Managing bipolar disorder at work can be tricky but there is a straightforward path to getting along well with colleagues.
Before we were diagnosed, we werenít aware of how our depression or mania or hypomania impacted on people. We were just ourselves, flamboyant or quiet, aggressive or passive. We thought we were just ourselves, but others may have wondered. After a look at what itís like working with bipolar, weíll consider the impact of being aware of our self-expression.
What itís like working with bipolar.
Listening to the boss explain your next task, your brain is pummeled with thoughts, ideas and a billion atoms of concepts. Under pressure from the bombardment, you get cross and it comes out as if youíre cross with the boss, only you donít know it. You canít concentrate on what the boss is saying; your total focus is on the air raid attack on your brain. But knowing you have to be Ďnormalí you look at him and say ĎYes, I get it, thanks.í And you go to your desk, spinning, spinning, trying to remember anything the boss had said.
Youíre obsessed with a brand new idea for the benefit of the business you work for. You burst into the bossís office and describe it. He says Ďthanks, thatís an interesting idea. Iíll get back to you about it.í Youíre devastated that he wasnít enthusiastic and start thinking Ďwhatís wrong with the idea?í You conclude thereís nothing wrong with the idea but maybe itís the boss. Heís narrow minded, conservative, fearful of change and so on. These thoughts preoccupy you and you hardly get any work done that day.
Youíre feeling distant from everyone and your brain is slow, your eyelids feel swollen and you donít think thereís any point going to work. Your arms and hands feel bigger than they are. Thereís no point going to work because if you go you wonít be able to do much; you might as well stay at home and do nothing. Because nothing is what itís all about. I am nothing, I achieve nothing, I am worthless, I should die.
After diagnosis there is a growing awareness of your bipolar disorder, which means that the situation in the workplace changes. That change can be either more comfortable or more fraught.
As awareness grows with experience, we get quite concerned when someone gives us the cold shoulder. What did I do to make that happen? We start to get vigilant about our conditionís impact on others because we know that impact could have a negative effect on us, such as shunning, sniggering or an in-tray that doesnít fill up with new tasks. This vigilance can take over our soul, gripping our imagination and dominating our thoughts. Before long we are fussing unnecessarily over whether someoneís comment was intended to be harmful to us. Paranoia can set in.
On the other hand, to be aware of oneís type of expression (co-operative vs. aggressive) can lead to better management of the condition. If youíre aware youíre running fast, speech tumbling out at a rate of knots you can try to get yourself out of the situation. Itís hard in a meeting because you canít just walk out. But trying to dampen the rate of speech can be helpful; others wonít feel so much like youíre talking Ďatí them rather than to them.
The ability to notice symptoms like these comes from watching yourself and othersí reaction. Spotting particular behaviors that occur often when symptoms are flowing means you can look for those behaviors at other times. When you recognize one, which gives you the reminder to do something about it: move away from the situation or modify the behavior (if possible).
Spotting signs and symptoms requires a bit of training, which is available in Bipolar and the Art of Roller-coaster Riding.
If youíve just been diagnosed, chances are youíre deciding whether to accept the diagnosis. If youíre on medicines, talk assertively, negotiate with your doctor for a better arrangement of medicines. This might mean changing a dose, adding a new medicine or taking one away. Otherwise, put on a happy face until your cheeks shatter. When your face feels like breaking, go home. Take a few days off until your lovely smiley porcelain dollís face wonít break any more.
If youíre not on medication, it might be time to see if medicines can actually help. There are many legitimate fears about side-effects, toxicity, sedation etc. Plus, agreeing to take drugs underlines and emphasizes that you accept the diagnosis. Deciding whether to accept a diagnosis of bipolar disorder is a stage everyone goes through. If you think Mad is Bad then youíll probably resist the diagnosis with all your might. But if you think Ďlife could get better now we know whatís going on because there are medicines designed for this illness that can make me better,í youíll be in a much easier state of mind and able to toy with the idea of taking drugs.
All this is discussed in Bipolar and the Art of Roller-coaster Riding, a book based on interviews with people with bipolar disorder and desk research of up to date medical resources.
For those at work, the key to success is using your awareness to stop problems with colleagues. Newly diagnosed folks can try on the concept of medicine being helpful. And everyone can relax a little: a little odd behavior is tolerated by most people.