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When I Finally Had to Admit Bipolar Disorder Makes It Hard to Work

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I sat at my desk with my head in my hands, my head spinning with racing thoughts. “I don’t know if I can do this again,” was the prominent one surfacing over and over. Part of my daily routine was psyching myself up to get dressed and face my workday. I would pace in my office, dread each task and struggle to believe it was possible to make it to 4:30 p.m. when I could finally breathe again.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

I’ve been working since the age of 16, if you don’t count the babysitting jobs I’d had since the age of 12. I was diagnosed with bipolar at the age of 21 but had shown the first signs at the age of 14 when I became increasingly depressed. Ever since I could remember, working would cause me distress and I would count the hours down until I was done.

My career is full of job changes, each one full of, “Once I get into this new job I will feel OK.” Each change would hold extreme anxiety with the adjustment period, a period of settling in, and then the same difficulties managing my symptoms. I moved from direct service jobs to management thinking that this would use my skills more effectively and take it away. I would have a different kind of stress — but perhaps that would be the kind of stress that would work for me. No luck.

Only recently have I begun to realize it wasn’t about the jobs… it was about my mind and my illness. No job could take away what I felt inside as I tried to manage deadlines, workloads, stress, pleasing superiors, managing people and handling difficult situations. I did it and I did it well. People called me talented while I called myself a fraud.

As bipolar continued to escalate in my life, I had hospitalizations and med changes that shook me. I continued to press myself to achieve until I decided to take some steps back down the ladder. I took a step down a notch from chief to director, then from director to manager. I told myself that each one would help me re-center myself. Nothing helped.

Recently I called a friend who was in HR and finally spouted the words, “I think I’ve finally realized that I have a disability that makes it really hard to work.” She was incredibly understanding and encouraged me to ask for accommodation.

But I can’t yet. I don’t know what I need. I fear exposure. I fear being looked at differently. I fear being fired. Sure it’s against the ADA, but it happens all the time. I know I’m not alone with others out there who are afraid of the implications of disclosing a mental illness in the workplace. Stigma is alive and well.

I read a story online from an HR magazine warning HR professionals that, with regard to bipolar “it’s a tough call whether this is an asset or a liability” and citing that people with bipolar can be dual diagnosed frequently so you have to avoid allowing them to charge drinks on expense accounts. These types of viewpoints injected into HR guidance feed the fears that many of us have.

What’s the next step? I have no idea. But I suppose acknowledging the issue is the first. I plan to discuss with my doctor and therapist. And keep some kind of hope. Because that’s all there is in the end. Hope that I can keep moving. Hope that this will somehow be overcome.

Anyone out there who is living like this, I see you. Please get some support. I’m trying so hard to not shoulder this burden by myself anymore and I encourage you to do the same. You are not alone.

Getty image via XiXinXing

Originally published: May 21, 2020
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