I’ve struggled with what I now know to be anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder for years. I was that woman in the office who was unpleasant, difficult to work with, and always angry. I wasn’t a team player. But that was before I started having conversations about my mental health with my supervisors.
Now, I lead presentations about mental illness for my entire staff. That transformation began after I sought help for my condition, which might have never happened without the encouragement of my friends, family, and even my supervisors at work.
For the last 12 years, I’ve worked as a case manager for low-income, aging adults who need long-term, in-home care. I meet with clients to see how many hours of care they’ll need each week, and set them up with caregivers who will help with bathing, medication management, making meals, and taking them to appointments. I love my job, but when I first started, I had just moved to a new city, Spokane, Washington, and money was tight. I was living in a friend’s basement. It definitely wasn’t where I had pictured myself living in my late twenties. I started to experience more symptoms of my already-underlying depression and anxiety.
At work, I would get angry for no reason. I would yell at my then-husband on the phone, in front of everyone, and I didn’t even realize that was not okay. I started putting people down, and putting myself down. I wasn’t a good person. My co-workers noticed, and so did my supervisors. They would casually remind me to “be more pleasant,” or “be a better team player.” I told myself that whomever was on the receiving end of my alleged unpleasantness probably deserved it. A textbook defense mechanism, I now know.
With a small staff, everyone started to sense that my demeanor stemmed from something deeper. And that included my supervisors. Unlike some bosses, my supervisors weren’t intimidating. They took breaks with us, went to lunch with us, and wanted the best for us, both in the workplace and outside of it.
But after the casual reminders didn’t change a thing, they called me in for a conversation in their office. I could tell it was serious when my supervisor and her direct supervisor were waiting for me.
“We don’t want to fire you,” my supervisor told me. “But this is not working.” They told me that some of my co-workers were scared to talk to me, afraid that I’d lash out or yell at them.
At first, I jumped to defend myself. That’s what I always used to do when I had to come face to face with my mental illnesses. But in that moment, I started to realize I did need to change—not just for my job, but also for myself. I wasn’t happy. I was suffering in silence and going through it alone.
I knew my bosses had a sense that I was going through a hard time in my personal life, but I decided that was the right moment for me to tell them that I struggled with depression, and that struggle was impacting my ability to show up in the way I wanted to. I told them that my depression had always been there, but it was becoming a larger issue, given the upheaval of a new city, new job, and lack of a great living situation.
I told them I understood that I needed a change in my demeanor at work, and I wanted to do better. And I meant it. I was tired of being the negative person in the office, and I knew that I was so much more than that.
I wasn’t in any treatment or therapy because I didn’t think I needed it, but this conversation was proof that it was time to seek help. My supervisors were understanding when I told them that my mental health was part of the reason I wasn’t being a team player at work. They told me they were there for me, and reminded me that they really did want the best for me. That meant a lot to me, and I’m grateful that they were willing to call me out and give me the push I needed to get help. They encouraged me to look into seeing a counselor, and after that meeting, I did.
Finding a psychiatrist started my long, winding road to self-help, treatment, and recovery. If my supervisors had never sat me down that day, I don’t know if or when I would have started therapy. I don’t think I ever would have brought up my mental illness to them either. Bringing such a personal part of my life into the workplace just seemed unnecessary and unnatural. Mental illness is an uncomfortable topic to discuss with anyone, let alone someone whose respect and trust you’ve worked to earn.
But after my supervisors opened that dialogue, and showed me that they supported me, it made it so much easier to keep them in the loop down the line. I let them know when I have to leave early for treatments or when I’m not sure how new therapies will affect me. At one point, I took a week off to take care of myself and go to treatments. They understood I needed that time, and they reminded me that they were there if I needed anything. When I came back to work, I brought a note from my psychiatrist, that laid out my depression, anxiety, and PTSD diagnoses.
With mental health, there isn’t just one conversation where you sit down and lay it all out there. Your symptoms change, you have good weeks and bad weeks, and sometimes things hit you when you least expect them to. I’ve kept my supervisors on a need-to-know basis about my mental health.
There are long periods that I’m doing really well—the last eight months or so, for example. When I’m not doing as well, and I know it could affect my work, I’ll sit my supervisors down and tell them, “I’m having a rough couple of days.” Other times, they’ll notice a difference in me before I even bring it up. They’ll ask, “Are you doing okay? How are you doing?” When they’re concerned I might be struggling, they’re usually right, and I’ll respond honestly: “It’s a rough few days.” And they’ll know what I mean. They’ll encourage me to let them know if a rough day turns into something worse.
What it’s like to suffer from depression:
Since talking to my bosses about my mental illness and seeking treatment, I’ve come a long way. I’m no longer the person people were scared to talk to at work. I’ve developed a love of yoga through Fat Girl Yoga, a studio in Spokane. Practicing yoga has helped me organize my racing thoughts and just feel good about myself. I’ve met great people through the program, and I’ve even tried goat yoga, a practice where baby goats walk around you (and even on you) as you move through the poses. I’ve also gotten involved with my local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness—I’m now the president of NAMI Spokane.
I give presentations to our staff about how to live a full life, despite mental illness. After every presentation I’ve done, without fail, at least one of my co-workers has pulled me aside or sent me an email thanking me for speaking up about mental health at work. “You’ve just said what I can’t say yet,” I remember one co-worker telling me. It’s been incredibly empowering, and it’s reminded me to keep fighting the stigma surrounding mental health.