We’re All Human: Mental Health Stories From Real Professionals

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Please note: This piece describes experiences with death and grief.

My dad died on a Saturday. It felt sacrilegious –– doesn’t everything bad happen on a Monday or Tuesday? After all, those are the days you grind. Saturdays are supposed to be for fun and joy and living. 

It had been a Monday in early January, a little more than two years prior, when my dad told me he had metastatic prostate cancer. He didn’t say those words exactly. He might have said the word “cancer” but the rest of the explanation was laced with what he was about to do next –– treat it, eradicate it. 

He had always been goal-oriented, driven, and resilient. Plus, he was a physician. He had spent much of his professional life speaking in medical terms. The vocabulary came naturally to him –– it was any kind of surrender that never had and never would.

He asked me to keep his diagnosis private and gave me permission to share the news with just one person: my now-husband. Looking back, I think it was his way of coping –– of staying optimistic and not getting buried in other people’s pity. After all, he had to keep hope alive. And, for his sake, I tried to do the same.

But my coping skills hadn’t even been defined, nevermind refined. After learning my dad had cancer, I spent most of the next day –– a Tuesday –– yo-yoing back and forth between my desk and the office restroom. At my desk, I stared blankly at the half-cubicle wall in front of me, my two direct reports just beyond the poor excuse for a barrier. In the ladies room, I’d shut myself in whatever stall was open at the time, stand next to the toilet, and cry. 

I was wearing a chambray shirt that showed every teardrop. The bathroom stalls were just a row of three metal doors, each of which stopped about two feet from the floor –– the kind of stalls you find graffiti on in school restrooms. Feet and ankles visible, every sniffle audible. There was no privacy; no hiding. 

But I felt like I had to hide everything as best as I could. I had to keep my emotions in check to fulfill my dad’s wishes –– to avoid betraying his confidence. 

My mind was clogged with disbelief and sadness: How could I ever focus on anything other than my dad being sick? Is there even a way to push all this down day in and day out, slap on a professional face, and be the leader I’m expected to be at work? They’re going to know something is wrong.  

I loved my job but I couldn’t wait to get out of the office that day. I didn’t do a drop of work –– just tried to figure out how to exist with a brain that had been suddenly sucked dry of all mental and emotional energy to do anything but worry incessantly about my father. How was I going to spend every day pretending everything was fine when it wasn’t?

My dad was completely self-made, having put himself through college and medical school. Against all odds, he became a pediatric anesthesiologist. He was steady, measured, and calm. I think you have to be that way when you’re intubating tiny babies day in and day out. 

Having been left to champion his own education and career aspirations, he refused to stand on the sidelines when it came to mine. I was his only child and he was deeply invested in my success –– my biggest professional cheerleader. Making my dad proud was an experience that made me feel whole –– it was comforting and energizing at the same time.

I leaned on him for advice and guidance, especially when it came to work. He had spent a brief period trying to convince me to pursue medicine. But I had convinced him of what I called “the power of words” and the value of a career telling stories and crafting content. After all, I told him, words can help people feel something, learn something, or think differently. Whenever my confidence would waver, he’d remind me I had said that to him –– he’d help me refocus and recall why I was doing what I was doing.

The Saturday he died, I was next to him in the hospital –– the same hospital he had worked at all those years. I used to visit him there as a kid. My dad loved office knick knacks and supplies. His favorite store was Staples. He always had little toys on his office desk: a mini metal horse that rocked back and forth while precariously balanced on a stand, a figurine of a doctor in a white coat, various paper weights. The collection of trinkets seemed so far from his day-to-day work, but maybe that was the point –– a distraction here, a brain game there. 

Now, here he was losing his life in a place where he had helped save so many. At one point, hospital staff wheeled cookies and coffee into the room. I wanted to smash the rolling cart of cookies against the wall and watch as they flew off then broke into a million pieces. It seemed so trivial and corporate in a moment that was anything but. 

But I couldn’t. I was numb. 

In my dad’s last voicemail to me, he signed off with some enthusiastic advice: “Work hard!” What if I was no good without my dad? What if I couldn’t bounce back? What if I was only successful when he had my back –– when he was cheering me on and I was working to make him proud? I knew I’d be grieving him forever. What if I just couldn’t grieve and work hard at the same time? 

A week after he died, I was scheduled to travel to Copenhagen for work. My manager, who had lost her father a few years before I did, gave me full permission to sit this trip out. But I knew my dad would encourage me to go –– to keep going. I was also scared that if I stopped, I’d stop forever.

I flew to Copenhagen by myself on a Sunday. I don’t often flex my spiritual muscles, but it felt like signs from my dad were everywhere. One of my fellow passengers was wearing a shirt with my father’s first name on the back, and as I boarded, I spotted the plane’s call letters: D-A-D. Mid-flight the pilot woke us up to let us know we could see the Northern Lights out the window. I pretended it was my dad lighting the way. 

I moved through meetings in Copenhagen with the energy and pizzazz of a sloth. One night at the hotel bar, after washing down my sadness and jet lag with a few glasses of wine, I started spontaneously crying in the middle of the lobby. In that moment, I knew I had failed to keep up my “professional face,” but I also didn’t care anymore –– my brain and body were tapped from two-plus years of trying to hide it all. 

When I got back to Boston, I went back to work as normal. But nothing felt normal about it. I had a few greeting cards on my desk –– one from a coworker whose unborn child had died just two months before their due date. My eyes welled up with tears as I read his words of sympathy. There was no more hiding in the bathroom stall. I peered around the half-cubicle wall and mouthed ‘thank you’ to him across the room.

At lunchtime, I’d stare at all the other professionals milling around downtown in the middle of the workday –– rushing here or there, dropping off mail, going to the bank, picking up dry cleaning, picking up lunch. I’d watch them just being humans in the world. I felt like I was on another planet. How could people just live their lives? Why were we all so robotic?

I always say something in me broke when my dad died. I was a sympathy hospital cookie flying off that rolling cart and slamming hard against the wall. But in times of distress, my dad had always reminded me of the incredible resilience of the human body: Even when it breaks, it still pursues wellness. 

The body has built-in mechanisms ready to go to battle even amid extensive damage. The human brain can build new neural pathways. We have the capacity to take in new information and process it –– to learn things, expand our emotional range, absorb experiences, imprint memories, and quite literally reshape our gray matter. 

It might not always win, but the body works hard.

Navigating mental health challenges in professional settings is lonely. On one hand, you feel like you’re the only one going through what you’re going through or feeling what you’re feeling. And on the other hand, you know you’re not special –– you know we’re all human.

Everyone has invisible baggage they’re toting around at all times. Some days –– and some years –– that baggage is heavier than others. And you can’t just drop it at the door and forget about it for eight hours a day –– especially now as our personal and professional lives continue to coalesce.

But I’m reminded of what I convincingly told my dad many years ago: There is power in words. Through our words –– our stories –– we can come together as a community and work hard to support one another through the shared experience of navigating mental health and wellness in 2022.

This year, during Mental Health Awareness Month and beyond, we’re pausing to offer some resources and honor the personal narratives of several professionals who have opened up about their mental health journeys. 

These are their stories of challenge and triumph:

Look back at another personal essay from 2021, Dear Event Professionals, It's OK Not To Be OK.

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