“Being open about my suffering was the hardest thing I’ve done.”
When Beth Anne Katz embraced her authentic self, she started a new conversation around mental wellness.
It was Beth Anne Katz’s last day as a program manager on a team that helps distribute apps. She’d just accepted a job with Microsoft Teams located in the Czech Republic.
As we sat in her Redmond office, Beth Anne proclaimed, “I’m moving to Prague!” Judging from the many pictures of travel posted on her walls, exploring unknown territory is kind of her thing.
She’s clear eyed, confident, and talks dizzyingly fast. Still, there’s something vulnerable about her—the nervous laughter at the end of every sentence; the endearing apology for her off-color sense of humor and sailor’s mouth.
The 25-year-old is also refreshingly open about the very thing that I came to talk about: her struggle with depression and how finding an accepting work environment changed the trajectory of her mental health.
Beth Anne spent much of the past 10 years depressed and suicidal, and for most of that time, until she came to Microsoft, she kept it all a secret. Her sunny demeanor immediately dispels the myth that what we project on the outside must always match how we feel inside.
“I was Jewish girl raised by native New Yorkers and living in a Protestant, Pennsylvania town where social gatherings centered around a belief system I didn’t share. I always felt like I was on the outside,” she said. “I had to find a way to fit in with people, knowing there’s a part of me that will never be wholly accepted. Or that to be accepted, I’d have to change myself in a really major way.”
As she grew up, her genetic disposition, an undiagnosed chemical imbalance in her brain, and the feeling that no one knew the real her combined to form a prison-like mental outlook, one that tightened its grip on Beth Anne until, some days, it was all she could think about.
These days, Beth Anne is, in so many ways, a different person. Not because she doesn’t have the hopeless feelings anymore, but because she can be honest about them. She’s given up the façade of happiness—even at work. She’s told her team and manager everything. “They totally have my back,” she said.
She almost didn’t make it. It wasn’t until she was able to focus on her wellness and be honest about her struggles that she realized just how much her depression had been holding her back.
A high-stakes path to self-love
When Beth Anne was 17, the pillars of her life began to crumble. She said that age is already dramatic, but she would like to think that even then, when emotions were running high, she was a particularly reasonable, level-headed person.
“It’s hard to keep that way when everything is on fire,” she said.
In the span of one year, five family members died, including her grandfather, with whom Beth Anne was very close. Her grandmother moved in with Beth Anne’s family, and her mother and grandmother fought all the time.
While her parents were consumed with grief and the stress of arranging funerals and elder care, the house became volatile, and Beth Anne withdrew emotionally. Soon after, a close friendship collapsed, and Beth Anne blamed herself, thinking she must have been too hard to love or to understand.
All the while she took a full load of Advanced Placement courses, played the flute and piano in multiple orchestras, and trained daily in figure skating.
She quickly grew overwhelmed. She lost sleep. Her studies suffered; her stress skyrocketed. Her college prospects wavered. To cope, she turned to binge eating.
“I think it was the one legitimate break I gave myself,” she said. “If I was eating dinner, I had that excuse not to study or practice flute.”
At every turn, Beth Anne felt she was disappointing people. She lost another important relationship because of her depression. Her weight gain took her out of the running for figure skating. She was tiptoeing through her life, anxious and panicked—would even one more layer of pressure cause everything to explode?
She began to fantasize in detail about suicide.
“I felt pissed and hurt and didn’t know how to tell anyone,” she said.
All the while, Beth Anne was keeping up appearances, maintaining a bubbly attitude. This double life made her feel deeply ashamed and led her to believe that if someone loved her it was because they didn’t know the real her, the dark her.
She hadn’t yet considered that she had depression or that none of these circumstances were her fault. She wouldn’t consider it for years, not until a manager and a therapist she met while working here helped her find the courage to accept herself and her mental state.
Right when Beth Anne felt on the verge of drowning, a life raft came in the form of an English teacher, to whom Beth Anne poured out her struggles and thoughts, all of her pain rushing out uncontrollably one afternoon after school.
Her parents were notified. She and her dad took a long drive. She remembers that she couldn’t stop crying, but she also remembers that it was obvious that her dad’s heart was broken.
“He took me for an ice cream; it was really sweet,” she paused. “But for once, I couldn’t eat.”
That was the breaking point.
Her parents sent her to a therapist, where she first heard the word “depression.” But Beth Anne wasn’t ready to open up, feeling betrayed from the last time she’d confessed her pain aloud. She told the therapist she was fine.
“I got really good at pretending, but I was angry beyond belief.”
She didn’t want to consider medication for depression at that time, feeling like it would stigmatize her. Still unable to separate the word “crazy” from depression, she felt that being labeled would invalidate all the hard circumstances she’d endured, like those were just normal teenage problems that anyone should be able to handle.
By the time Beth Anne graduated high school, she felt torn between the urge to hide her feelings and the burning desire to be authentically known. She suppressed any bad feelings that came up, but the result of going numb meant that she also couldn’t feel the good things.
“Any sort of happiness inside was just gone.”
Suffering in silence
Hoping for a fresh start, Beth Anne attended Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). Her first two years went okay, but by the time her junior year rolled around, her sadness began to take over.
“My self-esteem was shot, and I was still so mad at a lot of people. But I also really wanted to win them back,” she said. That fire drove her to go for what she thought was the hardest major possible, engineering.
“I just wanted to prove my worth by trying the most difficult major possible. I just wanted to really kill it,” she laughed. “But, I did not kill it; it almost killed me.”
