I’ve imagined sharing this a thousand different times, during conversations around the coffee machine or after particularly stressful meetings. I’ve pictured myself blurting it out in a moment of need, wanting so much to feel the support and understanding from you, my co-workers.
But I held back, again and again. I was afraid of what you might say, or not say, back to me. Instead, I swallowed it down and forced a smile.
“No, I’m fine. I’m just tired today.”
But when I woke up this morning, my need to share was stronger than my fear.
As Madalyn Parker demonstrated when she shared her boss’ email affirming her right to take sick leave for mental health reasons, we’re making great strides about being open about ourselves at work. So, dear office, I’m writing this letter to tell you that I live and work with mental illness.
Before I tell you more, please pause and think about the Amy you know: The Amy who nailed her interview. The Amy who’s a team player with creative ideas, always willing to go the extra mile. The Amy who can handle herself in a boardroom. This is the Amy you know. She is real.
Who you haven’t known is the Amy who’s been living with major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) since long before you met her. You didn’t know that I lost my dad to suicide when I was only 13 years old.
You haven’t known because I didn’t want you to see. But it was there. Just as I brought my lunch to the office every day, I also brought my sadness and anxiety.
But the pressure I put on myself to hide my symptoms at work is taking a toll on me. The time has come for me to stop saying “I’m fine, I’m just tired” when I’m not.
Why I was hiding my mental illness
You may be wondering why I chose to hide my mental illness. While I know that depression and anxiety are legitimate illnesses, not everyone else does. Stigma against mental health conditions is real, and I’ve experienced it many times.
I’ve been told that depression is just a cry for attention. That people with anxiety just need to calm down and exercise. That taking medication is a weak cop-out. I’ve been asked why my family didn’t do more to save my dad. That his suicide was an act of cowardice.
Given those experiences, I was terrified to talk about my mental health at work. Just like you, I need this job. I have bills to pay and a family to support. I didn’t want to jeopardize my performance or professional reputation by talking about my symptoms.
But I’m writing you this letter because I want you to understand. Because, even at work, sharing is necessary for me. I want to be authentic and for you to be authentic with me. We spend at least eight hours a day together. Having to pretend for that entire time that I don’t ever feel sad, anxious, overwhelmed, or even panicked is not healthy. My concern for my own well-being needs to be greater than my concern about anyone else’s reaction.
This is what I need from you: to listen, learn, and offer your support in whatever way feels most comfortable for you. If you aren’t sure what to say, you don’t need to say anything at all. Just treat me with the same kindness and professionalism that I show to you.
I don’t want our office to become an emotional free-for-all. And really, this is less about feelings than it is about understanding mental illness and how symptoms impact me while I’m at work.
So, in the spirit of understanding me and my symptoms, here are a few things I’d like you to know.
1. One in five
Chances are that one in every five people reading this letter has experienced mental illness in one form or another, or loves someone who has. You may not be aware of it, but so many people of all ages, genders, and ethnicities experience mental health challenges. People with mental illness aren’t freaks or weirdos. They’re normal people like me and maybe even like you.
2. Mental illnesses are real illnesses
They’re not character defects and they’re not anybody’s fault. While some symptoms of mental illness are emotional — such as feelings of hopelessness, sadness, or anger — others are physical, like a racing heartbeat, sweating, or headaches. I didn’t choose to have depression any more than someone would choose to have diabetes. Both are medical conditions that need treatment.
3. I want it to be okay to talk about mental illness at work
I’m not asking for you to be my therapist or my literal shoulder to cry on. I already have a great support system in place. And I don’t need to talk about mental illness all day, every day. All I’m asking is for you to occasionally ask me how I’m doing and to take a few minutes to really listen.
Maybe we can grab a coffee or lunch, just to get out of the office for a bit. It always helps when others share their own experiences with mental illness, whether about themselves or a friend or relative. Hearing your own story makes me feel less alone.
4. I can still do my job
I’ve been in the workforce for 13 years. And I’ve had depression, anxiety, and PTSD for all of them. Nine times out of 10, I hit my assignments out of the park. If I begin to feel really overwhelmed, anxious, or sad, I’ll come to you with an action plan or ask for extra support. Sometimes, I may need to take sick leave — because I live with a medical condition.
5. Mental illness has actually made me a better co-worker
I’m more compassionate, both with myself and with each of you. I treat myself and others with respect. I’ve survived difficult experiences, which means I believe in my own abilities. I can hold myself accountable and ask for help when I need it.
I’m not afraid of hard work. When I think of some of the stereotypes applied to people with mental illness — lazy, crazy, disorganized, unreliable — I remark on how my experience with mental illness has made me the opposite of those traits.
While mental illness has plenty of drawbacks, I choose to look at the positives it can bring to not just my personal life, but to my work life. I know that I’m responsible for taking care of myself both at home and at work. And I know that there’s a line between our personal and professional lives.
What I’m asking from you is an open mind, tolerance, and support if and when I hit a rough patch. Because I’m going to give that to you. We’re a team, and we’re in this together.
Amy Marlow is living with depression and generalized anxiety disorder. She’s the author of Blue Light Blue, which was named one of our Best Depression Blogs. Follow her on Twitter at @_bluelightblue_.]/p>