This moment makes me extremely emotional. Most of my career was spent fighting an invisible battle in my head every single day. Things got so dark that I contemplated leaving the workforce forever and living with an elderly relative who survived on government benefits. Thinking about what could have happened if I kept going down that path scares me.
I shared this story on LinkedIn about battling mental illness at work. I didn’t expect hundreds of thousands of people to react to the post and tell their own stories. My inbox lit up. Two words featured in almost every message I got.
Here’s my story. It will help if you’ve ever faced mental illness at work.
Coming out of the Closet
Walt Disney ran our team. We were a group of misfits that the business had dumped into a team, hoping for a miracle. He moved from the sunny state of Tasmania to be our leader.
I liked Disney. He was a lot like the real Disney I idolized as a kid.
The guy had a weird way of running a business. He replaced many of our sales meetings with Ted Talks. One afternoon he made us all watch the “This Is Water Speech.” The idea we are all goldfish swimming around in a tank full of invisible water known as life really turned my worldview upside down. All the frustrations at work and at home were normal. They were moments to lean into, not write over the top of.
Disney and I got closer. He saw something in me. All I saw was what mental illness told me every morning: you’re a huge failure that screwed up a business full of innocent people who now can’t pay their mortgage.
Or this classic: “Why even try? You know you’ll screw it up and get sick.”
After a while I simply got pissed off with mental illness. All it ever did was screw up every opportunity. When I got a chance to do a job interview, it came out to play halfway through the interview and made me so nervous I got sick.
When Disney asked me to present at a meeting, it screwed that up too and made me forget what the hell I was supposed to say. And when I went on dates with women after work looking for love, it again made me sick so nobody would ever stick around to figure out what was wrong.
One morning I’d had enough.
I had my 1–1 meeting with Disney. The topic was our upcoming team day. It involved a days’ worth of activities, lunch, and a dinner.
“Are you excited for next week? This day is going to be so great.”
I then delivered the bad news.
“Sorry, I won’t be attending for personal reasons.”
His jaw dropped to the flaw. The look of disappointment still haunts me to this day. I was his work-in-progress and not showing up to the big day he spent his entire career planning was a huge F-You.
Disney didn’t give up. He wanted to know what was wrong. Years of regrets built up inside my body and suddenly reached boiling point.
“Alright! You wanna know what’s wrong? I feel sick every day. I have sudden panic attacks I can’t explain. I can’t go on dates with women. I feel sick when I try to eat socially with other people. I vomited at my 21st birthday in front of my closest friends and family. Happy now?”
Disney saw the other side of me. He got a peek into the day-to-day battle I faced. I’d never told anybody before.
The Surprising Aftermath
The best way I can describe admitting you’re facing mental illness is like this: you feel as though you’ve shared a taboo secret. It’s like admitting your sexual fantasies to your straight down the line boss and having them think you’re dirty.
I walked into the office the next day. Disney went out of his way to unleash a huge smile. The team said hello, loudly. Disney had an evil plan, and he wasn’t telling me. We ended up agreeing that I’d attend the team day and simply see what happened. If at any stage it became all too much, I could leave and Disney would eloquently cover my tracks.
Two things changed:
- He normalized my mental illness. We talked about it in future conversations as a normal phenomenon. “Normal” is easier to face than “never happened to anybody before.”
- He gave me confidence. This undying belief that I could turn things around helped a lot. We set challenges together to find ways to prove my mental illness wrong. One of those was writing on LinkedIn and facing harsh judgment. That experiment completely changed my life and is why I’m writing these words.
The “Me Too” Effect
Going up twenty-six floors in an elevator every day is difficult when mental illness is poking holes in your view of the world. Elevators at work made me anxious. So one experiment I tried was riding back-to-back elevators.
I went to a hotel close to work. I decided to hop in the elevator and see if I could survive the climb up Mount Everest in my jocks. The first elevator I hopped in had a couple in it. As the elevator started to go up, I looked visually sick. The man started to stare at me like something was wrong.
I suddenly burst out and said, “Elevators make me anxious.”
His response was unexpected.
Those two words transformed my thinking. For the first time ever my embarrassing mental illness was shared by another human being. “Maybe I’m not alone. He seems to deal with it okay.”
Admitting mental illness to a stranger is powerful. There’s no risk of being exposed. You might just find there are others who see the world as dark like you do, but have found ways to cope.
You’re not broken. You’re imperfect.
Mental illness told me I had to be perfect, or the day was a fail, and it had won. This form of perfection caused me to torture myself when one small thing went wrong.
We’re imperfect creatures. Mental illness doesn’t make you broken. It makes you imperfect and there is so much beauty in that. Accepting imperfection allows the healing process to begin.
The Quiet Realization That Changed My Entire Career
What helped me overcome mental illness at work isn’t obvious. I want to spell it out in simple terms. If you struggle with mental illness, admit to one person at work what you’re going through. Why?
Mental illness can be defeated when it goes from being invisible to visible.
Mental illness lies to you. Having one person you can chat to about it helps the lies become exposed. You explain what you’re going through and then the other person will present evidence that puts mental illness on the spot. I regret not telling someone sooner about my mental struggles.
Mental illness isn’t taboo. Tell one person at work. Speak up. It’s normal.