Two challenges and three solutions for working with bipolar.
It surprised to see this question in one of my Facebook groups a few days ago, “Can you still work after a bipolar disorder diagnosis?”
My first thought was how sad it was that someone felt having bipolar disorder might mean they would never work again.
Of course, you can still work, I mumbled to myself.
But then I thought about it and remembered back to the spring of 1995 when I was first diagnosed. Truth be told, I didn’t work for close to a year. One job I held for only a few weeks and was a terrible employee during that time. Those awful months, I could barely bathe or dress myself.
It’s no wonder that someone at the beginning of their mental illness journey might worry it’s the end. It’s not. I promise you. It helps to know someone understands.
For over two decades now, I have been fighting the bipolar beast successfully. I’ve had a few different jobs, but held on to each for years at a time.
If you are new to coping with a mental illness diagnosis, you may wonder if you can work with bipolar. Yes, you can, but it might take a little time. Bipolar adds a few hurdles to the employment mix.
What follows are two reasons it’s a challenge to maintain a job with bipolar and three ways you can improve your chances of working successfully.
Watch this post as a video below.
The First Challenge
Bipolar disorder is disruptive. When newly diagnosed or struggling to adjust to a change in meds, it can throw your entire life into chaos. Sometimes you cannot work.
There are two ways bipolar makes holding a job difficult. One, bipolar disorder is a challenge to treat. Two, extreme highs or lows can make being productive impossible.
Let’s consider treatment first. Medications and management options have come a long way in the last two decades, with doctors learning to identify different types of bipolar while ruling out similar disorders such as borderline personality disorder or schizophrenia.
Typically, a doctor only sees a patient for a few minutes at a time. Those brief visits provide too tiny of a glimpse into the life of the patient to determine fully what’s going on. It takes time for the doctor to know the patient and for the patient to develop the trust to tell their care team the truth about how well they’re coping.Bipolar Disorder Symptom Checklist
In addition, treating bipolar may take a combination of medications. Finding the right mix or dosage, even in this modern age, frequently involves a lot of trial and error.
Since the spring of 1995, doctors have prescribed me over 30 different medications, and several of them made things much worse. I say this not to scare you, but to highlight the challenge of treating the condition.
It takes a delicate balance to find the right mood stabilizers to make a person sleep some, but not all day. In those early days, I vacillated from not sleeping for days at a time to sleeping about 20 hours a day. Both made working impossible.
My care team eventually landed on the right combination, and I’ve been able to work most weeks since. However, finding a good drug cocktail was only part of the problem.
The Second Challenge
The second challenge is coping with the way the bipolar brain works. Even when properly treated, someone with bipolar can make rash decisions, be prone to overworking, and have angry outbursts.
I struggle every day. On the high-energy days, it’s hard to focus or I’ll try to do ten different jobs at the same time. The low days, my mind is a foggy gray, and many things make little sense. It takes so much energy to concentrate on doing my job that I get home completely exhausted.
Even so, I am a valuable employee. My employer admires and respects the work I do, and most of my clients enjoy working with me.
You can overcome these challenges. There are three things that will help you maintain a healthy work life.
1. Stick to a routine
Routine is essential for living with bipolar disorder. It’s important to get up at the same time every day, whether you slept or not. If you’re taking medications, which most of us are, it’s important to take those medications at the same time every day.
Many of the drugs that we take for bipolar have to maintain a certain potency in your body to remain effective. If you miss taking them or take them at different times of the day, the levels fluctuate and can create mental health problems.
Work is part of what keeps me stable. Even when I start slipping into the darkness, having a place to go every day with people depending on me helps me to stay active.
If your routine is to get up every morning and take a shower, then even on the bad days, pure habit, if nothing else, will encourage you to get up and take a shower. You may not always make it to work, but if it’s your routine to go to work every day, most days you will go.
Eating nutritious meals and getting moderate exercise are additional routines to help you remain stable. Try to eat your meals at about the same time each day and don’t eat too much. Engage in an appropriate amount of exercise at least two or three times a week.
2. Know your limits
The second way to have success in working with bipolar disorder is to know your limits. The longer you live with bipolar, the more you learn which things help and which things hurt your treatment.
Rest is essential, and getting the right amount of sleep often means making sacrifices. You may have to decline an invitation to go out with friends or choose not to drink alcohol. It might mean going home early so you can get a full eight hours of sleep.
Understanding your limits may determine what type of job will work for you. At this point in my life, dealing with both the chronic illness, Familial Mediterranean Fever, and bipolar disorder, I know I can’t have a physically demanding job. If I push myself too much physically, not only does it induce hypomania and throw off my sleep pattern, but it causes immense physical pain.
Even with a job that fits well with your mental health, you still have to be aware of your limitations.
Most of the time, my job working as a bookkeeper and tax preparer fits just fine with my mental health. However, during tax season, when I suddenly go from working 32 hours a week to 60 hours or more, the effect on my mental health is devastating.
During that time, I have to push myself to get the rest I need and to call it quits at the end of the day. That sometimes means going home even though there’s work unfinished.
Your mental health is the most important thing. When it’s time to quit for the day, quit for the day. If that means that your current job doesn’t work out, then it’s time to find a better one.
3. Give yourself grace
I know you can live a full life with mental illness. Your life might be different from those with good mental health, but it doesn’t mean that your life has to be any less full. Part of having that life is allowing yourself the grace you would give to anyone else.
When you have bipolar disorder, you often mentally beat yourself up. You remember every mistake you’ve made in your life, and every stupid thing you’ve ever said. On the rough days, or those long nights when sleep is elusive, you relive all those awful memories and chastise yourself for every bad thing you’ve ever done.
In the same way you’re willing to forgive your friends and family when they mess up, you have to forgive yourself.
In all honesty, the things you did in third grade, no matter how upsetting, really don’t matter anymore. If you hurt someone, hopefully, you apologized, but that’s all you can do. Now you need to let it go.
You are imperfect, just like everyone else. Yes, everyone. You are going to make mistakes. There are going to be times when you screw up royally. That’s part of life.
Succeeding and living a good life with bipolar disorder includes giving yourself grace. Forgive yourself for the mistakes you make and do your best not to repeat them. Apologize when you need to, even if that means apologizing to yourself, but then move on. If one job doesn’t work out, that’s okay. You’ll do better with the next one.
Having a job with bipolar disorder has some unique struggles. You can be successful if you properly treat your condition, stick to a routine, learn your limits, and give yourself grace.
Most people with bipolar disorder successfully hold down jobs. You can do the same. Learn what works for you, and never give up.
Until next time, keep fighting.
This post originally appeared on Medium.