Why I Keep My Bipolar Disorder Secret at Work

“I mentioned the ADHD part of my diagnosis to a colleague, and her response was ‘Whatever, you just love taking Adderall.’”
(Fillmore Photography/flickr)

Last winter, I was declined by five health insurance companies. I am 26, do my preventative screenings like clockwork, and have no physical health problems. As my boss told me when I started working at a small start-up a few months ago that has no group health plan: “You’re young and healthy, I assume you’ll have no problems finding a new plan.” I smiled and weakly said, “of course.”

Five applications and four declines later, I anxiously awaited my last and final letter. The verdict came: Declined. Reason: Bipolar II/ADHD.

So there is my secret: Like millions of other Americans, I have a mental illness.

The most frustrating thing isn’t the insurance—with Cobra I can stay on the plan from my last job for 18 months. It costs $675 a month, but at least for now I have that option, which makes me luckier than many. No, the most frustrating part of my situation is that I can count on one hand the number of people who know about my mental illness. The stigma that surrounds mental health is suffocating, and I don’t feel comfortable talking about it with most of my friends and family, and certainly not my boss or colleagues.

But my illness is a huge part of my daily life. Just shopping for the perfect mix of medications is a full time job, with side effects from drugs tried and failed ranging from the merely awkward (flushed cheeks) to annoying (dry mouth) to incapacitating (flu-like symptoms that last for weeks). To keep my illness secret and managed, I go to therapy every week (for a while I did phone therapy at 6 a.m. so I could get to work on time), sneak to the kitchen or bathroom to take my morning and afternoon medications while at work, and make sure I go to my psychiatrist once a month during my lunch hour—often rescheduling and putting it off a week because a meeting or conference call comes up.

I mainly just want to tell my friends. I feel awkward even around my three close friends who do know. They get quiet and cock their heads, nodding and trying to understand—and I love them for that. But from the outside, they can’t fully understand—I’m 26, I graduated from Duke, I have a full-time job at an excellent company, I come from a nice Boston suburb, I lead what appears to be a typical twentysomething life—how could everything not be perfect?

There is a documentary that was recently released called Of Two Minds. It profiles several individuals around Los Angeles living with bipolar disorder, but no one featured was from the corporate world. In one review, the director mentioned that they had a Wall Street banker confirmed to be interviewed, but he dropped out last minute because he was afraid to lose his job. This is why I keep my mouth shut.

I worked an intense corporate job for four years before joining the start-up I’m at now. I work in a highly-coveted industry, and it was generally known that if you didn’t like your entry-level job, you were welcome to leave, and there would be a line of people out the door, happy to be your replacement. Few people have the opportunity to move up. After working hard for years, I was at the head of the pack, and felt like showing the slightest weakness would hurt my chances of getting a promotion. No one would say that out loud of course, but in every office I’ve worked in, I never once heard another employee openly mention dealing with a mood disorder, and given the size of my company, statistically I know I can’t have been the only one.

My doctors long suspected I was Bipolar II and I’ve had a diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder and ADHD for years, but last summer I experienced my first hypomanic episode (the first of many), thus sealing the Bipolar II diagnosis. By continuing to work 14-hour days throughout the episode (which caused me to sleep less and expend way too much energy), I found that when it finally ended, I crashed much harder than usual. Making sure no one saw a difference in my work was my number one priority, and I was exhausted, spending my nights and weekends in bed either sleeping or too depressed to get up.

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CJ Laymon is the pen name of a writer based in Los Angeles.

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