Bipolar & the Workplace

I was surprised to see an ABC News article on bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder is the “hip” mental illness these days — especially when used to characterize someone with extreme mood swings. One section addressed admitting to bipolar disorder in a work environment:

One day, he let it slip.

“I just blurted it out. ‘I’m sorry I’m getting shock treatments. I can’t remember anything,'” Steve said. His colleagues’ reactions were less than encouraging, he recalled.

“I would say that they were afraid of me,” Steve said. “They stopped referring their clients to me.”

Steve said that eventually his colleagues’ attitudes forced him to leave his job.

I admitted my problem to three people at my job: my managing editor at my last job and three of my coworkers (one with whom I am still friendly).

  • The managing editor, who had picked on me mercilessly, finally backed off. As far as I know, she didn’t tell anyone which I appreciated.
  • One of my coworkers admitted she had depression to me first before I told her I had bipolar disorder. It’s understood between us that we won’t go around and talk about these things.
  • The other coworker also told me about her journey through depression and her treatment afterward. I then revealed my struggle with bipolar disorder. We are friends outside of work now.
  • I’d told the last coworker about this shortly after I received my diagnosis after being released from the psych hospital. As far as I know, she didn’t tell anyone. But in the end, she’s the one who said the hurtful things about me in the e-mail I inadvertently received. It’s anyone’s guess if she told other coworkers or if she completely forgot.

From Bipolar Journey:

My experience is: work is work.  Outside of work is where one gains support for any illness they struggle with.  Acknowledging my response is skewed on the basis of recent events, I can’t recommend telling anyone you work with about one’s illness.  I should have kept to my Psychology professor’s advice:  “Never tell anyone you work with about your illness, trust me when I tell you:  they will treat you differently.”

I attended an outpatient group in late October 2006 after my hospitalization. One lady said that one of her coworkers admitted she was bipolar; since then, the coworker was teased and verbally abused by her supervisor and other coworkers. I’m not positive but I think the person might have even gotten fired lest her disorder interfere with her ability to do her job. (She cleaned pools.)

People with the disorder often have trouble keeping a job and are 40 percent less likely to be employed than the average person, said Ronald Kessler, a public health researcher at Harvard University.

On the other hand, Kessler said, if treated properly, they can be creative and invaluable individuals. Many highly successful authors, artists and professionals have the disorder.

I’ve seen statistics like this before and they worry me. I constantly wonder whether I’ll ever be able to hold down a full-time job for a long period of time. I’m currently unemployed and – to my disbelief – enjoying it. I’m afraid I’ll get lazy and never go back to work. I’m afraid that I’ll start to go in and out of jobs like a revolving door. One of my psychotherapists in college flat out told me that I’d never be able to hold down a job.

As I try to venture into editorial freelancing, I’m afraid of a host of things: outdated skills, inexperience, lack of confidence, failure, libel, confrontation, socializing, networking, creating expectations (of myself) that I never live up to. My counselor told me to just jump in and do it first then worry about the details later. [deep breath]

failureI fear failure the most. Failure that I’ve forgotten my editorial skills because they haven’t been used daily since 2005. Failure that editors will write me off because I’m a 26-year-old with unimpressive clips like “Bees Infest Dorm Hall” (yawn), “Student Organization Rallies Youth to Vote” (so cliche), and “Penn State Strikes Deal with Napster on File-Sharing” (Nov. 2003 = old). Failure that I’ll write an article, misinterpret the facts, and then get the publication slapped with a lawsuit. Failure that I’ll have to be “pleasantly persistent” in calling up editors, asking for prompt payment of my freelance services. Failure that I will intentionally avoid things that would otherwise propel my career: attending social mixers, networking, doing all the social things that makes my blood run cold because I hate meeting new people (in person). Failure that I’ll look at past awards I’ve received and then never live up to the reason why I received them in the first place. I don’t want to blame bipolar disorder from holding me back but sometimes, I can’t help but think where I’d be in my professional career without it.

(Image from gobears.wordpress.com)

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3 Comments

  1. March 14, 2008 at 6:20 am

    Interesting article and great site.
    Something to ponder over – as in the long run talking about it and a little TLC may help to improve your health.
    Well, anyway a little TLC would go a long way with helping me cope with my current flu symptoms.
    Cheers and have a great day.

  2. Nancie said,

    March 14, 2008 at 10:41 pm

    It’s sad that there is still such a terrible stigma associated with depression and bipolar. Actually with proper medical treatment and other helps we can live a close to normal life and be very productive. Many people with bipolar are very creative and can contribute significantly to the society. I tried not to let the stigma discouraged me. My comfort is that God loves me and He can work His ways for me.
    I am thankful for freelance and part-time job opportunities in which I don’t need to declare my health status unlike when I am working full-time. Don’t let fear paralysed you. Pray and do your best in whatever your hands find to do. You may be surprised to discover that you have hidden talents 🙂
    For the first time after 20 years of mood swings, I am discovering that I enjoy writing and I can write 🙂 Hope, by God’s grace, to be a writer one day. Meanwhile, I am enjoy making bookmarks and other crafts to share with others too. Expressing myself through writing and crafts works are both therapeutic to myself and they benefit others too. So go ahead and use your gifts and talents, however small or unpolished, to make a difference in your life and others life today! Will keep you in prayers.

  3. natalie said,

    April 6, 2008 at 12:46 pm

    I am so glad I came across this posting. I am also bi polar and am 26. I don’t know what I want to do in life. I have social phobias and lots of anxiety. I espically like that you included bipolar in the workplace. I have held down a full time job now for about 2 years but I am always worried I am going to get fired (as I have in the past). I know not to focus on the past but none the less I do sometimes. No one at my job knows I am bipolar but I do think they think I am on drugs because I am skinny(naturally no eating disorder) and I am so dopey and can’t remember anything because of the medications I take. I stuggle and have doubts with my faith and probably will for some time to come but I try. I need a “crutch” and I know it. If it makes me weak then it makes me weak. Anyways I just wanted to let you know that I thank you for writing this post.


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