I sold my sanity for $100,000
A little over a year ago, a former client came to me and asked me to apply to be her new communications director at the nonprofit she was the executive director for. I worked with her team previously as a communications consultant and had a lot of interest in the issue areas the organization worked on, as well as a huge amount of respect for her as a leader.
This opportunity felt like my dream job. But, the job I had at the time made me very happy and I felt very rewarded and compensated for my work. Sure, I was not and have never claimed to be perfect. But, I felt trusted and supported and encouraged to continue growing and learning in the role. My awesome job gave me the confidence I needed to know I could take the next step in my career at a social justice nonprofit and leave consulting behind, at least for now. At this new job, I could build my own team, build an infrastructure for a department that didn’t exist yet, work with the smartest people I had met and get back into social justice which was my passion.
The $30,000 pay increase didn’t hurt either.
It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. And I didn’t. I welcomed this new challenge with open arms and with a positive mindset.
I had just given birth four months earlier. Since I had postpartum depression after the birth of my first son, who was now almost three, I was not concerned about the added stress from this new opportunity and the impact it would have on my mental health. In fact, I knew myself well enough to know that I was in a good place professionally, had a wealth of experience and innovative ideas to bring to the table and could give myself the freedom and permission to stay well mentally and emotionally.
Stress? Is that the feeling that keeps weak people up at night? Not me. Bring it on, world!
When the promises made to me began to unravel, I wasn’t concerned because I knew that one of my main positive personality traits was that I was flexible and resilient. I always land on my feet and I would roll with the punches.
In the late summer when I began feeling overwhelmed by the stress of the job (and the issues we were working on, which include expanded access to abortion care among other heavy topics,) I reached out to my supervisor. I explained I was very overwhelmed and that the pace of the work was not sustainable. I assured her that I could still do the job itself and enjoyed it, but the environment was not what I expected. I asked for a day or two to be added to an upcoming vacation I had already approved so I could try to recharge a little longer. He denied my request.
In this social justice nonprofit, I still felt like I could be myself. I could share with my executive director and my colleagues things about having postpartum and feel confident that it had no negative impact on my job. That they genuinely cared for me and wanted me to do well and excel in my personal life as a mother and as a professional. So, when my supervisor denied my time off request, I went to my ED. She told me that it was a busy time and she supported the denied request. She also assured me that the pace would slow down once I was able to get my team on board.
I missed two days of vacation in Puerto Rico with my husband and children. I traveled to New York for work instead and met up with my family a few days later for two days of beach time.
In December, I started seeing a psychiatrist to help me deal with the anxiety and panic attacks that were becoming unwelcome staples in my daily life due to the tension at work.
I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder without psychotic features and generalized anxiety. I filed this under the “no shit” category and happily took the prescribed Prozac to help me feel better during the day with the Trazodone at night to help me sleep.
I started to feel better and made sure to immediately enroll in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) so that I could get the maximum impact of getting better. Why get better if you’re not going to feel the best you can feel again, right?
But, I didn’t get better. I got much, much worse. I wish now that I had considered all the things a $100K price tag would cost me, rather than only considering all the things I could afford with that kind of income.
My supervisor felt relentless in his attacks against me. It felt like every interaction we had he was bringing up “red flags” or “concerns” about my role in the organization. These “concerns” ranged anywhere from valid feedback about projects and tasks that I could have improved upon to concerns about the shortness of my all staff e-mail alerts letting folks know when I would be away from the office or sick. When the conversations began, I was receptive and nervous about my job. I took these interactions into my therapy sessions and wrote out scripts with my therapist for how I could establish healthy boundaries at work, lessen stress and also improve the quality of my work and my mental health.
I trusted my doctors to take me seriously and to take care of me.
I felt like I was really nailing this whole “getting your shit together” portion of adulthood and that if I just tried harder my supervisor would lay off of me while I got used to the medication and the new coping mechanisms I was learning.
Things continued to decline. Finally, I decided to talk to the executive director who recruited me. I trusted her and discussed with her that my interactions with my supervisor were very hostile and were no longer about my performance and my job, but about me personally. I said outright that I felt a case was being built against me so that I could be fired. She assured me this was not the case and that this was only a hiccup.
In fact, she said, “perhaps the issue is that you don’t take feedback well.” She gave me a great speech about the importance of being resilient and told me about a time when she had first started at the same organization and wanted to leave too. She explained that she was so glad she “stuck it out” and assured me that I would be too.
When the “concerns” didn’t stop and my defenses of them just resulted in more hostility from my supervisor, I filed a complaint with our human resources director. I sent her e-mails and meeting notes as well as evidence of my positive contributions to the organization. The fact that we had a team of one when I started over a year ago and now were a solid team of four communications professionals was a testament to the things I had set in place for the organization and the return on their investment to bring me on board.
