Bipolar Disorder – Work and Bipolar or Depression

We've all been there -- professional setbacks happen to everyone from time to time. You're passed over for a promotion, you mess up on an important project, or you're hit with a poor performance review that you didn't see coming. Maybe you've even been put on probation or, worse, terminated from your position. Or perhaps you have a patchy work history and feel doomed to repeat a perpetual cycle of hopping from dead-end job to dead-end job, never finding fulfilling work or achieving your full potential. And professional setbacks can be a big hit to one's self-esteem. In some ways, the stakes are higher when you work with bipolar disorder.
Bipolar is a liar, and it's a liar that can't even keep its lies straight. Depression will tell you that you're worthless, while mania will lull you into distorted, grandiose thinking that can cause you to overestimate and over-extend yourself, which can have unpleasant professional and personal consequences. Because of the never-ending falsehoods that bipolar likes to trick us into accepting as truths, knowing our worth as workers and as people can feel like an impossible task. If you work with bipolar disorder, you are not alone in struggling to hold onto your sense of worthiness -- but it's easier to reclaim confidence than you might think.
Let's talk about self-care as it relates to working with bipolar. As you know, self-care is a trendy topic. On the one hand, it's encouraging that more people -- especially folks with marginalized identities -- are recognizing that all people deserve to have their physical and psychological needs met regardless of external expectations, including those of our employers. The downside is that the conversation around self-care is often focused more on treating ourselves than building sustainable long-term practices to carry us through life's trials. Building and maintaining a good self-care routine is essential for everyone and is non-negotiable for those of us who live and work with bipolar disorder.
It can be a struggle to say "no" on the job when you have bipolar. We live in a culture that prioritizes productivity and output over physical and mental wellbeing. Many people feel obligated to take on more work than they can handle at one time or to provide labor that they are unfairly compensated for. Learning to say "no" in the workplace is an act of self-preservation, and it's especially important for folks who work with bipolar disorder.
Let's be honest: job hunting is demoralizing if you're neurotypical. There are so many uncertainties that can wear you down when seeking a new position—and when you live with bipolar disorder, job hunting stressors can lead to changes in mood, which could result in a full-blown episode of depression or mania. It may be easier said than done, but a critical key to preventing mood episodes while you're on the prowl for a new job is learning ways to keep yourself motivated.
It's true that correlation does not equal causation. It's also true that some of the world's most innovative and creative people have been affected by bipolar disorder, from Carrie Fisher to Halsey. Psychologists and scientific researchers have been examining the link between bipolar disorder and creativity for a very long time, and while the subject is not without controversy, examining the correlation between bipolar disorder and creativity may be helpful for folks with the illness working to build a creative professional life for themselves.
I think it's a safe bet to say that we are all ready for 2020 to be over, but perhaps not ready to start planning the new year with bipolar disorder. This year threw us a global pandemic, severe economic downturn, mass civil unrest, growing urgency around climate change, and perhaps the most volatile presidential election in US history. Then there were the thousands of personal losses so many of us faced (and are still facing): jobs, income, stability, housing, treasured time spent with family and friends, relationships strained to the breaking point due to political division, and loved ones whose lives were cut short by COVID-19. While the New Year is usually a time of hope and optimism, many folks -- especially those of us with mental health challenges like bipolar disorder -- are finding it hard to look ahead in the face of so much heartache and discouragement. Fortunately, planning for the new year with bipolar disorder doesn't have to take a tremendous amount of effort.
Have you ever been asked to describe where you see yourself in five years during a job interview? Some people find this kind of question tricky to answer (if 2020 taught us anything, it's that a lot can change in one year, let alone five) while others have an entire career blueprint they've been building off of since their first career fair. Whether you're a fresh graduate uncertain of your next steps, transitioning careers later in life, or have been pursuing your calling ever since you were old enough to answer when someone asked what you wanted to be when you grew up, creating a long-term career plan with bipolar disorder comes with a unique set of challenges -- and rewards.
Most people look forward to taking time off work for the holidays (even if the holidays look a little different this year thanks to COVID-19). Folks who live and work with bipolar disorder are no exception. However, the work difficulties that come with bipolar can put a damper on what should be a time to relax and decompress.
As a working-class person with bipolar disorder, I have several limitations and face a lot of barriers to gainful employment. Jobs that require monotonous, repetitive tasks don't provide my brain with enough stimulation to keep me engaged, which can trigger both mania and depression. Part-time jobs with irregular shifts are also out of the running since inconsistent scheduling hurts my sleep-wake cycle (which any psychiatrist will tell you is essential for managing bipolar). And despite the protections afforded to people like me by the Americans with Disabilities Act, employment discrimination against folks with mental illness remains a serious problem. Yet, in spite of all the hurdles to meaningful, profitable work and financial freedom that I face, the truth is that I'm grateful for my limitations from bipolar.