How I Handle Bipolar Disorder and Working in an Office

Monday, January 31 2011 Natasha Tracy

Bipolar disorder often impacts every aspect of a person's life including office work. Here are tips on working with bipolar disorder at the office. Take a look.

I was asked about how I have continued to work even through major bipolar storms. I found when I wrote about this topic, pages and pages were filled, so we’re splitting it in half. Today is part one: how to work an office job with bipolar disorder.

Some of you know I’ve had office jobs in the tech industry for most of my working career and only recently made a shift. And in those years I’ve had various severities of bipolar disorder. And what I’ve learned is this: working with bipolar disorder comes down to one thing - being stubborn.

Be Stubborn to Make Office Work Easier When You're Bipolar

So no matter how painful, stressful or horrible work might be, I’m prepared to do it because, well, that’s what you do. You make a living to support yourself. Period. It’s amazing what you can do when you have to. Going on disability is not something I ever considered. I’m not saying it isn’t the right choice for many people, but for me, working was a foregone conclusion.

But working in an office situation with bipolar requires a high pain tolerance. I have developed a very high pain tolerance.

Tips on Working in an Office With Bipolar Disorder

(As an aside, I suggest being very careful about telling employers about your mental illness.)

1. When you can work, work like the Dickens.

When I can work, I work. I’ll work extra days and overtime to get massive amounts of work done. I need to overachieve when I can to make up for the times when I inevitably underachieve. I need to impress my boss, my coworkers and anyone else who will listen during these times. I absolutely make the most of those times.

Yes, this generally means sacrificing a social life and everything else. Hypomanic periods are perfect because I can work at the speed of light. I focus that energy on making a living. It's priorities.

2. Use your energy for work.

I have a finite amount of energy and if I'm going to work I need to spend that energy on work. I have less energy than other people which means that when I walk through my door at home at the end of the day, I'm likely to be a wreck. That’s the price I pay.

3. Make reasonable accommodations for your illness.

I make accommodations for my depression and side effects. In my office, I would close the door, turn off the lights so no one thought I was there, and lay on the floor. On occasion, I could nap but generally, I just laid there for a few minutes. Sometimes I spent time crying alone in my office in the dark. But if that’s what it took to get through the afternoon, then that’s what I did.

4. Use sick days if you need them.

And yes, I took sick days when I was just too mentally ill to go to work. I would also leave work early if I was nonfunctional.

No one has to know why you’re sick, only that you are.

5. Suck it up.

I know, people don’t like this idea, but for me, it’s just about accepting the pain and doing it anyway. Yes, it’s going to suck. Yes, it’s going to hurt. Yes, I’m going to hate it. But I’m going to do it anyway.

Did I mention the key was being stubborn?

All of This Might Be Wrong for You

These are the things that I have done. These are the things I think about. I’m not saying that people should, or even can, follow in these footsteps. But you asked, and I answered. If you’re as stubborn as I am, or you have a lower-stress job, you might have a shot.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter.

Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar BurbleTwitterGoogle+ and Facebook.

View all posts by Natasha Tracy.

How I Handle Bipolar Disorder and Working in an Office

Matthew
says:
May, 26 2018 at 7:01 am
Natasha,

Again. Thank you for your insights.

I've burned too many jobs in the past. Not because I made people aware of my illness but because of my actions while I was cycling. I am BPII with multiphasic ultra-rapid cycling complemented by ADD. I can cycle in the span of a work shift usually without notice and cycle several times per week. When I am hypomanic I am like the energizer bunny and rock. People generally passed me off as being moody. I've often been called "rude and abrasive", usually because I am more direct and have no patience for pleasantries. I've never been fired. I always left the job when the working relationships became too toxic to be productive.

I've resorted to taking a job working the night shift (10pm to 6am) and I work pretty much alone. I work online so my interactions with co-workers are limited to email and instant messaging. I cycle far less frequently I think because I am not as stressed. This works for me because I have 4 children and I can put more of my limited mental energy into caring for them.

