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Balancing Returning to Work When You Have Mental Illness

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I’ve had a lot of various types of trauma and stress in recent weeks. Moving. My husband’s heart problem. Finances. Dealing with insurance, mortgage and contracting people. Now I have a new/old one — returning to work after a month off.

The good part is that I work at home. I don’t earn much, but the money is essential to our budget nonetheless. I work on a computer. My old computer died (more stress), so I had to get a new one.

You’d think that would be a good thing. But I rapidly discovered that my new, fast computer didn’t want to talk to my employers’ older network. In particular, a peripheral that I absolutely need to do the work wouldn’t work.

So I started working the phones. The IT company we use couldn’t help me. Apple said it was a Windows software problem. Microsoft said it was a hardware problem. The software people said I needed drivers. Geek Squad said they could give me an appointment at some future date.

My anxiety quickly turned to panic. I was missing assignments, something for which I could be let go. I kept putting the company off. “I’m getting it fixed Thursday.” “No, it still doesn’t work.” Finally, someone at the IT company gave me a work-around. I made notes on it, but he talked very fast. And I didn’t get a chance to try it out till days later, when I couldn’t read my notes. I was about to miss another deadline.

At that point, my panic turned to hysteria. I got IT on the phone again and tried to explain what was happening and what the other IT guy had said for me to do and I still couldn’t get it to work help help help! He couldn’t figure out what I was talking about. I read my skeletal notes to him. I couldn’t decipher them and neither could he. I started crying. He said the person I had talked to previously would be in — the next day. And hung up.

In desperation, I called back the next day, and my first IT guy walked me through the process again. This time I took better notes. I asked him to apologize to the person I had cried at. Since then, I have completed two assignments successfully and now have the correct byzantine procedure committed to memory.

The moral of this story? Stress begets anxiety. Anxiety begets panic. Panic begets hysteria. Of course, it’s best simply to avoid stress in the first place, but let’s face it, that’s just not possible.

Work is particularly fraught with stress for me as a person with bipolar disorder. I used to be able to work full-time in an office. I can no longer do that.

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I am fortunate there is work I can do at home and get paid for, but I am able to work only four days a week. I’m slow at doing the work, and what might take someone else a few hours takes me all day. This is a definite blow to my self-esteem. Sometimes I find myself thinking, “I used to be able to do this. I could even give speeches and have business lunches and travel to business conventions. Now I find myself weeping at the IT guy.” That competence I once had is gone and I can’t recapture it. It disappeared sometime around my worst major depressive episode. (Actually, it had started crumbling before then, but I didn’t see the signs.)

My going-back-to-work anxiety has been made worse by the fact that it has been hard lately to take care of myself. Even the most basic things are slipping away. I missed a therapist appointment and the next one I could get was a month off. I started to run out of my medications. I found eating and bathing too exhausting. I even missed doing last week’s blog post, something I almost never do, because I was simply too tired from all the stress.

This evening I finally get to see my therapist and get new prescriptions. Maybe I’ll cry at him a while. He can handle it. The IT guy shouldn’t have to.

Getty image by azatvaleev

Originally published: October 1, 2020
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