From Strong to Weak and Back Again

Photo by Rach Teo on Unsplash

No one should have to endure mental illness alone. 

As humans, we need other humans. Connections are what keep us rising day after day. Living with mental illness creates a need that reaches beyond connection. We need a support team able and willing to face whatever comes because life can get pretty gnarly when shit goes down — not currently in our “right minds” shit. It happens sometimes despite my best efforts to remain high-functioning

Self awareness is tainted when, in my case, I’m  manic, melancholic or (my favorite) mixed. A mixed bipolar episode is when I experience melancholy and mania at the same time. They are common but beyond difficult to describe — especially when mania carries this whole “out of body” sort of scenario.

A good support team has to be able to step in and bring about the self awareness I need through alternative means. 

This can be simple. 

A coworker once approached me after reports of a rather raucous holiday weekend reached her. She called me into her office and made it clear her intentions were of the most serious nature. “Are you okay,” she asked? No one ever asked me if I was okay. I burst into tears and she drove me straight to my doctor’s office. 

It isn’t always that simple.

Fast forward a few years — I was both suicidal and deep in bipolar debt. The only symptom I allowed was a dip in my job performance. I’m an “exceeds expectations” kind of employee and the review I received that year further broke me. It was the catalyst that sent me careening down an even darker path from which I finally found the strength to do the one thing that seemed unbearably out of reach.

With no one to intercede for me, I asked for help. 

I am no good at asking for help. More than one friend will use the word “strong” when asked to describe me. Physically? Sure. Mentally? Most of the time. Like a cat, I’m far too adept at hiding pain. I am a master at masking melancholy. 

I have openly asked for help (in regard to my mental illness) exactly twice. The first time led to my diagnosis. The second time saved my life, but I still had to live with a shit employee performance review and a ton of debt. These were the extremes — when I, or someone I loved, was in harm’s way due to my instability. At neither of these points did I have the support team I needed. 

To be on the support team for someone like me, there are some key points to remember: 

Just because you are family to someone with a mental illness does not mean you are a mental health advocate — nor do you qualify for their support team by default. 

You have to replace supposition and misconception with constant education and understanding. A lot we know about bipolar disorder has changed in the 27 years since my diagnosis. If you can’t keep up, you can’t be on my team.

I have an illness.

My d i s e a s e has to be treated with the same care and attention as any physical disease.

I still have very real feelings.

Not every emotional outburst is the result of my medication being off-kilter or signal that I’m sliding into a bout of paranoia. In fact, I keep things close enough in check that most of the time, I’m doing okay. My feelings are natural, not bloated. Consider that something else may be upsetting me. If I’m particularly distant or hostile, consider that those feelings may have something to do with you… and that I’m not overreacting.

I can be cruel.

It sucks. It’s no point of pride. When pushed to the brink of madness by physical or emotional exhaustion, I tend to say shit I don’t mean. I have failings, sure, but most of the time I’m a pretty nice person. Cruelness is a symptom. I may not even remember what I have said or done — or the full implication may not “hit me” for weeks or months. I do try to make amends. Sometimes this makes being on my team difficult. If I have hurt you in the past, I truly apologize. 

You cannot replace my medical team.

Medical practitioners are part of my support team but you are not part of my medical team. Do not WebMD me. Do intercede if I seem unstable. Do not recommend medications you see on television. Do ask if I feel my meds are still working. Do not act like my therapist. Do ask if I’m okay. 

My mental health is ultimately my responsibility.

I still have to own my own actions. I live with a multitude of long-range consequences. Bipolar disorder affects not only me, but everyone around me — especially my support team. And sometimes that support team has to change, even the medical team.

So, for the third time, many months after I should have, I finally asked for help. 

I’m so tired of the word “unprecedented,” but the last three years have been brutal (on many of us, not just me) and riddled with enormous life alterations. I’m a fan of change, but the big emotions have been excessive. There has been job stuff. Loss of friend stuff. Children stuff. More job stuff. Separation from family stuff. So. Much. Stuff. And I — I am not okay. 

This is me relinquishing my weaknesses and finding strength in support.

I am not okay enough that I started talk therapy after far too many years. 
I am not okay enough that I found counseling alone inadequate.
I am not okay enough that I started the process of a full psychiatric reevaluation. 
I am not okay enough that I sidelined individuals who hinder my mental recovery.
I am not okay enough that I am actively telling friends and chosen family and coworkers. 

I am not okay enough that I’m telling you — 
just in case you too need to stop masking and ask for help. 

