A couple of years ago I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD). When the symptoms and potential causes were described to me it made a lot of sense and in hindsight this is something that has followed me since my childhood.
An unwillingness to seek help due to fear and shame meant I wasn’t diagnosed until I had turned 30, had a few failed suicide attempts under my belt and a history of self-harm and eating disorders.
It took me a while to come to terms with my diagnosis and I continued to keep it secret for a pretty long time. I’d had a lifetime of keeping my issues a secret and it hadn’t got me anywhere. But by opening up to medical professionals I was finally getting some support.
So I decided to try to be more open with other people in my life. But it’s hard opening up; it takes guts to tell someone about the thing you hate most about yourself – so their reaction means everything! At its best opening up can leave you feeling empowered, heard and hopeful, but at its worst it causes real damage.
I try not to focus on the bad experiences, but it’s a struggle not to. When I hit a rough patch a while back and needed some support from a previous employer I had an experience that really scarred me.
I was in the midst of a prolonged period of depression and my anxiety levels were sky high. I spoke to my manager about it as I was getting increasingly worried about my low mood and ability to balance my workload. When my anxiety is at its worst I struggle to make even the simplest of decisions, I agonise over every possible option and outcome and it can make being productive at work impossible.
When I told my manager that I was struggling with depression and anxiety their first response was to make a joke about it: “well, we’d better get you carted off to the loony bin then”. At least I think this was an attempt at a joke, if it was it didn’t land!
This crushed me. I felt stupid and ashamed, but perhaps worst of all I felt like I couldn’t rely on my workplace for support when I needed it. There were countless other occasions where my manager made jokes about my mental health, both when it was just the two of us and in front of my colleagues.
When I requested to work from home on days that I didn’t feel well enough to commute and be surrounded by people all day - but I felt able to work – I was told no, I’d have to take sick days instead.
So, I kept working, I kept ignoring my body and mind when it was on the verge of spiralling, until eventually I ended up at rock bottom. I couldn’t leave my bed, let alone my house. I was consumed with impulsive and harmful thoughts about hurting myself or ending my life. I was signed off from work for six weeks, had a few emergency trips to hospital and was put under the care of my community mental health team.
When I came back to work (because I wouldn’t get sick pay if I was off any longer) I was immediately given a formal disciplinary for being off sick, despite having a letter from my GP.
Shortly after returning to work a new manager started. I thought things might get better, but they became worse. My new manager had a similar approach to dealing with people with mental health problems as the last one. They made jokes and mean remarks, and at one point I was taken aside and told “I heard rumours you’re a self-harmer and tried to kill yourself, if that’s true you need to tell me”.
At the time I was a manager myself, and I still am, and I can’t understand how so many managers could have such a poor understanding of mental health and lack even the ability to treat someone with compassion and understanding. I’m hoping I was just unlucky and that others aren’t getting the same treatment when they tell their employer about their mental health problems, but I imagine I’m not alone.
I have since moved roles and now work somewhere that I can be open about my mental health, work flexible hours so I can make my therapy appointments and take some space when I need it. The best thing is feeling able to talk frankly about how I am feeling without the fear of being stigmatised. Being open is still a work in progress but every day it gets a little easier.
Before I left, I recommended that my employer provide some training for managers on how to manage people who have a mental illness, or just how to compassionately support people when they are having a hard time! I also referred them to the resources on the Time to Change website – I’d like to think that they used this but who knows.