Yes.. 4 kids (5,7,14,16) and ultra-rapid cycling + ADD makes for an interesting life. I wish I could write as well as Natasha and share my experiences. Its been quite a ride.
Nancy
says:
May, 26 2018 at 7:01 am
Natasha and Matthew:
Thanks for sharing your experiences. I too am bipolar, work and taking part time classes. I am stressed alot.
Natasha, what you said about only having so much energy and you focus what you have on work (not really any other option in order to pay bills, eat, and just survive) really hit home with me. I was beginning to think that besides being BP I was just "lazy". On the weekends, my so called days off, I have to force myself to do all the domestic stuff at home that during the week I neglect, some times I just give in and sleep the whole weekend.
I'm just drained. Although I'm alot more stable with my moods since starting meds, I have a tendency to get hypomanic at work when I'm around people, which in the end tires me out more and gets on other peoples' nerves. I do understand Matthew's preference for working nites when there aren't people around. So I'm doing my best to keep myself secluded at work as much as possible, less is more when it comes to interacting with co-workers and THE BOSS. I am definitely under their microscope.
Hugh Fulcher
says:
May, 26 2018 at 7:01 am
I admire your desire to accomplish and fit in even with bipolar difficulties. I had several severe manic episodes from 1977 to 1993 and have written 6 books on healing bipolar disorder. I constructed simple models of the mind to understand inner repressed thoughts and the inner mind. I also performed physical exercises, mostly conflicting and limiting neck and eye exercises, and performed mind calming, including breathing, exercises.

I absolutely believe my processes and work have "cured" my disorder, and may be helpful if practiced by other bipolar suffers. I have been free of depression and mania, and even free of such feelings, since 1994. It is difficult to express how wonderful it feels to be and feel free of depression and manic episodes. Like machines, the mind has its limits; however, emotional limits, from all the "no's" and physical and emotional hurts experienced from babyhood on.

Bipolar disorder occurs when our normal thinking process limits have been ruptured. My processes are meant to expand and reconstruct thinking limits. Bipolar suffers can be creative, but are not always controlled in normal environments.

Each of us must release disruptive trauma scar energy from our brains and minds. I believe my unique psychiatric exercises have done this and cured my disorder. Psychiatric medications can reduce symptoms quickly, however, too often with negative side effect. There is no quick cure, the brain is complex. My process takes a long time to heal. The bipolar brain must be physically reconstructed.

Integrating my science, Christian, and philosophical backgrounds has added a spiritual dimension to "my cure." My latest two books are: Bipolar Blessing & Mind Expansion, 2nd Edition, 2009, God, the Universe, & You! 2009. May God bless and heal you!

