Next week I go to the Oregon Library Association annual conference. I always have a great time there, especially now that I’m more established in my career. It’s a time to network with colleagues, learn from other libraries, and see some good friends. It’s also a time that I wear a lot of my faces. The work face, to be sure, but also a face I find both exhilarating and draining to wear: the presenter face.
But, as I’m wont to do, I digress. I didn’t log on to discuss my multiple personae. Instead, I wanted to write the post I’ve been threatening to write for a while: how could my decision to go public affect my career.
I didn’t fully understand the ramifications of what I was doing to myself personally by going public with my illness. Since my identity has historically been so tied to to my job, I worried primarily about whether I was deep-sixing my career. This was definitely a valid concern, as these advice articles show:
- “Should I Tell My Boss I Have a Mental Illness” at AOL Jobs
- “Should You Tell Your Boss about a Mental Illness?” at Scientific American
- “Deciding Whether to Disclose Mental Disorders to the Boss” at New York Times
To be sure, I didn’t think that my current employer would fire me on the spot. After all, mental illness is covered in the USA by the Americans With Disabilities Act: “An individual is considered to have a ‘disability’ if s/he has a physical or mental impairment” (source). More importantly, as I’ve noted, I’m performing fairly well in my current position. I worried far more about the chilling effect on my future career. What if I applied for some fantastic new job and they did a web search on me only to find this blog? While one might not admit it, what supervisor wouldn’t give pause at the thought of hiring someone who’s at risk of a mental breakdown or suicide? And what library would want members of their community to search for info on their new library director only to find his blog where he talks about his plan involving a razor blade and a bathtub?
I’ve noted before that my work has been one of the few areas of my life where my confidence has tended not to wane. My resume is pretty decent, and I’ve been in the profession for a while. If someone wouldn’t hire me because of this blog, I thought, then maybe I don’t want to work for them. Call it arrogance, call it bravado, call it what you will, but that’s what I thought (and still think); they’ll have to take me as I am.
The personal risk I was taking was not foremost in my mind when I decided to go public, though. Oh sure, when I was writing my early posts and considering releasing the blog to the world, I thought about whether a future date might find the blog and turn around running. But worrying about potential romance wasn’t something that concerned me, despite being single at the time.
I guess I pretty much thought, well, I’m writing this stuff. Maybe I could help someone else, or educate someone, by sharing it? This seem brave to me. Perhaps a bit because of the career worries, but not much. After all, I was still sitting behind a screen somewhere, and so too would be any readers I might have. The Internet seems so impersonal, even if people I know are reading this. Internet, dogs, blah, blah, blah. So I told WordPress to let sites index me. Consequences be damned!
It started sinking in when I was going to a meeting about the possibility of starting a Columbia Gorge chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). A song popped up on Pandora. A song I’d never heard. A song that really forced me to consider what I’d done.
I almost started crying, something I find myself saying often now. Well, often for me. The enormity of what I was doing was sinking in. I was on my way to a meeting where I was going to tell people, in person, that I’m a wackjob, a crazy, a mental case. That freaked me the hell out; telling people to their faces just seemed so … vulnerable. And, to top it all off, I’d also been telling the entire damn Internet. Potentially anyone who wanted could type a few words and find me discussing some really personal shit about myself. It gave me pause.
Personal shit indeed. If I were to have paused anywhere, it would have been my last post. It was by far my hardest yet to write; it brought up so many deep-seated issues that I still ponder and will continue to ponder, despite having mostly come to terms with them. It was one of the only posts I’ve considered deleting. It was far harder to click “Publish” on the post about my father than for ones on my self-hatred, on breaking down in public, or even on suicide. I felt like I was revealing a part of me to the world that I barely yet knew myself.
Two things gave me the confidence to share that story, despite my new found hesitancy. The first was my therapist. Early on, when I told him I was considering making my blog public, he encouraged me. His only worry was that I would want to write about a topic but hold back because it might be read by others. That would be detrimental to my healing, he thought.
The second was you. Thinking of the responses I’d received from many of you helped show me that I hadn’t made a terrible, terrible mistake. You shared some incredible stories with me, about your own struggles with mental illness, about how it touched a family member or friend, or simply about the difficulty you have sharing your emotions. Your stories were incredible and inspiring (and I feel extremely guilty that I haven’t responded back to many of you yet!).
You gave me a gift. You revealed intimate parts of your life despite the fact that, with many of you, we don’t even know each that well. You made yourselves vulnerable. And if I learned anything from Brene, it was that vulnerability is much more a source of strength, not weakness. We make ourselves vulnerable by opening up to each other, and it’s pretty fucking scary. But I hope that you’ll continue sharing, because now I know that it’s also pretty fucking brave.