Money and Depression: Telling Your Boss, Or Not
Martha Kaplan and I are both depressed.
This is the second in a series of conversations about depression and money.
Logan Sachon: You said something in our first conversation that I keep thinking about.
Martha Kaplan: I’m pretty depressed, so it’s a good day for it. Go on.
LS: You were explaining why you’ve chosen not to use your real name for these chats, and you said: “It is hard to be respected in your place of employment when it is known that you sometimes cannot get out of bed.” (basically)
MK: Ah yes.
LS: And I’m wondering: Does your employer know about your mental health adventures? Past employers? Who gets to know, and who doesn’t?
MK: This is an interesting question. I have an office job now, but I used to be in a job that required me to supervise children. I was very young, and I didn’t have a particularly strong backbone (this was a thing that my supervisor told me once) (she was not trying to be mean). And what ended up happening was I would cry in front of the children. It happened more than once. A handful of times, I think? But it made it so, so, *so* much harder to go back the next day and command respect. Not that I was getting much before. Hence the crying.
But that was a lesson. Obviously, if they see you’re weak, they’ll respect you less, but children are just more honest humans. If you cry at work, you will get less respect. Or if you talk openly about being depressed, you will be seen as weak. Unreliable. (It’s a particularly fine line for a woman to walk) (because if you’re too aggressive, you’re seen as a bitch) (competent, strong, but not too strong, and not too threatening—please be all of those things).
Anyway, this is not to say that I haven’t cried at my desk. I have, and I’ve told my co-workers, the ones I’m close with, some details about my mental state. There is one coworker in particular whose office I would sit in sometimes when I was freaking out, but this person was supposed to be mentoring me, so it felt okay to be vulnerable (or rather I felt like I had no choice). I honestly kind of regret that now. I had a panic attack at work once, and I joke about being in therapy because I feel like you’re allowed to do that in New York. But no one who’s actually in charge of me knows that I’m fifteen minutes from totally losing my shit at any given moment. Because honestly, if they did know, why would they give me anything to be in charge of?
LS: Do you think that person who is your mentor “gets” it?
MK: I think there’s an age difference that makes it hard. Part of me feels that, as a youngish woman, there’s no way that my “depression” will be taken seriously. I don’t think my mentor thinks my problems are a joke, but I also think that it’s easy to dismiss a twenty-something having panic attacks as, you know, just a girl going through a phase.
LS: This is something that I struggle with, even myself. Because even though I know that I have a Disease, that depression is a Disease, that I cannot Snap Out of It, that it’s not that I’m just not trying hard enough, that there are actual chemicals in my brain that are keeping me from being The Best Possible Me All The Time …. I still think sometimes (all the time?) that my inability to snap out of it is a personal weakness.
So if I can’t believe there is something physically or chemically happening that is making basic tasks so hard, or if I don’t, why should anyone else?
That said, I have been very open with most of my employers about the fact that I have been diagnosed and sometimes have to deal with being Clinically Depressed, mostly because I am very open with everyone about everything, and lying about that particular thing seemed harder and more stressful than just being out with it.
But I’ve never disclosed it preemptively—it’s always been when I’m basically already in crisis, or getting there, and feel I need to somehow justify my behavior (like, looking very morose) (or being late) (or subpar performance, or what I perceive as subpar performance).
MK: So what do you say?
LS: Well it’s hard. There isn’t really standard accepted language for what is happening. Depressed means so much more than whatever is in the DSM-IV. And I certainly am not precious about it. “Ugh, I’ve watched all of Game of Thrones , I’m so depressed” is just as legit a use of the word as “I’m sorry that I have been letting you down in every way lately, I’m depressed.” But they don’t mean the same thing. And I don’t love to use that word, really maybe because I do feel like it discounts what’s going on. I don’t know. When I’m in a bad place, that is, a depressed place, I describe it as “a dark place” or “a low place.” That language feels pretty apt to me. But that’s also very casual language.
Which is why it’s good, I think, to have a diagnosis and to medicalize it as much as possible. When I’ve felt the need to disclose it, I try to say, “I’m clinically depressed. I’ve had it under control but my meds have stopped working. I’m seeing a new therapist, I’m looking for a doctor to regulate my meds, this is what’s happening.” Using that language also helps me deal with self-loathing—it’s not me, it’s my disease.
MK: Interesting. I think one of the things I have been good at is faking it when necessary. I was talking to a friend today about how I feel like I have enough energy to do one of two things: either work or take care of myself. And I always choose work, no matter how awful I feel. Even if it makes me feel awful. I do enough to make sure I’m not insanely worried about getting fired. Or rather, I do enough so that when I tell people I’m insanely worried about getting fired, they tell me I’m crazy. I think work is a coping mechanism almost, like a way of avoiding the problem. Which is why it’s important that no one know that I actually have serious issues at work.
LS: The jobs that have been best for me, as far as being able to separate what is going on in my head and getting a job done, have been retail jobs. The jobs have been with larger companies, the policies are set by corporate, you clock in, you clock out, if you’re late three times, you’re fired. These are the jobs where I have not disclosed anything, because it doesn’t matter. Rules are rules and if you break the rules then you’re out. That kind of structure was good for me, I think.
The other jobs I’ve had—writing jobs, editing jobs—have not been so stringent. There is a bare minimum of things to be done, yes, but then also almost infinite possibilities of what Could be done. And when I’m struggling and when I’m just making it through doing the bare minimum, I feel the need to disclose what’s going on. I want to be an A+ amazing worker. And sometimes I can’t be. And it’s not because I’m lazy. Or maybe it is because I’m lazy. But it’s chemical imbalance-induced laziness.