Please visit my website.
Rebecca Randolph
says:
May, 26 2018 at 7:01 am
I worked irregularly after graduation from college. I was pretty sick, got fired from a couple of jobs due to mania. Wound up homless for a few months, then got into a group living situation with other crazies and on SDI. It was a tiny check, supplemented with SSI until I got married. Then, of course, the SSI was discontinued. I stayed home to take care of our son, knowing myself well enough to know I could either expend the little energy I had left after dealing with my bipolar on a job, or on our son, but not both. Finally, my husband retired when our son entered the 8th grade, and it seemed a good time to try working again. Boy, was I terrified. Not of being fired, I didn't really need a job. But of failing again, especially in my chosen profession, teaching. I found the ideal job: substitute teaching. I just logged onto the website, signed up for the available assignments I wanted to do. Showed up and followed the lesson plan. If I was sick, I just didn't sign up for work that day/week/month. I also have bipolar II ultra rapid cycling. Sometimes it WAS murder getting through the day. But what kept me going was the sure knowledge that if I fucked up on the job, I might never teach again, at least not in that school district. Since there are only two school districts in our town, that would cut down my opportunities quite a bit. I didn't work at all last year or the year before. I had cancer the year before and my husband also had heart surgery. Too freaked out to work that year. Last year I went into a major depression and had to be hospitalized briefly. That episode lasted almost the entire school year. This year, my car has been sick. It's still sick, but we're making progress. I might be shopping for another car next month. But when I was working, most of the time I absolutely loved it. I know, everyone laughs with sympathy when I tell them what I do. But if you were born to teach, and you really love kids and know how to handle them, it's not so bad. I do pretty good. I've only had a couple of bad days because of the kids themselves. Lots of bad days because of bipolar. Looking forward to going back. It is so wonderful to have a job and be doing something worthwhile. I'd do it for free. I almost do, Idaho pays it's teachers, including subs less than every state except one- Mississippi. It's pretty close to minimum wage when you include the prep time. Looking forward to your second installment of this piece.
BPRob
says:
May, 26 2018 at 7:01 am
I am 53. I became bipolar in my mid 30's, so I've had 2 lifes (PBP and ABP - pre-bipolar and after bipolar) Prior to becoming bipolar, I was probably a bit hypomanic my whole life. Not surprisingly I accomplished an incredible amount, both scholastically (a couple of Ivy League degrees) and professionally.

After my illness hit, my career has slowly but steadily careened downward. I've sat out only a few months because of inability to function, but I made poor decisions both when manic and when depressed.

Today I'm working a far lesser job for a far worse company making far less money than when my illness hit. So whereas for a while I was only fighting internal demons, now I'm fighting external ones as well, namely having to go to a crappy job 5 days/week.

The main thing that I've learned about me and work through the years though is that as bad as work is, it is better for me than not working. In my case, I find that not working causes me to feel bad about myself and my lack of contribution to society. And work itself distracts me from what seems to be an everpresent mild depression.

Points of agreement with previous contributors:
1) don't tell people at work you're bipolar
2) push hard to function (that is, do suck it up)
3) use sick days (or even sick hours) to cover when you just can't function
4) try to take 20 minute naps at work if you can do it
Angela
says:
May, 26 2018 at 7:01 am
(and i mean this in a humorous way, but it's about 98% true)--or, just do what i do and work for lawyers. most of them are too busy dealing with their own mental illness to notice yours. :P
Nancy
says:
May, 26 2018 at 7:01 am
Hugh, I found your comments really interesting. I posted just prior to your post and Feb 1. I'm a psychiatric nurse practitioner and my bipolar was actually "diagnosed" by one of my co-workers at 58 yoa just last fall. What a humbling experience. One I'm grateful for actually. I've been told by other people in my life for years that I was BP, I just sloughed it off. All the sudden I work with co-workers who have psychiatric acumen and I get stripped naked.
So when I say I'm under everybody's microscope at work, it's because there was just no denying it anymore with all the radar in that office. So, just about everyone there knows about me, especially since the precipitating event that brought about the diagnosis was a melt down of sorts while at work. Overall, people have been supportive but they have also made it a point of reminding me in various ways when I'm alittle too out there.
That too I'm thankful for even though sometimes it just seems constant.
I am learning how to discipline myself and mood at work because of it.
In my psychiatric nursing studies they talk about damaged brain cells being formed at an early age due to trauma. It is possible to "unleash" these early experiences and form new functional brain networks and healing. EMDR is also a specialized technique used to break into these areas of trauma to promote healing. Sounds as if you have tapped into some of these techniques in your own process and recovery. I believe that God has a promise of restoration behind every wound. Holding onto His hand on a day to day, and sometimes, a minute to minute basis, to get through the fires and floods only makes my life richer.
Natasha Tracy
says:
May, 26 2018 at 7:01 am
Hi Matthew,

I'm glad you've found a way to cope that works for you. I know that people with ADD often find working at night more "natural" for them.

And yes, less stress generally leads to better health. Any way you can get that sounds good to me.

