I Revealed I Have Bipolar Disorder To My Colleagues. Here's What Happened.

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@sophietm via Instagram

Sophie Meharenna Brit + Co
Sophie Meharenna for Brit + Co
May 23, 2024 at 1:15PM UTC
The familiar sound of Slack signaled I had a notification from one of my colleagues. I took a break from making my lunch to eyeball the incoming message.
It read: “Don’t ask why, but what’s your favorite mantra?”
My curiosity was of course piqued (whose wouldn’t be?!). And though I didn’t want to, I obliged without any probing questions and shared my response before diving back into my eats and to-do list. Very quickly, the seemingly random request was pushed to the back of my mind.
A week later, an unexpected package showed up on my doorstep. I love me some snail mail, especially when it comes from out of nowhere. Little did I know that unwrapping the box would be accompanied by an outpouring of tears.
Inside I found a personalized journal. The words “You Have Permission To Be Human” were embossed on the cover: my mantra, in all caps for emphasis. Cue the waterworks.
I was so moved by the gravity of this gesture. For context, this gift came on the backend of some of the hardest (and also most freeing!) conversations I’ve had in the workplace regarding mental health.

My Road To Diagnosis

For too many of us, there is a stigma attached to admitting when our headspace is compromised. So often, we hide behind veneers of positivity. It's one of the many side effects of social media: the highlight-driven nature of how we share our lives skews our perception of how things should be. We tend to showcase only the good parts.
Are you guilty of that? Spoiler alert: I am. And I'm guessing I'm preaching to the choir here.
Our default programming is to experience shame about feeling bad or struggling through difficult times. And while that can be harmful in its own right, it can also come with increased pressure to be perfect: to never lose your cool, to always be the best version of yourself, and to show no sign of weakness because it could diminish your reputation.
However, there is so much beauty in leaning into the power of vulnerability. Yes, yes, y'all. I'm about to channel my innerBrené Brown on you. I mean, sharing is caring, right?
Candidly, even before the pandemic, I experienced the brunt of mental health issues — the aftermath of losing my mom to triple-negative breast cancer culminated in a seemingly relentless series of emotional rollercoasters. For many years, I attempted to rush the grieving process in pursuit of a happily ever after. I tried to fast-forward my healing.
Keyword: tried.
Let's just say that in trying to rush things, the only thing I sped up was my undoing.
So much pain, love, and redemption were wrapped up in the process. And as my journey dealing with my mom's illness and ultimate passing progressed, my coping (or lack thereof) brought to light an unexpected diagnosis of my own: Bipolar Disorder.
Navigating my new normal hasn't always been easy. My initial symptoms went hand-in-hand with a longitudinal identity crisis tied to the label. I'm not here to sugarcoat it: It was, and sometimes still is, hard as hell.

Where I've found strength and freedom, however, is in owning that narrative and being transparent about it.

Opening Up At Work

When I joined the team here at Brit + Co, my instinct was to wear a metaphorical suit of armor. But as COVID-19 disrupted our lives in unimaginable ways and dialogue around mental illness and mental wellness skyrocketed, I felt that much more compelled to share my reality with my colleagues. The surprising result? Even more connection, closeness, and empathy than I could have hoped for.
But the crippling fear I had before having those conversations? Whew, chile. The agony! I mean, so many questions flooded my mind. Specifically:
  • Will I be judged?
  • Will I be let go?
  • Will everything I do moving forward be looked at through the lens of my diagnosis?
And that's just the very shortlist. My thoughts spiraled like you wouldn't believe.
But instead of being looked at differently, I was seen more deeply than I ever have been in a professional setting.
It can feel terrifying to be open about mental health challenges, but by breaking our silence, we enable others to break theirs too. Here's the play-by-play of what happened when I broke mine:

Setting The Stage Via Email

One of the hardest things about Bipolar Disorder is staying in tune with your mind and body. Things started to feel out of sorts for me very early on in my tenure here, and I listened to the signals and shared concerns with my core team members via email. I edited it more times than I count, carefully trying to strike a balance between sharing too much and sharing too little:
This is incredibly hard to write. But, I deeply care about all of you AND Brit + Co and Selfmade. So, in the spirit of transparency and noticing my health patterns, I feel it's important to flag this now vs. going too far down the path of working together.

I am diagnosed with Bipolar, and while I'm undergoing ongoing treatment, there are aspects of this disease that can be hard to track and/or contain. Certain experiences can trigger episodes that make it extremely difficult to cope meaningfully.

The timing of my onboarding coincided with some very stressful situations in my personal life. I believe these situations, combined with the unpredictability of the disorder, and the newness of coming on to work with you all, have created a bit of a perfect storm and are contributing to the flare-up of difficult to manage cognitive symptoms.

