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Why I Didn't Expect My Boss' Reaction When I Told Her About My Bipolar Disorder

I disclosed my bipolar disorder to my boss.

I had to. There was no other way to explain the past few weeks.

Once I finally became aware I was in a hypomanic episode, I realized what it had done to the quality of my work. It’s not the first time my mental health has affected my job. Looking back, I can see how many times my mood disorder — whether through episodes of depression or episodes of irritable hypomania — harmed my work and my relationships with my colleagues.

I almost got fired once because of the way a severe depressive episode, which lasted months, affected my performance at my job. Looking back at this job from five years away, I wonder if being more open about my mental health struggles would have placed my mood and the resulting behavior in context. Maybe they would have been more compassionate. Or maybe they would have found an excuse to fire me anyway.

I almost got let go from another, more recent job for the same reason. But I still didn’t disclose. I was scared the stigma would be so great that they too would have found some other excuse to “ask me to resign.”

So, why did I disclose this time?

First, I like my job. I don’t love my job — I’m not filled with burning passion for everything I do — but my colleagues have been supportive of me through several hospitalizations, which my boss most likely knew were for depressive episodes. My boss is also the HR person at my job; we’re a very small team, only about seven of us, so we all do more than just one thing.

I’d written a post on my blog about my experience with bipolar disorder and how my cats had saved my life more than once. I got so much support and love from my readers, both in the comments and on my blog’s Facebook page, that I was starting to feel more secure in “coming out” about my mental illness.

At work, though? That was harder.

But this time, I felt like I didn’t have a choice. Not because my boss was demanding an explanation, but more because I wanted to make an apology for my behavior and job performance. And, I reasoned, my disorder is actually listed in the Americans with Disabilities Act as a specific example of a disability that requires reasonable accommodation from employers, so if I did somehow find myself getting laid off, I’d have a reason to pursue legal recourse. So, there was a little CYA involved, too.

So, how did it go?

Something like this:

She called me over Slack for our weekly check-in.

“So, how are you doing today?” she asked.

“Well, to tell the truth, not so great,” I said.

I stared at her icon. The cat in the photo looked how I felt.

I took a deep breath and said something like, “You know how I’ve gone to the hospital several times since I started working here? I’m sure you know something is up, so now I’m going to tell you the whole truth. I have bipolar disorder and I’ve been in a hypomanic episode for a few weeks now.”

There was a second of silence that felt like an hour.

“I have an appointment to see my psychiatrist next week, and we’re going to change my meds to see if we can take the edge off the hypomania and keep me from slipping into depression.”

“Thank you for telling me,” she said. Her voice was compassionate and not the least bit judgmental. “I’ve dealt with bipolar disorder on both a professional and personal level before.”

She went on to explain that some members of her family have the disorder, so she’s seen it up close and personal. Her main concern for me was that she knew what happened after mania.

“I’m hoping that by being proactive and seeing my psychiatrist early, we can prevent that.”

We went on to discuss ways that, knowing I have bipolar disorder and I am likely to have mood episodes in the future, I could take on the project management duties that would challenge me and help me move up in the company.

That was more than I’d ever hoped for. My best expectation for my disclosure was that I wouldn’t get fired. I never expected I’d be discussing how to take on more responsibility and ensure if I weren’t capable of doing the duties, there would be someone who could.

Would this have happened if I’d disclosed at my previous jobs? I don’t know. I’ve been the kind of person who just doesn’t expect compassion, so I never ask for it even when I need it. Understandably, I was hesitant to talk to this boss about my illness. But this time I just had to take a breath, steady my shoulders and disclose, come what may.

And I’m glad I did.

Has it put off potential employers who Google me and find the blog post? Or my comments in public Facebook groups? Or in this post on The Mighty? Maybe. But even in my more hopeless moments, I’m still glad I did — and continue to do — because somebody’s going to come along and say, “wow, this woman is strong and courageous to be public about her struggles with mental illness. We like that kind of strength, and we think she’d make a great team member,” or “wow, I felt so alone before reading this, but knowing this person has experienced the same thing I have, and they’re out there doing the thing — maybe I will get through this.”

Follow this journey on the author’s blog.

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

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