At the start of the year I returned to work after 6 months off due to a depressive episode, and as always, it was hard.
This was the third time I’ve had to pick myself up after lengthy hospital stays for either depression or mania. While you’re in hospital everything stops. It’s like someone has pressed the pause button before re-winding all that you’ve worked hard for, and you find yourself back at the start. Obviously work and study stops but also friendships, relationships, side projects, hobbies and fitness. When unwell, most of these things stop for me prior to hospitalisation but I see hospital as the symbol of having to put my life on hold. I acknowledge that hospital is sometimes necessary to keep me safe, but times when I have been a psychiatric patient weren’t exactly fun.
After these hospitalisations it takes weeks and months to build back up to my previous full functioning capacity. Every time I pick myself up it gets harder and I get more tired. I guess this is because I’ve been hospitalised a few times for long periods in a short time frame.
The first time I was optimistic when I was discharged from hospital. I was certain that would be the only time I would be so unwell and that I could easily manage this. The second time I wasn’t so optimistic and the third, well I just felt deflated - deflated and a little resentful of people who have been continuing their lives while I stood still.
I am so jealous of my friends who have progressed while I feel like I’ve gone backwards. Now that I am out of my mood episode and focusing on re-building my life, jealously, deflation, grief and un-fairness are dominating emotions. I hate feeling this way. I hate that I especially feel jealous of my friends who are travelling, excelling in their careers or studies, getting married, and building houses because I am so happy for them but at the same time I feel sad for me. At the moment maintaining work three days a week is one of my biggest achievements. Something that was once simple and easy has become hard and a threat to my stability.
I’m a nurse in an emergency department and it has been my aspiration since starting nursing to specialise in this area. Since my diagnosis this dream has been on rocky ground and now I’ve come to the conclusion that it is probably something I can’t do. Shift work makes me unwell. The late hours, early starts and night shifts are either impossible to do when depressed or fuel my mania during times of elevation. I have only just started to acknowledge this and I am grieving for the future I had planned.
While I still work in the emergency department as a casual employee, I see my friends who have finished studying their post graduate degree or are currently completing it and I can’t help but feel a pang of jealously and sadness. This is the hardest thing I have found returning to work this time - not having to explain why I’ve been away, familiarise myself with new changes, and the general anxiety of starting back, but having to face the reality and grief that the career I wanted was not meant to be.
All of this aside I do feel proud for returning to work. I don’t think anyone would know how hard it is unless you’ve done it before. In reality all you can do is put your head down and try to get on with it. And most importantly be kind to yourself. Treat yourself with respect and acknowledge the difficulties you’ve overcome to get back up again. I take pride in all that I have accomplished (even if a few years ago I thought I would have achieved a lot more by now).
And after fire comes rebirth. Sometimes events like a severe mood episode can make you sit back and re-evaluate your life. Having time away from work or study can make you see things in a new light and changes for the better can be made.
My life has done a complete 180-degree flip and with it a new passion has been born, a passion for mental health promotion. Previously I had no interest in mental health but it took me having bipolar to understand those who have a mental illness, and now I want to help people who are like me. This is an exciting time as I have a few coals in the fire and am thinking about a career change. So while I am wallowing in the natural post-episode-wake, there are positive things happening too. I’m not just picking my life up again, but I am completely changing it.
It is hard to rebuild after being unwell and I would hate for people to feel embarrassed or downhearted when recovering from an episode (like I have in the past) because there is nothing to be ashamed of. You should feel proud because most people haven’t had to deal with extreme moods. And, like me, if you’ve been forced to make changes to your life, things do have a way of working out. When one door closes another opens, and you might just find yourself walking through that door into a better world.