I’m racing out the door with my work bag slung over my shoulder, a glass of water in one hand, and my handful of morning medications in the other. Anti-depressant? Check. Mood stabilizer? Check. Adderall? Check. Anti-anxiety? Check. I gulp them down with the water and race to the bus stop. It’s 7:45 am and I’m running late for work. On the walk/half jog to the bus, I pull out my phone and check all my emails, Facebook messages, Twitter alerts, and text messages. Once on the bus, I try to catch up on a few minutes of “me time” and I pull out my Kindle to check all the updates from Psych Central, Bipolar Beat, Mental Floss, and anything else that has updated, just like the other 20-30 other commuters on the bus are doing. I transfer to the Subway and pull out a stack of medical records that need to be reviewed for work. I begin reading and highlighting while smashed like a sardine with the other 50 or so passengers who are all trying to get to work as well. I get some of the work done, unload from the train with a handful of people, and take the escalator up to the closest Starbucks. Minutes later, and armed with my Starbucks, I have arrived at my building, swiped my ID badge in the lobby, taken the two different elevators up to my floor and am now walking up to the ID swipe pad to let me into the floor of my office. I take a deep breath, swipe my ID, and with the click of the door, it signals it’s time to check Mr. Bipolar Disorder at the door (or at least try to) before I walk in.
I walk through the door and past the cubicles to my office. I turn on the computer and take out the medical records I was reviewing on the train. I’ve been reviewing these records for so long now, but I just can’t focus on them long enough while in my office to get a decent amount done. I have to read things over a million times because I get easily distracted and sometimes I experience a huge fall in my mood and start crying for no reason. I try distracting myself with another task and sometimes that helps, yet sometimes it helps to the point that I finish that project and then start something else related to that project, the one without a deadline, and keep on going and going in a completely different direction, forgetting I have other projects that do have a deadline, or have other uncompleted projects I should work on instead of these other not as important tasks. Its hypomania at its finest for me. So what is the end result? It results in taking home medical records to review there (or while in transit) because they didn’t get done during the day as hoped, thus turning my work day into a 10-12 hour day. This is how the typical work day goes for me. Some days I am more focused than others and get a million things done. Other days it takes me almost an entire day to just read through a small stack of documents. You see, as a paralegal, I have to log a certain number of billable hours within my work day. All those ups and downs and distractions makes it difficult to get those hours at times, so in order to not just get the required work done, but to make up those required hours, I have to get the work done at home.
You can imagine then how that affects my life outside of work. My fiancée frequently has to do things alone or not at all because I have to work. I miss out on events with my friends and other social interactions because I am always working. Not having any time to socialize makes me feel secluded and feeds into my depression, making some of the symptoms of bipolar disorder worsen. Being at home so much gives me even more opportunity to start getting lost in my own thoughts while ruminating, which can either send me into further depression or can start causing hypomania because I begin to obsess over a project or new idea that launches into a whole list of new ideas that must be started immediately. Those ruminations distract me from getting my work done at home, leading to a lot of frustration and the desire to just give up. This whole cycle begins again tomorrow and then leads to spending the weekends trying to make up for the work that didn’t get done during the week. Again, this leads to more disappointment from my fiancée, and at times anger. There is frustration on my part, anger at myself for not being able to focus, hopelessness because I begin to fall behind, fear I am going to lose my job, and then the weekend goes by with very little done again and ends with so much anxiety about going to work the next morning, I make myself physically ill.
As you can see, the work day is not easy, however, projects DO get done, I don’t miss any calendared deadlines, I don’t miss any meetings or appointments, and I haven’t caused any sort of negative impact on any case I have been assigned (that I have been made aware of!). The attorneys I have worked with have given me great reviews and are happy with my work. So, if that’s the case, should I tell my employer and see if accommodations could be made when I start feeling the effects of what I like to call “the Bipolar Coaster”? Well, that is one question I get asked a lot. I don’t have an easy answer for it either. While working for the employer (a law firm) I was with when I was hospitalized several years ago (and was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder), I went back to work for a few days and regretted ever returning. Everyone stared at me and whispered when I walked past them in the halls. At first I thought I was imagining those things, but then my secretary came into my office and informed me my confidentiality had been breached and the information on some of the forms I needed to complete for my leave of absence had been told to others within the office. That information, in addition to other things being said as a result of that breach, caused attorneys to not want to work with me and it wasnt long before I realized I could no longer continue working for them. I felt forced out because the environment was so uncomfortable, there was no way I could work there again. Luckily, I had a backup plan and after my departure, I went to law school for a year.
