Dear Businesslady: The Calculus of the Aftermath

Photo credit: Ben Loomis, CC BY 2.0.

Dear Businesslady,

So I had a baby last year (yay!). This is obviously wonderful news, but during my pregnancy I began to experience an intense exacerbation of some lifelong mental health issues. This was surprising to me (my previous pregnancies had been high points for my mental health) and extremely distressing. A few months before my due date, my depression started to affect my work: I started making very uncharacteristic errors, I had to take frequent breaks to go somewhere private and cry, I had a near-zero threshold for freaking out and lashing out at people.

After I gave birth, I took a couple months of leave and then returned to work full-time. My workplace was very accommodating in terms of giving me time to pump milk for the baby, and easing me back into my responsibilities.

But my depression did not improve and in fact only worsened over time. I eventually made two serious mistakes at work — really, really serious mistakes, in addition to a general uptick in more minor slip-ups. Fortunately they were caught before they could have major consequences, but I was horrified that I had made such incredibly obvious oversights.

I finally decided to seek medical treatment and go back on antidepressants, and luckily began to feel better very quickly. Within a week I was already becoming newly reacquainted with feelings that weren’t just bright panic or seething despair. But I’m still having problems with my boss, who continues to feel frustrated that I am not my “old self.” Most recently, she sent me a long email expressing her “concern” about this, enumerating all the ways the office has accommodated my issues and then complaining that I didn’t help her out when she had a busy day and my workload was unusually light. It’s especially annoying that she’d use this as an example, because I told all my coworkers I was free and then waited for them to reach out to me. Those who asked for help, received it. I assumed that those who did not ask for help did not require it. But I guess that wasn’t proactive enough for her.

I have opened and begun and revised and trashed too many email drafts to count. I find myself unable to contemplate speaking to my boss face-to-face because I know that I will cry.

What I want to say, and find myself unable to express, is some combination of:

  • I am not my “old self” and I may never return to my “old self.”
  • I’m okay with not being my old self. My old self was held together with wire and tape and determination and clenched fingers.
  • Yes, I do feel better, but “feeling better” has two meanings, and I feel better in the sense of “my situation has improved since last year” and not in the sense of “I have healed completely.”
  • I am trying to Up My Game at work. I am trying so hard. But I am also trying to Up My Game at home. I have a baby and I don’t want to work so hard, and so long, that his babyhood passes me by. I’m not interested in going out of my way to take on responsibilities beyond my own assigned workload.
  • I’m trying to take care of myself.
  • If you want help, maybe you should ask for it, instead of waiting for other people — who are technically your direct reports — to come to you spontaneously.

Our relationship has become very strained in the past few weeks. I have never been able to address the email, although I have certainly started being more demonstrative in my offers of help where she is concerned.  I’ve also read and reread Captain Awkward’s classic “How to tighten up your game at work when you’re depressed” and have taken a lot of those suggestions to heart. I’m not held together with wire and tape anymore; now I’m a stack of to-do lists and a symphony of phone reminder alerts. But I still know I’m not 100 percent. And I know she wants me to be 100 percent.

What can I say? How do I tell my boss “I’m glad you’ve been supportive, but I need you to let go of the idea that I can Get Better on your timeline and in a fashion that you expect?”

—The New Me

Dear New,

I wanted to answer your letter as part of The Billfold’s Career Change series because even though your job hasn’t changed, you have, and I want to help you figure out how to adjust.

The thing is, people love a recovery story. If you’ve experienced a serious illness, then you probably know this already — folks want to skip right to the happy ending, the part where you’re better, the part where you’re “back to normal.” It’s not just this one boss, but everyone.

I could write an entire irrelevant column about the way our culture deals with medical ordeals, but instead I’ll just leave this here: after a prolonged, scary, life-altering health scare, most people don’t just reset to their old selves. And the extent to which narratives about “bouncing back” still proliferate just reflects how strong the demand is for that story. “I was sick for a while but now I’m perfectly fine” makes people feel safe. “I was sick for a while, and now that particular problem is resolved, but I am not the same” is complicated, and uncomfortable, and starts to poke holes in the firewall that protects people from confronting their own mortality.

Is that what’s motivating your manager? Who knows! Like any cultural messaging, this notion of complete recovery can seep into your thinking unless you actively work against it, so it’s certainly possible. Or maybe it’s coming from a more mundane and callous perspective: it’s inconvenient to her that this experience has changed you, and so she shall pressure you into being unchanged. Perhaps it’s a gross cocktail of the two, somehow too sweet and too bitter all at once.

Whatever the catalyzing impulse, I am profoundly indignant on your behalf. How dare this boss of yours not understand what you’re going through? You are showing up and working hard and monitoring your mental health and doing everything that could possibly be expected of you. How dare she ask for more?

Well, there’s sometimes a fine line between audacity and ignorance. She doesn’t get it, and possibly never will. So that means you have two choices. You can try to explain your situation — maybe not perfectly, but well enough to fix the current tensions between you — or you can decide you’d rather keep that private and just decide to stop caring.

If you choose the first option, I think you actually can say “I’m never going to be ‘better’ again.” Or at least some version of that. Steeped in our culture of happy, healthy endings, your manager might see a return to Old You normalcy as the only positive outcome for you. If she sees that as the best-case scenario, it’s only natural that she’d be fixated on nudging you toward some point where you could jump into the air, arms outstretched, and exclaim “yippee, I’m cured!”

