Living with Bipolar Disorder: How the right support makes all the difference

Bipolar disorder is characterised by extreme shifts in mood. Sufferers may feel extremely depressed, but also feel highly elevated in the ‘manic’ phase. These shifts in moods last longer and are much more extreme than those experienced by most people. Below, a person suffering with the disorder describes how having supportive people around him at university allowed him to succeed.

I was diagnosed as having Bipolar Affective Disorder very early on in life and due to the symptoms that accompany my illness, many aspects of my life have been, and always will be a great struggle. I’ve always received compliments through life as being an intelligent person who throws himself at any challenge that’s presented to him. I’m assertive, but also have a good sense of humour. These characteristics alone point towards somebody who should be the perfect example of an employee. This raises the question of why nearly every professional relationship I’ve had with my managers or team leaders has been extremely rocky. I then wonder why I have absolutely flourished in some of my other working environments – what is it that made the difference?

It seemed that I had tried my hand at more or less every kind of job out there but I could not commit to an employer for any longer than six months, sometimes less. The anxiety that I experience is so powerful that on the bad days carrying out the most basic of tasks is immensely difficult. On good days (of which there are far more) I feel like I could manage my whole department, which is probably true. This is where my problem lies. My employers would continuously recognise that I had initiative and was able to confidently take on increasing amounts of responsibility effectively. However, and inevitably, one day I’d come into work feeling unable to cope, or even worse, not make it in at all because I would be consumed with depression. How is anybody supposed to write a presentation, complete a risk assessment or even restock chilled goods when their mind is solely focused on how daunting each of those tasks might be? On almost every occurrence when this has happened to me and I’ve been able to have a private word with my manager, the response given for my complete shift in mood has been met with absolute confusion, sometimes denial or even embarrassment. This reaction brings on an isolation and a realisation that I am unlikely to receive any beneficial support, even if the employer has meant well, a clear lack of experience and knowledge of how to deal with people who suffer from mental illnesses often means that they can inadvertently make my situation worse. When it’s something that 1 in 100 people suffer from, I had hoped that my managers might be more aware of how to help. Because they didn’t, there was almost always a succession of sick notes from my doctor before I returned, or in many cases felt that I have to move on.

At twenty-five years old I was stuck in a rut. The endless repetition of starting at a place of work and then having to leave almost immediately after, chased away by the stigma of my illness made me reconsider my game plan. I made the decision to go to university. With my track-record of having a complete lack of ability in committing to anything for more than a few months it seemed likely that I would drop out – perhaps within the first year, but before graduation for sure. Despite my enthusiasm for achieving a good mark it seemed almost inevitable that at some point a deadline for an assignment would be looming but a swift shift in mood would see me shipwrecked and unable to produce anything that would qualify for a decent grade. However, I was wrong.

I graduated three years later with just a few marks short of having a first-class degree. I’d thrived in the university environment but my success wasn’t down to an impossible but miraculous break from my mental health issues, quite the opposite in fact. My time at university was probably the most stressful period of my entire life. All of a sudden, I was surrounded by new people. New people I’d see every day whilst studying and then another group of new people who I’d never met before but was expected to live with. On top of that, my mind was a ticking time-bomb just waiting to explode, and sure enough, it did.

I experienced huge mood swings from the very beginning of my time at university and as usual each situation was extremely unpredictable. I’d experience huge lows followed by manic episodes and hallucinations and, at times, all this occurred over the space of just a single day. It was business as usual. However, I soon noticed that the reaction to my moods by the people around me was significantly different. Of course, it confused many people and still, there were people who’d just prefer to avoid me, but only at first. If I was having a euphoric episode I’d find myself with a circle of peers or flatmates around me doing whatever they could to maintain a calm environment until I became more balanced. If I was struggling with a deep depression I would find that my peers were dedicating their time to help me see good again. I’d be encouraged to go for a hike, a swim, explore somewhere new and they’d come with me. Regularly, I was encouraged to proactively engage in activities for enjoyment alone but they’d also help me focus and study beside me so that I had the support and focus for achieving higher grades.

Of course, there were times when I needed far more support than my peers could provide. Fortunately, my university is renowned for its excellent pastoral care and on many occasions during my time there, the university would make small gestures that had a huge positive impact on my well-being. With my permission, lecturers were often notified of my current mental state and when they had some free time would call to see how I was. Not to talk about work, simply just to see if there’s anything that they could do. Usually there was nothing I’d need from them because most of the time I’d be relatively stable. However, at times when I would experience dark days, their openness and empathy towards my condition would make them far more approachable. I worked very hard during my time at university and it really paid off, but there is absolutely no doubt that without the incredible understanding and dedication to my personal needs by both the university and my peers, I never would have graduated. This change in understanding between myself and the people around me, demonstrated that a person who couldn’t hold down any form of a job is able to succeed in obtaining a literature degree, or anything further, provided those around them have the knowledge and understanding to support people who have an issue with their mental health. Raising awareness of mental health in the workplace is hugely important in helping people with similar experiences to me to thrive at work. Had my former managers been as knowledgable and supportive as the lecturers at university, I don’t doubt that I could have achieved just as well at work.

 

Anonymous

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David Gowreply
November 22, 2017 at 5:56 pm

The most difficult aspect of working while trying to manage Bipolar Disorder, for me, is managing anxiety and low mood, which often go hand in hand. I’m a very consciencious worker, and when low mood comes on I then know that I’m not going to be able to the best I can, and this effect can snowball if I don’t put my coping mechanisms into action. Explaining to managers that turns of low mood can effect the quality of work is difficult, and over the years the responses I have had have varied in terms of how supportive managers have been. One of the biggest challenges for people with Bipolar Disorder is that we really do want to leave our personal issues at the door when we go to work, and it can be very difficult when our work, and in turn, our reputations are affected by our conditions. Developing a coping mechanism whereby we have transparency with employers about our condition, and how it can affect us periodically, but contrastingly trying to minimise any impact our condition has on our work life is something which takes time, and more importantly, comes with experience. I can relate to the authors experience of finding it difficult to hold down a job, and over the years I have found that it is necessary for line managers to give me feedback on a more regular basis than usual; this helps me build confidence in a role and is one of the ways that prevents anxiety and low mood giving rise to irrational and problematic thinking.

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