Sunday; Coming Out in the Workplace

The continuing saga of being employed while having bipolar disorder.

I have been working for two days per week for the last 4 months or so now as something of a glorified secretary slash hostess slash personal assistant aiding in  selling real estate. In that time I have been told constantly that the position is really below my abilities (particularly by my boss) but I have avoided glomming on to any additional responsibility because the low stress level I have at my current job has been key in keeping me at least half-sane.

I’ve been living as openly as possible in regard to having bipolar disorder since October now and I meant to talk with my boss about it right away, but things keep popping up. Little things that would divert my intentional conversation, like customers or having a particularly bad day. Somehow I’ve been working 4 months without talking about it, and it was filed in the back of my mind’s “do this eventually” folder. I knew it would come up eventually, but I had actively stopped trying to have that conversation.

In the meantime, I’ve talked with a lot of other people about this.

At what point do you make something, like having bipolar disorder, known to your employer?

Do you ever? Is it safe?

Do you wait until you have a problem or need accommodations? Or do you start by laying it out the first day?

Should you wait for your co-workers or boss to get to know you a little first?

The general consensus of bipolarites in my life have expressed that they are in firm belief that:

Loose lips sink ships.

But how much of that is just fear, really?

I admit I am young, and I have seen my fair share of discrimination in the workplace, but maybe it is because I am young that it has been like water rolling off my back.

You see, I really believe that if I am meant to be somewhere, hiding my needs makes me feel more weak than strong.

I have stopped feeling like there is only one job or one setting that is more than willing to take what I have to offer them, so if I don’t fit in a job because my peers don’t get along with me or they don’t like me, I’m not meant to be there. Just the same, if they are going to persecute me for having bipolar disorder, then I’m not meant to be there either.

When I look back on jobs that I lost, I genuinely feel that if I had asked for more help, or been more open with people about what was going on, things might have turned out better. If co-workers don’t know that discrimination is happening, they can’t always see it, which means they can’t say anything about it either.

Anyway, I refuse to work somewhere where I am treated like shit.

And if that means self employment, fine. I am willing to go that far.

Heck, I’m self employed now.

Anyway, my boss now is a really remarkable woman who I find to be a rockin’ female role model. I’ve haven’t met too many strong, female career types, so I think this made me think twice, in a way, before opening up about having bipolar disorder.

What finally pushed me over the edge was being offered a 3rd day per week to work.

I’m an ambitious person by nature (though I’m working hard on getting my ambitions and realistic abilities lined up with each other) so my immediate thought was that I could take on a third day no problem.

But, enter the anxiety. Enter the fear. Enter the looming word that my therapist said to me over the phone last Wednesday, that word nobody with mental illness ever wants to hear;

hospital

I don’t think things have been overwhelmingly bad lately, just severe enough to cause some concern with my medical team I guess. Mania, or rather being conscious of mania is new territory for me to some degree, and the current hypothesis is that I am not fully aware with just how bad things were getting in that realm the week before last. I am the first to admit that, sure, I could be a little blind to the severity of potential mania, but when I had that “h” bomb dropped on me (hospital, not hydrogen) I had to take a step back from everything.

Are things as ok as I thought? Is more stress really what I need right now -adding a third day of work to my week?

Actually, I said to my boss on Saturday, can I have 24 hours to think about it?

Like a Guy Ritchie movie, those 24 hours passed in a flurried montage of mere seconds, and I was standing in front of her desk again, yesterday.

I might as well just tell the whole story then, I thought. It is probably time.

I asked her to consider all of the things she thinks about me, my intelligence, my common sense, and my accomplishments (because this woman seriously thinks I am really cool… through no fault of my own), and then I told her I have bipolar disorder. That one thing doesn’t make any of those other things untrue, does it?

No.

In my experience, the manner in which the subject of bipolar disorder is broached with someone for the first time will have a significant effect on how the aftermath of the conversation pans out.

A guilty, shameful admittance of mental illness is likely to be met with the recipient feeling as ashamed of the idea of mental illness as you’re acting.

Likewise, confidence is usually met with confidence.

When most people hear something serious, they gauge the level of seriousness based on how the storyteller is acting. Mirroring those actions and emotions are an easy way to know how to respond to something these folks may not otherwise know how to respond to.

She knew I was dealing with a serious medical problem, as I’ve talked in limited amounts about things like doctor’s appointments and medications very generally, and the fact that I have been working only two days per week was a pretty good tip off too. She’s not stupid, that’s for sure.

Overall the conversation went well, despite the fact that I got a little turned around in the end.

My intention was to tell her these were the reasons I couldn’t work a third day a week, but instead I felt so confident and comfortable by the end of our talk I told her I would take on that third day. I did, however, tell her that I am being very conscious about stress, so if things get too overwhelming I wont hesitate to let her know.

I did, after all, meet the stipulations I initially set for myself in regard to taking on more responsibility in the workplace. I made it past February before taking anything more on, and I am hoping the sort of low-stress environment I work in will be conducive to keeping a level head.

I am meeting with my therapist again today, and hopefully I can help put some of that fire out from last week. She isn’t quite desensitized to a lot of my ranting and raving yet, I may just need to be a touch more gentle with her.

And work? We’ll see. I’ve set a ping pong ball in motion in a room full of mouse traps, so I’ll be curious to see how things play out this time around. My part in the menagerie, however, is pretty much over. What my boss decides to do with the information I’ve given her will ultimately decide my fate.

