I lied to my boss about my bipolar disorder. Here's what happened when I finally told the truth.
- During a bout of depression while working as a remote writer, I told my boss about my
- What followed felt like a lack of compassion from both my boss and from human resources.
- People with mental illnesses are all over the workforce. We just need people to treat us like the same person we were before we disclosed our condition.
Telling my editor that I had bipolar disorder started with a lie.
In the midst of a devastating bout of depression, I'd been unable to report to a shift for my publication. It happened again the next day. As a remote shift worker, I was expected to start and end my shifts with an email to my editor. The first shift, I emailed my editor ahead of time to call in sick, but the second, I was so deep in my depression that I missed the appointed time to sign on and didn't get in touch.
I'd been asleep, trying to escape the constant narration of negativity and worry that was chasing me in my head. When I realized my error, I panicked and sent a convoluted email blaming everything - the fact that my editor couldn't reach me and that I hadn't showed up - on a sudden medical emergency with one of my sons. My editors weren't thrilled, but they grudgingly accepted this excuse.
But as I thought about how I'd handled the situation, I realized I couldn't live with having told my editor a lie.
A difficult confession
The next day, in an email, I let my editor know that I'd made up the story about my son. I told her I had bipolar disorder and that I'd been suffering a depression that was making it extremely difficult to function, let alone work.
Perhaps you've heard the statistics, but in the interest of dispelling the stigma around mental illness, I think it's helpful to recap just how common it is: The National Alliance on
My bipolar disorder is very well managed these days thanks to medication, meditation, and therapy. Inevitably, though, there are times when it breaks through to impact my daily life. Sometimes, this takes the form of needing more time alone and being more impatient in my interactions with those around me. Other times, the depression - which is the more prevalent feature of my illness - is able to shut down my brain to the extent that I find it nearly impossible to get out of bed, much less focus enough to put words together to form coherent sentences in a Google Doc.
This isn't uncommon. In fact, NAMI estimates that serious mental illnesses like bipolar disorder cost the U.S. economy upward of $193 billion in lost earnings every year.
Like me, so many people with mental illness are afraid to disclose their conditions to their employer. Unlike many chronic
So, in an email, I took what was for me a massive step. I came clean to my editor about the lie: There was no medical emergency. I explained that I had bipolar disorder, and was unfortunately in the middle of a depression.
It felt like jumping off of a cliff.
Interestingly, although I'd made what was for me a huge and brave confession, my employer chose to focus on the fact that I'd lied about the reason I'd missed my shift.
Unquestionably, any lie is wrong, and I'm not debating the fact that I was in the wrong for telling it. But what happened felt like the company - and specifically the HR department - chose to assert its dominance over me in an oddly punitive way.
I was required to submit a lot of paperwork to the HR department regarding my condition, and it all had to be submitted in specific forms and exact timeframes. Additionally, I was asked to come up with accommodations that would assist me in getting my job done successfully, and this also had to be submitted to HR and my editor within a certain timeframe.
While I understood that getting all of this done precisely and on a schedule was related to legal requirements, I was still in the middle of a depression. My main job-related problem was generating work - therefore, being asked to complete a bunch of assignments precisely and on tight deadlines only served to amp up my bipolar-related anxiety. The Americans with Disabilities Act's processes are a bit one-size-fits-all in this respect, not meant to account for mental-health issues, but the HR department's subsequent emails inquiring about the status of the paperwork could have been handled with more compassion.
The main accommodation I asked for was a flexible schedule: the ability to work without being constrained by a definitive beginning and end to my shift. This would accommodate breaks in my writing to enable me to refocus, to work during periods of the day when I had the most energy, and the like. I was told repeatedly that that was impossible. I never understood the reasoning behind this refusal, especially since I was a remote worker and my work was completely self-directed.
At the end of the day, I was put into a program that was kind of a "rehabilitation." The main feature of this program was a biweekly meeting with my editor where we'd discuss my progress. Given that the quality of my work had never been the issue, this was usually a short meeting. I was released from this "rehabilitation" after a month.
As a result of this depressive episode, I also made the decision to drop one shift from my workweek. This gave me a little more time to take care of personal issues - in addition to managing a
The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way I manage bipolar
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, things changed. No one cared anymore about people signing on for their shifts, and I was finally able to write when I was most productive instead of logging on during specific times. This made a huge difference with my bipolar disorder, as during a flare-up, I could take extra time as needed to meditate, check in virtually with my therapist, and the like.
To my mind, it also proved that the accommodation I'd asked for years earlier, now extended to everyone in the company by virtue of the pandemic, was possible all along. I finally got to manage my bipolar on my schedule, and it actually benefited my work. With the pressure of virtually reporting for shifts lifted, the freedom I felt improved the quality of my work. I worked when I felt most creative and most productive. I also missed fewer shifts.
Often, people with mental illness have great creative resources to offer. We're worth taking a risk on - the list of talents with bipolar includes everyone from Ludwig van Beethoven to Demi Lovato - so although our brains work differently, they may also bring different and useful gifts to the organizations we serve.
But when I informed my employer, the main thing I felt was a huge lack of compassion. Certainly, I understood being reprimanded for telling a lie. But I wonder if I'd have been treated with the same brusqueness if I'd said I misled them about my absence because I had a physical medical emergency, or if I might have at least received at least a little sympathy.
Then again, if that were the case, I probably wouldn't have felt the need to lie to them in the first place.
Because the thing is, those of us who have mental illness do everything we do every day while managing our mental illnesses in the background. We manage a chronic illness that's invisible but more or less life-altering to us, depending on the hour or minute of the day. And we do it all with more or less grace, depending on the hour or minute of the day.
That doesn't mean we need pity from employers; what we do need is for owners, managers, and HR directors to open their eyes and see that we're all over the workforce and that we have been for years, often as companies' best employees. We'd like to come out of the shadows, because it will enable us to serve you better.
All we need from you in order to do so is compassion, an open mind, and a willingness to recognize that, even with a mental illness, we're still the same employee we were before we told you about our condition.
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