- Natasha
Natasha Tracy
says:
May, 26 2018 at 7:01 am
Hi Nancy,

I often tell people that I'm lazy, actually, because it's a lot simpler than explaining _really_ what's going on. But I'm not lazy, just really, really tired.

I can get hypomanic from work as well. I'm highly driven and will kill myself to make deadlines and that can lead to hypomania, which yes, just tends to tire me afterwards.

Sounds like you've found some strategies that work for you. Thanks for sharing.

- Natasha
Natasha Tracy
says:
May, 26 2018 at 7:01 am
Hi Rebecca,

Thanks for sharing. It takes great tenacity to keep working and going back after each episode. Substitute teaching sounds like a good way to do that.

Good for you.

- Natasha
Natasha Tracy
says:
May, 26 2018 at 7:01 am
Hi BPRob,

"I find that not working causes me to feel bad about myself and my lack of contribution to society. And work itself distracts me from what seems to be an everpresent mild depression."

I think this is true for a lot of people. It's unfortunate when people have to go on disability because it can decrease their self-esteem. Getting up everyday and having somewhere to be, or some work to do, does help a lot of people. Even if it's just part time or volunteering, I think it can help.

- Natasha
Rod Guthrie
says:
May, 26 2018 at 7:01 am
I reallly appreciate how your mind works, your "stubbornness" or tenacity, and the example you are making for so many of the rest of us who choose to cave into SSI and assuming the role required to deserve it. Stay well and I'm so glad I see your smiling face here and there, and even ore glad when I get past that and read what you have to say.

