My experience of people finding out
I realised today that I’ve spent quite a lot of time talking about how I’ve decided to not talk to anyone about my mental illness. I’ve given some (arguably poor) reasons why, but I haven’t actually provided much in the way of anecdotal support. So tonight I wanted to take a stab at fixing that.
I’ve mentioned before that I’ve had these bad feelings since I was about 16. By 17, I knew enough about mental health to stick a label on it: “depression”. But that was my own diagnosis for it, and even I took that with a pinch of salt. I didn’t ever seek professional help or advice.
It was, however, the golden age of MSN Messenger, and so I did have a few online friends who I spoke to about my mood. I never gave it a name — not even to them. That would come a lot later. The point is that, even in those days, I tried to keep a lid on it. At that point in my life, I only ever spoke to 2 people about it — to varying degrees.
I didn’t really have cause to talk about it until much later. I went to university, and I certainly had those feelings then. But there was also a lot else going on, and I managed to bury the black dog under a lot of other stuff. It only became a big issue a couple of times in the 3 years that I was at university. I didn’t really have the support system around me to deal with it — not beyond the ability to drink ungodly amounts of alcohol for stupidly small amounts of money. This was mostly my own fault, I didn’t even talk to my closest friends about my mental health.
Fast forward again to a job I had last year. This is where things get a little more interesting. I ended up talking to a friend — outside of work — quite a lot about my mental health. I talked a lot. More than I’ve ever talked to anyone about pretty much anything, and certainly more than I’d ever spoken to someone about my mental health. Part of the reason I was ok with opening up to this person, was for the same reason I was comparatively forthcoming over MSN. While I did know this person in real life, we lived in different cities, and at the time we mostly talked via text message.
That is until this person ended up working for the same company I did, in the same city, in the same office.
It was scary, but actually in the end it wasn’t that bad at all. It barely made a difference to our ‘IRL’ interactions.
Now, up until this point, I had kept my health problems secret from my employers. While the people I worked for were probably some of the better people to talk to about mental health, I still didn’t feel comfortable doing it. There was a lot of bad culture in the organisation that I didn’t trust, and I didn’t want to have my mental health compounding anything. The black dog wasn’t overly affecting my performance — save a few minor isolated instances — so my logic was that it didn’t really have anything to do with them.
But I hit a dark patch, and it was pretty bad. In fact, it had been years since it became that bad. A combination of work-related stress (remember the bad culture?), money worries, and other personal issues, meant that this became one of the worst down phases I’d had. Naturally, my friend knew. I can’t remember if I outright told them, or they figured it out — the latter seems more likely. They tried to help, but nothing was really working. So they played the only card they thought they had left: they told my manager that I suffered from depression.
I can’t remember if I had, at any point, explicitly said to this friend that I didn’t want work to know. I do know that even if it wasn’t explicitly said, it was an unwritten rule of our friendship-turned-colleague dynamic.
It’s very hard to properly explain what that period of my life was like. It’s not that I lack the vocabulary, it’s just that trying to objectively describe a period of time so rich in emotion leaves a lot of the narrative untold. Here, let me try:
The friend I had confided in about my mental health saw that I was getting much worse than they had ever seen me. Not really knowing what to do, they told my manager. The manager, in turn, sat me down and talked through a lot of things with me, including ways to limit stress at work. Together, the friend and the manager convinced me to seek professional medical help, and as a result I started taking medication.
That doesn’t sound too bad, does it? And that is the truth… it’s just not the whole truth. At least, not how it felt to me.
Here’s what happened, as I would subjectively describe it:
My friend, who had known for the better part of a year that I was suffering on and off with mental health problems, went against my wishes and told my manager that I was struggling. As a result, I was called into a meeting and made to talk about issues that I was very uncomfortable with voicing. I was told that allowances could be made for this, that work could be moved around to accommodate me — nice enough in theory, except I knew it was empty promises (the organisation had no extra capacity to promise in this manner), and this made me feel more helpless. Furthermore, though my manager kindly offered to be more available to me, I knew that they were in the process of relocating cities, and that our professional relationship would very soon become a distance one. In addition, I was strongly urged to seek medical advice, for the purposes of obtaining a letter from a doctor describing my medical condition so that it could be added to my personnel file by HR. I did go register with, and subsequently consult with, a GP, who prescribed me with a course of anti-depressants. The medication exacerbated an already grim situation, and I felt sluggish, dim-witted, and constantly lethargic, to the point where my work suffered in a way it had never done even in my worse days. To add to this, the meds also lowered my mood further, to the point where self-harm wasn’t enough, and I began to strongly consider suicide — ultimately attempting it some weeks later. My reaction to my moods, the extent to which I talked about them, and to whom I talked about them, were all things that used to be under my control. Since finding out, my manager insisted on regular talks about my feelings, and various parties made sure that I was taking my medication. Feeling as though I had lost the control I once had, I developed an unhealthy relationship with food — the one thing I felt that I could still control.
