I don't remember when my uterus and I engaged in a game of Battleship!
July 23, 2011 9:20 AM   Subscribe

[Being a girl filter] Health issues, high pressure environments, and still showing everyone how fucking awesome you are.

I'm a girl.

I'm a girl with ongoing issues: off-and-on severe depression (currently OFF), severe PMS (aka PMDD aka "I might cry for 48 hours for absolutely no reason if you set me off" PMS), and recurring severe arthritic pain - and I'm only 28. BTW, I'm seeing doctors, trying different meds under their supervision, and generally proactively trying to deal with these issues. It's been a process. I'm not sitting around feeling sorry for myself - it's just another part of my (otherwise awesome) life.

I'm a badass girl engineer who works for startups, I have lots of awesome hobbies and friends outside of work, currently lead my own team, and I'm a least pretty good at what I do/I love my job. Unfortunately, all it takes is being blindsided by a major catastrophe or change while I'm in a "mood," and I freak the fuck out. Or on a bad week, I'm just majorly stressed out in general - drinking a lot (cutting back now that I've recognized it), crying, having a hard time not making embarrassingly-self-deprecating jokes.

For the record: I'm also a badass girl engineer who's fairly open about a lot of things. I've been incredibly fortunate to work at small companies with bosses who are sympathetic to the vaguely-explained medical issues, have encouraged me to take time off when needed or work from home, and I'm unsure of what else to ask for, if anything at all.

Most recently - I was date-raped. I'm already seeing a therapist, got checked out, the whole 9 yards. But I've been especially emotional since then, and freaking out over little things, even though at a high level, I'm still not even sure how to respond to what happened. I didn't take time off from work because I was so excited about the new projects I've been working on lately, but my (very new) boss probably has no idea what to make of how I can suddenly switch gears from being excited to totally flustered and frantic.

But the point of this question is not about the health issues and the date-rape - it's a couple of other things:

1 - Oh my god. If you are a woman dealing with "female issues" in a high pressure environment - or any awkward health issues in general - who is succeeding and being respected in your field, I'd love to hear it.

2- If you're like me, how do you deal with it? I'm half-ready to sit my bosses down and say "listen, I'm dealing with X, Y, and Z" right now in not-ambiguous-medical-terms-or-personal-issues like I usually would, but these are both dudes with young daughters and saying my ovaries are fucked up and I was raped is going to freak them out - even though I'm level-headedly dealing with it right now - I just feel this overwhelming need for them to know that I AM NOT MYSELF RIGHT NOW - even with that nagging "I don't think they even notice or care" in the back of my mind. I'm reading "Women Don't Ask" right now, but if you've got any suggestions for literature or hacks or anything whatsoever, I'd love to hear it.

Sorry ask mefi - it's been a rough week. I want you guys to know that all of the healthy, proactive things I've mentioned doing above have been because of y'all - I don't ask a lot of questions, but I lurk a lot, and it's because of your no-nonsense, IANAD, common-sense advice that I am where I am, and rough patches aside, it's a pretty good place to be. From the bottom of my heart, I already thank y'all for that.

PS - throwaway email address is: anonymouse.engineer@gmail.com
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (22 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
For me, it is helpful to think that I am in charge of how much or how little I want to disclose. Since you have mentioned you are going through something and since your bosses are supportive, take them up on their offers to take time for yourself. Sometimes being badass means that you get caught up in life outside yourself. Now might be the time to allow badass to mean that you are being badass at taking care of yourself. Staying healthy and happy is pretty badass to me. Don't feel pressure to try too much. You are healing.
posted by quodlibet at 9:41 AM on July 23, 2011 [4 favorites]

FYI, my hormone-related mood swings got way, way better once I quit hormonal birth control (I have a copper IUD, Paragard) and started eating low-carb (my mood swings were greatly exaggerated by the blood-sugar swings).

Try substituting another mind-clearing activity in for heavy drinking and crying - running or walking? Bike riding? Drive into the country and sight-see? Swimming? The physical exertion will help take your mind away as well as give you endorphins. I mean, if you're going to throw yourself into something, it might as well be something you get benefits from. Anything that lets you turn down your thinking part of your brain will help.