Scoby (Rod)
Sabrina
says:
May, 26 2018 at 7:01 am
I've learned to call it a "migraine". Almost everyone understands those.
Debrah Alsobrook
says:
May, 26 2018 at 7:01 am
Thank you for sharing your experiences and wisdom. My husband is BiPolar and for years we didn't know it which made life really interesting. He is ADHD as well. Luckily he has a job in which he works by himself much of the time, he is a drilling engineer on drilling rigs. He works 14 days on and 14 days off, sometimes his job requires him to function on very little sleep, but he has learned that sleep is really important and has stopped being so type A and takes care of himself as well as making sure he takes his medications on time and doesn't forget We are basically self employed, so when "that time of the year" rolls around we are able to adjust his schedule so that he can be home. Which is pretty good for me and that honey do list, because I know the crash will follow. We have learned how to work with it and even manage the depression. We do one thing together everyday. It might be walking around the block, going out to lunch or grocery shopping, but it gets him out, fresh air, and seems to help him not give into it all the way and he feels like he has accomplished something as well and is not just focusing on the disorder and gives him a little control. I have learned to be alot more understanding through the years and roll with it too.
piya
says:
May, 26 2018 at 7:01 am
I had a traumatic childhood, alcoholic father, abusive mother and i was a recluse introvert. I was thrown out of several jobs and around age 30 i decided i no longer wanted to work. Then i was going to psychosis sitting at home. But around age 33 i got a part time job where i worked for 3 years teaching kids in NGO underprivilaged kids. I can work and work very hard. But i lack social skills and interpersonal skills. I was bullied and isolated by colleagues. I developed moodswings and anxiety attacks during those bullying and had to take psychiatric help. The medications helped me initially and then they started having side effects horrible side effects i was diagnosed bipolarII. I quit medications and was doing well at work the anxiety decreased as the bullying colleague was asked to leave. But recently i was insulted and told that alongwith poor communication and interpersonal skills my teaching abilities are poor also. They humiliated me a lot and kept crying for around a half an hour. I resigned had no choice.
I know sitting at home, thinking about all the painful past things doesnt help but going out and getting humiliated again wont help either.
I was feeling extremely suicidal after that humiliation. I am trying to keep myself strong and holding onto myself. Even i cant sustain a job that too a part time job in NGO then i cant hold job anywhere else. I have tried most of the sectors and was asked to leave.
Henry A. Rody
says:
May, 26 2018 at 7:01 am
HI Everyone, I am 52 and divorced about 14 years and on disability for the last five years or so.
I was going through a real "Rough Patch" at that time, I was trying to re-train in Multimedia Studies to use my Computer and Photography Skills because I was not able to keep working as a Full Time Computer Technician (with 4 certifications - one each year).
My first diagnosis was Bipolar Type 2 back in 1981 - 33 years ago! I was usually active, energetic and enthusiastic, sometimes a bit hypo manic, but then I would suddenly spiral into Severe Anxiety and Suicidal Depression which would hold me down for several months at a time. I had heard about "Chronic Fatigue" from a book I bought called "Tired All The Time" - I have always thought that should have been my First Diagnosis, but we didn't understand the illness back then and are only starting to understand it better in the last couple of years - for a lot of different reasons that I won't go it right now. Suffice it to say I could not get a proper diagnosis, so I could not seem to get proper treatment for it either.
I went through months of Anxiety and Severe Depression and eventually was getting treatment for that instead of Bipolar Disorder (which usually only lasted a few days to a week each January?), but I had to really twist my therapists arm to say look I have Anxiety because I can't do the work or activities I used to do and that makes me frustrated and I get overwhelmed - that's when the Anxiety and Depression really kicks in. So for years I have been bounce back and forth from Dr. to Dr. and from Bipolar Disorder to Anxiety and Depression, Depending on how they saw me or how I was feeling at that particular time.
I had severe reactions to Lithium Carbonate (ended up in a straight jacket and lock down for a couple of days) and Carbolith - Grand-Mall Seizure - when I was about to ask my former employer if I might come back to work, even just on weekends or on call.
I was also going through a Divorce, Bankruptcy and Maintenance Enforcement was garnisheeing my part time wages making it next to impossible to survive on my part time wages. I guess that was the "straw that broke the camels back", so to speak.
I was afraid to go back to work in case I might have an Anxiety Attack or worse another Seizure! I had to apply for Disability Benefits and called it my Early Retirement.
It has only been recently that I have given my Psychiatrist a handout for Physicians on Chronic Fatigue. I have explained to her that I can have an Anxiety Attack when I am Hyper or when I am depressed, so to me it is a separate issue that complicates things. Usually the Anxiety wears me down to a state of Depression and some times Suicidal Depression. I was hospitalized several times from two weeks to two days. I usually tend to "bounce back" quickly and they would let go when I was no longer depressed (actually showing signs of hyper-mania, but I was just glad to be going home, where I could finally catch up on all the things I could not do for months before, like laundry, and cleaning my kitchen and bathroom etc.
Ironically my last three hospital stays were centered around my hypo-manic states (with Anxiety - crying spells), rather than my Depressive side of Bipolar Disorder. These stays were all 2-3 weeks in length.
I tried to explain my mood shifts to my employer, who seemed to be sympathtic because he had some serious illness in his family. But when I went back to apologize for my seizure, I could tell that he was uncomfortable and did not want to take a chance on me and that made me depressed for a very long time.
I eventually came to realize that I have been trying to fight invisible ghosts, so now I try to ride the waves and "Make hay while the sun shines" and take "Rest Days" when ever I need them. I am not cured by any means! I have to take heavy narcotics to put me to sleep or I end up staying up all night if I forget to take them before midnight (like I have one day each week for the last 3 or 4 weeks?). Today is going to be an extra long day, but I am going to try to make the best of it, because as the Borg might say "Existence Is Futile!" (Living an overly restricted life only keeps me down and depressed).
I prefer to take each day as it comes and hope that if today is not a good day, maybe after some sleep I will get another chance tomorrow or later this week.
I like the theory of having "Bipolar In Order", Rather Than "Bipolar Disorder", but there is a whole book on that topic! LoL
Take Care and Try To Have A Little Fun Each Day! HAR ;-)

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