Disclosing mental illness is complicated. So much depends on context that the only guides on how to go about disclosure are vague and full of mysterious caveats.
Well, I finally did it. I told my supervisor.
I had been thinking about it for awhile. Last month I hit a particularly bad patch for a week or so. My therapist actually asked if we should think about hospital admission or a leave of absence. He genuinely seemed to be at a loss for what to do with me and I couldn’t reason or decide for myself, so I’ve started working in earnest on a safety plan against future incapacitation.
But what if? I wouldn’t want a call from Mr. Chickadee saying that I’m in the psych ward to be the way that my supervisors found out about my mental illness. It would be better to get up the gumption to let them know sooner rather than later. I don’t want them to think I’m slacking when in reality, I’m unwell and I simply can’t work effectively.
I decided to tell my supervisor – let’s call him Mr. Flycatcher (he picked it, though he doesn’t know it) – just one day before our meeting. It’s the crazy person’s equivalent to coming out, and probably just about as stressful and stigma-laden. I decided I’d tell him the next day, without any real preparation, which would have just made me even more worked up about the whole thing.
The panic started hitting me on the commute Wednesday morning. Worse and worse. Although I felt sure that he would be understanding, I was freaked out. I could hardly work all morning and was grateful to have Ativan on hand before the 1 PM meeting.
We started with the usual pleasantries, he mentioned something about his daughter’s health. That provided a good segue; I said I need to discuss something that’s very hard for me to talk about – and held out my hands to show that they were shaking. He raised an eyebrow, leaned back, and listened.
I’d quickly scratched out a few things to mention, so I started by explaining that although he might not have noticed, my work can be uneven at times, and there’s a reason for it. He said no, he hadn’t noticed, but go ahead. So I launched into my points – starting with my diagnoses, and that I’m in comprehensive treatment and doing fairly well.
I explained that sometimes I’m unable to work at all and other times I’m hyperproductive, with unpredictable rapid cycles as well as seasonal cycles that predictably slow me down. The implications, I explained, include lots of insurance paperwork; 1-4 medical appointments every week; taking a lot of drugs – 5 at the time – and every time they get changed ( about 30 times in the last 2 years) it’s a kick to the brain. I said that I’m working really hard on wellness management, and minimizing stress is critical, but I never really know what to expect.
I started to explain executive dysfunction, and he cut me off – his son has it and really struggles with organization and planning. I was totally taken by surprise, because no one ever knows that. For me, it means that no matter how hard I try, I will always struggle with organization, prioritization, and breaking down tasks into achievable chunks. These were things I’d already told him were hard for me. Now I’ve said why.
Then I awkwardly went into my short list of what he can do to be supportive. Starting with, know that sometimes my performance is not entirely under my control but I’m doing the best I can. Plus things like understanding I may have to leave abruptly, being flexible with expectations, helping me keep the number of projects I’m juggling to a minimum, and assisting with prioritization of projects. That it’s unlikely but possible that my doctor or husband might call in sick for me. Finally, I told him it’s OK to ask me directly if I’m having problems, because asking how I’m doing is not the right question and will get a noncommittal socially acceptable response, no matter how I feel.
I’d exhausted my list of things to say. My face was flushed, hands were still shaking, and stomach was roiling furiously. But Mr. Flycatcher said all of the right things.
He said he completely understands ADD issues due to affected family members. He also said that the President of the Board for our organization is openly ADD and bipolar; apparently he’s had to miss board meetings because he was in hospital at the time. All of the Directors in the organization (which includes Mr. Flycatcher) therefore understand that having mental illnesses doesn’t mean a person can’t be highly intelligent and extremely successful professionally – both prerequisites for board membership.
Having mental illnesses doesn’t mean a person can’t be highly intelligent and extremely successful professionally.
That put me more at ease. Mr. Flycatcher said that he’d never have guessed, although now that I mention it, a lot of details retrospectively make sense (almost everyone says that.) I admitted that I work really hard to make sure people don’t suspect anything, but it’s very difficult and I’m constantly frustrated by ordinary tasks that are a struggle for me.
Then he smiled his kindly smile and said, thanks for telling me, I really appreciate the honesty, and I’ll do my best to be supportive. Only one question – why now? I kind of stumbled over myself, and he said, you feel like you haven’t been keeping up on your work? Yep, that’s it – October and November are hard, so I get behind and have to work even harder to catch up, even though I’m not quite fully functional yet.
And then we moved on to discuss my work progress and what to prioritize for the next week.
In January, I’ll tell my other supervisor when I go out to the Southwest for a workshop. He’s picking me up from the airport and we have around 90 minutes’ drive – plenty of time for discussion. I doubt I’ll be quite as nervous and awkward about it, but still plan on medicating to reduce the inevitable jitters.
After telling Mr. Flycatcher my big ugly secret, I felt so relieved. I hate hiding this from people I care about or work with closely. The experience made me think momentarily about being more open. Maybe putting my real nickname on this blog. Food for thought, but not action – at least not yet – feeling a little too self-conscious, paranoid, and anxious lately.
So I survived Round 1 of disclosure at work, but I know there are many more to come. I hope that as I slowly tell people who matter to me, they will see how much trust and vulnerability it signifies. For a perfectionist like me, it’s excruciating to reveal something so flawed behind the curtains.