss never asked about it when I came back to work and I was so relieved at not being questioned that I simply kept quiet. But sometimes I think it would have been better if I had said something, because I wouldn't have had to overfunction just to get through every day.

'Coming out'

I am newly diagnosed with Bipolar and searching the internet and reading through other peoples experiences etc it's like everything i read i go 'THATS ME!'! Close colleagues have told me for years that they thought i had this condition but i just always put my erratic moods and crying for no reason at my desk over silly things down to being a moody person. I had a few bouts of depression over the years and many counseling sessions and medication but never actually diagnosed - it was always over something traumatic that had happened in my life so was blamed on that and time would be a healer. I speak very openly at work about my weekly therapy sessions and what medication i take and i say it as at least now we realise what has been the matter with me all this time. If you have a poorly leg you get it put in plaster same as poorly arm etc. People with Bipolar have poorly heads and need help to make them better - or manage as best as can. I don't feel any embarrassment over it - in fact i prefer it as i'm not just the moody girl that rings in sick for no reason and gets away with it anymore. There is a real medical reason and when im going through hard times i need a bit time and when i come back everyone is pleased to have me back and very understanding. We are not alone and we shouldn't be nervous or fear admitting a medical illness that we have. (today i am on a strong happy day - maybe next week i wouldn't be as strong minded as this but i'm pleased i have my high days!!). Love to us all xxxx

Depression/ bi polar

I don't think I sufer from bi polar (cause I can't remember the last time I felt "up". ) I think I am manic depressive. I have no "up" times. I just want people to know that it is real and you have to learn to live with it. Is it easy? it is the HARDEST THING IN THE WHOLE WORLD! Have I learned to live with it ? No and I don't think I ever will. It is like alcohol. It is like every day I fight to not let it win. No matter what I do... nor how "great" my day is I know in the back of my mind the "feeling" is there and it will be back tomorrow. Can I fix it? No. even surrounding myself with positive thoughts it make no difference. And I have a lot of things to be grateful for but you don't understand. It is killing my heart and mind and therefore my body ....because I can't stop the feeling of "gloom and doom" . I can't. No matter how great my day was there is always tomorrow. And I will feel the same way. I fight it. But it does no good. I should be like "normal" but I am not. The "DEPRESSION" stays with me even when I am happy and I don't know how to deal with it. I have many things that should make me happy and do make me happy but I AM NOT HAPPY. Mostly cause I can't rid my brain of memories.

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