Coming out: Round II
Zoë is a senior creative, who works on a freelance basis for advertising and design agencies. She is also the founder of Anxiety Empire.
My first ‘coming out’ was coming out as gay when I was about 19. It was no big deal for my friends. And for my family, although the news wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms, there was no big drama either. I was evidently luckier than many.
Growing up as a kid in the '80s I knew, in myself, that I was attracted to people of the same sex, but I didn't know any gay people - not in 'real life', nor in the media which I was consuming - and so somehow (as silly as it now sounds) I didn't realise that dating people of the same sex was an option. Instead, as a teenager, I stayed safely inside the rules of the heteronormative suburban life. It wasn't until I was about 19 that I met other gay people and realised I could date who I want.
This coming out happened over 15 years ago. So why do I mention this now? Because this same lack of visibility of people in a similar situation affected my second 'coming out': coming out as someone who experiences difficulties with my mental health in the workplace.
Having mental health problems is something many of us feel ashamed about, and something we feel we should keep private, especially in our professional lives. Studies show that a high percentage of people think that being open about their mental illness would lower their chances of promotion. The stigma is real.
I freelance as a senior creative for ad agencies. And I have depression. And social anxiety. Which means that social events can make me really anxious and can give me panic attacks.
I had always kept my mental health issues to myself. But one day I stopped. I was freelancing at a well-known ad agency. After my first week there, on a Saturday morning, I got an email titled ‘Office drinks with Zoë’.
I opened it.
I read it.
And I immediately fell onto my sofa in tears.
The anxiety around the thought of going for drinks after work was sooo high. It was a nice team, and they seemed like lovely people. But rational arguments like these, as to why something will be fine, don't lower my anxiety.
I cried some more, the stress hormones releasing themselves through my tears.
Although I don't think it's okay to send work emails on weekends, I’m really glad the email did arrive then as it gave me two days to process my feelings. And on the Monday morning I clicked 'no' to the invite and replied:
thanks for the invite :) but, i suffer from social anxiety disorder. which means group social events can cause me anxiety and panic attacks.
i’m aware there is still stigma around talking about mental health issues, but i’m a big believer that physical health and mental health issues should be seen on equal terms in the workplace, so i think it's important for people to be open about it. i hope me not coming to group social things is not a big deal and if you want go get a coffee some time instead that would be lovely,
In drafting the email I had written words like ‘sadly i can’t make it’. Delete. I didn't want it to be seen as 'sad'. It's not sad. It's normal. 1 in 4 of us will suffer with mental health issues at some point in our lives.
Ready to press 'send', my thoughts raced. Will they think I'm weird? Will they ever hire me as a freelancer again? Should I just make an excuse, say that I'm busy, like i've done 100 times before? Why am I raising the issue at all?
Then i stopped thinking about it, pressed send, and stood up and walked to the stationary cupboard to get a new pen. My hands were shaking.
A reply to the email never came, but sitting down for a meeting later that day with the person who had sent the email invite, we talked about it. He started by saying that he thought it was an interesting email, and that he was wondering whether, if someone else asked why I wasn't at drinks, if he should make an excuse. We agreed to just be open about it; just like if someone has a broken leg they can’t go play football. "Not a big deal" I said. He smiled and said "Yes, exactly".
For the rest of the day I listened to ‘Issues' by Julia Michaels on repeat:
"I've got issues. You've got them too."
In my reply to the invite I had written that I hoped it wouldn't be a big deal. But actually for me, being open about my mental health at work for the first time, was a big deal. I wasn't just being open about my mental health, I was being open about me, who I am. And I was no longer prepared to feel ashamed about that. Maybe it sounds strange, and probably more than a little cheesy, but I held my head a little higher that day.
If we want the stigma around mental health to reduce then, i believe, we need people in positions of responsibility and power to be open about their mental health in the workplace. It's normal. I've got issues. 1 in 4 of you will have them too.