Don’t Ignore the Fire Burning Your House: Mental Illness and Working in Tech
I was so used to being screamed at, ignored and debased that I thought it was normal.
What is important to know about me is that I have worked extremely hard to reach my positions at work, and I’m known as being one of the best people in my industry.
Whenever I tell my story to a friend or colleague, their incredulity and disbelief is validating. But it also makes me very sad.
I come from a family and ethnicity that deals with a lot of depression and suicide. Our addiction rates are known for being one of the highest among any race. My father was addicted to methamphetamines, my mother is an alcoholic and my brother is a heroin addict. And that’s just my immediate family. These are facts I carry with me in my daily life.
Despite my background, I’ve come a long way in the world, in terms of traditional success. I’ve been the head of data/tech groups for national organizations, made six figures, traveled and been a mentor and leader in my field. But I also know myself, and I know what mental illness can do to me.
I’ve had severe anxiety and panic attacks since the age of 12. At times, I’ve struggled with severe depression and suicidal thoughts. These are things I try to keep under wraps under normal circumstances, especially in a work setting. Before my job at the tech startup, I never considered how important these things were to bring to light.
When I was hired, I was very excited to be working in a for-profit startup company. It had a great stated mission, and many of the people I worked with were wonderful. Until the abuse began.
Downhill from There
CC-BY Eirik Solheim, filtered.
I never thought I would be in an abusive relationship. My mother, an avowed feminist, always raised me to think about my safety and independence first, and to never rely on a man. If I didn’t like something, I could change it. Or leave. I never thought the abusive relationship I would be in would be with my employer.
It began when my Project Manager left. He vanished – as in, didn’t come to work one day, didn’t contact anyone and shut down all of his social media accounts.
After he left, I bore the brunt of our group’s work. However, I was attempting to do the job that other comparable companies have at least eight engineers working on. When it became apparent that my efforts weren’t enough, my CEO began stating in company-wide meetings that my work was shit. He actually used that word.
Soon, because I had no supervisor and no one at the company understood what my group did, our CEO decided to take over and declare himself ‘Data Czar.’ Things went downhill from there.
Our white, male CEO screamed at our group at least once a week, sometimes daily. When I say screamed, I mean screamed. He told us what a terrible job we were doing and what the fuck was wrong with us. I’m not sure if he thought screaming was a motivator. Or just a punishment. Or something else.
I began having severe panic attacks, on the way to work and in the office. Once, our VP of engineering offered to walk around the block with me until I calmed down. This place was exacerbating my underlying anxiety issues.
I sought help. I asked a friend at our company about her therapist, after she mentioned that she went to one. I do believe one of the only reasons I’m here and stable is because of my psychiatrist.
Thank god for her. She listened to my issues, talked me through what was important to ignore and what wasn’t, and assured me I’d be ok. I began taking anti-depressants, which she eventually increased to a dosage of 8x the recommended starting dosage.
I was still anxious at work.
No Clear Path
CC-BY Lee Haywood, filtered.
I believe the breaking point came when one of the salespeople became sick, with mononucleosis. Yet the illness was never “substantiated” to the satisfaction of management, and the person quit during it. Despite that, my boss ordered the entire staff to take blood tests. In the office. Administered by the Office Manager. Yes, non-sterile blood tests for the entire staff, given by the office manager.
I was the only person in the company that came up positive for mononucleosis in the office test. I wasn’t sure what that meant, as I had never been diagnosed before. I was told to go home immediately. After that afternoon, I went to 2 different doctors to get official tests. Both showed that I was positive for antibodies, but not the illness. When I brought this up to the CEO, he refused the doctors’ assessments and told me I needed to be out of the office for at least 4 weeks.
After a week of working remotely and becoming frustrated at being unable to do my job effectively, the CEO asked to speak over video chat. On the video call, he told me that I “didn’t care about my job.” He asked me what my problem was, and I replied that I had no boss, no direction and no clear path to success. That’s when he told me, “You’re never going anywhere at the company.”
I should have left then. That’s what my feminist mother would have told me to do. That’s what my reasonable self would have told me to do. But I stayed. At this point, I was so used to being screamed at, ignored and debased that I thought it was normal.