You Have Bipolar Disorder, Now What?

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

Get on the bus to bipolar summer camp, but be careful which one you choose.

Being diagnosed with bipolar disorder is jarring. Because public perception places the burden of mental illness on behavior and not biology, so do you. Right now you are more worried about individuality and less about health. Your natural tendency for self-preservation is screaming, “But, this is just who I am!” What now?

Let’s Go to Camp!

Imagine you can get away to post-diagnosis summer camp.* There are four buses waiting — each one takes you to a different compass point around Lake Bipolar: Camp Denial, Camp Defiant, Camp Despair, and Camp Driven. Which one do you choose?

Camp Denial (East)

Denial [dih-nahy-uhl], noun, disbelief in the existence or reality of a thing

Wow! This is one crowded bus. This is because pretending you don’t have a problem is the easy way out. It’s easy because you are already so good at it. Odds are you didn’t land on the doorstop of your diagnostician at the first warning sign. Despite how crowded the seats are, it’s comfortable and familiar. You have been hovering on the outskirts of Camp Denial for a long time. Now you can come right in and you will have a lot of help getting here.

“Keep calm and carry on.”
“Tomorrow is a new day.”
“It’s okay; we can pray it away.”
“Are you sure you have a problem?”

Sound familiar? Camp Denial might be comfortable, but it isn’t healthy for you or those around you. Campers here don’t take medications or visit the camp counselors. They treat camp like just another summer vacation. It is very much a land of make-believe, but no one here is living a fantasy life.

There are two one-way paths leading out of camp — one going north and one going south. Denial campers can switch camps, but they can never return once they accept Lake Bipolar as reality. The north path is narrow and appears challenging. The path to the south is wide and clear; it’s easy.

Camp Defiant (South)

Defiant [dih-fahy-uhnt], adjective, boldly resistant or challenging

“I know me better than anyone else!”
“What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”
“I’m not like those people.”
“Look at how much fun I’m having!”

The campers at Camp Defiant are a motley crew. Think twice before joining them. Make no mistake, the choice is yours. Choosing to attend Camp Defiant means you know your diagnosis is very much real and accurate. You know it is affecting you and everyone around you in a negative way and you make a conscious decision to ignore it. People drown here all the time. This is the path to addiction — drug addiction, sex addiction, alcohol addiction. It leads to unemployment, family court, and, in extreme cases, prison or death.

We hear about Camp Defiant often. Mainstream media loves reporting the salacious and tragic things that happen here — to excess. These campers are vocal and belligerent. They are tipping the balance of mental health conversation and influencing what people believe. Unfortunately, they seem to be having so much more fun than the rest of us and campers from Denial and Despair are drawn here in droves.

Camp Despair (West)

Despair [dih-spair], noun, loss of hope; hopelessness

While there were only a handful of people on your bus, the first thing you notice about Camp Despair is how many people are here. Most campers do not get on this bus immediately following diagnosis; they transfer from one of the other camps for a variety of reasons.

“I’m so tired.”
“It’s of no use.”
“I can’t do this anymore.”
“No one wants me like this.”

Like Camp Denial, this is place of passive response to your diagnosis. Maybe you were partying hard at Camp Defiant, but now you’re in withdrawal. Perhaps you accepted your diagnosis and, unable to remain a Denial camper, you got lost wandering around the lake and ended up here. Even campers to the north end up here on occasion. We all do. Living with bipolar disorder is hard. We all feel like giving up sometimes, but it is important to not linger here. The longer you stay, the easier it is to never leave. 

Camp Driven (North)

Driven [driv-uh n], adjective, being under compulsion, as to succeed or excel

Camp Driven is your True North. It is the fixed point in your spinning world, but few of us get on this bus in the beginning. It is the active, but often difficult choice because you know it’s going to be hard work. Having lived in various states of denial, despair, or defiance without knowing why, a few campers fully embrace their diagnosis and jump on the bus to Camp Driven because a diagnosis gives them an answer. They have an immediate desire for change.

Even if you’re ready, the bus ride to camp is not an easy one. The road is bumpy. There are a lot of distractions and you will probably deviate to the local amusement park for a ride on the medicinal roller-coaster before your journey can continue. Once you get here, and start doing the work, camp is pretty great.

Most of us came from another camp on the lake. We share in at least one of your experiences. Let us help you. Like us, the counselors here are comprised of people who want to see you succeed — friends, family, coworkers, physicians. We have lifeguards! Every day volunteers venture down the east and west paths to help other campers, step-by-step, make their way to Camp Driven. It turns out the paths heading north are lined with helping hands — once you get past the entrance. We even send a lifeboat to Camp Defiant.

