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.