“About all you can do in life is be who you are. Some people will love you for you. Most will love you for what you can do for them, and some won’t like you at all.” ~Rita Mae Brown
The stigma associated with mental illness has improved in recent years, but there is still work to be done.
I am a certified life coach and a certified personal trainer. As an employee of a major global fitness studio chain, I was once discriminated against for my mental health issues.
I have always been an athlete, and I love sports. Before deciding to go to college for engineering, I thought I’d take the medical school route with the goal of becoming an orthopedic surgeon—I was always fascinated with the body’s structure and how all of the muscles, ligaments, and tendons worked together. But I chose the engineering path and kept my athletic pursuits and fascination with body mechanics and such as hobbies.
When I was going through my divorce, I decided to get my personal trainer certificate. I had been a stay-at-home mom and part-time photographer since my first child was born, and divorcing meant I would need to go back to work. However, I was not interested in a corporate cubicle job.
I studied hard, took the exam, and quickly landed my first training job as a coach for a global fitness studio chain. The classes at this particular chain were basically high-intensity interval based, combining treadmill running, rowing, and strength training. The classes of up to thirty-something athletes were coached by one trainer who timed the intervals and explained the workouts.
It was a very high-energy workout and atmosphere with loud, pumping music and drill-sergeant-like yellings of encouragement.
The training for this position was an intense week-long ordeal. I worked my butt off during that week with no guarantee of a job (which they neglected to tell us until the week of training was almost over).
When I was ready to teach my first class, I was excited and nervous, but I ended up loving coaching the classes. There were many unfit individuals who barely knew how to do a squat, and I loved not only teaching them but encouraging them and helping them believe that they could master these exercises and become good at them.
I helped many people see themselves as athletes when they went from barely being able to walk for three minutes straight to actually running for three minutes straight.
We had member challenges, including a weight loss challenge. I loved it, and given my background battling an eating disorder, this was my chance to come at weight loss from a place of healthy living—not losing weight to measure up to some ridiculous standard.
After each class, members of my team would stay after to ask questions about nutrition, exercise, and recovery. I loved sharing my knowledge with them as well as cheering them on. I knew they could reach their goals, and they did. My team won the challenge.
During this period of time working for this company, I was struggling with my own personal hell. I would show up to class to coach and put on my high-energy, happy face, blast the music, and yell those firm, but loving words of encouragement for my athletes to give it everything they had during each interval. But inside, I felt like I was dying.
I lived with a sinking, sick pit in my stomach. I’d often leave the studio and cry in my car before going back to the lonely home that once housed a family.
During my tenure at the studio, I was hospitalized for severe depression twice. Both times required me to take a short leave of absence—a few days the first time, and nearly a week the second time.
I also took a last-minute trip on Christmas Day back home to see my family so I would have some family support for that first Christmas without my kids (they were with their dad that year). I got someone else to cover the class I was scheduled to teach.
When I returned from my trip, I came back to work and taught my scheduled classes. As I was leaving, the head trainer and one of the main investors of all Maryland franchises made me stay so they could fire me.
They told me that my performance wasn’t up to par and that they had to let me go.
Funny, I had never had anyone give me any indication that I needed to improve anything to keep my job. Not even in my evaluation with the head trainer—she gave me some constructive feedback but also indicated that I was doing a good job. There had been zero warning signs.
After my departure, a large number of my students reached out to me asking where I was and why I wasn’t teaching anymore. When I told them the reason, they were appalled and angry. One or two even canceled their membership.
They loved my classes and would come because they liked my style of teaching. I asked to see member surveys for my classes, but management refused to show them to me stating that “surveys don’t tell the whole story.”
Other trainers, including another head trainer who had been with the Maryland franchises since the first location opened, thought the whole thing was absurd and offered that I could come back and teach at his location. As much as I loved coaching, I was still too upset at the way the company had handled my dismissal to take him up on his offer.
I tell this story because what happened to me was cruel and heartless and should never happen to anyone who is genuinely giving their best effort in a job. It should never happen to anyone without proper warning.
I was struggling on a level I doubt either the twenty-something head trainer or bougie investor ever had to endure, and they let me go for some made-up reason that, below the surface, really came back to my mental health struggle.
Authenticity is a topic that is near and dear to my heart, and I feel that authenticity in the workplace is sorely lacking.
All too often, we feel like we can’t show up as our authentic selves for fear of looking weak or incompetent. We need to be competitive and not show any sign that we aren’t anything but perfect for fear someone else might get ahead because of an incorrect perception (one that is wrongly distorted by mental health struggles) that others have of our ability to get the job done.
I did my job as a coach and trainer, and I did it well. Ask any of my students. But on some level, management sensed my weakness and decided I didn’t fit the “brand image” of this very popular and trendy international fitness studio chain because I was struggling with mental illness.
If you asked them, I am quite certain that they would argue their reasoning had to do with other factors, but the facts just don’t add up.
I had never been let go from a job in my life. This added to my depression and anxiety. I understand that if I had not been able to perform my duties, that would have been grounds for dismissal. But I gave it my all and never received any negative feedback indicative of my job being in jeopardy.
My struggle with depression at that time was no different than someone struggling with a physical illness.
If I was undergoing treatment for cancer, I am quite certain this scenario would have gone quite differently. I am certain there would have at least been a conversation about the situation, rather than just flat-out making up an excuse that my performance wasn’t up to par and firing a single mom without another job to go to.
We have to remove the stigma mental illness has in the workplace. We have to make it okay for people to show up and say, “Hey, I’m struggling right now. I am doing my best, but I’m having a hard time.” That shouldn’t be a weakness. If anything, it’s a strength to admit when you’re struggling and need some help.
Are strides being made? Yes. But the disparity between the perception of physical illness and mental illness is still too great. This needs to change.
How could my former employer have handled this differently?
First of all, if they didn’t think my performance was good enough, they should have given me a chance to improve. They should have told me that I needed to change something, because I’m the type of person that, when given feedback, will do everything possible to nail it. At that point in my life, I was still firmly rooted in perfectionist mode, and the very thought of someone thinking I’m not perfect would have been enough to send me into a frenzied mission to correct that perception.
If they were not thrilled with the time I had to take off for my hospitalizations and my last-minute trip where I had someone else cover one class, the head trainer should have communicated to me that it was unacceptable and given me a warning. That would have given me a chance to have an honest conversation about the struggles I was having.
In even a minimally caring environment, it makes more sense to help employees succeed rather than throw them away the moment you don’t like them. It’s much more expensive to go through training a new employee than to try to improve one you already have.
In the fitness industry in particular, I feel that there is little room for perceived imperfection, and there is even less room for a flawed trainer or coach. The fitness industry perpetuates the lie that trainers and coaches have their sh*t together—that’s why they’re the ones training you. That’s why you can’t get these results yourself—because you’re not perfect and you don’t know how to be perfect.
Authenticity in any workplace is so important. When we are afraid to show up as ourselves with not only our flaws but also our gifts and talents, that’s where creativity ends. When we aren’t able to exercise our creativity, innovation is thwarted. And when innovation stops, that’s where everyone gets stuck.
Looking back, I now know that I never want to be employed by such shallow and uncompassionate people, but I also know that just wasn’t the place for me. There is no place I want to be where I can’t show up as my true self and say, “Hey, I can bring a lot to the table, but I’m also flawed and I’m okay with that.”
The reaction should be “Yeah, me too. Welcome to the club,”
Because we are all imperfect. And that’s a fact.