I have a serious mental illness. I'm grateful for a manager who helps me beat the odds
Having a manager who is truly empathetic has been invaluable to me
This is a First Person column by Kristi Allan, a mental health advocate living in Petty Harbour, N.L. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
I was at work when I got the call from my doctor six years ago.
I slipped into the boardroom to answer the phone. He wanted to see me right away.
I notified the person I reported to that I would need to take the afternoon off. By the end of the afternoon, I would be sent to the psychiatric hospital for assessment. It was the beginning of my journey being diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
When you're working a full-time job, it's terrifying to think about anyone at work — let alone management — finding out about a bipolar diagnosis.
The person I directly report to also happens to be our office manager. Deanne — she has asked me to use just her first name — is accountable for hundreds of projects a month and my work performance affects her more than any other colleague.
When I'm not at work, I've felt differently about speaking up about mental health. Since the fall of 2020, I've demonstrated weekly with a sign that says "Long Term Mental Health Care Needs to be More Accessible" — including on my wedding day.
That quiet, public demonstration every week has brought attention to the need for accessible mental health care — which has been my intention — but things are different at work.
'What will your employer think?'
"Are you sure you want to be open about mental health?" my friends and family would caution me. "What will your employer think?" I can understand their concern.
They say this out of love. And the truth is, when I'm at work, I skirt around using the word "bipolar" as much as I can.
But whether there's a label on it or not, my manager sees little things I manage to let slip through my tightly wound facade.
Deanne is extremely busy. It's not uncommon for her to work long hours and weekends. It would be easy for her to be absorbed in her own work, or hold me to high standards of keeping it all together no matter what.
Instead, she takes the time to be empathetic and understanding, all while juggling her work and management duties.
When I'm paranoid and convinced she is secretly thinking of ways to fire me, it's Deanne who will get an email with the question in the form of "I know it's likely paranoia, but are you sure you don't hate me?"
When the slightest thing will make me dissolve into tears or there's a change in my attitude, it's Deanne who has taken me out to lunch and asked if things were OK as I cried, often without explaining why.
On the flip side, when I'm manic she may be faced with phone calls where words tumble out about how I can be more productive as though I'm in a race to speak over myself.
She handles it in stride.
When I finally had the courage to speak the word "bipolar," I was betting 70/30 she would handle it with grace. And she did. I walked to my car after and couldn't believe I'd just shared one of my biggest secrets.
She always sees the value in me
Don't get me wrong, it can be a great thing for work when I'm manic. My productivity will skyrocket — something that can greatly benefit my work when we are under tight deadlines.
But in the depths of depression, or in the throngs of a mixed episode, I ask myself, how she can still see value in me?
There are many days of sitting at my computer with tears streaming down my face or even worse, in a blanket of numbness and memory loss. I've come up with many tricks to keep up.
Even so, it still requires understanding from someone in charge.
And Deanne is constantly that person.
"Your voice sounds a little bit off. Are you OK?" is a question I hear more than I care to admit. There have been times, too, when a simple question will result in her getting a frenzied novel of an email.
I wouldn't be able to keep a job without her. Her understanding and care has led to me pushing through even the darkest of days.
As hard as those days are, I've come to understand that routine is good for me. Often the only thing I can do is drag myself from my bed to my desk and then back to my bed again.
I'm grateful to have a manager I don't want to let down. Her compassion, and the ability now to work from home, have made me loyal and grateful.
This is your 100th weekly reminder that long term mental healthcare needs to be more accessible. <a href="https://t.co/gXVkLYvGtT">pic.twitter.com/gXVkLYvGtT</a>—@mynlcorner
When it gets to the very worst points, I know she will encourage me to take time off — and will also double-check on things I might have missed. She makes sure the quality of work is uncompromised. Many employers are not like this. They don't want to know the challenges and certainly aren't willing to work with you when they're so busy.
Without even meaning to, she accommodates a disability.
The economic impact of mental illness
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 70 to 90 per cent of people with a serious mental illness are unemployed, which translates into a loss of billions of dollars to the economy.
I'm so grateful to not be among those statistics, and I understand what a privilege that is. I strongly believe that there is a long way to go with employers understanding how to facilitate a work environment that is healthy for those with serious mental illness.
It is possible to hold down a job. I'm proof of that.
Throughout my eight years working with Deanne, I have battled highs, lows and attempts to take my life, among other things I'm too ashamed to tell her, or anyone other than my husband. She doesn't need to know all the details.
Deanne would tell you that she doesn't do anything special, but I know she goes far above and beyond many in her position.
This year, Bell Let's Talk Day was a bit different, with the company making a donation rather than committing five cents for every post. I wonder if people didn't feel the incentive to speak up.
And what about other companies? Will they continue to act?
Managers now have the opportunity to prove that they don't need a corporately sponsored day to show they truly care about their employee's mental health.
But Deanne? She's proven that all along.
If you or someone you know needs mental health support, you can call the 24-hour Wellness Together Phone Counselling Hotline at 1-866-585-0445 or the 24-hour Mental Health Crisis Line at 1-888-737-4668.