I knew something wasn’t quite right with John when I saw him that morning. He left the files on my desk without saying a word, without making eye contact. He had that distant, faraway look he got when he stopped taking his medication. Usually he would stay a minute and chat, but on this day he was in a hurry. I started to follow him but my phone rang. John left my office to continue with his deliveries. I made a quick call to his supervisor to let her know what I had observed before I left for a meeting.
I had known John for over 20 years. The first time I heard about him was about a year after he started working in the same office that I did. One day, he wandered off at lunch time and did not return. His mother was contacted but she didn’t know where he was either. However, as she spoke, John’s secret began to unravel. John was bipolar. According to his mother, there were times when he stopped taking his medication out of concern for the long term damage it was doing to his liver. She had been worried that this was one of those times. Fortunately he was found that afternoon. After a few days off he was back at work again. Unfortunately, this would not be the last time he wandered off from work.
Over the years I had the opportunity to work with John and get to know him as a shy, compassionate soul with a keen intellect who loved Jimi Hendrix. As his boss, I found him to be the hardest working employee that I had. He was always helpful, meticulous, and willing to go above and beyond what was required. The entire office was delighted when he announced that he was getting married. Later when his two children were born the office celebrated with him. He was a doting husband and father. And yet, every now and then he would rebel against the medication that he was convinced was poisoning him. I learned the signs to look for and would contact his family when it seemed like John needed to get help.
Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to check on John that last day. The next morning when I got to work, my employees were huddled together crying. John had once again left work at lunch time and did not return. He picked up his kids from school and got on the highway, heading in the direction of home. He was travelling at a high rate of speed when he ran into the back of big rig. He was killed instantly. Both children survived.
I was devastated. It took me years to reconcile myself to the fact that I could not have prevented what happened. However, over time I began to focus more on his life than his death. I have found over the years that even in the same organization, employees who are dealing with mental health challenges have not always been treated with the same respect and understanding that John received. Too many gifted and talented people are being held back because of the stigma associated with their illness.
Although John’s life ended tragically, his life is not defined by how it ended. Instead, I carry the memory of John within me as a reminder that it is possible to create a work environment of acceptance without barriers for those with mental health challenges.