I've sometimes found supposed-to-be-traumatic experiences hard to deal with because I felt extra-guilty because I ought to be responding in a certain way, e.g. I ought to be devastated. It got better once I gave myself the okay to not feel as X about the situation as I felt I should have been. (Sorry for the tortured sentence construction.)

I'm so sorry to hear about your traumatic experience, but it sounds like you're doing the right things: therapy, keeping open lines of communication with your understanding bosses, etc. As another badass girl engineer, I salute you.
posted by bookdragoness at 9:47 AM on July 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

these are both dudes with young daughters and saying my ovaries are fucked up and I was raped is going to freak them out

Do you have a concrete reason to think this? If you think that they're decent people, and they have daughters and wives/girlfriends that they love and are thus not totally ignorant of the travails of women, perhaps they would be understanding. I know that any kind of depressive and/or stressed period gives me a universally pessimistic outlook, so could your reluctance to talk to them come from that place?

If you were working for me, I'd want to know. Its very easy to inadvertently act like an insensitive jerk when faced with unexplained out-of-character behavior, especially when the person is not plainly suffering but just acting weird. Also, I'd see it as part of my job to support my employees, and if I was kept in the dark I'd be inadvertently failing at my job by failing to support you. So, unless you have a good reason to think that your bosses wouldn't understand, I'd tell them the whole truth.
posted by tempythethird at 10:21 AM on July 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm in HR. I'm going to give you some bad news. Nothing freaks out supervisors, particularly male supervisors, more than hormonal issues. I hate to tell you this, but I wouldn't disclose it. And, I'd work very hard to get it under control. This is one of those things that, once you tell them, you lose control of what happens with that information, and they'll never forget it about you.

I know that's not what you want to hear - and I wish things were more fair and that everyone responded openly and positively to things like this, but in my experience, male managers in particular respond in an epically poor way around hormone issues. They may put you on FMLA and say lots of nice things, but it will negatively affect your career.

Find some good friends outside of work to lean on, disclose to, get advice from. And good on you for taking so many of the right steps to work through your medical and PTSD issues, and appreciating your life despite these setbacks.
posted by pomegranate at 10:21 AM on July 23, 2011 [24 favorites]

I find that my moods are more stable when I have a routine, I'm eating good food regularly, getting plenty of exercise and sleep, and spending time with emotionally stable friends and/or family. When I'm feeling a bit up and down I deliberately go down a kind of mental checklist of all those things and make sure they are happening.
posted by emilyw at 10:24 AM on July 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

Also - worry less about being "fucking awesome" and more about creating positive, low-key routines for yourself, and staying out of the limelight until you are in a better place. It's more important that your bosses like you fine and appreciate your work than that they love you to death until you burn out or get fired due to all the extra stress you put yourself under, trying to be a superstar.
posted by pomegranate at 10:31 AM on July 23, 2011 [10 favorites]

I have to agree with pomegranate. As a Ph.D. girl myself, I've made every workplace mistake imaginable, in academia as well as business. What I've learned: work is not about you or me. It's about work. Don't show your hand. Don't reveal anything about yourself. Be the most amiable, well-liked, even-tempered person there and you will succeed. Tamp down any and all emotions (at work) and focus on the best way to get the job done. Emotions are for outside of work, especially if you are an engineer. This does not mean you are being "fake" or "not true to yourself." This means you are doing the most efficient thing to get the job done, period. That's why you are there.

Me mail me if you want to talk more; I've been there. If it helps, emotionality subsides naturally as a woman ages - I am nearing 40 and my emotions are becoming completely manageable :).
posted by Punctual at 10:35 AM on July 23, 2011 [18 favorites]

You might consider contacting a rape crisis center or your local police department's victim services office. A place staffed with people who help victims of rape and other violent crimes might be able to help you more clearly lay out the pros and cons of disclosing details about your situation to various people in your life, or they might be able to give you suggestions for ways to ask for what you need without having to disclose those things.

I'll also say this: you mention several times in your question that you consider yourself a "badass." I think it's awesome that you have such confidence in your ability to take care of business. However, I also suspect that it must be particularly hard for someone who is invested in an identity as a chick who can handle anything to come up against a situation so personally difficult. I suspect that it's particularly hard to ask for and accept help from others. I suspect that it's particularly hard to admit that maybe you can't handle all of these new, frightening changes in your life. I suspect that you may be resisting certain things that would genuinely help you because you're afraid of what needing those things says about your identity.

