My bipolar I disorder had been in full remission for six years. My friends, family and doctors were cheering me on. I was beginning a successful environmental nonprofit career.
The office was fast-paced, stressful and tense. I sat at an open area desk, where I was constantly interrupted and critiqued. Everything was urgent and important. The micromanagement was extreme. I was thrown into the deep end without a helping hand in sight. I was overwhelmed and making mistakes. The anxiety made it impossible to do my best work.
I had been taking a mood stabilizer with no problems for years. But my work stress and the hot summer didn’t mix well with my medication. I was disoriented and nauseous. I told the director I wasn’t feeling well and needed to go home. I made it to my car, but had to call my dad because I was shaking and couldn’t see straight.
We were almost home when I asked him to pull over. I took one step out of the car and threw up. I tried walking, but I kept vomiting, wiping my face with my dress. I collapsed, and my dad called an ambulance.
Once admitted, I was delirious, screaming and pulling out my IVs. My parents had been in communication with work, letting them know I was sick. When my test results came back, my sodium was low. I wasn’t manic.
I Was Harassed About My Health
Once I recovered enough to go home from the hospital, I called the director to check-in. I said I was feeling better and would be back to work the following week. She pressured me about what was going on and asked if I had an eating disorder. Her question surprised and unsettled me. I said no and gave her the shortened version.
When I went back to work, I wore sweaters to cover the bruises on my forearms from IVs and blood tests. I pushed myself to meet the demands and pressure in the office. I did not want to use sick leave or work from home.
I was stressed, and I wasn’t sleeping. My thoughts were racing, even in my journal entries. I had trouble concentrating to follow the plot and dialogue in familiar movies. I was counting my breaths, trying to fall sleep. But one night, I raced downstairs, confused, scared and calling for help.
I was manic, stretched thin and needed help. My doctors and nurses took care of me, and after a few days, I was going home with a prescription for antipsychotics and regular visits with my psychologist.
Back at work, the director met with me and slapped a month calendar on the table. It had black sharpie X’s on the days I had been sick, slashes for half days or days I had doctor appointments, and a squiggly line when I was in the office but “fuzzy.”
She continued to demand what was going on with my health because she had heard the word “chronic” when my parents first called her. I didn’t want to spill my private health concerns to someone I didn’t trust and who hadn’t shown any compassion, so I deflected.
She said I’ve been “angry” and hard to approach, which made her think something was going on with me. She said she was waiting on me to have a full track record of two weeks in the office. I was leaving work early that afternoon for a doctor’s appointment, which she used against me as an example.
I felt bullied, pressured and harassed about my health and sick leave. I took the calendar with me to HR and reported it. I cried when telling my therapist and my mom. They both said nothing was wrong with me. The director was the one filled with anger and rage.
I Was Criticized and Demoted
Three months after my hospitalizations, I got my overdue six-month review. The director cataloged every mistake I ever made so that my four-page evaluation read like an attack.
She critiqued my personality: I was too “calm” and an “extreme introvert.” And my features: I was “self-possessed,” “blank” and “unresponsive.” That was partly the effect of the anti-psychotics, and the rest was her bullying.
I was demoted, pushed to the back of the office and stripped of my previous responsibilities. Although this was clearly discrimination, the positive side was that I was out of the line of fire. I was no longer reporting to the people who had made the last nine months my worst nightmare.
I ran across a NAMI post that said it is unlawful to discriminate against an employee even when mental illness is suspected and not confirmed. I knew they couldn’t fire me.
Thanks to the drug treatment I received from my psychiatrist, the transformative therapy from my psychologist, and the unwavering support of my friends and family, I got stronger.
I Found a Way Out
I made a plan, “operation exodus.” I decided against getting a lawyer and filing a complaint. I braced myself and began job searching.
Eight months later, my hard work paid off as the right job came along. I gained a caring, trusting boss and colleagues, who believed in me. I thrived and excelled in the positive work environment.
The friends I made at my nightmare job had the same experience. It turned out, it wasn’t us. It was the director’s problem, and the organization needed to make changes or the wheel of turnover and abuse would continue.
I learned a bad boss and working environment cannot define who I am or tear me down. I found my way thanks to the people who care about me most and the doctors who are always there for support.
Anne Russell Gregory is an environmental nonprofit fundraiser, who lives in New York with her boyfriend and two dogs. She is passionate about spreading mental health awareness, speaking up against stigma, and supporting others however she can.
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