March 31, 2014

I have a reputation for being eccentric at work. My 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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