Here lives a community of people with bipolar disorder who are doing their best to manage this strange and mysterious illness. No two have the same story, support system, or prescriptions. Some campers came straight here on the first bus, others have spent time in every camp around the lake. You might even meet someone who disappears and comes back on a regular basis, but they come back because they are driven to be better.

In Camp Driven, you learn to replace the panicked voice of self-preservation with one of self-affirmation.

“Me and my life are important.”
“I need help.”
“I am not alone.”
“I am not defined by my illness. I am still me.”

If we can drown out media cacophony of other campers and change the conversation around mental health, then maybe Camp Driven will become the most popular spot on the lake.

This article was originally published May 3, 2020 on Medium. In 2020, I migrated that writing content to my personal webpage. 

*This is written from personal experience and meant to inspire or provide hope. If you have, or think you have, a mental illness, please consult a physician. Though bipolar summer camp does not exist, there are many organizations and facilities available to help you cope with both your illness and the diagnosis itself. To learn more about finding success in the workplace while living with bipolar disorder, read The Myth of High-Functioning Bipolar Disorder.

The Myth of High-Functioning Bipolar Disorder

Photo by Marco Secchi on Unsplash

Tips for increased productivity despite mental illness.

I am successful in my career. To the casual observer, there is no hint of mental illness even though I make no effort at keeping it a secret. I once had a supervisor who scoffed, “No, you’re not!” when I revealed I have bipolar disorder in casual conversation. Three years later, she would hug me hard as I walked out the door to go home and heal for a few weeks. Then she believed.

Mastery of pretending to be okay combined with general competency masquerades as high-functioning — at least in the workplace. This is because we never tell mental health success stories and it is time to change the narrative.

High-functioning is not a subset of bipolar disorder. If you put ten people with this disorder in a room, you cannot separate them equally by those who are naturally high-functioning and those who are doomed to suffer from the ravages of mental illness. Being high-functioning takes effort. It is a choice — not natural selection.

First, a little history:

My diagnosis came six months after the birth of my oldest son — a pregnancy which stemmed from sexual encounters of which I had little to no memory with a man I barely knew. I married him anyway. Both from differing but no less deep religious upbringings, it was simply understood this is what you did.

I thought postpartum depression was the cause of my moody and erratic behaviors. I was wrong. At the time, there were no television commercials for bipolar medications listing, or implanting, all the symptoms I should share with a doctor. No one discussed mental health.

From the first day of my marriage to the first day of my divorce and beyond it was clear that, despite my diagnosis, I would have to thrive in order for us to survive. I had to be the responsible adult. I could never afford to be fired or unemployed. I had to be indispensable for the sake of my children.

It has been 25 years since my diagnosis. Not one year has been easy. A lot of mistakes were made along the way, but I also learned a lot. One of those things is that, when well-managed, friends, coworkers, and even family members tend to forget my illness exists because it cannot be seen — and when it cannot be seen, the myth of high-functioning bipolar disorder is born.

Here are ten tips to succeeding in the workplace despite a mental illness.

Take your medication every day.

Antipsychotics are similar to antibiotics in that we want to stop taking them as soon as we feel better. Unlike most antibiotics, they also come with a barrage of side effects that make them generally unappealing: rapid and often irreversible weight gain, suppression of sex drive, numbing creative impulses, and many other things which threaten aspects of our lives we would rather not give up. Combined with the roller-coaster of finding the right “cocktail” every few years and sticking with a regimen is difficult. I chose to stop treating my medications like a ball and chain and accepted them as routine.

Be open and honest about your mental illness.

I never wanted the burden of accountability for my mental health to fall on my boys. They were too young to fully understand. Every few years, my body begins to metabolize medications differently. They “wear off.” With no family nearby, I rely on friends and coworkers to notice when something is amiss. They have to know how to help me and that requires honesty. Talking about my illnesses also aids in easing public stigma. I choose to be a part of the solution. This can be a delicate dance in the workplace. In my experience, the risk is usually worth it.

Use the eMoods app.

Even the closest of friends or coworkers can miss the warning signs. After that day my boss hugged me and I walked away from work to heal, I found the eMoods app. Like my medication, use of this app is as routine to me as brushing my teeth and washing my face every evening. With sliding scales and trackers for anger, depression, anxiety, weight, psychotic symptoms, and so much more, the eMoods tracker is one of my most valuable resources. I have a great physician who is willing to receive monthly reports by email which allows her to spot warning signs before it is too late.