Not only was she spending tons of energy pretending that she wasn’t depressed, she wasn’t keeping up academically. When she earned her first C ever, she felt gutted.
The suicidal thoughts returned. But this time, she wondered, “maybe it’s not my fault. Maybe it’s my circumstances or my brain chemistry.” She sought therapy. Still, she was petrified to tell anyone about her sessions.
During the summer after her junior year, Beth Anne began a series of high-profile internships at some notable technical companies. But she ended up really disliking the companies and the work, the culture felt unwelcoming to her and even hostile at times. She endured a lot of “harmless” jokes about her weight, among other tough social interactions with her peers and coworkers. These situations solidified that there was no way that she was going to tell anyone about her history with depression, much less how she hated her decision to go into engineering. She continued to suffer in silence.
“The internships only contributed to my imposter syndrome,” she said. “Like, I look great on paper, but I won these internships based on this fraudulent idea that I was good at something that I knew I wasn’t good at, and it showed. I didn’t want to work at these places, but it also stung that I wasn’t getting asked back for full time jobs.”
Then she landed a Microsoft internship. She wanted to be excited, but she couldn’t be. She said she arrived “surly and sour. Feeling like, ‘whatever, just another friggen’ technical thing. Just get through orientation and do the job.’
“And then, I just got blown away by Microsoft.”
Through her experience at other companies and the internship here, Beth Anne was beginning to grasp how deeply the culture of a company could affect a person, that it could alter her entire job experience, career trajectory, and even her health.
“The internship was a bit of a turning point,” she said. She had the “most incredible boss” who set a tone of acceptance. She didn’t feel judged for her weight, and she made friends quickly. To this day, she’s roommates (“by choice!”) with another fellow former intern turned employee.
These relationships slowly helped Beth Anne feel more grounded and healthy. She realized during her internship that feeling welcomed and wanted had helped her feel more centered than she had felt in a long time. And that realization made her want to help other people, including women who were struggling. She volunteered on campus at the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), a nonprofit with the goal of establishing engineering as a highly desirable career for women.
Things were looking up.
Being seen as a whole person
Back at CMU for her senior year, Beth Anne began to seriously question her major. She heard about being a program manager. It was still technical, but she could use her hard-won empathy and conflict-management skills to help engineers accomplish something.
She was offered a full-time job as a program manager here and happily drove across country with her parents after graduation. She suspected that while the job would certainly be good for her resume, it might also be good for her on a deeper, more personal level.
Even though circumstances seemed good on the outside, Beth Anne’s repressed pain scratched at the surface again not long after she moved to Redmond. This time, she had no energy to keep up the appearance of a bubbly person. She was ready to be seen as a whole person.
She heard about the Microsoft CARES employee assistance program, where employees can find tools to help relieve stress and improve their overall well-being. CARES connected her with a therapist and, for many months, Beth Anne talked through everything she’d gone through. Eventually, the therapist recommended that Beth Anne try antidepressants. She was reluctant at first, but after months of research and many conversations, Beth Anne was on board to try medication.
At the same time, she decided to stop hiding her illness. First, she told her boyfriend, who had no idea even though they had been together for three years. Then, she told her parents, her manager, and her team members, who offered her unconditional, nonjudgmental support.
“To quote Harry Potter, I felt like I was living a cursed half-life.”
Telling everyone she knew was a way to heal—not only herself, but also the relationships she’d injured along the way.
“I wanted to explain myself. I wanted people to understand that I was sorry for the way I had treated them. But that maybe, it wasn’t totally my fault, that maybe I was sick. That was something I had never considered before.”
In a rather brave move, Beth Anne then decided to share her journey on YouTube, recording videos of her milestones: what depression looks like, day one of antidepressants, and three months on medication.
Also, Beth Anne realized that maybe she could help other people. When she went public with her experiences, people began contacting her on Facebook and YouTube, asking her for help during their own crises.
“Being open about my suffering was the hardest thing I’ve done, but I am not afraid of who I am anymore. Depression isn’t something to be ashamed of,” she said.
Beth Anne wants to talk about the elephant in the room—mental illness.
“We are so big on diversity and inclusion, diversity of races and genders, and every other type of diversity . . . but this one is still really under wraps. I want to shed light on it because there are so many people keeping this a secret who don’t have to. Health is a private thing, but people shouldn’t feel burdened to keep it private if it would help them be a more genuine version of themselves at work.”
Research has shown that genuine employees are happier employees, and that happier employees are better engaged at work and in relationships. They work smarter and find deeper meaning in their contributions. All of this adds up to a company culture of being an innovative, exciting, and effective place to be.
The antidepressants seem to help bring up Beth Anne’s baseline, and she’s experimenting with other kinds of medications as she works with a psychiatrist on several other possible diagnoses aside from depression.
Beth Anne knows that the road to mental wellness never really ends, but she’s finished keeping up pretenses in order to be accepted.
When she was 21 years old, she came up with a bucket list to help structure her life after college and to remind her of all there is to live for. The move to Prague—the chance to live and work internationally, to explore completely new terrain on her own extended timeframe—is on that list. Her current team was very accepting of the ways depression affected Beth Anne day-to-day. She hasn’t told her new team yet, and she has no idea how the international move will affect her mental health. But, she seems unfazed by it all and said, “it’s scary, terrifying! And that’s just fine. But, eff it—it’s just who I am.”