The e-mails kept coming. And work kept happening. And Donald Trump became our president and the political climate in D.C. shifted. Everything was urgent and every new response to the administration’s attacks on people of color and women was a priority. Except when it came to stopping the attacks against me.
I didn’t understand why every e-mail from my supervisor made me so upset. I was trying to get better and “take feedback better.” But nothing helped. The e-mails kept coming and I felt less and less able to brush them off or learn from them. Somehow, I was not at all less busy despite the negative “feedback” and was more overwhelmed than ever.
I began to regularly have several panic attacks a day at work and at home. I couldn’t eat and what I did consume came directly back up. I went to my doctor and he ran a battery of tests that showed how top notch my physical health was. I saw my psychiatrist and explained what was happening to me. He assured me that if I just shifted my Prozac dosage from 20mg a day to 15mg (by cutting a tablet in half with a butter knife) that I would see improvement and my stomach would calm down. I made the switch.
Five days later, I was completely incapacitated. I could not stop crying, I had stopped eating entirely and I could not get out of bed. My body ached and the sunlight hurt my head and my eyes. The sound of my children’s voices grated on my last nerve and became an incessant reminder that I was sick, in every way one could be sick, and that I was not strong enough to participate in my life anymore.
I did not want to die. But, I sure as shit did not want to keep living this way.
When I showed up for my therapy appointment, I was an absolute mess and was a hostage in a spiral of anxiety and depression. My therapist helped me calm down enough to send me to a psychiatric urgent care clinic down the road so I could get an immediate assessment. I kept crying and saying “I can’t do this,” “I don’t understand,” “Why is this happening to me?” and “I just need a break.” I repeated these phrases for what felt like forever. My therapist wrote down on a white board everything I kept saying and then talked to me about the depressive neurosis episode she thought I was in the midst of.
After a few hours of being in triage at the psychiatric clinic, the psychiatrist on call explained that yes, Prozac is a wonderful drug…as long as you don’t have Bipolar II Disorder. Because if you have Bipolar II Disorder, Prozac is contraindicated and could make symptoms worse.
Bipolar II Disorder is characterized by mild “highs” without psychosis during hypomanic episodes and “serious recurring depressions, confusing periods of irritability, impulsiveness and agitation.” I immediately stopped taking the Prozac and started on Propanalol and Lamictal.
I also made an appointment with a new psychiatrist.
When I decided that I could not continue to handle my toxic supervisor along with this new diagnosis, it was too late. I filed for short term (unpaid) disability so that I could enroll in a partial hospitalization program that was outpatient for 10 days. I spent my 33rd birthday filling out disability forms and writing out a new family budget so that we could make the shift from two incomes to one. I felt in control, relieved and prepared.
The next day, my supervisor called and fired me on the spot. He offered to have me resign due to my “performance over the past year.” I said “no thank you.” Two hours later, they paid hundreds of dollars to have all the locks changed.
In one year, I had gone from a person who had her entire life together, was by all accounts kicking ass and taking names and receiving great performance reviews to someone who was viewed as an untrustworthy potential threat.
It’s very hard to have a mental illness. It is much harder to be in the midst of a mental health crisis and for the stigma associated with it to be so much stronger than common sense.
Maybe if I had left the poor work environment sooner, I would have been more able to handle my mental health. Maybe if I had been more open or even less open with my bosses, they would have understood just what I meant when I said I needed a break and that I was overwhelmed. Maybe if when I Googled “am I having a nervous breakdown?” the results should have just said “yep,” and I would have spoken up sooner to my bosses. To my husband. To my kids.
There are countless articles on how working for social justice organizations has become a toxic (trigger warning: suicidal ideation), thankless job for many people, especially women. But, many are centered around low pay and high demand.
I am proof that for the low, low price of $100,000, you too can sell your mental health to a cause that you’d place above your own well being. And you will feel used, defeated, ashamed and less than when it’s all over. And you might be unemployed.
What is going to have to happen for those who work in social justice to realize that the mental health of their employees is worth an investment in time and compassion as well as an investment in the long term success of the movement? That’s a big question and one that I can’t begin to designate brain power to answering until I am sure my brain is as healthy as the rest of me.
For now, I’m looking forward to seeing what this new medication and new treatment means for my life and for my family’s lives. I’m also looking forward to whatever next step my career takes. I know that no matter what has happened or will happen, there are many things I am good at; being bullied and taking shit for shit’s sake are not some of them.
I’m good at fighting for what is right though. And it’s going to be a long fight ahead for the life I deserve to live.
I’ll be ready.