Become the software super-user.

It helps that my father loved technology and we had a computer in the house by the mid-1980s, but programs are easy for me to learn — especially customer relation management (CRM) software. When I first began working in an office environment, I taught myself all the Microsoft Office applications beyond Word (Excel, Powerpoint, Access) simply because they were there to be learned. I cannot express how this decision has benefited me in a professional environment. Being the “go to” guru for quick software questions is both rewarding and a big step toward job security.

Fill the “other duties as assigned” gap.

In early 2000, I went to work for a small company that did not yet have a website. Though the owner had purchased a domain name, she didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t want to work somewhere without an online presence, so I bought the first edition of HTML for DummiesI built the inaugural website and maintained it for two years adding “webmaster” on my resume. I have also filled the role of social media manager, graphic designer, and function design document author simply because no one else would step up to the plate and learn the skills necessary to do those things and do them well. Each one of these “out of the box” skills for someone in my industry gets noticed on my resume and opens up some amazing job interview dialogue.

Take mental health days.

I work hard. I show up. I don’t make excuses. But when I need to do so, I take time off. Today, I can refer to this phenomenon as a “mental health day.” Fifteen years ago, I had to fake a stomach bug or claim a child was sick in order to use a sick day for this purpose. There is still a stigma and debate around taking mental health days, but I believe they are vital for all employees, not just those of us with a diagnosed mental illness. Some school districts are beginning to allow mental health days for students and that is progress in the right direction.

Keep learning.

My current company does not provide as much professional development as I would like. I make my own. From webinars to LinkedIn groups to copious industry articles and magazines, I keep myself well-informed — mostly with no financial burden. It also keeps my mind busy. This is important. An idle bipolar brain will invent things to obsess over, so I keep mine occupied as much as possible. In fact, after dropping out of college at age 20 due to my bipolar disorder, I finally earned my degree at age 39 while working full-time, parenting, and managing my illness. It is possible. Continuous learning is the foundation for workplace success.

Accept the consequences of your actions even if you don’t remember making them.

This is the hardest one. Bipolar disorder has sent me to bankruptcy court and it has caused me to make rash decisions that affect my entire family. I refer to bipolar breaks, especially mania, as out-of-body experiences. Sometimes I have vague memories of my actions and sometimes I do not remember them at all. Coming back into reality and facing the consequences and implications of decisions made when I am not in my right mind is agony, but I do it. I try to manage it with my head held high. This has taught me to take responsibility in the workplace as well. I always step up and admit when I am in the wrong or if I should have handled a situation differently. This should be normal human behavior, but it is not. Employers are accustomed to finger pointing and blame. My honesty is noticed and appreciated.

Question the status quo.

There is room for improvement in every organization. Once I have been in a position for a minimum of six to nine months, I become vocal about what can be done better or ways the business can change. Most of my ideas are role specific and hinge on working smarter not harder. Sometimes I just start doing things differently and coworkers follow my lead. In doing this, I learned my employers are willing to make the right changes and always appreciate a fresh perspective. Not all of my ideas are accepted, but the conversation often leads to other solutions.

Attempt better health through diet and exercise.

Once upon a time, I was a great athlete. I am no longer (see aforementioned comment about antipsychotic weight gain). A quarter century of medications has taken its toll on my body. I do get a fair amount of body movement throughout the day due to my work. I spend a lot of time walking the length and breadth of a convention center complex. I also acknowledge that some foods simply don’t make me feel great and I try to avoid them. I use the word “attempt” because this is my great failing. I would feel better, look better, and be even more confident if I would apply the same vigilance to this category as I do continuous learning or taking my medications. We all need something to work on.

There is one mental health method noticeably missing from this list and that is the subject of talk therapy. For better or worse, therapy has factored very little into my bipolar disorder management. To be frank, as a single parent, therapy was far too expensive. I found a way to cope without it. If you can afford it, I highly suggest talk therapy as well.

One time in the last 25 years, I was forced to utilize FMLA benefits for two weeks in order leave work and manage my disorder. I show up. I am reliable and I am good at what I do. I am not a unicorn. All of us with mental illness are capable of shattering the high-functioning myth. With the right combination of care, compassion, and conscious determination, anyone with a mental illness can maximize their own marketability while simultaneously minimizing workplace stigma and risk.

Like medications, you just have to find the right cocktail.

This post was originally published April 23, 2020 on Medium. In 2020, I migrated that writing content to my personal webpage.