That's So Sick: Bipolar Disorder & Radical Candor in Tech

When I was 16, I downed a bottle of 100 tylenol PM and was hospitalized for a month after. I was in mandatory therapy up until I graduated high school. After that, I had a number of other hospitalizations and “set backs” as my family likes to call them. To be clear, I’m “good” now, or as good as I can be with bipolar disorder. But, the point isn’t that I’m good: it’s that looking at me, a person up on here on the stage, seemingly with my “shit together”, you probably would never expect me to 1. Have had those issues or 2. Admit it to 500 of my closest stranger-friends.

When I was younger, my mother called me Eeyore (my sisters were Rabbit and Piglet). My grandmother told me that I looked sad, even before resting bitch face was a thing. So I guess what I’m saying is I’ve pretty much always been this way. But I haven’t always been open about it. I grew up in a staunch British/Northeastern family where everyone thought that it was better to keep a stiff upper lip than admit weakness. So, as a youth I ended up listening to a lot of angry sad music (Rites of Spring, Minor Threat, Bright Eyes, Brand New) in private, and acting like a true asshole in public. 

I didn’t realize that it could be different until one day when I was working at Wistia. The day felt wrong, it felt like Fall, and everything was making me sad. I could feel like I was about to go into a depressive episode. My husband was traveling and had been for a month. I felt lonely. I was sitting in the basement of our office in a room alone, feeling numb and trying to hide the fact that I wasn’t answering any tickets and hadn’t done anything but cry all day.

One of my people in the office noticed and brought me a ball of burrata from a local cheese shop. I know. I know. She sat with me, and we talked about everything. I talked about how it was the Fall when I had first been hospitalized, and how it had been a good chunk of years but it still felt so fresh. And we talked about bipolar disorder and how hard it is to admit, especially in the professional world, that there is something wrong with you. She talked about her brother who had bipolar disorder, and how it was hard for her, sometimes, to understand where he was coming from. But that talking to me had made it much clearer.

It’s easier to understand and empathize over something when it’s not so close.

I realized then that the more we all talk about it, the easier it gets and the more everyone benefits. I’ve tried to do it a lot since then. Not just in telling people that I’m bipolar or the really dark, craggy parts of my history, but also just in admitting to my team members when I’m feeling cranky, or if I feel burnt out. I ask about emotional health in every one-on-one: 
How are you feeling? 
What’s working what’s not working? 
How is being remote going for you this week?

At first, people felt weird about opening up. But I continued to ask, even if they just shrugged awkwardly when I did. And with every time that I admitted that, maybe, over the weekend I’d just laid in bed all day watching Star Wars, they started to feel more comfortable admitting that they, too, had had some trouble getting out of bed on Saturday. Everyone feels feelings. 

Gradually, my team knew that it was safe to talk to me when things weren’t going great (or were going great!) for them. They could talk to me when they were fighting with their spouse, or when they needed to take a day for emotional health. But we wouldn’t ever have gotten there if someone hadn’t taken the first step, and admitted that they were flawed.

Not only does talking about your own mental health encourage others to feel comfortable doing so, it also (much like in my story above) allows them some perspective into something that they might not have seen before. Radical candor changes the way that people see things. It allows the people around you to see their partner/sibling/parent in the same way that they see you. It can be a total shift to see someone that you respect, love, and enjoy the company of and also recognize that they are mentally ill. It destigmatizes it and takes it out of the very painful context that they might have experienced with someone closer to them. With a mother, sibling, husband it is so much closer, and thus so much harder to see as a part of a whole.

It’s amazing what the constructs that someone’s built around you can do, and how quickly they can be crumbled through sharing. Humans are social creatures, and so much of our experiences are impacted by the stories that we share, and what we tell others. Without emotional candor, all that we show to people are our tough exteriors. They never get to see the things that make up who you actually are. They also never get to analyze how who you really are lines up with how they’ve built you up in their own mind. Allow yourself and them, especially if they do not struggle with mental wellness themselves, the opportunity to experience a bit more on the human spectrum, and recognize that mental disorders are not always specifically tied with negative personality traits.

Succumbing to the pressure that we feel to perform wellness is one of the most problematic things that we do to ourselves and those around us.

In support, especially, a job where we are expected to take on customer’s emotional burdens all day every day, it is important to give yourself a vent to let off some of that steam. If you ever feel like you aren’t able to do your best work, or you’ve had a particularly tough conversation say to your team “Hey, I’ve got to go for a little while. That last interaction left me feeling kind of bummed out, and I’d like to go and refresh.”



What was that? Your team will think. And then the next time they are bummed out, they’ll remember it. They will feel more comfortable taking care of themselves and subsequently doing better for the team.

Are you worried that someone’s going to judge you? Would you judge them if they did the same? Would you say “No, you. Go back and sit at your keyboard and just work through the sadness.” No, you probably wouldn’t say it to them, and you shouldn’t say it to yourself either. And with each time you do it, it will get easier.

Furthermore, there are plenty of people who have never suffered from mental health issues. By saying “Hey, I’m having a hard time, here’s the action that I am going to take to try to deal with it, and I just need you to understand why/what I am doing.” you put the other person in a position of not needing to generate an answer to your needs. Instead, they are equipped with the tools that they need to have to assist you, and have a more solid understanding of where you are at and why. This is especially important when talking to people who, otherwise, would have no context into a given situation. You wouldn’t expect someone who had never been bungie jumping to immediately upon request be able to provide you with all of the things you would need to go and bungie jump, so why expect them to understand your immediate needs any other time?

The same goes for customers. How many times have you said (or thought) “This guy is being crazy.” But...what if they actually are crazy (not just over-the-top, but genuinely mentally disordered)? What if they are having a day, and they need someone to help? What if they’re crying alone in a room trying to use your product, and there’s no one there to bring them a cheese ball? These are real things to consider.

Just like you never would have known what was laying in my past and sometimes is simmering right below the surface unless I’d told you, you’ll never know about your customers. It’s not like you have a section in your contact form that says “Hey, do you have depression or another mental disorder? Check the box.” The good news is that by cultivating a space of safety and honesty on your team and in your life through radical candor, you have also increased the empathy that everyone is able to feel.

You educate people every time you talk about how you are feeling. You also better equip yourself with coping tools and advocates for any future problems that you may experience. You open up your circle just a little bit wider. When you take the time to explain what it is like when you have a depressive episode, or why certain things give you anxiety, it allows someone who has never had that experience a framework to try to understand other people that may feel the same way.

Admitting when you are depressed or when you need help, or when your thinking is disordered is difficult. It’s scary to open up the softest parts of you and ask people to acknowledge them. But every time you do, it gets a little easier for the people around you to do the same. It gets a little easier for people without the experiences that you have to understand others going through the same thing. It gets simpler to talk about, less tangled and scary. It gets better.