Working with Bipolar Illness – Lessons Learned

All in all, my work experience has taught me several things about working with bipolar illness.  In no particular order they are here:

  1. Working in the public sector may be more forgiving than working in the private sector when it comes to stigma and access to short and long-term disability (in the US).
  2. People who have a family member with mental illness are 100% more likely to accept mental illness in an employee and be willing to work with that person toward mitigation strategies to help reduce stress and stigma in the workplace and help alleviate mental illness. 
  3. Most people in the workplace do not have a family member with mental illness and in general do not have a clue how to respond or how to be of help.  Generally these people consider you a danger to yourself and others.
  4. Keeping a presence in the workplace is very important if you are taking care of your own health insurance.  If you are blessed to be on a family member’s insurance plan and/or your home country has universal healthcare, be thankful.
  5. Meds are sometimes difficult – finding the right one or the right combination of drugs.  It is helpful if you feel you can work with a psyche doc about finding the right combination for you.  It is preferred if you can have a partnership and a doctor who listens to you as to what is working and what is not.  This can be a struggle particularly if you are going to work every day.
  6. I believe that mental illness like addiction has a bottom out effect.  You will not start thriving and responding to meds and other interventions until you have hit rock bottom.  This involves a sense of honesty about your symptoms and your challenges for yourself, your family, your support community and your medical team.   It also involves honesty with self about what kind of jobs you are best suited for.  For me project management work was not the best fit, but it took me a while to figure that out.
  7. Working for yourself, if you can afford it, allows you to explore your strengths without over-taxing your brain or your illness.  You can set your own schedule and allow yourself breaks for med checks, labs, psyche appointments and so forth.
  8. Blogging is a good way to keep honest within yourself and with other people in your blogging community.  You can learn a lot from telling your story and listening to other people’s stories as well.
  9. All in all, remember that you are more than your accomplishments.  If you spend most of your time on self-care rather than in a career, you are still doing a great job and you still have a huge contribution to make.  Being paid for what you do is not the tell-tale sign of success.  Define success based on your own goals that you reach and setbacks that you overcome. 
  10. Finally, don’t compare yourself to others especially those who don’t have a mental illness challenge or have very mild symptoms.  Judge your progress in the workplace and in your educational endeavors based on your own realistic goals.  Don’t be hard on yourself if it takes you longer than your peers or your siblings to reach your goals.  Or if you don’t reach them at all.  There are likely other strengths that you have that these people don’t have.

Does anyone care to add to the list of lessons they have learned about the workplace and mental illness? I am sure I have missed a bunch….

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. 

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. 

Story of Bipolar Tolerance in the Workplace

These next several posts will be dedicated to stories about how my mental illness was accepted or not by my various employers over the years.  This first story is about my first job out of college as a paralegal for a law office in a major New England city.  In the post below, I compare paralegal work and project management work.

When I started working as a paralegal, the Americans with Disabilities Act had not yet been passed.  This was 1986.  When I signed up to work for this law firm, I was asked to fill out a questionnaire.  As memory serves, one of the questions asked about whether I had a mental illness.  This was before it was illegal to ask this question.  The ADA did not get passed until 1990.

At the time in 1986, I opted not to be truthful in the questionnaire.  I felt it was my right and my knowledge that the employer could not or should not access.  This created the start of the process of always wondering whether it was good to declare my bipolar illness or not with an employer. 

During the two years that I was a paralegal at this law firm, I exhausted my sick leave due to the bipolar diagnosis.  I was still in process of getting the right combination of lithium and Tegretol together.  I was also adjusting to taking meds on a regular basis.  As many may know often it takes a year or two before you can accept your illness and that you will need to stay on meds likely indefinitely. 

I don’t recall whether I was put on short-term disability during this time or not.  But there was never talk of letting me go or firing me because of the bipolar illness or because of exceeding the allotted sick time for my station at that law firm.

In general, the lack of a negative reaction to my being out ill was a positive outcome in the long-run.  Today I consider this “tolerance” of my mental health needs to be a very positive outcome with an employer.  I had not yet been certified as a project manager – that would come later in 2002.  All in all and in retrospect, I found that working as a paralegal and having a mental illness were a combination that was somewhat manageable for me and for the employer. 

Years later in the 2000s I found that working as a project manager and having a mental illness was not a manageable combination at all.  The stigma associated with the mental illness particularly in the project management workspace was just too great.  This stigma has been discussed at various of my former blogposts.

What appears to be a deciding factor between “tolerance” and “intolerance” of the mental health condition is whether the specific job is in a supporting role rather than in a leadership role.  As long as I was a paralegal and providing support to a team of attorneys, the idea of having some sort of mental health complications was “acceptable.”  However, a project management role is/was a leadership role and therefore creates/created less “accepted” or “acceptable” responses proffered by the project management organization in the project/program management workplace.  I wonder if I had been an attorney at the same law firm whether the same level of “tolerance” would have been extended to me.  Or, if as an attorney I would have been in a leadership role and, therefore, the complications of mental illness would have also been less “accepted” and “acceptable.”

Mental Health While Working in Project Management

This is a series of blogs which attempts to talk about stigma existence and stigma reduction in a particular field of work – project management.  Beginning in 2002, I became certified as a Project Management Professional.  This feat was subsequent to obtaining my college degree and my Masters in Business Administration.  In this series of blogposts, I will talk about several issues including: 1) being accepted (or not) for having a mental disorder while serving as a project manager, 2) addressing stigma associated with a mental health diagnosis while practicing as a project management professional, 3) learning to adopt risk management principles from project management principles to self-care and risk management with a mental health diagnosis,  4) detailing work places and individuals that seemed accepting of mental health diagnosis either before, during or after practicing as a project manager full-time,  5) balancing two or more projects versus one project while being diagnosed with a severe mental illness, 6) calculating the rewards and the challenges associated with compartmentalizing mental health issues while serving as a project management professional, 7) relaying the benefits of openly discussing the impacts of mental illness on my ability to serve as a project manager, and 8) detailing specific examples of prejudice in the workplace due to a mental health diagnosis.    

Some of the material may seem redundant as I have experienced repeatedly non-acceptance in the field of project management for mental health in general and for mental health diagnoses in particular.