• Sydney Robinson

Corporate America, Meet My Mental Illness

This is hard, honestly.

And I am really struggling to revisit a place I have been working so hard to elevate from. But I know that truth sets us free.

So as much as I want to shut this laptop, I am going to push through, and tell you what happened during my first year in the corporate world. I am going to tell you how my biggest dream quickly became my biggest nightmare because of my deteriorating mental health. And I will tell you how used what I learned in my dark places to slowly inch my way back to a life full of peace, passion, and deep yearning for massive change.

So here we go ladies and gentlemen.

I signed my offer letter with a fortune 100 company right before Thanksgiving of my senior year of college. Yea, I was that girl, extremely ambitious. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. I felt like I was finally making my parents proud because I had watched them struggle so much when I was growing up. I had watched my Dad fight his way from general manager of a paper plant, all the way to Senior Executive of a $5 billion conglomeration. I felt like I was giving back to him. And I felt accomplished. This is what I had dreamed of. And stepping through those doors on my first day of work 8 months later was invigorating. Nothing could stop me from reaching the top.

Except the demons I hadn’t dealt with since being raped, a diagnosis of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and PTSD, and corporate culture that completely silenced conversations around mental health.

At first things seemed bright and cheery and hopeful. I was learning so fast and growing and building relationships in my office. But soon, things started to grow dark. I began waking up in states of panic and not knowing why. I started having panic attacks on a weekly basis. And I before the summer was even over, I had used almost all of my allotted sick days because I was suffering from debilitating anxiety.

My breaking point happened during the Kavanaugh hearings in the fall of 2019. There were flat screens all throughout the office that were broadcasting Dr. Ford’s statement so loudly. And I couldn’t breathe. I remember walking into a meeting with my boss that day panting. And my only explanation was “I am sorry. The hearings have me stressed.”

“Stop talking about politics,” she retorted.

I went straight to the bathroom after that meeting and sobbed. I couldn’t breathe. And I had

a full-blown panic attack when I got home that night.

And I went on trying to hide the panic attacks at work – hiding in the bathroom, working silently in huddle rooms, staying away from my boss – for as long as I possibly could. Until my body decided it couldn’t anymore. And one day, I came to work after not having used the bathroom in almost 2 weeks, feet swelled so large that I couldn’t fit them in anything besides open toed sandals, and hives on my hands, that I’d had enough. I physically could not do it anymore. I couldn’t keep holding in my anxiety. I was reliving the rape every time I thought about the fact that I had to hide it. So I called my boss into a private conference room, and broke down into tears. At this point, I didn’t care if she fired me. I didn’t care what she said to me. I was afraid, and lost, and anxious, and alone. But I told her anyways. I told her everything. That I was raped a year ago, that I was seeing my perpetrator’s face everywhere I go, that I am not going to the bathroom or sleeping at night, was having panic attacks daily, and I couldn’t do it anymore.

And she hugged me. I don’t think she knew what to do either. People don’t just blurt things out like that on the daily…

I had it in my mind that corporate America requires its workers to be made of steel. And I felt like a complete failure because apparently, I was made of glass. I shattered in my own boss’s arms. Little did I know this was just the beginning of a journey that would teach me that steel is overrated, boring and inflexible. But vulnerability? That shit is durable, flexible and adaptable.

So the outcome of that exchange was that I ended up taking a month off work. Since I had disclosed my mental illnesses on my initial application, I was able to utilize short term disability and take an entire month to heal. (What I dealt with in that month is an entirely different blog post in itself, but just know that real healing requires you to wrestle with your demons. And those demons can be pretty fucking scary. But guess what, so are you.)

I returned to work later that fall with a deep sense that I am my own responsibility. I am responsible for allowing my environment to cause me stress. I am responsible for asking for help when I need it. I am responsible for educating myself on my illness so that I can know how to care for myself. And I have been practicing living out that responsibility for the past year now.

What have I done?

Confronted people in the workplace who I previously allowed to talk to me with condescension.

Started having candid conversations with my boss about the state of my mental health.

Reached out to my Human Resources Department to develop a wellness plan in case I experience a flare up again.

Began meditating for ten minutes every morning.

Devoured books on the science of the brain.

And today, I even pitched the idea to my supervisor to start an inclusion and awareness group around mental health. (My company goes coast to coast so this literally scares the shit out of me, but I cannot bare the thought of another person suffering in silence like I did because stigmas have kept them from reaching out for help).

Every day I am learning how to be more vulnerable, more authentic, more heart-driven, and more self-aware, and less silent. I am a work in progress. But there is one thing I can say for sure: I am a different woman than when I first walked through those office doors.

I am resilient. I have a voice. And I will use it to change the mental health culture in my organization. I will break the silence – so that no one else has to suffer alone or feel incapable of performing a job they love because of an illness they cannot control.