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What It's Like to Lose a Job Because of Bipolar Disorder

“We need to talk. When can I call you?”

Those words — the only words in a work email from my typically verbose supervisor — started a panic within me. I had been absent two or three days a week for the past month, and I had nearly depleted my year’s supply of sick and personal days.

My boss knew I had bipolar disorder. I had informed him when I was hired in September, and let him know I was struggling that April. I was so depressed I had been considering checking myself into the hospital, though I had told no one that specific tidbit.

I got on the phone with him that afternoon and promised to come in the next day. I woke up, dragged myself out of bed and came into the office, a little disheveled and visibly unhappy. He checked out a company car and we went for a drive.

“You really need to figure out how to get this under control,” he said, in an unabashedly patronizing tone. “Are you seeing your doctor? Do you have a therapist? Are you trying to get better?”

I was insulted by his line of questioning. The company I worked for dealt with individuals with mental illnesses often. I tried in my work to be fair and kind, even when their symptoms made them difficult to work with. And yet here I was, being interrogated about my health and treated as if I were clueless about my own disorder. I thought as a mental health professional he would know better.

Have you ever lost a job or other kind of work because of your illness?#unemployment #ChronicIllness #MentalIllness #BipolarDisorder

I answered his questions in the affirmative, weakly. I promised I would not go beyond my personal and sick days and thanked him for accommodating what he could.

I was absent the next day. On Friday, he gave me an ultimatum: resign, or be let go.

Unfortunately, too many of us with mental illnesses face similar situations every day, some of them amounting to actual discrimination. Data from the National Alliance on Mental Illness show that people with mental illnesses are more likely to be unemployed in the United States than those who are not. Older data from the National Institutes of Health show that the employment rate for those with serious mental illness was 54.5% in 2009 and 2010, compared to 75.9% for those with no mental illness. (This employment rate counts all people working and not working in the United States, including retirees and children, where the commonly cited unemployment rate you hear in the news is a measure only of those seeking work.)

I decided to resign. The work was grueling. I was constantly drained by the emotional toll of working with clients who were homeless. Whenever a snowstorm rolled in, my anxiety would spike. And even though I was taking my medicine regularly, getting talk therapy and otherwise trying to fight my illness, I was too depressed to function well enough to go to work.

I lost my income, and in a few months was forced to move back in with my parents. The day after I resigned I slept nearly the entire day. It was gut-wrenching and terrifying to lose a job because of my health. But at the same time I felt relief. The pressure of a regular schedule lifted and I was able to rest like I hadn’t in months.

I’ve had so many different jobs because of my depression. Low-paying jobs in college I simply quit if I was too overwhelmed. I missed out on internships that I was too sick to accept, and other freelance opportunities that I let fall through the cracks. But the most important thing at each of those times was to take care of me, regardless of the financial fallout.

I currently work at a job I love, raising funds for a worthy nonprofit. I did end up telling the hiring staff that I had bipolar disorder and that I may need accommodations. Thankfully I’ve been well enough this past year to handle any depression without missing too many work days.

I hope one day all workplaces could be this welcoming and warm toward those of us with mental illnesses. Until that day comes, however, know this: if you lose your job because of an illness, that’s OK. At the end of the day, your health is more important than any time clock, company or rude supervisor. Wear your firings and resignations as badges of honor. You’ve been through hell and back, and that’s your proof that you survived and you’re still trying.

Getty image via z_wei