Most casual conversations I have these days include questions about where I’m employed and what I’m employed as. Work is one of the hottest subjects I encounter now that I’m in my early 20’s. If you live with Bipolar, you might know what a daunting task even thinking about work can be. There are many people I’ve met that are living with the disorder that cannot work, perhaps getting disability benefits. There are others that thrive off of work, especially during a manic episode.
For me, Bipolar has interfered with my work since I started cashiering at a grocery store in the 11th grade. I remember being manic, making stupid decisions like lying to the floor manager that I had period cramps so I could go party with my friends. My anxiety and depression would cause me to call in sick. Eventually, during a hypomanic episode, I quit by leaving a note for the General Manager. I decided to go work a few doors down in a Greek restaurant because I was sick of the “Nazis” that supervised me. After only a few months at the Greek restaurant, I was fired because I got so drunk the night before Sunday brunch that I was depressed and hung over and couldn’t make it in at 8 am.
I had a string of jobs over the next couple of years that always ended in an abrupt notice that I was quitting. I could never get a good, steady work history going for myself. Even with my passion, writing, I quit a couple of projects because I couldn’t handle the stress along with 5 classes at college. In my junior year of college I was fired from a bookstore because I called in sick too many times. At the time, I didn’t care.
I landed a part time job at a law firm the winter before I graduated with my Bachelor’s Degree in English/Creative Writing. I was severely manic at the time and desperately clung on to the job mentally as if it was my only ticket after college. I obsessed about the job, even asking my supervisor to please consider me for any position that came open (even though I had only been there a month and a half). I decided to research Paralegal certification programs for hours, because if only I could stay at this law firm and move up, maybe I’d have the life that I wanted. After all the obsessing, even wasting my graduation weekend bliss over worrying about Paralegal training, I quit in the summer, citing to my husband that I couldn’t take the long commute and that the job was getting me nowhere.
I fell into a depressive episode and couldn’t write, even though I felt I should start writing freelance again. Shortly after that I swung into mania, and decided that I needed to get a job to make money pronto. I chose a job at a group home for adult males with bipolar and schizophrenia, which I thought I would love. I have always wanted to work in mental health. I shouldn’t have agreed to work there, though. I was given the night shift, which meant working 12 am-7 am. The first weekend that I worked this shift, I had audible hallucinations. This first shift started a period of intense mania, more serious than I had ever experienced before. About two months into the job, I quit, with a heavy heart for the guys I worked with. I climbed higher into mania in the coming months, and for the first time in my life at age 21 I experienced intense delusions and hallucinations. Even worse, I risked my life continuously for days on end. My relationship with my husband suffered.
As the mania drew to a close, I enrolled in some graduate classes. After the mania subsided, I got a job as a nanny, spending the other time studying. I absolutely hated it at the time, because I had swung once again into depression and my desire to do anything was muted. I didn’t have the empathy and the patience that I needed to take good care of the kids. Even worse, one of the children was an aggressive and unruly seven year old that recently suffered through a divorce. The combination of his disrespect and my depressive emotions was not the ideal combination.
I went through several months of depression but kept working for the family. By Summer 2011 I was feeling pretty normal and actually enjoyed my work for the most part. The Earth grew darker, though, and by fall I was severely depressed again. Unable to make it out of bed by November 2011, and in fear of losing my job anyway if I explained how I was feeling, I told my boss that I was in a major depressive episode and that I was quitting.
My depression was dark and dangerous. I started experiencing terrible mixed episodes, and even quit graduate classes. It wasn’t until having zero income for months on end and feeling empty that I decided I needed to do something; I would start working again and do something about how I felt.
I wanted to start slow, so I took a job where I could work from home doing research and related projects for an executive search firm. It started out pretty relaxed, but it got more intense quickly. I started going to my boss’s office more, and started getting additional responsibilities. My hours went up, the other girl that was working as my co-assistant left, and poof, now I am the Executive Administrative and Recruiting Assistant to the President and CEO. So how is that going, you ask?
It’s pretty hectic and stressful, to be honest. In seven months, I have received a lot of new responsibilities and now in a lot of ways I am running the show in the office. With that comes speaking with executives on a daily basis, scheduling appointments and conferences, cold calling, projects, writing assignments, research assignments, and much, much more. I didn’t think I was ever going to be able to do as much as I’m doing now after my last depressive episode, but I am definitely doing quite well at my job. Does it create anxiety for me? Absolutely.
I don’t do well with work, as you can probably tell. I have had countless stomach aches largely due to work anxiety, and I have a hard time dealing with the stress that accumulates during the day. Right now I’m working 35 hours, but my boss has talked about increasing it to 40. I don’t know if I want any more. Even though I’m doing well, my terrible self esteem tells me I need to be doing more. Even though I’m making it each day my thoughts often say “I’m tired, I can’t do this today.” I feel like my mood swings are more severe during the work week. I could go on and on.
The crazy thing about all of this, is that I was considering disability about a year ago. A doctor told me I would have to do something “drastic” like ECT before he would consider signing off for me. I was angry and helpless at the time. Now I’m working and even though I’m walking the tightrope I’m still hanging on.
As you might have read, my husband has some career plans that might eventually let me focus on mental health and writing. However, right now I’m going the course and trying to make a name for myself for once. I’m putting on that big smiling face every day even though I feel like cursing someone out. I stay patient and calm although I don’t know how I’m doing it. Sometimes I say that I’m getting older and more mature. But when I think about how much anxiety and stress I get from this kind of job, the more that I think that it’s not quite my favorite way to be living my life. I am thankful for my job, yes, and you better believe I do it well and try very hard. I’m just really tired right now, but I’m surprised that I have never once in these seven months thought of quitting.
I understand anyone that does not work that has the illness. If you do not live with Bipolar, you could not imagine the way you feel like you are buried in cement on some days, potentially most days out of the year. It’s also hard to imagine the fear that arouses in some people that live with Bipolar when they are getting in the car to to go to work. For me, my heart pounds, my stomach turns and aches, and I have abnormal breathing patterns. It takes a lot of work just to calm down. And many that live with Bipolar do not have the stress tolerance that others do. Even 4-5 hours of work can be exhausting and emotional for some.
I encourage everyone to ask about a person’s likes, desires, interests, family, instead of what they do. I have learned through this process that it doesn’t matter what someone does, it matters who they are. My job or lack thereof will never define me. It’s what I do for people and how I make people feel.