Working with Bipolar Disorder


  • Author Madeleine Kelly
  • Published October 8, 2010
  • Word count 952

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 weren’t 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 it’s like working with bipolar, we’ll consider the impact of being aware of our self-expression.

What it’s 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 you’re cross with the boss, only you don’t know it. You can’t 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 ‘normal’ you look at him and say ‘Yes, I get it, thanks.’ And you go to your desk, spinning, spinning, trying to remember anything the boss had said.

You’re obsessed with a brand new idea for the benefit of the business you work for. You burst into the boss’s office and describe it. He says ‘thanks, that’s an interesting idea. I’ll get back to you about it.’ You’re devastated that he wasn’t enthusiastic and start thinking ‘what’s wrong with the idea?’ You conclude there’s nothing wrong with the idea but maybe it’s the boss. He’s narrow minded, conservative, fearful of change and so on. These thoughts preoccupy you and you hardly get any work done that day.

You’re feeling distant from everyone and your brain is slow, your eyelids feel swollen and you don’t think there’s any point going to work. Your arms and hands feel bigger than they are. There’s no point going to work because if you go you won’t be able to do much; you might as well stay at home and do nothing. Because nothing is what it’s 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 condition’s impact on others because we know that impact could have a negative effect on us, such as shunning, sniggering or an in-tray that doesn’t 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 someone’s comment was intended to be harmful to us. Paranoia can set in.

On the other hand, to be aware of one’s type of expression (co-operative vs. aggressive) can lead to better management of the condition. If you’re aware you’re running fast, speech tumbling out at a rate of knots you can try to get yourself out of the situation. It’s hard in a meeting because you can’t just walk out. But trying to dampen the rate of speech can be helpful; others won’t feel so much like you’re talking ‘at’ them rather than to them.

The ability to notice symptoms like these comes from watching yourself and others’ 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 you’ve just been diagnosed, chances are you’re deciding whether to accept the diagnosis. If you’re 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 doll’s face won’t break any more.

If you’re 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 you’ll probably resist the diagnosis with all your might. But if you think ‘life could get better now we know what’s going on because there are medicines designed for this illness that can make me better,’ you’ll 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.

Madeleine Kelly is the author of award-winning

book Bipolar and the Art of Roller-

coaster Riding

Her site, Two

Trees Media offers medical information and

strategies for living well.

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