How Being Diagnosed With Bipolar Disorder Saved My Life
July 2020 was a big month for me professionally. I was one of the lucky ones. COVID-19 had already claimed millions of jobs and a hundred thousand lives. My boyfriend was laid off in April, and we hunkered down for most of the year, skipping out on birthday celebrations and wedding showers. But my company, a professional services firm with many clients in the pharmaceutical industry, was doing well.
In July, I celebrated my two year work anniversary and received a promotion to a more senior role. Although two years may seem insignificant to more tenured professionals (it’ll hardly earn you a gold watch), it was a big accomplishment for me. A milestone I didn’t think I would ever reach at the rate I was going.
This isn’t a story of rags to riches. At least not yet. I’m not a CEO, an executive or a person of influence. Even with the promotion I received, I am still in a very junior role. But the progress I have made in the last few years has made me prouder of myself than I’ve ever been before. As cliche as it sounds, the events of the past few years have saved my life.
Prior to my current position, I struggled to hold a job for more than a few months. My resume was a cemetery, each job title a headstone marking a short-lived role with a messy ending. After graduating from college, I worked in a number of mediocre restaurants, an alternative daycare center, a large real-estate company, a non-profit organization and a small therapist’s office. I know I wasn’t alone in experiencing underemployment after graduating with a degree in philosophy (at least a park bench can support a family of four, right?), but the amount of difficulty I had maintaining employment was beyond “normal” levels. This wasn’t just a case of having a useless college degree.
The longest I stayed at one job was four months, and my debilitating fear of conflict meant I never gave my employers any notice before leaving. One time, I didn’t even tell my boss I was quitting. I simply went to lunch one day and didn’t come back, never spoke to them again.
Needless to say, I struggled to find anyone to use as a reference on job applications.
In between each job there were long spans of unemployment during which I lived off credit cards and the generosity of my family. Looking back I am struck by how dire my financial situation was and yet how oblivious I was. My credit card was maxed out, my bank account was frequently below $10 (if not overdrawn), and I had no savings at all. And still, time and time again, I would quit whatever job I was working with no new prospect in sight, while continuing to order takeout and buy new clothing and extravagant gifts.
At this point, it could be reasonable to conclude that I am lazy, ungrateful and stupid — how could anyone be so cavalier and irresponsible with their finances and their professional life? (Millennials are the worst, amiright?)
I’ve had those thoughts about myself a thousand times. Looking back at my employment history brings up so much shame and guilt that it’s difficult to think about it at times. Guilt for not being able to support myself financially, for ruining relationships with co-workers and supervisors, for failing to fulfill any of the goals or aspirations I had for myself. Shame for knowing that I was being irresponsible, yet being unable to control my actions.
To be clear though, I didn’t quit jobs because I didn’t want to work or because I thought the role was beneath me. Each time I quit a job I was either nearing or in the midst of an emotional crisis. One of my more recent incidents involved a mobile crisis response team visiting me at work after I disclosed to my boss that I was feeling suicidal.
My inability to keep a job was not a result of personal inadequacy or a fatal character flaw. It was a result of an undiagnosed and untreated mental illness.
I have bipolar II disorder, and because I didn’t know I had the illness, it wreaked havoc on my personal and professional life for almost a decade. It is only since receiving the proper diagnosis and treatment that I have been able to maintain steady employment, get control over my finances and live a life I’m proud of.
In hindsight, the signs seem clear as day, but until March 2019 I had no idea that I was struggling with anything besides the depressive disorder I had been diagnosed with as a teenager. In retrospect, I realize that for years I had been cycling through hypomania, a less intense form of the manic episodes that characterize bipolar I disorder and depression.