I got back to work after the mandatory month off, and things went right back to my new normal. The same screaming, the same demeaning of my work, the same anxiety. I began drinking much more than I should, just to try to get to sleep. Have you ever tried to drink yourself to sleep, after sleeping pills and Benadryl don’t work?
CC-BY Claudio Matsuoka, filtered.
That’s how terrified I was to wake up and go to work.
During this time back, my mother confessed to being an alcoholic. Because of my past family experiences, I was terrified I would have to bury her unless I somehow got her to get treatment right away. I was unable to function at work. I took a week off. Later, I took another week off. Mind you, this was at a tech company that had an unlimited time off policy.
The second time I took a week off, the CEO told me he wanted to see me on Monday morning. I came in at 11am to sit down with him. He proceeded to fire me, the day before my year anniversary when my stock options kicked in… knowing what had gone on with my family. I later found out that he announced my firing to the whole company before I got in.
I hope nothing like this ever happens to anyone else, but I know as long as he and others like him are in business, it will. My advice if workplace abuse is happening to you or if work is triggering your mental illness:
1. Get help
Please, please see a psychiatrist or therapist. You wouldn’t ignore a burning fire in your house. Why would you ignore your mental health? It is as important, if not more so, than your physical health. Ignoring it can literally kill you.
It can be intimidating to try to find a mental health professional you connect with. If the state of your mental health is critical, find a doctor nearby with an immediate opening. If you can wait a few days or a couple weeks to be seen, call their offices and ask about factors that are important to you. Many of them will be happy to answer questions. For example, it was important to me that my psychiatrist be a feminist who had experience with treating addiction and anxiety issues. Asking friends about their therapists can also be helpful when beginning your search.
2. Protect yourself
When you encounter treatment that could be considered harassment or abuse, start writing those incidences down. Note the time, date and a factual account of the incident. At the same time, you might also experience demotion or dismissal. If harassment or abuse becomes regular behavior and isn’t corrected, or if you are demoted or fired, consult with an employment lawyer about your options.
3. Find someone at the company you can talk to.
One of the most difficult things to do is to determine if someone is safe to talk to about the way you are being treated. However, if you are experiencing abuse, it’s likely that others are too. Actively listen for cues that others are enduring the same thing and start a supportive dialogue. If you want to stay with your company, consider talking with your supervisor or another supervisor about a transfer or different area of responsibility, away from the abuser.
4. Do not sign a severance agreement.
I signed away my legal right to sue for discrimination, workplace safety and wrongful termination for $2000. One paycheck.
5. The people at your company are not your friends.
You think they will help you, but they see it all and sit silently as they think about their own security at work. Or somehow turn it around into being your fault that it’s happening. Remembering this as you try to find someone to talk to is a difficult balancing act.
We Can Do Better
One of the most incredible things about my story is not that it happened, but that so many similar stories come from the tech world. Again and again, we read stories of illegal abuse and harassment, especially against women. Somehow, the industry claims ‘disbelief’, when so many of us know how commonplace it actually is. We see white, male VCs supporting the harassers and abusers on their blogs and Twitter accounts. This is the same industry that refuses to have internal HR departments.
I’ve worked for large national corporations. While the structure and bureaucracy in those places are eschewed by tech start-ups, they also have real systems of dealing with abuse and harassment. Having a formal Human Resources department can mean the difference between an abuser being fired and your entire startup being sued out of existence. Structure that protects employees is more important than hiring the ‘rockstar’ engineer or having those two extra VPs. An HR department can provide resources and protect you, the employee, through mental illness, physical illness and addiction.
Ask about the internal culture in your interviews with start-ups. My entire story could have been avoided, had I asked employees about what it was like to work there. I don’t have much faith in the largely wealthy, white, male technocrats to change their behavior, but I do trust that we can build a diverse community of technologists who look out for one another. Let’s make sure that abuse and harassment don’t happen to our friends and colleagues. And let’s hold as many of the abusers and harassers accountable as possible.
My former company recently attempted to contact me again. When I received the call, I felt sick. I was shaking as I saw the number come up on my phone.
I didn’t answer, and I’m glad.