When Hiding My Bipolar Disorder From My Employer Backfired
Since my first mental illness diagnosis, I have been afraid to disclose my disease to employers. The stigma surrounding those with mental illness still brands us as incompetent and unstable — the opposite of a successful employee. Rather than be saddled with negative baggage in spite of my educational and professional accomplishments, I believed that hiding my bipolar disorder was the best way to navigate the workplace. I learned a few lessons from my subterfuge, mostly that hiding my bipolar disorder wasn’t as good for my career as I’d believed it would be.
During my first manic episode I was a marketing manager at a cosmetics company, which was a busy and stressful position. I had a great deal of responsibility, including the growth and revenue for my products, and I often stayed late to complete my work. With the high mood and quick thinking I experienced during a hypomanic state, I was far more productive than during average circumstances. I came to work early, flew through my reports quickly and responded to my boss’s requests efficiently. I was a model employee.
Then my depression hit and my behavior changed completely. I was sluggish all of the time and I took frequent coffee breaks to perk myself awake. I seemingly never got enough sleep, so I was frequently late — a habit sited at my annual review as a “career breaker.” Instead of going to human resources to disclose my disease and ask for an alternate work schedule, I said that I’d change but couldn’t amend my behavior, even when my psychiatrist tried changing my medication. Eventually lateness became unplanned absences because I couldn’t get out of the bed. Again, I continued hiding my bipolar disorder rather than making better arrangements for myself.
Eventually, I had to come up with a reason for my behavior and I told my boss that I’d been having panic attacks. At the time, I believed that panic disorder was more commonplace and acceptable than bipolar. I was mistaken, and some of my work duties were taken away by my boss until she felt that I could “handle” them.
At my next job, I was clear about hiding my bipolar — or any mental or emotional shortcoming — from my employer. I’d already experienced what I thought of as work-related discrimination as a result of a mental condition and I did not want to repeat that event. Instead I fell back into a pattern of behavior designed to cover up my bad periods. Overall, I was great at my job but was frequently late when my energy flagged due to worsening depression. To cover for particularly teary days, I called in sick or asked to work from home on a regular basis. If I could make it into the office, I tried to look busy even when my concentration flagged. Again, my boss noted that my lateness and absences were not models for executive behavior.
At some point, my depression got so bad that I couldn’t make it through my days. I started scheduling meetings out of the office so that I could knock off a few hours early and cover myself. My commitment to hiding my bipolar disorder was finally starting to affect my ability to complete my job. I eventually had to take time off work to get treatment for my depressive episode. When I returned, as a result of my previous behavior, my boss began micromanaging my time and my projects to make sure that I didn’t leave the office without permission.
In retrospect, I could have spoken with my human resources department about getting special accommodations for the symptoms of my bipolar disorder. I could have arranged for special permission to work at home when I needed to instead of appearing to have a spotty attendance record. Even though these accommodations are allowed under the Americans with Disabilities Act, I still feared the kind of backlash related to my disease that I’d already experienced once in my career. My reactions to my employer and, ultimately, my negative behavior could have been avoided had I initiated legal protection by disclosing my disease instead of hiding my bipolar disorder in the workplace. Lesson learned.
Tracey Lloyd lives in Harlem, where she fights her cat for access to the keyboard. You can find more of her experiences living with bipolar disorder on her personal blog, My Polar Opposite.