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. 

Working as a PM During the Birth of My Daughter

I was working as a project manager for a major telecommunications firm during the time I was pregnant with my daughter and during the time of her birth.  After my daughter’s birth, I took time off as I was experiencing debilitating postpartum depression.

Oddly enough, I did not experience any pushback in the workplace associated with seeing the OBGyn every month when I was pregnant.  There was no stigma to deal with – everybody can relate to being pregnant, right?  So taking a few hours off once a month to go to the doctor was no big deal.  In fact, I had support from my project management peers as well as from my program manager.

However, after the birth of my daughter, I experienced crippling postpartum depression.  This was not so readily accepted by my management at the telecomm agency.  There seemed to be suspicion as to whether I was ill or not and what kind of work I was capable of doing.  During this time I took short-term disability to deal with the postpartum depression.  I did not believe at the time that the project management work I had been doing in the telecomm space made sense for me going forward.  It was just too stressful.  As it happened during the time I was on short-term disability leave, the principal of a local environmental and planning agency approached me to offer me a job in environmental project/program management.  I thought at that time that work in the environmental sector would be less stressful than work in telecommunications project management. 

So I accepted the environmental job while I was out on disability and began that work when my daughter was not quite a year old. That job was very rewarding in some respects. In some respects the postpartum depression was still an issue.  What came to pass is that my boss developed lung cancer and within a year or so had retired and shortly after had passed.  There was very little room for exploring this employment opportunity long-term.  So once again I was preparing for a sea change in my career. 

My Sojourn thru Bipolar Illness – Nothing in Common

My postpartum depression was off the charts.  It is impossible to relay in this text the gamut of emotional experiences I endured during the first four years’ of my daughter’s life.  Whatever you have heard about postpartum depression stop and multiply by ten.  My meds after fifteen years of being pretty therapeutic stopped working.  I was put on several new meds one after another with no clinical break-throughs. I would later come to understand that the anti-depressants that were augmenting my other meds were causing me to revert into full mania in a repeat pattern every four to six months.  The anti-depressant rather than helping me with the postpartum was catapulting me to the opposite extreme of mania.  This was mania like I had never before experienced.  There were times I felt that my medication had been laced with an illicit substance.  There were times when I felt like all members of my family were dead or in comas and on some sort of life support system overseas at the Swiss Hotel.  There were times when I was prompted to act in manners unsafe for my own well-being. 

Besides the anti-depressant issue which was huge and impactful to me on a daily basis, the overall upshot of this postpartum period was a huge sense of isolation and of fear.  How on earth could I carry on a discussion with other mothers about their child’s potty training or their child’s teething or their child’s pre-school years when I was obsessed by potential terrorist take-overs in the Himalayas? 

With a child in diapers, I and my thoughts were focused on the threat of a nuclear meltdown over the existing power grid, and the threat of nuclear water contamination east of the Mississippi and the threat of terrorists living their daily lives among us.  Thoughts of national security consumed me on a daily basis.  What’s more is that these thoughts of national security also prevented me from being a Mom and talking to other Moms about their kid or their kids.

I felt unable to connect with other young mothers largely because my thoughts continued to soar toward global safety and security in full-blown paranoia.   At one point, I imagined that the United States was undergoing a Civil War and had to address some Constitutionality gap and it was up to me to help do that.  At another instance, I believed that my husband was being cloned at his place of work and it was up to me to stop the cloning.  At another instance, I believed that I or friends and relatives were being cloned at the hand of terrorists.  At another instance, I believed that Lithium was the cure for HIV/AIDS.  At another instance, I believed my brain was implanted with a computer device that was controlled by terrorists or those who were seeking vengeance on me and my family.  At another instance, I believed that I was engaged in some sort of computer “fight-off” where I had to survive some form of computerized attack.  At another instance, I believed that my sister (and not myself) had brain damage from an accident sustained as a child and this somehow made her, and not myself, responsible for my symptoms.  These thoughts and obsessions and paranoid delusions made it nearly impossible to maintain family relations or to develop peer connections surrounding motherhood and being a Mom.  It also kept me feeling isolated in relationships including my relationships with my husband, my rapidly growing up daughter and just about every other person in my family.

In many ways all these fears left me unable to connect to my daughter’s peers and peers’ parents in the first 2 to 4 years of my daughter’s life.  Even today, I have to remind myself of the role of un-therapeutic meds during this extremely vulnerable time.  The use of anti-depressants given my bipolar condition was a huge mistake and one for which my family and I paid the price.  

My Sojourn through Bipolar Illness – Becoming a Mom

Becoming a Mom has been the greatest gift God has ever given to me.

I got married at 38, got pregnant at 39 and had my child at 40.  I often talk and think about how as a person with a behavioral health diagnosis I have done everything “late.”  I have to talk with myself about how life events like graduating from Ivy College or graduating from Business School or obtaining my professional project management certification may have occurred on God’s timeline rather than on my own.

Perhaps I am not late in achieving these life events any more than I am early in my perceptions or thoughts about time and matter and anti-matter.  Perhaps all of these thoughts and events and timelines are under control with the ultimate project manager – God himself.

Still, I have a hard-time accepting that these successes are on God’s timeline rather than my own.  I want to be able to say “I’m normal” and therefore “my successes have occurred in the way I have prepared for, planned and executed.”  In reality these successes are contingent upon allowing myself some “grace” and the opportunity to pursue my accomplishments in an elongated timeframe.  There are many goals that I have currently that I continue to pursue – the message to myself along these pursuits is that God is in control of these developments, even though I would prefer to be in control myself.  I would prefer to be in control just as that ten-year-old child within does so as perhaps despite myself to take full blame when things don’t go according to plan.  If my child within is six and/or if God is in control, I am no longer in control of the outcomes of my life.  If I give my life over truly to God, then every outcome including the potential for child abuse at age six is part of his plan for me and I need not accept any particular outcome as “my doing” or “my fault.”  Perhaps my role in God’s eyes is to tell my story of abuse so that others will not have to endure such happenings or at a minimum can feel some solidarity surrounding those events.

So it was with having my daughter — the biggest accomplishment of my life.  For years, I heard that Lithium was contra-positive toward being pregnant and carrying a child.  For years in my twenties and my thirties, I asked to change my meds so that I might be ready once I got married to carry a child.  When I met my husband, we talked at length about the fact that bipolar illness has a huge genetic component and that there would be some risk of passing the illness along to my child.  I considered this strongly and even looked into the idea of surrogate eggs and surrogate Moms.  In addition, there was a study occurring at a local university hospital which posited that risks to the fetus for heart impacts associated with lithium use by the mom were grossly overstated. My husband was not keen on the surrogate or adoption alternatives, so about 7 months after we were married, we started to try through traditional methods to get pregnant.  I was 39 at the time.  I believe that prior to this time, I may not have been ready to be a Mom, at the same time I do not really advise people to wait too long to have kids.  My husband and I were very blessed to become pregnant within two months of trying.  For most people at the age of 39 in vitro and other pregnancy/fertilization tactics would have been needed.

Even amidst the throes of postpartum depression and related problems, having my daughter in my life and experiencing her as part of my family with my husband continues to be the greatest blessing in my life.  Even now in the midst of the teen years and our occasional head-butting, my daughter continues without a doubt to be the love of my life tying with my husband.