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'Coming Out' to My Employer About My OCD

As a gay woman, I have already had the nerves and worries of “coming out” at work once before. One thing I didn’t anticipate though was that four years down the line I would have to “come out” again, as a teacher with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Now, the job was tough enough as it is without the horrendous intrusive thoughts, need for perfectionism and constant checking, but with OCD, it became a minefield. I found my self-esteem dwindling and my sickness record getting more and more extensive. The children were asking why I wasn’t in class, my work colleagues questioning if I was “OK.”

My symptoms started around six years before I was officially diagnosed, at the age of 19. I can actually pinpoint the first intrusive thought I had, looking back in retrospect. It was only at the age of 24 that the words “obsessive-compulsive disorder” came into my small, introverted world.

Work was becoming harder to handle, the thoughts were becoming harder to handle, and I had no idea what was wrong with me. A trip to the doctors was my next port of call. It was there I was hit with what I can only describe as bombshell. “Charli, I think you may be struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder.” It took three months to be referred to a clinical psychologist, and all the while I was completely in denial about my condition. After many torturous hours in the psychologist’s chair, multiple sobbing phone calls to my partner and numerous tubs of comfort food, I began to realize just exactly how my brain was ticking. Ticking off beat slightly, in its own quirky little way.

I had OCD.

I had OCD, and I didn’t know what the hell to do next.

I had OCD, and I had to go into work the next morning and teach a class when my whole world felt like it just came crashing down around me.

After this realization — and the tears — the only way was up. I was assessed as having “severe” OCD and “very severe” generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). I saw my psychologist every week. I saw my doctor every two. I looked after myself. I ate well, slept well and talked about my problems. I took my medication daily. I worked through my compulsions until they were almost unnoticeable, until I felt I was well on my way to recovery.

The next step on my journey was to make some reasonable adjustments at work so I could manage my OCD ad my anxieties whilst still doing my job. That meant for the second time in my life, I would have to come out at work.

The reason why I chose to compare coming out as gay and coming out as having mental illness is because I’ve found you can have similar worries about how people will react…

“What are they going to think of me?”

“Will they support me?”

“Are they going to take me seriously?”

“What if they take it badly?”

“Can they sack me?”

“Will they accept me?”

“Will they understand?”

You can also have that same burning anxiety in your chest about what to say or do if the person you tell really doesn’t “get it” and becomes hostile, avoidant or sympathetic. The last one is the worst by the way. Empathy, yes, sympathy, no.

So with my hands shaking and my voice trembling, I got ready for one of the most nerve-wracking meetings of my life. I wrote a list of reasonable adjustments and placed them in my lap in front of me.

Here goes.

“I need to tell you that for some time now, I have been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. I am taking medication, seeing a psychologist and have a good network of people around me to help, both in and out of work. I’m here because I want to be open about my condition and want to do a good job. I’m here because I’m doing the best I can, but I need your help with a few things.”

The room was quiet. The reaction, however, was overwhelming. I was applauded for my honesty and strength and told wholeheartedly that I was loved and supported. All of my small adjustments would be met, and a mental health first aider would be on hand for me to talk to at work any time of day.

All the thoughts, worries and fears about coming out drifted away. I was supported. They understood. They wanted to help.

After I came out of the meeting, tears rolled down my face. A weight had been lifted and my employer finally understood the last year of my life. The sick days, the panic attacks, the shying away from responsibility. I was so grateful.

It has been around three months since that meeting, and in that time, I feel like my whole world has changed. I have my great days, my good days, my bad days. Hell, I even still have my horrendous days. But for the most part, my compulsions are minimal, my thoughts are controlled, I am supported by friends, family and colleagues who understand. I am still taking my medication and have no plans to change that right now. I’m still on my recovery journey and maybe always will be.

I am looking after myself. I have people at work who I can talk to ruthlessly and openly about the things I am struggling with and what support I may need to help. If I feel my stress bucket tipping, I can go and see the mental health first aider and sit with her until I feel comfortable. Most of all, I feel valued.

I often wonder what it would be like if I had kept my mental health problems from my employer. I have come such a long way from the person I was a year ago, and my workmates can see the difference in me, too.

All in all, I am very glad I came out at work… twice!

Image via Thinkstock.

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