I’m starting a new job tomorrow which, in many ways, is the culmination of my work for the past few years. I get to tackle a new challenge and do so with more autonomy and with less of a safety net.
Any time I take on a new role, I usually have to do a cost-benefit analysis when it comes to my mental health. The obvious question is “Will this job exacerbate my mental illness?” That question kept me, for instance, from joining the field organizing team for Obama for America coming out of college and more recently has led me to shy away from opportunities to create or run organizations because I’m afraid of what will happen if I cannot carry the weight.
However, I don’t always shy away from an opportunity even when that answer is ‘yes’. At times, I take it on anyway knowing full well that I may burnout, trigger severe depressive episodes, experience bouts of mania or d) all of the above. Sometimes I go for it because I want to test my limits. Sometimes I go for it because the opportunity to serve and do good is too much to pass up. Sometimes I go for it because I stubbornly do not want to admit that there will be times when bipolar disorder will get the best of me.
Sometimes, though, it does.
I hate what depression does to me. It is like I transform into a human being that I no longer recognize. I go from being a productive person able to tackle most any task and balance many things at once to having to force myself to get to work in the morning. I look for the first excuse to leave the office that I can justify to myself. I feel guilty that I cannot offer more. When I’m barely scraping by, I cannot be the support to my colleagues that I try to be the rest of the time. I cannot pick up slack. I, quite simply, cannot period.
I have spent my whole life trying to limit the impact of my disorder on other people. In a work environment, this means I struggle to ask for help even when I know I need it. I push through and carry on, often to my detriment, because I do not want to fail- my colleagues, the people I serve or, honestly, at the task itself. I’ve spent portions of my life living in a constant state of fear of the next episode. Because I know all to well that no matter how good things are going that it can change on a dime.
I used to say that if I had been given the choice between going through all the trauma and adversity of my disorder- the psychotic episode, hospitalization and everything that followed- that I wouldn’t have changed anything because it shaped me into the person I am. I’m not sure I feel that way anymore. The person that I am is so easily discarded by the unfortunate realities of depression that it is hard to find solace in the fact that I’ve been able to weather storm after storm. They never stop coming no matter how many I seem to weather. My life is basically separated into three categories- the calm before the storm, the storm itself and the recovery from the wreckage.
In my low moments, I coast by on whatever inherent work ethic/talent that I have in order to keep my head above water and do the bare minimum necessary to keep my job(s). The problem is that I’m not a bare minimum type of person. Part of the reason that I’ve gotten as far as I have is my willingness to out-work other people. I’m not always the smartest or the most gifted at something, but I generally compensate by caring more than anyone else and not be satisfied by anything less than great. When depressed though, I find myself shying away from the slightest challenges.
It is not uncommon for bipolar patients to have more and more depressive episodes as they age and I have certainly found that to be true. Looking out at the horizon, that is still a harrowing thing to consider. At times, I want to give up. I don’t mean taking any sort of tragic action. I mean giving up on chasing any sort of dreams or anything that takes me at my best to accomplish.
I’ve been fortunate, at least most recently, to be a part of an unbelievably empathetic team that cared about my work, but cared even more about me and my wellbeing. That has not always been my experience and I have, at times, certainly dealt with negative work repercussions even when I disclose openly what is going on. In spite of that, I’ve found more peace as I’ve continued to realize that my value as a human being is not limited to my productivity.
By and large though, I have found that if I trust in people with my story and my experience that my trust is rewarded with compassion and care. There is always a fear that people will judge me for being less than my best self. However, a lot of that is self-inflicted. I see myself worse in times of crisis than anyone else ever does. In the best of circumstances, the care of the people around me, both in work and in life, shines through like a beacon to follow to shore rather than the judgment and wrath that I fear.