[This blog was originally written and published in August 2011 for the International Bipolar Foundation. It was then used and published in the book Healthy Living with Bipolar Disorder that was published by them in early 2012. The link to the original post and the link for obtaining a free copy of the book will be posted at the bottom of this post.]
A Day At The Office
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 and 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 and 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 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 before I walk in (or at least try to).
I walk through the door and past the cubicles to my office. I turn on the computer and take out those 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, I get easily distracted when another email comes in with a task for another attorney, and sometimes I get 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 that doesn’t have a deadline and keep on going and going in a completely different direction, forgetting that I have other projects that do have a deadline, or have other uncompleted projects that I should work on instead of these other not as important tasks. So what is the end result? It results in taking home medical records to review at home (or while in transit) because they didn’t get done during the day as hoped and 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. Some 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 fiancee is always having to do things alone or not at all because I have to work. I miss out on things with my friends and other social interactions because I am always having to work. 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 more opportunity to start getting lost in my own thoughts, and 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. Those ruminations distract from me getting my work done at home , leading to a lot of frustration and the desire to just want to give up. This whole cycle begins again tomorrow and leads to spending the weekends working trying to make up for the work that didn’t get done during the week. Again, this leads to more disappointment from my fiancee, 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 that I am going to lose my job, and then the weekend goes by with very little done again and I have 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 a case (that I have been made aware of!). In my reviews, 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. With the employer (a law firm) I worked for when I was hospitalized several years ago and finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I went back to work for a few days and 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 told me that my confidentiality had been breached and the information on some of the forms that needed to be completed for my leave of absence had been told to others within the office. That information, in addition to other things that were being said as a result of that breach, was causing attorneys to not want to work with me and I realized I could not work there any longer. I felt I was forced out because the environment was so uncomfortable, there was no way I could work there again. Luckily, I had a back up 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 I had been switched to different departments, I was covering for vacations, my office had been moved and there was so much new information being processed all at once, I felt like I was in quicksand. Then, I was also told that 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 the distractions of those walking by and the other conversations being heard outside, 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 keep my door closed. After explaining that I have bipolar disorder and needed it closed because of distractions and my ups and downs, I was told that I was a HUGE liability to the company and all these issues need to be dealt with by my doctor, and there was nothing they could do, why was I telling them, and how would they know that I am not going to miss a deadline or something else that would put them at risk? I simply replied that none of those things have ever been an issue because I take extra measures to make sure of those things, and also pointed out that none of the attorneys I have worked for have ever had an issue with anything 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 work with my doctor to get myself together. That was really very helpful, but I at least still had my job and my confidentiality was kept.
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 it to employers and no one even knew that I had it. Even at the two employers I mentioned above, many of my co-workers that I worked hand in hand with for many years had no idea that I had bipolar disorder and had told me that 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 because of 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) for not just events such at pregnancy, but also for mental illness if it impairs your ability to substantially perform your duties. Again, I don’t 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, king or queen like figures that know all and only know 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 that 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 triggers make it harder to work, which continues the cycle 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 that is 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 and we don’t have to be working around the clock to just keep up.
Originally posted August 2011 –
To request a free copy of the book Healthy Living with Bipolar Disorder, here is the link – http://www.internationalbipolarfoundation.org/healthy-living-bipolar-disorder-now-available