When I’ve been in a bad place, and disclosed my depression, I’ve always encountered really understanding and lovely coworkers and bosses. And I think part of that is also that I have mostly worked at small companies, so these people have all been my friends, too, so they’ve been sympathetic and understanding and wanting to help and cut me a break.
But now I wonder if disclosing this to these people and accepting their help didn’t …. lower the stakes for me. Like, at the retail jobs, I’m going to show up no matter what because I know that if I don’t I will get fired and there is no recourse. But once people know, even if I don’t want it to be like this, once they know that I’m having a hard time, it makes this thing that I Had to get out of bed for, less of a Had? If that makes sense.
MK: It does. I mean, I do think depression is a real disease. I don’t think this is “in your head,” but I do think that you can lean into it or fight it. Or actually, you can be lucky enough to have the resources and support be able to actually take the time to try to fight it. Like, you can be financially stable and part of some miraculous supportive family that will pay for you to go to therapy and yoga all the time or something. Which is a small number of people. Or you can use all of your energy fighting to stay afloat. But when you’re using all of your energy fighting to stay afloat, you get tired, and eventually you just want to give up.
I think maybe telling your employers about your issues made it easier to allow yourself to give up. Which is not the same as saying you’re lazy. It’s more like, a regular person will take advantage of having flexible deadlines to a certain extent, but for a person who has depression, that’s almost like a trigger. You don’t want to take advantage, but you do because you’re normal, and then you feel awful about it, and then you do it more and more, because that makes you feel more depressed and you’re fighting harder just to keep yourself, like, not in a huge amount of pain and you can’t do the thing you were supposed to do ages ago.
LS: The Spiral.
MK: I think the idea is: Can work be a place that forces you to be healthy? And is that a good thing? I think it can be, but also, I feel a lot of the time like I’m choosing work over myself. Because being competent at work makes me feel baseline competent, even though my entire body is screaming that I’m not okay.
Doing your job while also having depression or mania or whatever is hard enough. Doing your job while also worrying about judgment, is too hard, is my feeling. But that’s also a product of how there is a stigma around mental illness. And it’s not well understood. It’s like, would I try to hide the fact that I had diabetes from my employer because of concerns that I would “take advantage” of that for more sick days? No.
LS: Right, or hide behind that diagnosis somehow. Do you take sick days?
MK: Not frequently. Once because I was extremely sad. That was awful.
LS: And did you say, “I’m extremely sad”?
MK: No I said I had the flu. One of these things is definitely not your fault (the flu). One of them seems like it might be (being sad).
LS: Another good thing about the retail jobs I’ve had is that, just like there are rules for being late and getting fired, there are also clear rules for calling out and for covering shifts. And, if I needed to, I did call out sick from those jobs—I knew the number of days I had, and I used them. Never more than was allowed, and never when I knew it was going to really mess anyone up.
But it was really a no judgment system. You didn’t have to fake it. You just called and talked to a manager and said, “I’m calling out today.” And something about that let me take some much-needed “mental health days” without the guilt—I hadn’t done that before. If it was really bad, I had lied and said I was sick, or worse, I wouldn’t take a day at all when I really, really needed one because I’d felt that I should be able to talk myself out of bed or whip myself into shape.
And I hate lying. But yes, I’d say the flu. Or a fever. Or terrible menstrual cramps. All of that is easier than saying, “I just can’t make it out of bed today.”
Of course a lot of that had to do not just with the policies but with nature of the work—other people could do my job at the stores. Most of the jobs I’ve had, that hasn’t been the case. A sick day just meant no one was doing what needed to be done, or someone was having to do my job on top of their job.
MK: So the system that was in place at the store allowed you to take care of yourself without taking advantage. That’s insane. That sounds like a dream
LS: It was a good place. Good for me. Are you aware of anyone else at your office with mental unhealth? Are there people that talk about it?
MK: I know several people here are in therapy, but I doubt anyone else has a diagnosed thing. Is my feeling. But maybe that’s just me wanting to feel special.
LS: Ha, yes. We are so special. Magical butterflies of sadness. Superheroes of hating ourselves. Would we just had, like, different colored eyes, or photographic memories. I thought we were going to end up deciding that it would be better to be More Open About Our Depression at Work, but it seems like maybe we’re thinking … no. Keep it secret, keep it safe. But that seems wrong. I mean, one of the hard things about being depressed is that it’s not something that a lot of people accept as even a valid disease, so maybe we should be talking about it more (hence these conversations). But what if everyone at your work is also miserable and you’re all suffering silently? You could have a support group … of depressed people. Do we owe it to each other to talk about this openly at work?
MK: I think the key is that I am healthy enough to get my shit together and come to work and pretend to be fine, so no, I wouldn’t want to be reminded of how hard that is and how close I am to not being able to do that by having a support group at work. But also, there are people who are not healthy enough to have regular jobs, and maybe support groups would help get them to a place where they could.
LS: I’m very interested to read about other people’s experiences with telling or not telling at work. And I’d love to talk to some people who don’t Suffer From Depression about what it’s like to work with people who do Suffer From Depression. And as for you and me, we’re both going to keep doing the best we can. I’m going to do that by eating an apple. I am guessing that you are going to continue to work on your work. Thanks for chatting. I’m sorry you’re feeling bad today.
MK: It will be fine. It will pass. It always does.
Previously: Depression and Money: Some Real Talk