I have absolutely no doubt that you are a badass girl who is awesome at lots of things and can tackle a lot of crap. But it might help to remember that "badass" is not all you are. "Badass" is not the sum total of your identity. You're also a human being with failings and fears and complicated feelings about a lot of things. And accepting that those things are also a part of you doesn't diminish your badassery. But it does make it a lot easier to think clearly about how to do what you need to do to build the life you want. Don't let ego or a stubborn insistence on being 100% awesome all the time keep you from asking for help. Because that's not badass, that's just pigheaded.
posted by decathecting at 10:36 AM on July 23, 2011 [13 favorites]

Coming from a background w experiencing similar health problems at work while facing challenging private battles, I found these things easier for to deal with after learning Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) techniques. (No, I'm not saying "you're crazy, you need therapy".) A good, free online discreet site is Mood Gym that I found via AskMeFi. CBT has been shown to be effective for chronic pain management and for depression.
posted by _paegan_ at 10:39 AM on July 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Bosses and managers aren't parents or therapists. It doesn't matter that your boss has a daughter--it matters that he's in charge of your job. Don't go looking for sympathy or hairpats--that's not appropriate and even if they make soothing noises, the information you shared will stay with them.

Therapy, consistent routines, friends outside of work--all will help you get through this stuff.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:41 AM on July 23, 2011 [4 favorites]

At most, you should probably just tell them that there's an ongoing family crisis to explain possible moodswings. If it doesn't affect your work, be sure to tell them that.

I haven't experienced anything quite like you do, but I am seconding looking into CBT. I used to suffer from severe anxiety but it helped an enormous amount.
posted by daysocks at 10:49 AM on July 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Pomegranate is giving you some very sound advice and I hope you listen. Please don't disclose your private medical issues at work. It will effect you adversely, and in a professional environment, it's TMI.

If you really want to explain yourself to these folks, first, stop drinking. Even if you don't regularly drink with co-workers, people can usually tell the day after you've had a few drinks. Just stop drinking. It's not helping you stabilize physically and likely it is making you look bad to others.

If after you stop drinking and chill out you still feel the need to speak up, you could request a meeting and tell them that you are aware your behavior has been eradicate, that you were attacked X number of weeks ago, and that the trauma is still fresh but you are seeking treatment. That's it. No more details. Thank them for their understanding as you process this difficult experience, and then get back to work.

No medical updates, no details, no specifying phrases or wording that indicates the nature of the attack was sexual - just inform them of the basics and thank them for respecting your privacy through this difficult time.

It's likely no one has really noticed you are different, or if they have noticed, they think it will blow over shortly. I think you really want to share your story as a way of healing yourself, and that you are confusing that urge with your worklife because that's where you spend the majority of your time.

You could share about yourself and what you are going through at support groups, in therapy, in an anonymous blog online, in AA meetings, with trusted non-work related friends and family, etc. It's important for you to talk about everything outloudvand with multiple people, just don't do it with anyone at work. OK?

Good luck. You can move through this. You are on your way. You'll be OK, especially if you seek support wisely.
posted by jbenben at 10:54 AM on July 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

I also really want to stress do not tell your male superiors about the traumatic incident and hormones/menstrual cycle. I have learned that even the most kindest, seemingly open-minded men will quietly hold it against you. Of course, not all men will, but it is not worth taking the risk, especially in a workplace and industry that is dominated by men.

Please seriously consider visiting a rape crisis centre if there is one in your city. If you are in the USA, check out the Rape Crisis Center, and call their hotline. I'm sure they can connect you with a local resource.

