In September, I started spiraling with anxiety at work. I was having a tough home life, two projects at work were going wrong, and my confidence in my skills, my abilities and my self-worth entirely were taking a hit.
Thoughts I couldn’t control started taking over my concentration. Bad thoughts. Thoughts that my manager was going to be disappointed. Was going to be angry. Would think I was a fuckup. Thoughts that I was a fraud. How had I been doing this job successfully for a year when I was so clearly incapable and an idiot?
It wasn’t just a bad day. I was a bad person.
I sat there staring at my computer screen, and from the outside everything looked fine. I read emails, actioned requests, answered questions, but inside I was melting down.
So I told my manager I was sick, and I went home for the day.
And I was sick, but not in the way I told her. I told her I had an upset stomach, that I’d been feeling queasy all day, and I thought a cold was coming on. I went home, removing myself from the situation that was making me spiral with anxiety and giving myself a chance to regroup, to curl up in bed for an afternoon and overcome the panic and negative self-talk.
I wanted to feel better and go back to work the next day fresh and ready to tackle the problems with a clear mind. I wanted to feel well again. In exactly the same way I do when I need to recover from a cold.
I lied to my boss because there is an unjustified stigma around mental illness in the workplace and in general. When someone takes a sick day because of a virus or the common cold, their absence isn’t considered evidence that they can’t handle their work. No, they’re temporarily ill and return to work when they are feeling better ― no better or worse at their job than before.
I wanted to feel well again. In exactly the same way I do when I need to recover from a cold.
Here’s the thing, though: The same should be said for those living with mental illnesses, but that’s not the case.
I don’t want management thinking I’m incapable of doing my job. On the contrary, I’m actually very good at it. But mental illnesses can have invisible symptoms with no outward signs that you’re not coping until, suddenly, you’re really not coping.
Managers can’t see it coming, and hiring or promoting someone they see as having a “ticking time bomb” inside them probably seems like a risky move compared to picking someone who doesn’t have a bomb inside them at all ― that they know of, anyway. That mental illness bomb inside me isn’t constantly ticking, though, and when it starts, I can ― and do ― take steps to deactivate it.
But still, the stigma exists. Those of us with mental illnesses are seen as weak. And why am I so adamant about this that I feel the need to lie to my employer about it?
Because I’ve experienced the stigma firsthand.
A while back, when working a several-month contract at a previous workplace, all the managers of the different departments spent half a day at a training session on how to support their employees’ mental health. At the time, I was going through a pretty rough, stressful and distracting home situation, so because of the special training my manager had completed, I thought it would be reasonable to inform her of the temporary problems I was having, as I feared it was affecting my concentration and my work.
I received the support I needed: If I needed to take a day off at some point to look after myself, she said, then I should let her know.
At least she said she would be supportive. But when it came to actually being supportive, she didn’t show up.
The stressful and distracting home situation came to a head, and I thought I was about to snap. I felt like I might go insane from the stress of it all and my anxiety over the impact it was having on my job. I needed a day to pull myself together, sort some stuff out and regroup. I arranged for a colleague to handle some work that might need doing, and she was understanding, more than happy to help keep my project on track.
My manager, however, was not so understanding. After her earlier offer, when it actually came to taking taking a sick day, she said she found it inappropriate and unacceptable. And so into work I went ― feeling fragile, feeling a little bit less than capable, and feeling ashamed and anxious for having requested the time off that I thought would have been accepted in the first place.
Of four contract employees, I was the only one who had admitted to some personal struggles (though I was not the only one struggling) and was the only one of us whose contract was not renewed. It’s a very real outcome of admitting to poor mental health.
My mental illness is a strength. These parts of me actually make me good at my work.
So I’ve learned to lie. The lying increases anxiety in the short term, but is sadly absolutely worth it for the stability and continuation of my career. A person with chronic pain has a chronic illness, just the same as I do with chronic depression. But chronic pain isn’t viewed as a weakness of character like mental illness is. I honestly don’t get it.
To me, my mental illness is a strength. Living with depression clouding my every thought, blanketing emotions so I don’t get to feel anything all, it takes a lot of strength to carry on with that burden. It takes a toll on me, but when I’m able to take care of myself and my mental health, my depression makes me stronger.
My depression makes me more empathetic and compassionate to others because I know the heartache and emptiness and don’t want others to go through it as well. My anxiety makes me prepared; I often think of the worst-case scenario, so if that worst case arises, I know how I’m going to deal with it.
These parts of me actually make me good at my work. Not bad. But these strengths still aren’t often recognized.
An inability to do your job because you have a cough and a sore throat are viewed as an inability to work effectively in the short term. No one will even remember in a month. But excusing yourself from work for a day because you’re spiraling with anxiety and need to step back and get on top of it can affect an employer’s more long-term view of your abilities, even if taking that day means that you can get healthy again and be better than before.
The stigma is real and undeserved. Mental illness doesn’t define me, and I’m stronger than people give me credit for. But until managers and employers start to treat mental illness as just as manageable in their employees as physiological illness, and not a weakness, I’ll lie, and so will so many others.
Have a compelling first-person story you want to share? Send your story description to firstname.lastname@example.org.