I don't know how familiar you all are with the diagnosis, but things can spiral quickly. This evening, the signs of my symptoms became increasingly more evident, and I feel it is important that I take a step back to make health interventions.

Sharing this isn't easy, nor is making this decision, but I wouldn't be able to forgive myself if I didn't quickly and candidly share my situation so that you have the opportunity to find the support you need.
As you all know, mental illness is tricky to navigate, even when you take all the precautions. I think the world of all of you, and I'm hoping you don't see this decision as a reflection of my character.

Discussing My Condition Out Loud

The morning after sending this note, I didn't know what to expect. I woke up feeling a bit of an emotional hangover after my initial phase of disclosing my truth. How would they receive this information? How would they receive me?
I found out very quickly that it would be with grace and compassion:
First off, thank you for your honesty. That's so incredibly rare. I know a ton about Bipolar and can share more about it when we chat. Do you still have the time/energy to hop on a call this morning? If too tough, we can also regroup another time.
This message from Brit, our CEO and founder, immediately made me feel more at ease. Very quickly, she created a safe space for me to chat with her 1:1 about what I was experiencing. We traded stories and cried it out together. I so appreciated her openness and willingness to hear me out, validate me, and for sharing her insights. At the end of our discussion, I made the decision to step away from my role to recalibrate. Brit left the door open for me to return if/when I wanted to.

One week later, I received a sweet note and plants for my garden from the Brit + Co team. And yes, there were tears when I received that package, too.

Taking Time For Me

I took a month off to reevaluate what was impacting my mental state and to work towards pushing through it. Throughout the process, I took to heart a statement that one of my best friends had shared with me when I was initially navigating the newness of my diagnosis: "You need to treat your mental health like it's your only job!"
As such, I worked closely with my health practitioners to examine the root of what was disrupting my routines and rhythms, and together we mapped out the best path forward. This included:
  • Examining my prescription medication and making the necessary adjustments
  • Doubling down on DBT therapy
  • Incorporating healthier nutrition and fitness habits
When I started to feel like myself again, I reconnected with Brit about returning. She had stayed in touch with me throughout the process and made it clear that she wanted to empower me in coming back (and to allow me to do so on my terms). Throughout our conversations, she emphasized the mental health policies we have here, and encouraged me to share any future ebbs and flows I might experience so that they could accommodate them.

Coming Back To The Workplace

In coming back to Brit + Co, I set up conversations with colleagues I work closely with in order to provide coloring and texture to inform them about my condition and how it plays out for me. After all, everyone is different! Every single person I talked to had their own personal mental health story to share: some that looked and felt like mine, and others that showcased their capacity to empathize and relate.

As a result, the emotional intimacy and camaraderie we share are unparalleled, particularly for a remote setting.
We have all the words, memes, emojis, and gifs on deck to share out how we're feeling freely with each other. We prioritize our mental health and work at a company where people say, “Oh, I have therapy and can’t make that meeting." We do breathwork together.
Through this increased transparency, we're able to show up for each other, pitch in when things come up, and simply see each other for who we are: human.

My Advice For Opening Up About Mental Health

If you're living with a diagnosis that you want to talk about in a work setting, here are a few considerations to keep in mind:

Do your research

Whether you're sharing your story for the first time or refreshing everyone on what you've already shared, it's essential to do your research. First, consider who you're talking with and how much they know about mental health. Expect that colleagues who are unfamiliar with mental illness will have many questions.

Be prepared

You never know what the response will be, so it's always best to have a plan ready. If you're not sure how to share your story, think about how you want to frame it. You can find resources on social media and first-person accounts written by those living with mental illness. Talking points are always helpful!

Enlist a friend

We all have our moments, and you'll likely need some support along the way. If it makes you feel more comfortable or you want to be held accountable for your well-being, rehearse your conversations with a friend for moral support.

Stay consistent

If you've been struggling with mental illness and have already been open about it at work, stay consistent in your communication. Letting people into that part of your life is an important form of connection. So don't stop sharing just because things seem to mellow out or quiet down after the initial dialogue happened. If anything, now might be the time to focus on openness as we continue heading towards a more normalized culture around sharing our vulnerabilities.

Give yourself grace

Finally, remember that disclosing your struggles isn't about being defined by them. Being open doesn't mean an instant break from stigma or a cure for your clinical diagnosis. And even though you're trying to be transparent, know there's always space for self-care and boundaries.
This article originally appeared in Brit + Co. Brit + Co keeps women inspired and encourages them to DIY their most creative lives with self-care and life hacks, home and recipe ideas, virtual classes, entrepreneurial guidance, and so much more!

What’s your no. 1 piece of advice for sharing mental health challenges at work? Share your answer in the comments to help other Fairygodboss'ers!

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