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How I Felt Being Cleared to Work Again After a Manic Episode

I’m in the middle of eating a Chipotle burrito bowl, when the thought hits me. Months later, the world would mourn the passing of Toni Morrison, but at the moment I’ve begun an entirely different grief journey. I look in the rearview mirror of our Yaris, thinking back on what my therapist just told me: “You won’t be able to work again until you’re stable.”

“And when will that be?” I mutter through tears.

Rather than provide me with a concrete timeline, something I now know is impossible, she encourages me to view my brain as a complex organ that needs healing. A few weeks before this therapy session, my wife shared something she’d read about bipolar disorder. According to a 2003 study published by the American Journal of Psychiatry, “people with bipolar disorder may suffer progressive brain damage.” Thinking back on this conversation oddly calms me as I digest my therapist’s words. For me, clarity is often an antidote for anxiety.

My therapist has been helping me to reframe how I view my new bipolar diagnosis. It’s been helpful, but after spooning another mouthful of beans and cheese into my mouth, I’m hit with the realization that my life has changed even more than I’ve realized. There’s this period of time after a manic episode, where it’s like waking up from a nightmare, but feeling like you’re still half-awake and half-asleep. For me, that lasted for most of 2019, as I scrolled through Facebook and LinkedIn, fixated on how others were moving forward in their careers.

Before mania interrupted my resumé, I worked as a master’s level administrator in higher education. My day-to-day was often unpredictable and high stress, which makes sense when your job is to assist students at some of the worst moments in their lives. Still, I found crisis response to be meaningful. I was able to use my gift of meeting people where they are, and the skills I learned to coach, mentor and develop staff.

I’m a maximizer. It’s natural for me to enter into any situation and identify what can be improved. So you can imagine how difficult it was for me to be told to do less, so that I could eventually do more. Some days I was hopeless. The bipolar depression was an immovable and unwelcome weighted blanket. I had traded suits and diplomas for pajamas and Office reruns. When I’d take our daughter to library storytime, I cringed at what I thought other adults in the room (mostly nannies and moms) were thinking about me. Surely they thought I was this destitute, jobless individual. Surely they didn’t think that at all.

Many 12-step programs use the phrase “keep coming back.” It encourages participants to consistently show up to group sessions, even if they feel ashamed to attend (i.e. due to a relapse, fear of being judged, etc.). I kept coming back to that comfortable couch in my therapist’s office, even through tears, through pain, through worries that I’d never do the work I loved again.

I’m glad I didn’t give up.

The moon illuminates the hood of our hatchback. It’s a cool night, around the time when summer pulls back and autumn moves in. Ella Mai’s song “Trip is playing on the radio. I’m parked outside the office, thinking about my ritual of grabbing Mexican food after sessions, ready (and not ready) to see my therapist again. Time has been kind to me, and I’m no longer neck-deep in the quicksand of despair. Our dashboard clock tells me I have a few more minutes to stall, while Ella croons: “But I think that I’m done trippin’/I’m trip-trippin’.” She’s right. I’m done.

It’s time to go inside.

The waiting room seems a little brighter, the air less stale. I strike up small talk with the office administrator. Soon, my therapist invites me into her office, and I sink into the taupe-colored pillows, leaning my head back because I’ve exhausted myself by overthinking. It’s a good session that seems to blow right by. With 15 minutes left in the appointment, I finally ask if I’m remotely stable enough to return to work.

She smiles, nods slowly and rests back on her chair. I need verbal confirmation, ever impatient as I’m sure she was about to say more.

“Wait, really? How do you know… I’m OK again?” I quiz.

My therapist, ever calming and measured, walks me through the past year of my journey. We talk about how my medications have been doing their job, about how me having slowed down and gotten back to basics has given my mind a chance to heal. She tells me I’m “stable.”

Stable. Stability. Solid. Sound. I let these words wash over me. The burdensome blanket slowly rolls off my legs; I sense freedom. My fingers began to tingle. I can’t stop smiling. I’m done trippin’.

Later, I’d tell my wife, while crunching through salted tortillas and queso, about how I’ve been cleared to work again. We’re both excited. But, we know this doesn’t mean full-time work. Not yet. I’ll need to ease into this because the stress could land me right back where I was in 2018. I never want to go back there.

It took what felt like forever to get to this point. Having my therapist, and a few weeks later my psychiatrist, tell me I’m fit to be back in the workforce felt so good. I was able to provide for my family again. My wife was carrying that financial burden, and I reminded her every time I apologized for not being able to work. She was, and still is, one of the most gracious people in my life. And now that our family had come upon this turning point, I was hopeful again.

Still am.

Photo by Taylor Grote on Unsplash