For the last four years, I have adopted an approach of complete openness and honesty regarding my challenges with mental illness. I took this approach as a way for me to have ownership over the delivery of my message. I wanted to ensure that whatever my colleagues, clients, friends and family thought about what I was going through, they would at least be informed by me, directly. Many people thought my challenges were recent, but truthfully, I’ve had a lifetime relationship with mental illness.
After years of dealing with problems stemming from undiagnosed bipolar disorder, I was feeling inadequate, unstable and embarrassed. I have suffered through various diagnoses since I was a teenager – mainly anxiety and depression. I’ve been on more medications than I can remember, but I never felt “well”. When I turned 40 years old, I was at my worst, mentally. I was in a high-profile job with lots of responsibility, client interaction and management, and my work suffered greatly. I felt completely defeated, and as time went on, I also felt out of control of my health and my sanity. I didn’t believe anyone would understand what was happening to me, as I didn’t fully understand it. I was terrified.
A recurring hallucination of smoke floating on my bedroom ceiling forced me to make drastic changes in my life and seek help. In the process of learning about my illness, I made a decision to tackle my diagnosis openly, publicly, and with humour. I’ve had a long relationship with writing and theatre performance, and I knew how cathartic theatre could be in sharing my story.
Following my diagnosis, I was put on sick leave, and while home feeling miserable and trying to survive, I poured myself into healing. I wrote a one-woman play called She’s Got Mono and toured it around the province, sharing my story with others, to build connection and remove stigma. She’s Got Mono allowed me to share my story with students and community members. It was terrifying to expose everything about myself that was not working well, but then something amazing happened. I realized that I could use my experiences as a way to foster an important dialogue.
I’ve spoken with many students and business people, of all ages and stages of their careers, about their own struggles with mental health challenges, with stress and expectations, with depression and feelings of inadequacy. I was shocked at the quantity of messages I would receive following a show, people struggling with their own mental health challenges or those of loved ones. I responded to all of them. One common theme in these messages was how scared people were to have colleagues, clients and bosses learn of their mental health challenges, and what that would mean for their work, their dignity, their respect and trust, their community standing. I knew there was an opportunity for me to help break down these fears, for myself and others.
The Smoke Ceiling began as a business talk and evolved into a bigger idea. I travel to communities, talking about lessons I’ve learned through this process of recovery. I enjoy sharing my story and challenges openly, and in turn, people share their own struggles with me. The Smoke Ceiling has become much more than an opportunity to share my personal perspective. It is part of a greater healing journey, allowing me to tackle a (still) taboo subject with honesty, and encouraging others to find a safe place to laugh at something we often fear – mental illness.
Now, I’m at the next stage of this journey. I’ve decided to turn The Smoke Ceiling into a book – a completely fleshed-out story of working in business and being open about my mental illness. It’s a journey I’m excited to share. My hope is that other business professionals suffering through mental illness will find comfort in knowing there can be a positive outcome to a challenging diagnosis. I’m now almost 2 years symptom-free, and although I will always have bipolar disorder, I have developed a way of living and working that allows me to be my authentic self and follow a path I have control over. I work hard at feeling well, and I’m proud of the life I’m creating for myself. THAT is a very liberating feeling.
This month I am participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) – a self-monitored program with an international writing community, where you write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. It’s a huge and daunting commitment loaded with self-discipline, but I am excited to use the NaNoWriMo process as a guide to push me into writing this story daily. I’ll have a first draft at the end of the month. The next goal is to revise the draft after November and prepare The Smoke Ceiling for self-publication as an e-book so I can share my story with an even greater audience.
Writing a personal story is a terrifying and exhilarating prospect, and I’m sure there will be challenges along the way, but I’m ready. If you have a personal challenge you are sharing with the world and your business community, I’d love to hear about your process and how it has helped you and others. Please share with me, and let’s keep these conversations open and productive. Happy writing!