Another law firm I worked for called me into their Human Resources office because I was a few weeks behind on my time entry. I had been trying to catch up but it was overwhelming due to not just my own issues, but because I had been switched to different departments, was covering for other paralegals on vacation, my office had been moved and I was trying to process so much new information all at once. I felt like I was in quicksand. Then, I was also told there was an issue with me keeping my office door closed all the time. Having such a hard time focusing, I keep the door closed to prevent distractions from those walking by and the other conversations occurring outside my office, and because I have my ups and downs, I don’t necessarily want the whole office to see me going from up and doing ok to suddenly crying my eyes out. There was no policy about keeping my door open, so I had no idea I was doing anything wrong. At that point, I felt I needed to explain the necessary reasons for why I kept my door closed. After explaining I have bipolar disorder and needed it closed because of distractions and my ups and downs, I was told I was a HUGE liability to the company and all these issues needed to be dealt with by my doctor. The person I spoke to informed me there was nothing they could do, asked why I was telling them, and how could they be sure I wouldnt miss a deadline or something else that would put their company at risk? I simply replied that none of those things have ever been an issue because I take extra measures to ensure those things wont happen, and also pointed out that none of the attorneys I have worked for have ever had an issue with anything like that or had ever given me a review that was poor. The end of the discussion resulted in keeping the door to my office open and then meeting with my doctor to get myself together. It wasnt really helpful, but I at least still had my job and my confidentiality.
Those are just two situations in which I have told my employer about my bipolar disorder. There were plenty of instances where I didn’t disclose my illness to employers and no one even knew I had one. Even with the two employers I mentioned above, many of the co-workers I worked hand in hand with for many years had no idea I had bipolar disorder and had told me they would have never guessed it in a million years. Would I tell other employers about having bipolar disorder? So far, not telling them has worked for me because I have not had to take any sort of extended period of time off due to my symptoms (aside from the hospitalization). The response I received when I did divulge that information was not helpful and just reinforced my previous and future decisions to not be as open. Don’t I have rights under the American’s with Disabilities Act? Absolutely, but unfortunately, I don’t think many employers are as informed about mental illness and how the ADA applies to them. The Family Medical Leave Act also allows for leave of absence or extended periods of time taken off (up to a certain number of weeks per year) not only for events such pregnancy, but also for mental illness if it impairs your ability to substantially perform your duties. Again, I don’t think there has been enough education for employers about mental illness and how the FMLA applies to those with mental illness either.
Outside of the office, employers are regular people too. They aren’t superhuman, powerful, or king and queen like figures that know all and only see the positives of everything. Stigmas and other information learned outside the office can be taken into the office. That’s just how the world works. I believe as advocates, we not only need to educate the public, but make sure employers are educated with correct information as well. What is supposed to be an 8-hour workday 5 days a week ends up being a 10-12 hour day 7 days a week for me, which does trigger a lot of my symptoms and those symptoms make it harder to work, perpetuating the cycle to occur again and again. It not only affects me, but those around me as well. Should I speak up? I could. Will I? Probably not. Past attempts have not shown positive results and right now, I don’t think I want to take that chance again. Does this mean that nobody should tell their employer? Of course not. Every employer is different, just like every job is different. I believe the decision to tell one’s employer should definitely be a decision made based on their own relationship with their employer and their own comfort level. In the meantime, targeting employers in our advocacy should become a priority so this type of a decision does not have to be made by individuals with bipolar disorder, or any other mental illness, and we don’t have to continue working around the clock battling the Bipolar Coaster just to keep up.