I worried about writing that out, because when you take the two passages next to each other — both describing the exact same series of events — I can’t help but feel the second one just sounds a little more… whiny?
I know that anti-depressants often make you worse before they make you better. In fact, I strongly suspected that they wouldn’t do me good in the condition I was in. I should have said this to my GP — in fact, they ask you a specific set of questions before they give you anti-depressants for exactly that reason. I lied when answering those questions though. I lied and then took the meds anyway, because by that point — once everyone knew — it became simpler just to comply with other people’s wishes. I felt like I was a huge burden to everyone, to my friend, my manager, and by proxy the rest of the organisation. I felt like I should just do whatever everyone else wanted me to do, because to do anything else would be selfish.
Food was the exception. I felt as though everything about my life was now being controlled by third parties — except for what I ate. I went through a phase of making sure I ate less than 1000 calories a day, because that was something that only I could control. I knew it was bad, and I knew that it would make my moods worse and my life more difficult. But that didn’t matter. What mattered was only I could tell myself what to eat and when.
I try not to blame anyone. It’s not my manager’s fault that they were ill-equipped to deal with me (it is the fault of the organisation in general — particularly as they claimed to be one of these so-called ‘ethical employers’ — but that’s beef for another time). And their job wasn’t helped by the fact that I did a bad job of expressing how uncomfortable I was. In my defence though, I’d never had to do it before. Even with the aforementioned friend, if I didn’t want to talk about something, I just said so. I didn’t feel like I could do that in a manger-employee relationship — it was a work question, phrased as questions regarding my workflow and priorities and deadlines and other work-things. I didn’t feel like I could just not answer them.
I also try not to blame my friend — though I’ll admit that is considerably harder. I know it must have been difficult for them to see how bad I was. But they hadn’t known me — I mean really known me — all that long. I knew that I would probably snap out of it sooner or later. And I said this, multiple times.
I often try to work out what hurt the most about that betrayal. Was it that it robbed me of the ability to deal with things myself? Was it that I had become so self-absorbed that I couldn’t see how upset I was making my friend, and therefore couldn’t see that they needed to be able to talk to someone about it? Was it that this wasn’t their thing to talk to other people about? Was it that I had very carefully decided who to talk to about this part of me, and exactly what each person should know, and now that system was destroyed? Was it a combination of all of these? Was it something else entirely?
I really wish that this experience could have left me with nuggets of wisdom to pass on.
I wish that I could look back at the whole thing and say ‘actually, it was for the greater good’. But I can’t. I couldn’t walk up to someone else suffering depression and tell them that other people knowing makes life easier. For some, I’m sure it does. But for me, other people finding out without my consent was — without hyperbole — one of the most traumatic things to happen to me. I wish it wasn’t. I wish we lived in a society where I could feel comfortable with everyone knowing about my weakness. But I don’t feel that way.
So, in lieu of actual wisdom, here are some of the observations I have on the whole ordeal. Spoiler alert: they are not all helpful.
- I think that we’re in an age of flux with regards to mental health awareness. People are more aware of the terms, but not necessarily what they mean, or how to react to them. This will only come with more exposure and more education, but that — in turn — will only come as more people are willing to ‘out’ themselves in the workplace. That first wave of people are a lot braver that I.
- This only became a problem because my friend knew in the first place. If they didn’t, they couldn’t have told my manager. (This goes in the ‘not remotely helpful’ pile)
- Telling someone about your mental health problems is a huge deal. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. But it is so easy to only think of it as a huge deal for you. While you’re offloading to that person, spare a thought for how they are doing — they might need to talk to someone about this as well. Chances are, they are learning about how to act, just as you are learning how to express yourself. Be prepared for the possibility that — if you are confiding in them — it isn’t actually fair on them that you muzzle them. Of course, it’s also not fair on you if you don’t want it to go any further than this one person, so (in what is going to come dangerously close to actual advice) make sure you have that conversation up front.
- Having the right doctor — if you decide to seek the advice of a medical professional — does make a lot of difference. I’ve been lucky with the few I’ve seen, but if you aren’t happy with yours then change. You’ve got enough shit to be dealing with, having a GP who doesn’t click with you should not be a concern.
- My life might have been a little easier if, instead of uncomfortably engaging in those conversations with my manager, I had been more transparent about what I am and am not willing to talk about. Its a lot easier said than done, and in my particular instance I didn’t feel like I could do that, but maybe if the situation happened again I might be better at it. Maybe.