Balancing Work, School, and Bipolar Disorder

Author: Elizabeth Horner


There are a number of truths about living with bipolar disorder that need to be accepted. One of them is that we do not have the ability to compartmentalize our lives so that bipolar disorder can affect one area of our life and not the other. During a manic episode, you can’t simply turn it off when it is time to go to work or attend class. While in the depths of depression, you can’t set it aside because you have an assignment to finish for school or too much left on your plate at the office. However, this does not mean it’s all doom and gloom in regards to our ability to hold a job or be successful in the classroom. In fact, I have found some aspects of work to be protective for me when it comes to managing my episodes. School, on the other hand, requires me to take a much more proactive approach to protecting my mental health. When it comes to staying healthy, it certainly is not a one size fits all approach and no two people manage their symptoms the same but knowing your own strengths and weaknesses is a great place to start.

When I look back over the course of my mental health condition, I can see patterns that while clear to me now, where elusive to me at the time. One of them is that consistent, part-time work helps keep my symptoms at bay. The routine, social interaction, camaraderie, and ability to focus on something other than myself, is a protective factor in helping me manage the early symptoms at the beginning of an episode. In contrast, the first place I begin slipping away is at home. If I am home and away from work for a certain length of time, whether due to childcare needs or the nature of my work schedule (I am a psychiatric nurse), and a manic episode is trying to break-through, it becomes very hard to manage my symptoms and keep them from progressing. I feel like a ship without a rudder and am at the mercy of whichever way the current takes me. Going to work is like giving my ship a sail, per se. I suddenly have a place to focus my energy. My work is intense so it requires full and complete attention for the duration of the shift. The result is that I feel more settled afterwards. I’ve channeled my energy into something productive and a bit of pressure has been relieved. If a depressive episode is beginning, the social camaraderie is therapeutic as is the ability to distract myself from some of the problems weighing heavily on my shoulders. My work is therefore a good barometer of my mental state and is the last place to slip when things go sideways. Things at home may be slipping out of my grasp but if I am unable to work, it’s likely hospital time or close to it.

Now let’s flip the picture and look at school, which has had the complete opposite effect on me and is often the first place in my life to fall to pieces. When I was younger and in nursing school (think before my four children and family responsibilities) and then getting my bachelors, I was an effortlessly straight A student. Then several years later, I jumped in and attempted grad school multiple times only to end up in a hopeless spiral that caused me to drop out repeatedly and at one point, even put me in the hospital. With each attempt, I made no changes to how I tackled it. I made no attempt to take out a disability accommodation because in my mind, I did not have a disability. I made no attempt to reach out and seek guidance from my professors, again because in my mind, I shouldn’t be having these problems in the first place and therefore do not deserve any type of help. After all, I did not need it before so why should I do anything about it now? But as our life changes, so do our needs. This time around, I applied for accommodations. I waited until my children were a bit older and better able to give me some uninterrupted time. I put things in place to set myself up for success so that I can have more protective factors in place to accomplish my goals. Don’t allow one or two set-backs to be the reason you give up.

As I stated earlier, no two people with bipolar disorder are alike and their management of symptoms will all be different. However, there is tremendous power in self-awareness. It took me years and many failed attempts to figure out what I needed to make myself successful in school. It also took me years to learn that I need a job with flexibility to be successful and get its protective benefits. My point is to ask yourself what you need to put in place to make yourself successful. Use your resources. This can look like talking to your university’s disability services center, finding a job that allows for more flexibility or perhaps more structure, or calling on the support of family and friends. You will always be your greatest advocate so don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and ask for what you need. Bipolar Disorder presents its own set of challenges but it doesn’t have to stop you from living your best life or accomplishing whatever goal you set out to accomplish.

The content of the International Bipolar Foundation blogs is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician and never disregard professional medical advice because of something you have read in any IBPF content.
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