Managing Bipolar Illness in College and in Graduate School

Graduate school from 1992 to 1994 was a time when my bipolar illness appeared to be getting more manageable.  Again, this was before the time of becoming a Project Management Professional or PMP-certified in 2002.  The mini-breaks began to subside in or around 1994, though I was still managing bipolar symptoms.  During this time my awareness of the importance of the sleep cycle developed.  If I had two nights of really bad sleep in a row, there were warning signs that instability was around the corner.  This two-night sleep rule continues with me today.  Now I can generally manage a one-night sleep deprivation but not two.  In addition to the new sleep hygiene, I gave up caffeine and alcohol at this time (though later resumed my use of caffeine only).

When I was enrolled in my master’s program, I was taking a Finance class and was having difficulty with bipolar symptoms.  The date for dropping or adding a course had already passed.  But I knew that I was not going to pass this Finance course.  I simply could not get the concepts the way the professor was teaching them.  So I reached out to the professor and asked if he could make an exception for the drop/add rule due to the fact that I was experiencing bipolar symptoms.  He reluctantly agreed but agreed nevertheless.

Later that summer I took a finance class from a different professor whose method of teaching “I got.”  I had no problems taking the course and passing it with this new professor.

This experience in academia also harkens back to a time during my undergraduate career.  I was able to drop a course associated with writing my thesis around the time I had my first break.  The college was accommodating in this regard, but did not provide any disciplinary action for the professor associated with that thesis who was engaged in trying to get me to come with him on a trip to New York.  My experience is that he was engaging in very inappropriate behavior – trying to get me to go to New York with him as well as providing cocaine to a group of undergrad students.  I have written several blogposts surrounding this experience as an undergrad so I will not go into detail about it at this time.

All in all, academia has been pretty tolerant of special needs associated with school requirements and my bipolar symptoms.  I would say though that there is still a long way to go in clarifying what type of behavior is appropriate for a college professor towards his or her students.  At the time in 1984 and 1985 there was absolutely no guidance from academia and academic ethics in this regard.

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. 

Thou Shalt Not

Compare thyself to others…..

My sister and her husband were in town for the Holidays and stayed with us for three nights along with my aging and memory-impaired mother. It is always great to be around my sister. She is active, fun to be with, helps out whenever necessary. In short you could not ask for a better big sis.

Big difference between my sister and me? She did not get the bipolar. But she has always been very supportive of me and actually used to take me into her home every six months for what I call mini-breaks when I lived up north.

My problem with my relationship with my sister is I try to compare myself to her in terms of her successes in managing relationships, her accomplishments at work, her steadfastness with her faith and just her innate ability to have fun. My therapist suggests using her as a role model rather than comparing myself to her because I will likely always come up short. My therapist did not say “come up short” but that is how I feel when I make the comparison.

A word of caution – it’s not the type of nice that rubs your face in it. My sister is really just a very good person who has not had a mental health diagnosis to deal with. But if I remember things honestly and correctly, my sister has had her share of hardships. One of her sons had a chronic disease growing up and almost did not graduate high school. Her other son is an artist who is extremely talented but not necessarily financially prepared for family life with a spouse and kids. (I am not sure he even wants that….).

So why do I gloss over these facts when I think about my sister’s lot in life? She has definitely had her share of hardships. She is just expert in getting past these. I think her strong faith is main reason why.

So do any of you compare yourself to siblings or cousins when you know you “should” not? What do you tell yourself when you are comparing self with others? Does resolving the comparison or downplaying it involve faith in any way?

Whether to seek hospitalization or family care?

There was a time in my life where I lived in the same city as my sister. For a period of about 7 years my sister invited me into her home and volunteered to help administer meds when I was in the midst of what I call a mini-break. I feel like this treatment time in her home was instrumental in the prognosis of my illness. I was able to hang out with family even when I was severely ill.

In more recent years, I have come to understand that in Europe home treatments for mental illness are more popular than here in the States. I don’t thoroughly know why that is. But I do know it takes a village.

The progression of my illness since about 2008 using clozapine has basically stopped the occurrence of these mini-breaks but there may be a time when I bump the meds up for a particularly rough day. This is generally in step with my doctor.

The relative stability on clozapine beginning in 2008, however, was preceded by a time of hospitalizations about twice a year after my daughter was born. This was about 2004 to 2008. Prior I had had a period of hospitalizations from 1986 to 1988.

Do you think those who have severe behavioral health concerns/break-through episodes should be treated in the hospital or by a family member who is educated about treatment protocols, medications and the general course of the illness? What do you think about hospitalization versus family care? What are the benefits of each? What are the drawbacks?