Coming Out of the Bipolar Closet at Work

I have bipolar disorder. I also have a career. Sometimes I feel like I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. It’s important to take care of myself, but I also need to work. Should I practice self-care and stigma-busting by disclosing my mental illness to my coworkers and, most importantly, my employer? Or should I play it safe and keep my diagnosis hidden? I’ve been struggling with this question for fourteen years, ever since I started working as a freelancer in the film industry. I’m still not sure I have an answer.

I lost my dad (who also had bipolar disorder) to suicide in 1998. When I was diagnosed bipolar in 2002, I was frightened. I thought my diagnosis was a death sentence. But I’m incredibly lucky. My mom is a psychotherapist, so I had access to treatment options and support that not everyone has. After years of trial and error, I found a cocktail of medications that’s kept me stable for a long time. I eventually came to terms with my illness and found peace within myself. I’m open with friends and family about my bipolar disorder. I’m not ashamed of my diagnosis. I’ve written a book about my experiences. I contribute articles to major mental health organizations and award-winning bipolar blogs. But I haven’t disclosed my mental illness at work. It’s like I live a double-life, and that takes a toll on me.

I work in a high-stress field, but the rewards are worth it. I get to see my design work on the big screen. I also have a decent paycheck, as well as a 401K through my union. I have fantastic health insurance that covers my medications. But sometimes I’m terrified of being found out at work. It’s like my jobs are another reality. I have imposter syndrome. I’m afraid I’ll be exposed for imitating someone who’s “normal.” I worry the stigma of mental illness could cost me not just a job here and there, but it could ruin my whole career. If I could no longer make money doing what I love, and my health insurance and retirement plan disappeared, it would be a lot to lose.

Some people feel it’s important to share their diagnosis with employers. There are pros and cons about coming out of the bipolar closet at work. There’s something to be said for not living a lie and pretending to be someone you’re not at the office. Those who advocate in favor of disclosure at the workplace say it’s important to be open about mental illness at work, because it helps ensure protection under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). No one can help you if you don’t help yourself by communicating your needs. Seems simple, right? For me, it’s not.

Because I’m a freelancer, I’m in a unique situation. I don’t have a dedicated human resources department, because I’m always bouncing between movie jobs. I’m in a union, but they can’t provide the same level of protection that corporate HR can. Plus, I work for different movie studios each time. Every production company has their own rules on everything from petty cash procedures to sexual harassment policy. I can’t depend on any kind of consistency. By the time I’d figure out what to do, the movie would be wrapped and I’d be on to the next show.

I have to appear employable at all times, because I’m always hustling for my next gig. That means I have to look like a model employee, otherwise I won’t get job offers. It’s a competitive field. I can’t take time off because I’m often the only one in my role on the set. If I don’t do the work, it won’t get done. And everything is a time crunch, so typically my projects have to be finished like, yesterday. It’s a lot of pressure, and I haven’t wanted to add more stress to the mix by telling my employers that I have bipolar disorder.

Unfortunately, I have no real legal protection because I live in Georgia, which is a “work at will” state. That means I can be fired at any time and for any reason, or for no reason at all. The only exception is wrongful termination based on discrimination, which the ADA is supposed to enforce. An employer could fire me because of my mental illness, but how could I prove it if they don’t admit it? In Georgia, they don’t even have to. Even if I don’t have to worry about getting fired because of my bipolar disorder, how would I know if I wasn’t hired because of it? Even if I could, the ADA doesn’t protect job prospects for freelancers.

Bipolar disorder has both benefits and drawbacks. Many people with bipolar disorder tend to be creative, innovative risk-takers. That can benefit an organization. There’s no shortage of successful artists with bipolar disorder. However, the stigma surrounding bipolar disorder can also make employers skittish. The stereotype of the unreliable, mentally unstable employee who misses days of work is pervasive. I’m afraid of being labeled that way too.

I’ve never had my mental illness affect my performance at work. I stay late and come in early, and I work twelve-hour-a-day shows. I complete projects early with a smile on my face. I say yes to everyone and secretly feel a sense of pride that I can get more done than the typical “normal” (and healthy) person. I jump from one thing to the next, rarely taking breaks in between tasks. I don’t take sick days, and I often forego medical appointments. Ironically, even though this behavior is textbook hypomania (a lesser form of mania), people just think I’m a rock star who’s really good at her job. I don’t dare share the real reason with anyone for fear of being looked down on or called “crazy” behind my back. I also worry if I told my bosses that I have bipolar disorder, my accomplishments would be overshadowed by their fear that I could crack apart at any second (even though that’s never happened and probably never will). The one thing you don’t want on a movie set is unpredictability. There are enough other unforeseen challenges to deal with. Even though I’m dependable, I worry I might be labeled a liability.

Lots of my bosses and I have become friends. They know they can rely on me. I have their backs. That’s why they repeatedly hire and refer me. I get pretty much all my jobs via word-of-mouth. One blemish on my reputation could be catastrophic for my entire career. Even though it’s never affected my performance, and likely never will, I have no way to convince my bosses or coworkers of that. I hope my track record speaks for itself, but all my years of loyalty may not predict the future in their eyes.

I shrug my shoulders when coworkers call everything from the weather to criminals on the news bipolar. In 2012, I was working on a particularly stressful movie set. My boss was always on edge, irrational and unpredictable. She’d blow into the office barking orders and storm out, leaving a trail of drama and destruction in her wake. In the office bullpen one day, a coworker said, “She must be bipolar.” The room erupted in a cacophony of agreement. The office mantra was, “She’ll never work in this city again.” That day had a huge effect on me. She may not have had a mental illness at all. Who knows what she was going through, or if that was just her personality? And although I’m nothing like her, I saw what people really think about this illness. I refuse to allow myself to be lumped in with people like her.

That’s the conundrum with stigma. I could break the mold by just telling these people who’ve known me for years as pleasant, reliable and dedicated that I have bipolar disorder. I’d be proving to them that not everyone with this illness is debilitated by it. But I’d feel like I was out there on my own. Do I really want to be the person who’s labeled as “crazy” when I’m not in the room? If I shared the truth, I’d suddenly be speaking for everyone who has this illness, and I’d have no way to prevent my coworkers from falling back on their own archetypes of what this disease looks like. I may be doing a great service to everyone with the illness, but that won’t do me any good if I can’t pay my bills or fill my mood stabilizer prescriptions.

So, to share or not to share? I’ve discovered it’s a highly personal choice. Not every job is the same, and certainly no two people are either.

I recently got an agent for my memoir. Once that happened, I realized I can’t keep hiding. I’m not using a ghost writer for my book or a pen name on my online articles or my blog. I’ve even shared my Darkness & Light Facebook page with them. Maybe they or a family member struggle with bipolar disorder. It touches millions of Americans, so it’s more likely than not that everyone knows someone affected by this illness.

I’m slowly learning to overcome my fears. My goal is to get published, to go on speaking tours, and become one of the outspoken voices for this illness. I’ll be the mental health advocate I know I can be.

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