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.
In between each job there were long spans of unemployment during which I lived off credit cards and the generosity of my family, but spent money in a frivolous and out of control manner. Looking back I am struck by how dire my financial situation was and yet how oblivious I was.
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?
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.
But 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. 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. I also experienced creative bursts when I would suddenly develop a passion for painting or writing poetry out of the blue. I had 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. I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder at the age of 16. In the span of a decade I saw over 30 therapists, a dozen psychiatrists and was hospitalized three times for suicidal ideation and attempts. 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 having a family.
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. 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 was incredibly irritable, I thought I could speak French fluently (I cannot), and I had conversations with myself out loud. Suicidal thoughts returned.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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 understanding of mental health and mental illness, as well as what treatments are effective for which people.
If you are reading this and you are struggling with your mental health, whether it’s depression, bipolar, anxiety, schizophrenia or something else, I just want to say: please keep going. 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