That’s the wrong approach, though — clearly a bad fit for your actual experience, but also, in my opinion, the wrong way to think about any kind of illness and recovery. The period before things get bad may seem like a paradise in retrospect, but that’s only because you had the luxury of ignorance. You were always held together by wire and tape and determination. Your bout of depression just showed you how fragile the system really was.

When you consider it in those terms, it makes zero sense to think of the previous status quo as a good thing. “Let’s go back to that rickety, jury-rigged arrangement — it worked well for a while there before everything collapsed!” How is that possibly a good idea?

It’s also telling to me that your boss has seized on this very nitpicky nonissue as a way of expressing her “concern.” If you weren’t functionally back to your old self — capable of getting through your to-do list without making the kinds of mistakes that emerged as a symptom of your depression — then she’d have much bigger problems to flag. So from an actual professional standpoint you are doing just fine. And while I’m at it, “giving you time to pump” and “letting you take time off from work when your health required it” isn’t exactly above-and-beyond support. It’s great that you’re grateful, but it’s not like you owe her a huge debt for being basic-human-decency-level accommodating.

If you want to tell her to back off, you could take advantage of the fact an email’s emotional power starts diminishing as soon as it hits your inbox. (This is just science. How many times has an email enraged you upon first reading, but then when you revisit it, it’s just kind of annoying?) Conversely, the impact of a late-breaking reply is inversely proportional to the time it’s been since the original message was received. (Again, science. There’s nothing quite like the surprise of getting a response to a message that you’d long since forgotten.)

All of which means that you can take your sweet time crafting the most neutral possible reply, with the added bonus that you can be as pissed-off as you’d like while writing without conveying any of that in the text. Apologize for leaving her hanging the other day (eyeroll) and encourage her — nicely! — to seek you out if she ever needs help in the future (meaningful look to camera, The Office-style). Close by thanking her for her feedback and concern (you can do airquotes when you type that last word, she’ll never know).

You could even leave it there. “Message received, boss!” At least then you won’t have The Unanswered Email glaring at you from your inbox. But you could also take it a step further and give some version of what you’ve said here: that your depression, with its comorbidity of a frightening inability to do your job properly, has prompted you to make certain changes. You’ve deduced that your previous approach was part of the problem, and so you’re not going to push yourself so hard anymore. If it’s something you feel comfortable sharing, you could even mention “conversations with your doctor/therapist” in this context, for that added oomph of authority. Your treatment is zero percent your boss’s business, obviously, but “a professional concurs with my opinion” could potentially preempt an even-more-irritating comeback about how “you just have to believe in yourself!”

On the other hand, if your boss was raised in the Church of Knowing When to Drop It, you wouldn’t have written to me, so… it’s possible this script won’t fix shit. You might also decide it’s too fraught a writing project to merit the minimal impact it will ultimately have. In that case, the simplest solution is to just acknowledge, with a sigh, that your boss is wrong about this in an aggravating way. Whenever she says or does anything that implies that there’s a shiny, original recipe version of you just waiting to be rediscovered, pretend you’re listening to a child talk about the imminent arrival of Santa. Hell, you can even use that as a rubric to determine when you actually need to push back. Plausible-ish flights of fancy you can let go, but when you start hearing the equivalent of I bet Santa’s bringing me the power to transform all existing matter then it’s time to gently adjust expectations. Only instead of “I’m not sure Santa can do that sweetie,” you can offer a bland demurral of whatever work-related thing that you’re being asked to do.

Because you are not a magical being. Well, actually, you kind of are, because you have been through the wringer and have fought to find balance in your life, and have elected to keep going instead of giving up. That’s not nothing. But you’re not invincible, and to the extent you have any kind of superpower, it’s the ability to detect your own limits.

Even if you hadn’t recently produced a tiny human and weathered a severe mental health crisis, it is entirely reasonable to enjoy a moment of less-than-hectic workload instead of seeking out opportunities to make yourself overwhelmed. It is entirely reasonable to triage the assistance you give based on which coworkers have actively solicited your help. It is entirely reasonable to carve out as much time for your family and self-care as your job allows, and to not have to write a five-paragraph essay in order to justify it to your supervisor.

The thing that’s galling about all of this is that I bet if I could interview your boss, she would see herself as being helpful — when instead she’s really just halping at best. (Since you already invoked the good Captain of Awkwardtown, I should note that I learned this incredibly useful term from her.) I feel like we should all use your manager as a cautionary tale. Any time you offer *~*~encouragement~*~* that takes the form of telling someone else how to be, you’d better be damn sure that their own personal goals align with your perception of what’s best for them. That’s pretty good advice even among close friends, but becomes exponentially more true when you’re in a position of power relative to them, and/or if you find yourself trying to stage-direct their recovery from a serious illness. So honestly, however you decide to handle things, file this manager under “Bosses, Annoying” and try not to take her misguided cheerleading too seriously.

You, though? You’re great. You may not be 100 percent of the person you once were, but you are 100 percent of someone new — and complete regardless.

Courtney C.W. Guerra is a writer and editor who’s been giving advice as Dear Businesslady since 2014. She’s the author of Is This Working? — a career guide for people who think they don’t want to read one — and if you’re in or around Syracuse, NY, on May 6th, you can meet her in person for a resume or cover letter review. 

Need advice? Email Keep in touch via Twitter, Facebook, her TinyLetter, or her website.

Read old installments of Dear Businesslady right here on The Billfold (and when the archives are back online again—which should be soon!—The Toast).

This story is part of The Billfold’s Career Change series.

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