If you're in Canada or abroad check out the resources here.
posted by GEB's fun world at 10:57 AM on July 23, 2011

To address point 1 - I wouldn't use the term "badass" to describe myself, but I am a female aerospace engineer (also 28), and I am good at what I do. I earn strong performance reviews, frequent praise from all levels of the company, and I am in one of my company's corporate leadership programs. I do this in an industry in which missing a single deadline or a certain technical detail will literally cost the company and our customers (tens of) millions of dollars and result in months - possibly years - of schedule slip, and in which male engineers outnumber women engineers by at least to 1. As someone in a graying industry, I am also far, far younger than most of my colleagues. Quite frankly, most of them seem dismissive of my abilities at first, possibly because of my age and gender, or because I refuse to uglify myself to fit certain stereotypical engineer molds and like wearing dresses and heels to work when I don't have to be on a manufacturing floor. My general MO is to neither deny my gender nor make a big deal of it, and let my work and demeanor speak for itself - I have "girl issues", but other people have "old people" or "single father" issues, so I figure my problems alone can't make me all that special.

I have also struggled with depression, the kind where the idea of going to work sent me into crying fits and I literally had to roll out of bed in a moment of fleeting willpower to get myself up. I prefer not to take medication now (and I don't), but at my absolutely lowest point, it evened me out onto the steady ground I needed to find what worked for me. It gave me room to figure out my priorities, what sorts of circumstances would trigger heavily depressive episodes, start non-medicated therapy and sort my life accordingly. This mean that when I got off the meds, I knew what I needed to do to stay sane, and I've been reasonably fine ever since. It sounds like you're working with professional help, so keep it up and make sure you know what kinds of situations send you into tailspins and come with plans to deal with them.

To address point 2 - I deal with personal issues as privately as I can. That doesn't mean things don't ever come up. But other folks are right - your managers' concerns will include whether you can do your job. Good bosses will regard you as a person with a life outside of work, but still have to put the company before you and consider changing your duties based on what you're facing and how you both believe you can perform in the near future. This is doubly true for startup founders. You cannot lead people if you are not in a healthy mindset to do so.

So be prepared for your duties to change if/when you approach your bosses. It's up to you how much you want to reveal, but I would err on the side of "less is more". The most your managers may need to know is the following (choose whatever works best for you): you have some personal issues (or were assaulted recently, if you're comfortable saying that and/or they push for more information - they will stop there), and will be working through the aftermath of that in the next few months. Note that this is reason why you don't seem like your usual self, and may not in the next few months. If you can handle your work, say so. If not, suggest someone who can, and show what you've done to prep them. Seriously, it's not fair to your team if you're only half there. Then schedule follow up meetings every couple of weeks as appropriate. But yes, be prepared for your manager to keep that in the back of his or her mind and for it to affect the way he or she perceives you, even years after you disclose it.
posted by zamboom! at 11:02 AM on July 23, 2011 [4 favorites]

Hi anon. Sorry to hear about your struggles, but you seem to know they're just a part of the picture of what you're dealing with, and they don't define who you are, so that's great!

I am a respected professional woman leader who has dealt with female issues in a high-pressure male dominated work environment, and even an engineer-dominated work environment. Oh yes, been there.

The thing about start-ups is that they're all different, so it's hard to give advice on how much to tell your bosses. Some questions that might help you guide yourself:

1. Are your bosses your friends? Like, do you hang out with them casually outside of work and work parties, and do you ordinarily tell them about things going on in your personal life?

If yes, tell them more about what you're juggling right now, but if you start talking and you can see that it makes them uncomfortable to hear, stop talking.

If no, proceed to #2.

2. Are you dropping the ball at work regarding your responsibilities? By this I mean missing deadlines, checking in sloppy code that breaks things or that others have to go back over, neglecting your team management/leadership duties, etc.? This is different from just being more emotional than normal.

If yes, you should explain that you know your personal challenges are interfering with your work performance, and you should suggest ways that your bosses or colleagues can help. Maybe someone else can take over discreet parts of the work until you're back to feeling stronger. In a start-up, it's better to ask for help when you need it (though I know that can hurt your pride) than to wait until it's too late and you're really in trouble.

If no, then don't feel like you need to apologize for yourself. Everyone has periods in life where personal challenges overshadow work, and are more important than work. Even men. They just tend to handle it differently, and you may not yet know how to recognize it in your colleagues, or you may not have worked together long enough to have seen it happen yet.

Certainly if you create a dramatic outburst that affects specific colleagues, apologize for that and give a vague explanation -- something like you're under a bunch of stress not related to work that they don't have to worry about, and you're sorry you over-reacted.

