I told my boss about my mental illness
I told him that I would rather be upfront and honest in the beginning, as opposed to trying and failing on bad days to combat an illness that I have no control over.
Last year, in 2018, I decided to give up my freelancing career and enter the workforce again full-time. I had many reasons to want to go back to a full-time job: I wanted the stability of a cheque coming in every month, I wanted to work at a job where I would be challenged and inspired on a daily basis, and I wanted to find a situation that would help me shine.
I sent out a few emails and one of them was to Asiaville. I was invited to interview in three places, including Asiaville, and I dutifully went to each interview. Something that was common in all three interviews though? I was honest about the fact that I suffer from major depressive disorder.
I’ve suffered from major depressive disorder, or unipolar depression, for years. Unipolar depression is different from bipolar depression in that there are no manic highs to punctuate the lowest of lows. There is only one constant, and it is an unenviable and irrepressible sadness.
As a freelancer, I managed to achieve a balance that involved resting on bad days and working hard on the good days. I got used to managing my work-life balance in a way that didn’t take a toll on me, despite often working towards several deadlines at the same time. Sometimes I didn’t make a deadline, and I told mostly understanding editors that I had been unwell. Unwell, on a bad mental health day, is putting it mildly.
That was a worry when I began applying for full-time jobs. Would I be okay working out of my comfort zone (home) for several hours a day? Would my mental health suffer? What would happen on a bad day when I couldn’t face getting out of bed and facing the day? These are all questions that needed answering, and that is one of the reasons I was honest with people about my mental illness. I even linked to a Buzzfeed piece I wrote about depression and suicide attempts as part of my writing portfolio. I was as open as it is possible to be about the fact that my brain is broken.
One of the interviewers asked me what depression was, and I told her about the exhaustion, the debilitating sadness, and the overwhelming inability to function as well as you’re used to functioning. I also told her that I spent a lot of time managing my illness so that I would, hopefully, avoid the bad days for the most part. I say that because sometimes you can do all the things you’re used to doing to avoid a breakdown and the breakdown happens anyway. I told her that I’m on medication that treats my illness. I compared myself to a diabetic who needs insulin in order to survive and explained that depression cannot be cured. It can only be managed.
I never heard back from that particular interviewer, and I was unsurprised. But I did hear back from Asiaville, and then I heard from them again with an offer. It was then that my prospective boss asked about my mental health and brought up my depression. I responded that I had been honest because I wanted to end the stigma around depression and conversations about mental health. I also added that I would rather be upfront and honest in the beginning, as opposed to trying and failing on bad days to combat an illness that I have no control over. I ended by reassuring him that I would always do the best I can at any given time. That was that, and I received an offer, which I accepted. I was employed full time again, and I’d gotten the job by being honest about my depression.
I realise that I’m probably in the minority; I have that rare thing – an understanding boss. I definitely lucked out in that regard; conversations around mental health are still cloaked in shame and stigma because people don’t understand what it’s like to live with a mental illness, and they either underestimate mental illness by thinking that it’s all in the mind and that people can just snap out of it (trust me, we can’t) or they misunderstand mental illness and liken it to the worst caricatures of a mental health patient that they’ve seen on television or read about. There’s no actual understanding of what it is.
You don’t HAVE to be honest about your illness if you aren’t comfortable with opening up about it. Honestly, it depends upon your boss or your immediate supervisor, and the kind of relationship that you have with them. You can organise yourself so that you give your job your best (I’ve done it, because I don’t have the luxury of taking time off until I’m a 100 percent), and if you need a mental health day but don’t necessarily want to explain to your boss just what you’re sick with, then you should do that. You should do whatever works for you. Just because this is my reality it doesn’t have to be yours too.
In the short term, you need to figure out what works for you. Make sure to reach out to peers and support systems (friends and family) so that they’re aware of how you’re feeling at any given time. Don’t suffer in silence. Try to stay organised at work and factor in how you’re feeling along with what’s expected from you and what your boss requires you to do. In the long term, make sure that you prioritise yourself at home or at work; reach out for help and medication, and even if you can’t take time off you can still talk to a supervisor or your boss and explain that you’re not a hundred percent and that you’d like to do less for a few days. Whatever works for you is what you need to do.