I would go through periods of time when I spent inordinate amounts of money that I did not have. One Christmas while I was unemployed, I put nearly $1,000 on my PayPal credit card buying gifts for family and friends. I also experienced creative bursts when I would suddenly develop a passion for painting or writing poetry. I even went so far as trying to apply for an MFA before realizing my poetry was pretty elementary (unfortunately, I didn’t realize this before embarrassing myself at a number of open mic nights). I maintained an erratic sleep schedule, waking up at odd times in the early morning or not going to bed at all, but still felt electrified with a buzzing and inexplicable energy.
And through all this, I failed miserably at keeping a steady job.
Prior to being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I had a history of mental health challenges, but I was only ever diagnosed with major depressive disorder. In the span of a decade I saw over 30 therapists, a dozen psychiatrists and was hospitalized three times. I dropped out of college, had affairs with men 15 years my senior and attempted to kill myself. I tried many different medications and types of therapy, but my struggles were extremely cyclical. Invariably, after a few good months, I would end up back in a crisis center.
It felt like it would never end, and I had little hope that things would ever improve. I could not see myself ever being capable of buying a house, advancing my career or experiencing stability. I don’t know how I managed to keep going. All I can do is be grateful that I never truly gave up.
Things started to turn around when I got the job at my current company in the summer of 2018. I was coming out of a depressive state at the time. I had no money to my name (my mother sent me funds to buy my interview outfit), and my boyfriend and I were living with family. The fact that I landed the job was a miracle unto itself; I had little experience in the field, but the interviews went well and fortunately the team members I spoke with felt that I would be a good fit.
I got off to a good start, but around the eight month mark, crisis began to creep up again, and there were new symptoms that were concerning. I had stopped taking the three different antidepressants I was prescribed, and I wasn’t sleeping properly. I went for several weeks on less than three or four hours of sleep a night. I started to feel suicidal and knew that I would not be able to keep the job much longer if I didn’t get treatment.
Something within me knew I could not quit this time. There had to be another way that would not perpetuate the vicious cycle I had fallen into.
I spoke with my professional development coach and my manager and explained to them, in the clearest terms I could, that I was having a mental health crisis and I needed to seek intensive treatment. They were supportive and helped me navigate my company’s HR system to get approval for a leave of absence.
Once I was on leave from my job, I was met with the arduous task of learning to care for myself in the context of a new illness. For the first time I was aware that the overspending and many nights without sleep were actually symptoms I had always assumed were character flaws.
In the past when I had lots of energy, spoke quickly and spent thousands of dollars, I assumed that was what it was like to feel happy and that taking those behaviors to excess, as I regularly did, could be cured through better self-discipline.
This time, however, there were other symptoms that made me realize I was not just dealing with depression and feeble self-restraint. I was incredibly irritable, I thought I could speak French fluently (I cannot), and I talked out loud to myself.
I am indebted to the therapist who I was seeing at that time for landing on the bipolar disorder diagnosis. If he had not realized I was dealing with more than garden variety depression, I may never have gotten to the place I am now — a place of stability and active recovery.
Once we realized I was dealing with bipolar disorder, my treatment plan changed in important ways. I was taken off the antidepressants and put on a mood stabilizer medication. I was lucky enough to find a psychiatrist who understood bipolar disorder well and also told me that medication compliance was non-negotiable.
This is a point that I think is really important to highlight. Up until then, I never had a healthcare professional set rules or boundaries I had to follow. I never had a doctor communicate their expectations for my behavior or demand I do my part to take care of myself. My current psychiatrist said, in no uncertain terms, that if I did not take my medication, she would not treat me. Period.
I realize that it sounds harsh and unforgiving, but in reality this was the push I needed to take my mental healthcare seriously. Medication compliance has always been challenging for me, but I am proud to say I have not missed a dose in over a year and a half since I started working with my current psychiatrist.
I returned to work after six weeks in a partial hospitalization program and my performance steadily began to improve. I was able to manage stressful events that would have previously led me to quitting, and I felt capable of taking on new challenges I would never have volunteered for before. Best of all, I started to find fulfillment in my work and pride in myself.
