A Second Story of Bipolar Tolerance in the Workplace

This is the story of my second employer – an arts and cultural council in New England and state / public organization.  This was a difficult time for me as I was just getting acclimated to the fact that I would need meds for the bipolar indefinitely.  In addition, it was the time that my Dad and Step-mother died of cancer in 1989 and 1988 respectively.  In the post below, I make some comparisons about leadership roles with the state organization versus later leadership roles in project management. 

My opinion is that it made a great deal of difference to be employed by a state organization.  The rules seemed a good bit more relaxed and allowed me to take extra time off when my Dad died.  It was during this time – 1988 to 1992 – that I experienced my bipolar in what I call mini-breaks every six months or so.  During this time, I moved in with my big sister and she helped administer Haldol and Mellaril during the 3 to 5 days of the mini break-through’s twice a year.

Without my sister and her help, I would have needed to be have been hospitalized during this time.  I am still indebted to her for her love and kindness to me during this time and literally opening her doors to me at a time when I could not find my way on my own.

In any case, this job with the state never questioned my need for sick leave.  Again, I cannot remember if I was put on short-term disability but I don’t think so.  Basically, I was allowed to take as much sick time or leave time as needed.

In terms of a support role or a leadership role, my position started off as support and migrated more toward leadership.  I had a very close relationship (professionally) with my boss, so there was no need to go over the bipolar situation with her.  We never directly talked about it and she was the one who elevated me from a support role to a more senior oriented position.  I became an Information Officer and began a career which would one day be in the Information Technology or IT space. 

One aspect of the leadership nature of the role with this cultural organization is that I was not really managing a large team of people in a typical project management type atmosphere.  I was responsible for the relationship with the computer programmer who was contracted by the organization and for the relationship with the elderly gentleman who volunteered at the agency in a computer programming capacity.  So, it was important that I be able to communicate with contracted and volunteer computer programmers as my “team.”  On the flip side, I was not leading a large team of seven to ten Business Analysts and Computer Programmers in the software development process.  The leadership consisted of managing the software development process with these two computer programmers only.

In the long run, this seemed to have made a difference – I excelled at maintaining the relationship with the two programmers but did not have to command a team of IT professionals (other than these two) in the development of software programs used to process applications at and to this cultural council.

At this organization, I started off as an Administrative Assistant and moved toward a Program Associate role and eventually landed as Information Officer.  This movement within the organization meant my colleagues and my supervisors knew my ability to function (or not) when I was in various positions within the organization.  I did not automatically land in a leadership position and have to “prove” myself as capable of that role.  Instead, I was employed for two years as an Administrative Assistant during the time of intense illness and death in the family. After those two years I was elevated to Program Associate and showed an affinity for database design and database development.  This work was eventually what proved to my boss that I would make a good Information Officer.

So this is the role in which I first began to show signs of information management capabilities.  These capabilities would continue with me after I graduated from Business School and received my MBA.  My first job out of graduate school was as a Business Analyst for a local engineering and environmental firm.  I will visit the story of my employment there coming up next. 

My Sojourn through Bipolar Illness – Development of High Anxiety

In the years after I was first diagnosed with bipolar illness, I would have a break and go into the hospital about every six months.  Eventually with the right meds I got to the place where I would have mini-breaks every six months and stay with my sister Jane and her family rather than go into the hospital.  This was during the days of Mellaril, Ativan and Haldol.  I would leave my apartment and take the subway to my sister Jane’s house about 25 minutes away.  Oftentimes this ride was a huge challenge.  I would arrive at Jane’s house with an overnight bag and some meds and put my belongings in the basement where there was a guest room.  I would spend between three and seven nights at Jane’s house where she would help me with administering meds.  In those early days, the anxiety associated with waiting for the meds to kick-in was excruciating.  I often requested to hold Jane’s hand as we lay in the bed until the medication had had time to sink in and sedate me. 

At that time, the meds for bipolar illness were not very advanced.  Meds seemed at that time to treat the symptoms of the illness rather than seeking to manage the illness before the break-through of mini or grand episodes.  I am forever grateful to my sister for allowing me several years of staying with her and her family every six months or so and managing though those mini-episodes. When I was at her house and under the care of Mellaril, Ativan and Haldol, it would take about an hour for the impact of the meds to sink in.  During that hour of sheer hell I would sit and smoke cigarettes nonstop waiting for the meds to kick in.

Since those early days of a mini break every six months, I have been prone to high anxiety which is often at times consuming and sits sometimes in the background, as a nagging reminder that I continue to struggle with my moods every day.   Managing the anxiety associated with bipolar illness has developed into my greatest challenge besides the reversal of stigma.  Perhaps pairing the management of this anxiety with a willingness to explore potential abuse as a child will make an impact on this generalized anxiety – hopefully reducing it substantially. 

I also have more recently added an additional medication Trileptal to help with the anxiety and this appears to be making a difference for me.

As an aside based on commonplace discussions, I have been told that family intervention for people with behavioral health diagnoses is much more common in Europe than in the US.  Just like our propensity in the US is to care for the elderly in homes for the elderly, we tend in the US to care for people with psychiatric disorders in a hospital setting.  Personally, I feel that the more care that can be provided in the context of the family and the family home the better.

Once again, my illness has developed in phases.  Early in my diagnosis were “grand episodes” including hospitalizations.  These ”grand episodes” gradually gave way to more “mini episodes” managed in the home with a few exceptions. In my postpartum period, I was back to having “grand episodes” and being in the hospital again for those first three to four years. 

As I became more comfortable with managing my illness and being a Mom, I went back not to having “mini episodes” but to having a general level of anxiety to manage at all times.  Goals but not necessarily accomplishments include daily meditation, daily exercise goals including walking and yoga and a daily commitment toward transparency in my faith and my diagnosis.