Often referred to as her ‘little protégé’, my line manager has raised me from a new-born, guileless graduate to a fully-fledged professional through a combination of tolerance, patience, challenge and high expectations. She believes in me more than I have ever believed in myself. You can imagine then the difficulty I had when it came to having to disclose my mental health condition.
From the age of sixteen, the dark cloud of depression and anxiety has hung over my head. When it rains particularly hard, I completely lose the ability to function; every small task seems insurmountable and, when the downpour is torrential, I spend days in bed with leaden veins and thoughts of suicide intrude.
And yet I’ve managed to more than survive; I have really lived. Fantastic support from family, friends and professionals, and small coping mechanisms like connecting with nature, eating well and going for a run once in a while have meant I’ve been able to ‘function well’ in the world (to use the doctor’s favourite terminology).
I was a straight A-student, was awarded a First Class degree and landed a place on a highly-competitive graduate scheme straight out of university. Seven years of living with these conditions and receiving consistent counselling has meant that I can gauge when my feelings are proportionate but I can also sense when things are getting bad again and when, so to speak, a storm is brewing.
After a long dry spell, moving to London counsellor-less, taking up my first job and being a long way from family and friends began to take its toll earlier this year. The usual signs started to present themselves over the course of a few weeks and then, out of the blue, I woke up one Wednesday morning and was completely unable to get out bed. I mustered the strength to text my manager with a feeble excuse to take a sick day and proceeded to take 45 minutes just to lift my legs over the side of the bed. It was back with a vengeance and officially preventing me from functioning. Regaining lucidity a few hours later, the reality which I had been trying to ignore sunk in. I had experienced the consequences of not sharing what I was going through many a time, and was aware of the danger this presented. It was time to tell people again, and time to disclose.
Despite our fantastic relationship, fear that my line manager’s belief in me would falter; that she would stop pushing me and start treading on eggshells; that I’d fall epically from the pedestal she’d so clearly put me on was crippling. I had never had to disclose anything in a professional environment before and I had no idea how ‘these things’ were supposed to play out nor what I was entitled to as an employee. More than anything, our relationship, our dynamic was perfect the way it was and I didn’t want anything to change.
The following week, I finally mustered up the courage to put half an hour in her diary.
I had prepared a well-structured, comprehensive speech to ensure that our conversation was as smooth and productive as possible. I convinced myself I could get her not to see it as a big deal and ensure that her opinion of me wouldn’t change. She would remain unfazed, but understanding if perhaps I had an off-day and wasn’t quite myself. Nothing would change.
Needless to say our conversation didn’t go as planned. I trembled with nerves and tears started in both my eyes and hers as I proceeded to vomit my story out onto the table. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but it certainly didn’t come out as the eloquent monologue I’d had in mind.
Her immediate reaction was raw and genuine and we both fumbled for reassuring words. Once we’d both calmed down, we agreed to meet the following day for a longer meeting. She would go away and check organisational policy and, although this bit went unsaid, get her head around it, before coming back to me with a ‘plan’. Feeling drained but also like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders, we returned to our desks. She let me go home early that afternoon.
The following day, the fierce woman I had come to know was back, and back with a vengeance. She assured me that I was not obliged to inform HR (who, it’s worth noting, have no wellbeing programme aside from a helpline phone number), nor anybody else within the organisation, but that we should put a robust system in place in order to ensure that there was total transparency between us with regards to my mental health and any allowances which she might grant me.
We set up a series of fortnightly, half an hour 1-1s, on top of our standard ones, dedicated to discussing how I was doing. She would take notes during every one of these and document them in our own little secret shared folder. In case she backtracked on anything she had agreed, such as leaving to have doctor appointments or working from home more regularly, I had evidence of her promises. We also established what she, coyly, described as a ‘code word’ whereabouts I was able to notify her if a situation or piece of work was overwhelming me and I needed to duck out.
I cannot sugar-coat the fact that the actual moment of disclosure itself was terrifying; I have never felt so vulnerable. However, since that day, my relationship with both my line manager and my work has only improved. I don’t worry about having an off-day or expressing that I feel under pressure. To be quite frank, aside from the fact that we are closer than we were before and I know I have a safety net in place for when I need it, not much has changed at all.
So in conclusion, my experience of disclosing my mental health condition was entirely positive. But, I don’t underestimate for a second that this was primarily due to the way my line manager handled it as an individual. The question I find myself asking now is whether an employee’s experience of disclosure should depend on their line manager’s disposition? Why aren’t their more comprehensive wellbeing programmes in place? Should my manager have had to create her own system to handle the situation professionally?
I was lucky, but I fear that many others are not.
(Originally edited and posted on The Guardian on 11th July 2016)