At this point, I feel I’ve really got nothing left to fear.

Whatever happens is out of my hands, so I will continue to show up, do my job, fix the printer when it breaks, and make people laugh.

Really, there isn’t much more they’re asking of me.

10 responses to “Sunday; Coming Out in the Workplace

  1. This is fantastic. Thanks for sharing – this is something I’m struggling with at the moment – I’m worrying about taking on more responsiblity and hours while changing jobs and it’s so reassuring to have someone voice the same concerns.

    Good luck with your extra day! I hope it works out for you, but if it doesn’t I equally hope that your employer has the sense to let you stick to two days per week.

    • Sarah @ bi[polar] curious

      Yeah after *not* worrying about taking on more responsibility for several years and continuing to crash and burn at numerous jobs, I’m glad I’m finally catching on and willing to worry about it. I think people with bipolar disorder can absolutely be successful in the workplace, but it really depends a lot upon the conditions/environment.

      Glad to hear you’re contemplating your future in such a way, but I definitely hope you’re aren’t worrying yourself into a hole! I know that for me, I can have trouble finding just the right amount of “healthy” worrying.

      And thanks! I hope so too. I get nervous committing to something I’m not absolutely sure I can take on at this point, but my boyfriend suggested I wouldn’t know until I actually tried, which is absolutely right.

      • Exactly! Well I’ve had opportunity fall into my lap, and the way I see it is (as you said) I appear confident so people have confidence in me.

        I think sometimes when you have a mood or thought disorder (I actually have some form of schizophrenia with manic episodes) you distrust yourself so much to a point you don’t even try (my job is well below my skill level too!)

        Since my employers have that confidence in me, and yours clearly does in you they obviously think (with good reason) we can cope with the extra responsibility.

        Anyway, good luck with everything!

  2. Wow Sarah, you are so brave! I admire you for taking the chance and I will be hoping the best for you. Thanks for paving the way for us. I’ve never tried outing myself in the workplace I guess because it’s gone so poorly with friends and family. But I think your right that if you don’t come from a place of shame you have a better chance at a good reaction. Be sure to take care of yourself on your new 3 days a week. Call if you need support. -David

    • Sarah @ bi[polar] curious

      Thanks David! I am definitely doing my darndest to take care of myself, hopefully things will work out!

  3. Congratulations!!!!! Must be a huge weight off your shoulders!!!!!

  4. Sarah that was a really impressive post. I was struck by how mature & wise a head you have & I don’t say that lightly.

    The job I’m in now is the first one where I’ve been open with my managers about my bipolar. It didn’t come up until I was going in to a depression phase. They were very supportive & although things still might not work out here its not through fault of my managers.

    I’m happy you were able to speak to your boss & she responded well. The part were you described how you approach telling people about a mental illness was spot on. I find too that people mirror how we speak about things.

    Well done

    Ha, sorry I’ve just reread my post & I hope it doesn’t come off as condescending, as I don’t mean to.

    • Sarah @ bi[polar] curious

      No worries, thanks for the compliment!

      It is great to hear there are other people out there that are taking the risk of being open with their managers. It isn’t something that is particularly widespread, but I really want others to know that is is possible to do without sudden armageddon.

      Anyway, thanks! And thanks for reading!

  5. I’ve meant to read and respond to this for days and days because it’s such an important topic. I’m planning to get to discussing it myself one of these days, but I think you just did such a stellar job that I’ll put it off until I have my own story to tell, since I’m switching jobs soon.

    Kudos to you for taking the bull by the horns and having a really sensible strategy for presenting the issue. I think it’s especially important that you framed it carefully and also took the time to gauge the reaction of the person you were telling, because I believe that’s another critical part of the equation. If you don’t think your boss is going to be receptive or understanding, it may be best just to keep mum – ergo the “loose lips sink ships” consensus.

    But a lot of people just have crappy workplaces, through no fault of their own, and having a job is usually better than not. Those of us who work in more understanding environments are really lucky. I always knew that, but I feel it even more strongly since this diagnosis, doing a little disclosure, and realizing just how much of an impact it could have on my career through others’ stories of woe.

    • Sarah @ bi[polar] curious

      I agree with you about crappy workplaces, I’ve been in a few of those and I concur that they have often had nothing to do with me.

      I think to some degree many Americans understand big corporate companies have been fined lately for unethical business practices, but I don’t think many people realize that there are small businesses that will cut every corner they can, and have no interest in doing the right thing either. It is unfortunate that a lot of people are employed with these businesses simply because they have no where else to work and need to make a living. I absolutely can’t look down on that, it is the fact of our culture unfortunately. At the same time, I have always been poor, so standing up for what I believe in by not working certain places that take advantage of customers or employees makes little difference to my pocketbook.

      I don’t want to sound like I’m on a soap box here, because for the most part the stress associated with finding out some of the companies I worked for were doing some crazy illegal crap was usually enough to send me straight into an episode. Not working for those folks can be painted as a choice in my world, but more often it is just a necessity to avoid the stress that triggers episodes for me.

      I think there are a lot of elements that can help provide success in the workplace for folks with bipolar disorder, a less stressful environment, for example is one. But I definitely agree that being able to be open with your boss is as helpful. And like you mentioned, feeling them out a bit first can’t hurt.

      Thanks!

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