I am a health and safety officer. I am also a writer and a poet. Way back in 1997, during those heady times before the Millennium not long after New Labour had come to power, I was diagnosed with Bipolar Affective Disorder.
I’ve told a few people: spoken at conferences, workshops, presented my own show with a singer songwriter friend at the Brighton and Edinburgh Festival Fringes, published two books, had coverage in local papers. But I’ve not really spoken with those people who I work with, and there are 190 at our site in East Sussex.
At first I wrote and did not speak. I summarised my story in a health and safety journal. I was surprised with the number of kind emails I received with people sharing their experience.
I was surprised at how many unsolicited positive comments I received and how supportive people were
One of the first times I actually spoke about my experience of mental ill health was at an event as an Ambassador for mental health with the Mind Out for Mental Health campaign.
But although, naturally, I was nervous beforehand, afterwards it felt like a great relief - a confidence boost. And I was surprised at how many unsolicited positive comments I received and how supportive people were. The Fringe events were more scary because, unlike a conference, I had no idea who would turn up, if anyone and very much less certain how I would be received.
At work I remain in silence
In spite of all I’ve said and done, now I’m worried that my professional competence may be called into question, my ability to do the work that I do. I’m worried that I might be thought less of a person. It is a kind of self-stigma, a self imposed fear or limitation. So, at work, I remain in silence.
It is as if I want to pretend that everything is ‘normal’. Well it is, my condition is managed through medication: lithium and olanzapine. But I also try to get out for more exercise on my bike and do creative writing, and Tai Chi, all good positive stuff.
I have decided that I will ‘come out’ to the rest of the organization
I have decided that I will ‘come out’ to the rest of the organization, to share my views and experience of mental ill-health, but I’m just not sure of how or when. I’m still trying to convince myself that I even know why. I think it’s because I want to be accepted for who I am, without any pretence, or reluctance to speak. Surely I owe it to my colleagues, to trust them, to trust their humanity, and for them to trust me?
Here’s a quote from my fringe event:
I am a poet. I watch my moods. Not only to be aware of the extremes, but also to register the subtle changes that may accompany that first slip towards oblivion. I have been close to the edge. I have fallen over.
Breakdown. Nervous breakdown. Fragments. And in those fragments, something of the truth. I didn’t see it coming until the third time around, bearing down on me. I’m more aware now. I watch for tell-tale signs, try to feel the ground ahead of me to predict and prevent that first slip into madness. As if it could happen at any moment.
And so I come to deeper reasons for wanting to speak up, to raise a voice that is bold, confident, self-assured, inspiring even. Because when you think about life, when you really think of it, the very fact that we exist at all, that we are conscious, that we live and breathe in this present moment of time and space in this world is nothing short of utterly amazing!
What is this to be inspired? To be moved by beauty, art, winning performance, ballet, dance, music, painting, sculpture, the human voice, the human body, ecstasy, heights we aspire to.
I hope to write again, to let you know how much closer I have come to realising my decision…
Meanwhile, I’d be interested to hear your stories of ‘coming out’ or 'speaking up' at work.
What do you think about the issues raised in this blog?
You can also download the workplace issue of our Speak Out magazine where we hear from James Saville about opening up about mental health problems at work.