Receiving the correct diagnosis has had many benefits aside from being able to keep a job. My relationships have improved immensely as I now have the energy, focus and desire to keep up with friends, respond to messages and calls and display genuine interest in their lives. I have reconnected with people I lost touch with while I was in the depths of my illness, and I’ve completely redesigned how I relate to my family members. I believe I have become a much kinder and more generous person. I know I am a lot easier to be around now that I’m healthy.
My finances are also utterly unrecognizable. Since getting the proper treatment for my illness, I have paid off $9,500 in consumer debt and now follow a budget that is allowing me to aggressively tackle my student loans, which I went for years ignoring. I have three months worth of expenses saved in an emergency fund along with a reasonable financial plan for the next few years. I’m contributing to my 401(k) and my Roth IRA and actively thinking about and planning for retirement. None of these things would have been possible if I had not been correctly diagnosed and gotten the help I needed.
When I was at my lowest points, I expected I would kill myself before I turned 30, so saving for retirement never seemed important for me.
Though my mental healthcare providers, family and friends have been integral to my recovery, I don’t want to give all the credit away. In addition to taking my medication as directed and attending my appointments, I have done a great deal to improve how I take care of myself in my daily habits and routines. There are countless life-style changes I have made to help ward off the remaining symptoms I still experience. There are still days when I feel depressed and periods when hypomania seems to creep up. Fortunately, I have been able to avoid making changes to my medication regime and instead focus on other behavioral changes.
Exercise has come to play an enormous role in keeping me mentally well, and I notice a huge difference when I go a week or even a few days without getting outside for a walk or run.
Getting into meditation has also been life changing. In my younger and more unstable years, the idea of sitting silently for even 30 seconds sounded like pure torture. Being alone with my thoughts was frightening, and for good reason as I was suicidal more often than not in my 20s.
But everything is different now. With the help of an app called “Waking Up,” I now enjoy sitting quietly. I try to sit for 10 minutes each morning before I start work. I use a meditation timer and take the 10 minutes of silence to listen to my breath rising and falling, the birds outside singing, the refrigerator humming. I connect with myself in a way that I never experienced before. I feel calm and aware. I am awake, in a completely different sense of the word.
Above all else, I think that one of the biggest changes has been my relationship to the concept of stability. In many ways, when I was experiencing hypomania, I was addicted to the buzzing energy, to the high of spending money and to the delusion of being a creative genius. The idea of being responsible, calm, and rested seemed boring to me. I didn’t see the value in it until I experienced the benefits for myself. In my pre-diagnosis period, stability seemed like something people settled for rather than something they cultivated.
After receiving the bipolar disorder diagnosis and finding a treatment plan that works for me, I am taking only one medication and seeing my psychiatrist once every three months. Most significantly, I am able to go to work every day and perform well. It is difficult to express in words what it feels like to be mentally well for the first time since I was a child, but it is better than I could have ever imagined.
I know that I’m lucky. For many people, getting a mental health diagnosis is just the beginning of a long road full of pain and suffering. I am hopeful, however, that the field of psychology will continue to improve its diagnostic tools so when a diagnosis is given, it’s as accurate as possible. I spent a full decade on the wrong medications with the wrong diagnosis. I know those years were part of my journey, but I’d be lying if there weren’t a sense of frustration that I’m just getting better at 29. It sometimes breaks my heart to think about where I could have been if I had gotten the right treatment sooner. And still, I know I’m better off than so many people who may never find recovery. If I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s the power of gratitude.
If you are reading this and you are struggling with your mental health, whether it’s depression, bipolar, anxiety, schizophrenia or anything in between, I have only one last thing to say: please keep going. Even when you feel like you are running in place or being crushed by the violent waves of life, learn to rest, but don’t quit, because when you get to the other side you won’t know how to give yourself all the thanks you deserve.
Getty image by Victor_Tongdee