And as for how to generally stop freaking the fuck out, as you put it, try taking a time out when you feel something starting to agitate you. Write your outburst down in a notebook so you can get it out of your system, and then tell yourself not to do anything about it for a day. Just go along with it, no matter how maddening. You'll be able to have a less passionate, more logic-based reaction and conversation about it if you let it sit for a day, and -- face it -- even at start-up speed, things CAN wait a day. If you still feel like you need to correct something a day later, you can come back and say, "you know, I've been thinking about x, and something is still bothering me about it." And then launch into your logic-based, reasonable reaction.

The more you do this, the more readily accessible those rational reactions will be for you, and (hopefully) you'll find yourself having fewer knee-jerk emotional reactions. This is how it worked for me, anyway.

Lastly, take a step back and prioritize your life. Ask what's more important: dealing with the immediate trauma post date-rape or the big project at work? The fast-paced leadership job or your day-to-day struggle with depression?

Order the elements in a list according to their priority TO YOU. Then, make sure you're living according to your own priorities, dedicating the most energy to what's most important to you.

Don't feel guilty about saying no to things; there will never be enough hours in the day. It'll take time to arrange your life and train the people around you to expect you to, for example, leave work at the same time every day or say no to opportunities because you've got your hands full already, but you'll thank yourself later for providing a structure to your life that lets you get your house in order. And ultimately you'll be a happier, more productive person.

Good luck, this stuff is hard. But you're awesome, so I have faith that you can do it!
posted by nadise at 11:55 AM on July 23, 2011 [5 favorites]

I think there are two separate issues here. One is your ongoing health problems. You've done awesomely in spite of them, and that's great! Keep doing that. If you need to take time off for treatment at some point in the future, tell your manager you need sick leave. You don't have to tell them now, and you don't need to detail it whenever it becomes necessary.

The other issue is your assault. Whether you disclose it or not is up to you. If you think it is affecting your ability to perform your job or you need time off, I would tell them. You don't need to give them the whole megillah, just say you were the victim of a crime.

It's okay to be "not yourself" for a while without explanation. Just keep doing your job as best you can.
posted by thinkingwoman at 12:23 PM on July 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

As a less-young (36) woman in a field that is male-dominated and older, and, in my specific organization, conservative and politically-charged, I agree with everyone telling you not to disclose details, with a possible exception if you are genuinely friends with your superiors. Even then, keep it minimal. I would suggest something along the lines of "I have some medical and personal issues that are impacting me right now. I'm taking steps to deal with them and I don't expect that it will impact my work performance. However, I wanted to give you a heads-up, and I'd appreciate it if you could let me know if you feel that I'm missing something that needs to be addressed".

If you're not dropping the ball-- even if you think you might be, but you don't have specific examples and no one has said anything to express concern about your work performance-- assume you're doing fine.

I'm currently in a position of much greater responsibility that I anticipated, and consequently am in a position to excel in, or totally fuck up, my career. Everyone except me seems to think I am doing a good job. I have been trying very hard to accept the idea that, as is almost always the case, the person who is wrong is not everyone else-- that is, until someone tells me I need to do better, I'm doing fine, and if they tell me I'm doing great, I'm doing great.

I struggle with depression too, and while I don't have any serious health issues, I recently had a semi-serious emotional meltdown at a point that I just could not, not, not miss work. My boss asked me if I was okay in the morning, I said "not really, but it should resolve itself" and trucked through the day.

You can get through this. Get support from your friends, find a counselor, feel free to lose it on your off-time, and let yourself feel whatever you feel without beating yourself up about how you "should" be handling it. Keep your professional face on at work. Treat yourself kindly. You'll work through it.
posted by Kpele at 12:29 PM on July 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

@Nadise - you asked, "Are your bosses your friends?" I'd submit that, generally, people have no idea if their bosses are their friends, or what that even means. Your boss is responsible for producing work through your efforts. They can be mean about it or nice about it, and they can care about you or not, but ultimately, if their faith that you'll make them look good and produce results gets shaken, it's almost impossible to recover. I can't tell you how often a manager has told me about something that happened 8, 10, or 15 years prior.

