Aug 22, 2016
One day I just started talking. I was in standup, in a circle of 10 engineers, and I needed to announce that I was taking a leave of absence for a month. Years before, the last time I’d had to leave work unexpectedly, I’d told my manager and no one else. People assumed there was some pregnancy-related reason for my sudden disappearance. This time, I wasn’t pregnant, and I knew that everyone could see that something was wrong. I did my work, but I also cried all the time. So I told. I told everyone I worked with that I was struggling with depression and I was going to a partial hospitalization program so I could get better and not cry all the time. I have not stopped telling since.
The circle of people I’ve told has gotten wider. First it was close friends and the engineers I worked with. Then I gave a talk to my entire company. Then I started publishing poems about it. Then I told Facebook. Finally, recently, I allowed my company to film me reading a poem about receiving electroconvulsive therapy and talking about my bipolar disorder and post it on YouTube. That information will follow me to all my future professional contacts.
Hello, my name is Amy, I am Director of Engineering at PatientsLikeMe, and I have bipolar disorder.
Some people won’t want to hire me because of this. At some point, as I recognized more and more of the benefits of telling people about my mental illness, I stopped wanting to be hired by those people. It is so valuable to me to be able to talk about this major difficult part of my life, openly, at work, that I would not want a job where I could not do that even if I could get such a job anymore. Not only that, it’s valuable to my company that I started talking that day, because we now have a culture that is inclusive toward people with mental illness, and that means employees are happier and more productive because they are able to bring their whole selves to work.
So, telling is hard, but here are some reasons I’ve found to tell:
- To get help. In 2012 I went through a course of ECT (ElectroConvulsive Therapy). Three times a week I went to the hospital to get anesthesia and have electricity put through my brain until it caused a seizure. On a day you get ECT, you can’t be left alone. You need someone responsible to sign you out of the hospital and take you home and sit with you all day long, possibly while you puke from the anesthetic. Because I told everyone I knew, including my coworkers, that I was getting ECT, I was able to distribute the caretaking load among more people than just my family, who were already feeling overwhelmed by how sick I was. I had colleagues who worked from the hospital waiting room and from my apartment to take care of me on some days. That was an above-and-beyond experience, certainly, but people can and will help if you ask for help and give them concrete things to do.
- To give help. Mental Illness is so, so common, but people still aren’t talking about it much. Because I talk about my bipolar disorder openly to everyone many people, even relative strangers, approach me for assistance with their own struggles. I have talked people through getting a therapist and packing for a visit to a psychiatric ward. This is hugely gratifying for me. I can’t make myself better, but I can help other people having trouble with my hard-won knowledge about navigating the mental health system and dealing with intolerable emotions. I can make a real difference in other people’s’ lives.
- To combat stigma. Talking about my experience with a major disabling mental illness while simultaneously leading a growing engineering department busts up people’s misconceptions about what bipolar disorder looks like and whether people can be both as sick as I am and also successful.
- To be a role model. People who are dealing with a new diagnosis or trying to figure out how to live adult life with mental illness need to see people who are succeeding at it. Bipolar disorder makes my life very difficult, but I know I’ve built a good life for myself anyway. I can be valuable to others by doing nothing more than living my good life and speaking up about my mental illness! It’s great to be able to help people with what now feels like so little effort.
Getting help, giving help, combatting stigma, being a role model. Those are four great positive things I’ve gotten out of telling, but they’re not the biggest thing.
The biggest thing is that hiding is hard. You don’t realize how hard hiding is until you stop doing it. Dissimulating about doctor visits, sick days, medication side effects, weird behavior, and just plain feeling terrible is an immense amount of effort. My lithium gives me a tremor; it’s worse when I’m stressed out, for example when there’s a major production bug. What would I say to my colleagues about my uncontrollable shaking if I couldn’t say “yeah, that’s my lithium, don’t worry about it”? Sometimes I have three doctor visits in one week: therapist, psychopharmacologist, visit to the lab to get my lithium level. What if I still had to make up reasons for all those visits? Occasionally I cry at my desk; what if I felt I needed to hide or make up a reason why? Giving up the effort of hiding has made my life less stressful, which makes my bipolar disorder easier to manage.
As a tech manager, too, I find that the people who work with me and for me appreciate that I bring my whole, authentic, vulnerable self to work every day. Naturally not everyone wants to share everything in their lives with the people they work with, but my company’s vision is a culture of openness and I think our engineers enjoy working in an open and accepting place even if they choose to be less open themselves. I think my openness is actually good for my career, because it’s part of what makes me an effective manager.
I’m open, and I want you to be open too. Together we can make tech a safe place for mental illness.