Worklife after Postpartum Depression

There are several stories to share about working as a project manager after the postpartum depression associated with the birth of my daughter.  Most are rather distressing to me as I was unable to hold down a job for any real length of time. 

 This includes work at:

               – a local planning and environmental company in 2004/2005

               – a major telecommunications company in 2007/2008

               – a non-profit environmental organization in 2010 and 2011

               – a health services company in 2013

               – a nonprofit management services company in 2014.    

Work at the local planning firm built upon prior work I did in the community for naturalizing the stream near my home. I served to facilitate the steering committee that was all-volunteer and dedicated to this stream restoration project.  My health at this time was still impacted by the postpartum depression.  The job was cut short when the principal developed lung cancer and retired and shortly after passed away. Generally speaking, working in the environmental sector proved less stressful than in telecommunications information technology.

A year or two after completing the job at the environmental planner and program manager job, I decided to go back into project management work at the telecommunications company.  This was a mistake.  The job was highly stressful.  At one point I was asked to work over a 70-hour workweek.  This was the death knell for my health.  Shortly after being up all night with a computer software launch, I began having break-through bipolar symptoms.  Within a day, this was full blown mania.  I wrote an incoherent email and forwarded it up the chain of command.  I was a contractor at the time.  My contract was immediately terminated and I was escorted from the building.  I was not even given the opportunity to retrieve my belongings.  The representative from the contracting agency retrieved my personal belongings and brought them to my house a few days later.  The treatment I received there made me feel like I was a criminal and/or dangerous to my colleagues.  There was absolutely no understanding of mental illness and/or bipolar symptoms.

Later that year, I was hospitalized for an extended period of time and started on a new regime of meds called Clozaril or Clozapine.  It was discussed at that hospitalization that I would perhaps not be able to work again.  After an extended stay in the hospital, I began weekly therapy visits and participated in CBT and other talk-therapy protocols.  My daughter by this time was almost five years old.

After a two-year stint away from the workplace, I landed a part-time job with a local environmental non-profit. I started working there 20 hours a week and eventually was promoted to 30 hours a week.  At this juncture, I was completely upfront with my boss about having bipolar illness.  My boss was more understanding than most people.  It appeared she was somewhat familiar with the illness.  During this time I made many contributions as project manager to this environmental start-up.  In addition to making strides on various environmental projects, I helped with the sale of one program to a national management non-profit organization.  I continued to work here for about two years but found that interpersonal relations with my boss were such that I wished to leave this place of work.  And I did.

From here the story tends to repeat itself.  I was hired in 2013 to do software development project management work. This contract lasted two months or less.  In 2014, I was hired to do project management in the certifications and educational departments for two non-profit agencies at a non-profit management company.  This job lasted about 6 months.

All in all, I found that project management work was too stressful for me.  I was not able to divide my time between two major projects I was asked to work on simultaneously.  I would tend to work on one major project and let the other slip.  Once in 2013 and then again in 2014, I resigned from each position in the project management information technology space within the period of several months.  Basically since I started on Clozaril or Clozapine in 2008, I have not been able to stay at a job for longer than two years.  And that was part-time work.

From here picking myself up in 2017, I resumed my work as a volunteer in the town where I live.  I was appointed to the local environmental sustainability board in the spring of 2017 and served on that board, chairing one committee for a time, until the end of 2020.

All in all, my work history after the extended postpartum period in 2004 has been very inconsistent.  I have had to re-orient myself as to what is productive behavior and what is not.  I have been very accomplished at volunteering locally and at researching and writing papers that were or have been presented in national and/or international settings.  But this work has not been “paid.”  I have had to re-direct feelings of being “less than” because I have been unable to keep a paying job. 

All in all, I feel like a major component of my checkered job history is due to the fact that bipolar illness carries such a stigma with it.  I either have been asked to leave employment because of it or I have left employment early because I was unable to manage bipolar symptoms and worklife at the same time.  If there had been some sort of support for mental illness like referring me to a less stressful job, perhaps I could have made a go of it.  As it stands now, I have basically given up working at a for-pay job.  I spend my time focused on managing homelife and illness and doing volunteer work including my blogging.  I also am striving to see if I can get published with my story of bipolar illness.  So far the only publishing options available to me are self-publishing. 

My First Job out of Graduate School – Compartmentalization

My first job out of graduate school was as a Business Analyst in the IT department of a local engineering and environmental management firm.  This position built upon my role in information management at the state cultural organization where I worked before graduate school.  Shortly after joining this firm as a Business Analyst I was promoted to a financial application services manager position and worked in that capacity for a couple of years.  The position used and developed project management skills but was more process oriented than project outcome focused. 

During this time I completely compartmentalized my bipolar illness.  I went to Psyche appointments on my lunch hour.  I went for lab work on Saturdays.  Basically, I provided no insight to my employer or my boss that I was managing bipolar symptoms.

Ironically, this seemed to work well for my career.  I was managing four programmer analysts and helping to manage and develop software systems.  It seemed to help that I was managing a team who had more technical know-how than myself.  So, I was just facilitating progress; I was not driving progress.  It also really helped that my boss trusted me implicitly to manage the software program assigned to me and was always available if I had an issue that needed to be escalated to her level or above.  It meant a lot to me and to my ability to function that this escalation window was always accessible to me. 

Within a relatively short period of time, I went from being at a reasonable paygrade to being at a somewhat high paygrade for the time.  There was definitely stress on the job but what seemed to make a big difference was that the team of four programmer analysts were first in line when there was a triage situation.  This occurred a lot since the application we were using was still in a beta test mode for all intents and purposes.  But when there was an emergency as there was about once a month or so, my programmer analyst team was first in line to answer the “distress page.”  (This was still the time of pagers and not smart phones.)  My role was more to manage the process when there was a software outage rather than come up with the solution myself.  I depended on the programmer analysts for that.

So my problem with having reduced sleep at night was not really a problem in this job due to the pager protocol and my team being first in line rather than me being first in line when there was an outage or some other problem with the software.  This idea of missing a night’s sleep to nurse the computer system back to health did not really start until I began work a few years later as a project manager for a large telecommunications agency. 

Looking back on it now, I did not necessarily have less stress at this financial software job, it was just that I did not have stress that was a trigger for the bipolar symptoms – mainly lack of sleep for one or more nights.  In addition, it meant a lot that I functioned more as a process manager than a formal project or program manager.  It was my job to ensure problems were resolved but not directly to resolve them.  As a certified project manager some years later, the job was to solve the problem directly with the team.  This may seem like there is not much difference between these two scenarios, but the bottom line is that it is different to be responsible for process rather than outcomes.  In the financial services job, I was focused on process.  Later in more formal project management jobs I was focused on outcomes or results.  Also, again, it really helped me to perform in this job knowing that there was a clear escalation process when issues arose that I was not qualified to address. 

In terms of mental health stigma at this job, there was really no disclosure of my bipolar illness so there was no “real stigma” to address unless of course you count the fact that I felt compelled not to share my diagnosis with anyone at work.  I had circumnavigated the stigma situation, but this was only for a few years of my career.  I often wonder if compartmentalizing my illness during this job should have served as an example to me in later project management jobs.  I believe I continued to try in later years in project management positions to continue with the compartmentalization, but as the stress of the work positions grew so did my inability to control my bipolar symptoms on the job and off.  The increase in stress of the job was coupled by the fact that the stress I was now experiencing was directly triggering my bipolar symptoms – largely the sleep deficit trigger. The compartmentalization was something like having a pressure cooker going all the time.  The pressure was there even if I was not acknowledging it.   At some point in each project management job I took, the top was bound to blow off.