Learning How to Maintain Employment with Bipolar Disorder
Once again, I dusted off my outdated resume and began to write cover letters. Feeling cautiously optimistic, I applied to several companies listed on an employment site. As I returned to the job hunt, I was acutely aware that my moods could stop me from staying employed (again). However, this time, I decided to conceal that negativity in my briefcase and go for it.
Throughout my adulthood, the irrationality and impulsiveness of mania has severely limited my ability to stay employed. I often describe mania as a similar feeling to chugging 20 energy drinks and weathering the side effects for days, weeks or even months. You can imagine how this would affect a person’s ability to work.
Due to mania, I’ve jumped from job to job — human services to advertising, back to human services, then pursued my Master’s in Special Education that led to teaching, then lastly back to human services — never actually building a career.
My emotions and symptoms often cloud my thinking and behavior, ruining my relationships at work. However, identifying my diagnosis and learning coping skills has been key to learning how to keep a job.
Before My Diagnosis
It was nearly impossible to hold a job when I was manic because I had no idea how sick I was. My symptoms included:
- Refuting directives
- My scattered brain leaving projects halfway finished
- Poor decision-making
- Hiding failed attempts to complete a task
- Neglecting to ask for help when I needed it
I blamed everyone else for my deficiencies because I was always right.
My supervisors tried to rein me in, but I refused. Inevitably, they would have to let me go. Letting someone go sounds so gentle and kind — as if my bosses sent me off like a baby bird learning to fly. In reality, letting me go sounded something like:
- “We’re not going to renew your contract.”
- “You can finish out the week.”
- “I’m going to give you your old position back (aka demote you). Here’s a tissue.”
Each time, my body reacted with a combination of tears and my jaw locking up so painfully I would only be able to eat applesauce and milk shakes.
After losing three jobs to my unpredictable moods, I took some time off to regroup. I spent a week in the hospital and left with a parting gift — a diagnosis of Bipolar I Disorder.
After My Diagnosis
Identifying my mental illness while in the psych ward, as well as receiving medications and therapies, revived both positivity and balance in my life. It took several months to feel stable enough to work again, but then I took a flexible, low-stress job.
My supervisor was an excellent support system who understood mental illness because of personal experience. She was also studying to be a licensed social worker. She advocated for me on several occasions when I had to miss work due to an episode of mania or depression. She also firmly mandated that I skip the annual “all-hands-on-deck” conferences that took place around the country in order to stay home with my support team of family and professionals. I learned from her that my self-care was valid and essential to my well-being.
After two years in this manageable position, bipolar disorder took control of my brain again, dragging me from mania to depression. I knew I needed to stop working, but at least this time leaving was my decision. Instead of working a job, I chose to work on myself.
“Doing the work,” full-time to understand and manage my mental illness required an effort to change my habits. I began eating well, exercising, prioritizing self-care, following a medication regimen and trying progressive muscle relaxation to ground myself. I also began journaling about the things I was grateful for and even writing essays to reflect.
This process had its ups and downs. Sometimes meditation and muscle relaxation calmed me down, sometimes not. My medications would work for a while — until they didn’t. Sometimes, therapy gave me perspective and sometimes I felt stuck. Despite the challenges, after learning these tools, I felt a spark of control, confidence and hope that I hadn’t felt in years.
Where I Am Now
Recently, I was invited to meet with supervisors of a position I had applied for before my latest episode of mania. I aced the interview despite my internal whirlpool of emotions and landed the job. Having been out of work for more than two years, I didn’t feel ready to call myself an employee.
The positive self-talk I developed during my brief recovery quickly turned negative again. I almost talked myself out of trying, but then my therapist helped me realize that my anxiety about returning to work triggered my anger and agitation. By employing some coping skills, like getting professional help, self-care, practicing gratitude and finding presence, I believe my anxiety will pass and, in turn, my manic behaviors will settle down.
Despite my doubts, I am going for it. I work every day to relax, let go of negativity, diligently fill the responsibilities of my post and, when needed, seek help on and off the job. Wish me luck.
Laura Germak Ksenak was diagnosed with bipolar disorder 1 in 2014 and has been writing her story ever since. She is enjoying her new part-time job which affords her plenty of time to hone her craft under the tutelage of The Writers Circle in NJ.