Monday, April 23, 2007

Work: A Bipolar Bummer

Although I was able to work full-time for almost 20 years, once I began taking medication and I got sicker and sicker, I was unable to work on site. Both the severity and duration of my depressive episodes increased. I went from having two annual six-week depressive periods, one in April and the other in October, to having one depressive episode last an entire year.

Luckily, I had already developed a number of skills that initially enabled me to continue working as a freelance writer, grant writer, and author. The bummer was that my second book, The Mommy Guide, was published just before I started this downward spiral. While I was initially able to attend a number of book signings at bookstores and even do a few radio interviews, my greatest opportunity came when the medication was producing terrible side effects.

I was approached by an international advertising agency who wanted to send me on a six-city book tour if I would endorse a baby formula that one of their clients manufactured.. Ordinarily I wouldn't have considered it because it was too commercial for the purist that I used to be (and still am in many ways). But, it wasn't a problem because I actually used that formula for my son.

Still, I had to decline because of the way I looked and talked. The Depakote had caused about 1/3 of my hair to fall out. What remained was thin and curly (not in an attractive way), which was unusual because my hair had always been straight and I'd worn it in a bob style for most of my adult life. Depakote also caused a 20 pound weight gain and significant hand tremors. The Depakote and Zoloft combined caused excessive dry mouth and head sweats. Out of nowhere, two to three times a day my head began to perspire so severely that it looked like I had dunked my hair in a pail of water.

The severity of the depression and the medication were responsible for memory loss and an inability to articulate simple thoughts. I, who had always prided myself of my mental acuity, sounded like a female version of Lenny in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.

Years later, things got much worse...[to be continued]

Because work is such an important topic, I plan on spending the entire week focusing on it. Tomorrow, I'll have some bipolar employment facts and stats. I'd also like to print--in the main body of the blog--other people's experiences. Let me know if you have a story you'd like to share. Are there any questions we should explore or tips you have for others?

My first book was called Job Search Strategy for College Grads, which I co-wrote with a dear friend who's a career counselor and human relations specialist. Although it's currently out of print, years ago I wrote a lot of freelance articles about employment issues, did job search seminars for college students, and helped students in a program I oversaw for UCLA Extension, get jobs.

Personally, I've had a number of really wonderful jobs, most of which I've hated. I've often wondered if that's just me, whether it's a sign of the illness, or whether it was because it took so many years for me to realize my true vocation.

But I must admit, the problems that we bipolars have with work, are in a class of their own. I wish I had the answers but honestly I don't. Still, maybe together we can brainstorm. If anyone has solved their work problems in a positive way, I'm sure we'd all like to hear about it. I'll also recommend some books, mention any research trials in this area, and see if I can find any career professionals or psychologists who might have good advice. Stay tuned!


"Dootz" said...

Susan, I can relate. In my current (full-time paying) position as a fundraiser, seems that when I have the busiest schedule seeing donors, all of a sudden I'll hit a depressive episode and I'm like, who can I cancel on today... Argh. There are a few things I do that are simple, make-it-through-the-day stuff, like keep my appointments, try to exercise, eat three meals, listen to music, connect with a friend, and do something meaningful. These will vary from person to person. I don't have a panacea. But I can totally understand what you go through during those times.

Syd said...

Susan, what a timely topic. Thank you for spending some time this week focusing on what is surely a significant issue for many of us. In retrospect, most of the *real* jobs I've had in the past have exacerbated by BP symptoms. I've been self-employed for the past 6 years which was both a good and a not-so-good thing, but that too has come to an end and now I'm in the dreaded job-search mode again, which is particularly overwhelming in light of the recent BP diagnosis. I will be anxiously awaiting any suggestions, tips, anecdotes and/or resources that you provide. Thanks!

marja said...

What a great job you're doing, Susan. Thank you for all of this.

Although I worked fulltime for a short while many years ago I had to go to part-time because it became too stressful. I quit when my son was born, tried some part-time jobs after that but couldn't handle the stress. The worst thing about working was that it left me no time or energy to do creative things like photography. I need to have time for that kind of thing.

The best thing for me has been part-time freelance photography. I was able to turn down assignments when I wasn't up to it.

The tremors have caused me a lot of problems as well. I have been in situations at book signings when I wasn't even able to sign books for people. Very embarrassing.

Polly said...

Most of my problems have been with bipolar symptoms and university, not bipolar symptoms and work. My cycles are often very influenced by the seasons, so I'd be struggling all through the school year but then have no problems at a summer job. No one else believed me about the seasonal thing, though, so I was told numerous times that maybe I just wasn't cut out for higher education.

Bipolar Wellness Writer said...

Dear Dootz, Syd, Marja, and Polly,
Thanks for your postings. I really appreciate it. I have so much to say to each of you, but I've been busy all day and I've just returned home. I'll try and respond tomorrow afternoon. Again, thank you!


jinnah said...

I love the phrase "I've had a number of really wonderful jobs, most of which I've hated"

Did you hate the jobs all the time, or only at the end? I ask because I have had one job because I left because it felt like it was time to. There was no logical reason for leaving it.

I had a depression episode just afterwards. Of course this was pre-diagnosis, so at the time I didn't think of it as depression, just time off to think.

I wonder how many of our lost jobs and broken relationships were merely the first manifestations of depression, which we then ascribe to not liking the job, the people, it being too hard, too stressful, too..something.

So, next time you think you want to end something important - job, relationship, project, hobby - pause for one or two weeks and see if you have any signs of depression before making a decision.

jinnah said...


With regard to university, don't let anyone tell you that you can't do it. I do know that studying can be extremely difficult, because of the mood swings and because being bipolar can wreak havoc with our ability to memorise things and our ability to concentrate / focus.

But just because we have bigger obstacles doesn't mean we have insurmountable obstacles.

We do have to modify how we approach university. Trying to do what the rest of students do is likely to end in failure, as you have realised.

We probably do need to take fewer classes per semester and to assume that it will take longer to graduate. Or, if you do better in summer, why not try studying in summer and working in winter.

If you think you can do it, do not let anyone persuade you that you cannot. If one approach doesn't work, another will. And there is never any deadline in achieving anything in life.

Trust in your dreams. That's the real you.

jinnah said...


I frequently have depression episodes which put me out of office for 2 days up to three weeks.

I can get away with this at my job because my family owns the business.

But I doubt most people have that bonus. How do you guys cope with missing time? What do you tell your company? How do they come with your absenteeism?

Jo said...

I have agoraphobia when I'm depressed, and I've been depressed for more than a year. It precludes working, unfortunately, although the last few weeks I've started a volunteer job at the library. It's opening up all kinds of dormant places inside me and giving me a lot of confidence. I'll probably start going to school in the fall. Yay! I hope it works.

Thanks for the link, I'll reciprocate.

legalbeagle05 said...

Don't give up on education. I graduated from law school in 2005. And passed the Bar exam.

I was diagnosed this year. Suddenly, a lot of my past came to light. I now realize why school was so incredibly difficult (in some ways, in other ways - the ability to skip class or put off homework until I had the energy to dive back in - was priceless) and why I didn't do as well (grade-wise) as my cohorts.

Don't give up. Even if you have to take years off. It took me 16 years to get my undergrad. Then 2 years off before I started law school. Then, I was told by a professor, "Maybe you're not cut out to be a lawyer."

Don't listen to anyone else but yourself. You can do it if it's what you know inside you can do!

Just remember - even though I struggle, cried and graduated at the bottom of my class, you know what they call me now? Counsellor.

You can do it, girl. LET yourself!