What Happened When I Returned to Work After a Mental Health Break

I “came out” at work a year and a half ago as someone who struggles with mental illness. I had to go to a partial hospitalization program and needed to tell Human Resources and my boss what was going on. They were both very supportive and encouraging.

What I didn’t expect, after I returned to work, was that nothing was particularly different. I was still doing my same job, with the same deadlines, as before. I was included in meetings and committees and my voice was regarded as valuable. No one looked at me funny when I walked down the halls or averted my glance.

I guess I thought my disclosure would change how I was treated. I thought of myself as exotic, with a brain disorder that rendered me less capable than everyone else. Truth be told, I thought I would be given some slack because of my illness — that things would be easy. I wasn’t and they weren’t. Of course, I had not asked for any accommodations; telling my co-workers that I had to go to a program for a couple of weeks was bad enough. Also, since I already have a great deal of flexibility in my job (not because of my illness), I didn’t want to push it. But perhaps I should have. There are some days when I mentally don’t feel up to work but I don’t dare take a sick day (even though I have over 35 sick days saved up). I don’t want to be seen as someone who leans on the crutch of mental illness at any opportunity.

I like what I do and where I work. I would like to be able to advance in my company. Sometimes, I think my disclosure makes that impossible. Other times, when I’m at my best, I think I am as good as anyone there and should be trusted with more responsibility.

There’s no undoing my disclosure, so I will need to learn to live with it. I’m proud I had the guts to speak my truth. If this truth means people will think less of me, then that’s just how it will be. I can’t change what others think, only what I think. It’s a lifelong process that starts with a deep examination of oneself, one’s biases and motivations. In some ways, I think my mental illness makes me more empathetic than a neurotypical person. I read people well and can usually tell when someone is struggling. This isn’t necessarily a resume-building skill but is one that serves one well throughout life.

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