I'm sorry to derail, but I have to emphasize this point. Your bosses are not your friends, while you work together. Even if you get pedicures together. Even if you invite them to your wedding. Even if you play golf together, have dinner with their families, or go to strip clubs together to blow off steam every once in a while. Intimacy is not the same as loyalty. If you guys still do those things when you no longer work together, THEN you might be friends. I've seem way too many people (women, young women in particular) get burned by assuming that their bosses were their friends. I have to sound this alarm as often as I can.
posted by pomegranate at 12:59 PM on July 23, 2011 [13 favorites]

Hi. You are living my life 6 years ago, down to an alarming level of parallel detail. Not to be a cliche, but it gets better. Or maybe I just got used to it all.

Unless you have a very close relationship with your bosses, I would not recommend going into detail about your personal issues. No matter how nice and accepting people are, we're all still prone to making judgments and categorizing people based on small data sets. The last thing you want is to be feeling stronger and better a few years from now and still have people treat you like an emotional invalid. This holds exponentially more true in a male dominated field like engineering, unfortunately.

Feel free to email/memail me if you want to talk or bitch or flail.
posted by elizardbits at 3:00 PM on July 23, 2011

Hi, I think there is plenty of good advice upstream regarding disclosure to your bosses. Just a couple of things I wanted to add:

1. I went through a relatively similar experience a few years ago. This impacted my life quite badly in the immediate aftermath, and, intermittently, later on. One of the big problems was that I didn't quite know what to make of it, at a cognitive level, and the stress of that became too much - I was more emotional about not being able to get a handle on what had happened. I also became fearful. This all vanished entirely when I decided that enough was enough, and took some self-defense classes. Just kicking stuff by way of practice made me so, so angry at that person who had meant so much harm to a more vulnerable me. But each time the kicking was over, I felt like I was coming right out of the shower, all clean and pure and serene. Now I no longer kick in anger, or in fear, but I take delight in my nimbleness and speed and strength and agility (such as they all are). It would also be far from easy to mess with me now (and I am no badass, and am quite slight). So, the upshot of this is - might it be helpful to take up self-defense classes/kick-boxing/some form of martial art, to both help you feel less vulnerable and to yoke the physical to the cognitive when processing what happened to you?

2. If one of the problems is that you get (more or less) sudden waves of emotion and rawness, could you find something, some exercise, or a routine, that works quickly to increase calm? What works for me: lying on the floor in the "Corpse position" for a couple of minutes (when I am alone). For some reason, this clears my mind whether I am anxious, furious, afraid, emotional, whatever. Other things, more suited to work-environments: breathing exercises, stretches (I used to go to the toilet for these), discreetly massaging my scalp (it can look as though you're trying to ease muscle tension), presopuncture (I tried once to get rid of a tension-produced headache by pressing between thumb and index, which I had been told should work. The headache didn't go, but I was suddenly all relaxed and switched on. Still works), sniffing at a handkerchief imbibed with lavander oil (this, by the way, did away with headaches a couple of times, and also helps with falling asleep during insomnia attacks). Try to find out what works for you, maybe ask for tips - these are all to deal with the problems short-term, when they interfere with work, or are becoming just too much and you feel like you need to breath again. Other posters have better ideas for the long-term.

I wish you all the best, my heart goes out to you.
posted by miorita at 4:55 PM on July 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

@Pomegranate, you're completely right, and the minute I read your up-stream response (after hitting "post answer" myself) I knew it.

Just goes to show, we can all use a bit of a reminder sometimes. Thanks. :)
posted by nadise at 7:26 PM on July 23, 2011

One of the major reasons I've steered clear of startups for my entire career so far is that small organizations lack infrastructure support to help employees get and stay healthy. I don't disclose issues my (all male except for me) peers don't have the experience or knowledge to cope with knowing and I do make use of friendships and professional relationships outside work to stay healthy.

Some of the more observant/trustworthy guys in my workplace are aware that I'm managing PTSD with professional help; a somewhat overlapping set know I am at work in spite of fairly severe pain 2-3 days out of every 25.

Take care of yourself, whatever that means for you, and disclose to your colleagues and management what they need to know to continue to work effectively with you. If you don't have a strong support network outside work, find ways of reaching out to others and forming meaningful friendships with good people.
posted by thatdawnperson at 8:10 AM on July 24, 2011

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