There are many people in the workplace who struggle with mental illness. The goal of this story is to remove the stigma associated with them. Because identifying and owning up to the illness is the most important step to dealing with it, I think that stigma should not be attached to someone who is willing to be “labeled” so they can get the help they need.
I was diagnosed with bipolar illness in 2007 after a long time trying to figure out what was “wrong” with me. I had struggled with depression for many years and taken various anti-depressants that never really seemed to work. I abused marijuana for many years just trying to calm the anxious, obsessive thoughts about my own worthlessness. Needless to say, being drugged all the time just led to more feelings of worthlessness because I wasn’t actually living a life.
On the outside I put on a happy face and there were times I felt really up and excited. I was very impulsive and made some bad decisions due to that. One day I drove past a car dealership, saw I car I liked, and went in and bought it. I had no plans that morning when I got up to go buy a car and had no plans to spend on such a purchase. I didn’t even tell my husband – I just came home that afternoon with the car. In addition, I spent a lot of money on clothing and accessories, always rationalizing it by hitting the sale racks but still spending tons of money. I didn’t even try things on and usually ended up giving a lot of it away to friends or family. Eventually I ended up filing bankruptcy. People like me often ruin their finances due to the mood swings. You spend when you’re happy because it’s fun and you spend when you’re sad to make yourself feel better.
Relationships are ruined as well. I went through a divorce and lost a lot of friends due to substance abuse, withdrawal from them, and then thoughtless actions to them. I’m still mending some old fences with positive people and trying to make new friends. I lost the respect of a lot of colleagues who witnessed erratic behavior and who were dragged into work problems due to it. I treated the good family of my ex-husband poorly and I still regret that. Although I don’t regret the divorce – only the marriage; my ex-husband was a drug addict and also an alcoholic. He had untreated bipolar illness which he knew he had but refused to acknowledge or treat. Somehow I thought I could fix him although I did not realize the extent of my own issues.
But it’s not all a sad tale. The periods of hypomania brought about bursts of creativity and a way of being able to think outside the box. During those times I had a lot of good ideas and helped get some big projects off the ground. I had good energy and was responsible for a heavy workload because it appeared that I could do it. I motivated my employees and they enjoyed working for me. I felt very generous and gave a lot of time and effort, money and things to worthwhile organizations and to people who needed it.
The main issue with bipolar illness is the lack of stability. One day the person can seem fine and all there, then the next they don’t show up for work because they’re down in the dumps. The next day they may be abuzz with energy and enthusiasm. It is like trying to pin the tail on the donkey for those suffering and for those around them. Will the real person please stand up?
With proper medication and therapy, the mood swings can be controlled. People can get their lives back on track just like I did. I had the courage to face the real issue, which was not depression, accept the diagnosis, and do something about it. And it really is a life¬-long commitment that requires vigilance and perseverance. I take my meds, I keep to a regular schedule, I don’t abuse alcohol or drugs, I show up for work, and I am honest with my loved ones when I don’t feel my best. It is hard to keep it all up sometimes because occasionally I think back on the energy and creativity I had, which mood stabilizers tamp down – but then I think back on all the days when I couldn’t even get out of bed and I realize that it’s a compromise. You do it all just to stay stable.
I can look back now and see that I have had this illness all of my life. I’ve had periods where I had a lot of confidence and energy and periods where I had none of either. Big decisions were made during those periods but they probably weren’t the decisions I would have made if I had been a stable person. Since being treated properly, I have made sober decisions that have benefitted my overall well-being and that of others. I sometimes regret the mistakes I’ve made and the people and things I’ve lost along the way, but you can’t undo the past. You just have to learn from it and not repeat it.
I feel I can make a contribution because I can sense other people’s pain and can help them by letting them know they’re not alone. Sometimes I tell a bit of my story or intimate that I’ve been where they are. Often that seems to help more than anything – at least to get them started on the road to getting medical or other assistance. I have a lot more compassion for other people having gone through what I have been through. I know people struggle, even when they don’t have a mental illness.
I know that I have to be a reliable, stable person. Other people count on you in this life and you can’t let them down. I think that people who have a mental illness who are dealing with it can be some of the most reliable people because they realize what can go wrong if they’re not. You also can’t let yourself down again.