Bipolar on the Job
I moved from Washington State in April 2016 to take a prestigious management job with a major corporation headquartered in Louisville. Right away, things weren’t right. I found the organizational culture quite different than that of the companies I had worked for in the Pacific Northwest.
In the Pacific Northwest, the organizations I worked for tended to value collaboration above all else. Management consistently sought to empower employees. That meant allowing people to process through information and make decisions. And sometimes those decisions turned out to be sub-optimal, however the employee was encouraged to learn from the experience and move forward. People were generally respectful of one another’s differences. And there was a diversity I did not find in the South.
In the Louisville corporation, the focus was on the hierarchy of power. It sounds so odd to use this term — but it was obedience that was most highly valued. And there were strong repercussions for perceived “mistakes”. I was unable to be successful in that particular corporate environment.
There were multiple other reasons for my failure in that position. But I did indeed fail, and I went down hard. Sensing I’d be let go, I applied for short term disability and got it. That’s how sick I’d become. I had no idea at the time losing that job was the beginning of what I now characterize as my “bipolar breakdown”.
I was on disability for just two weeks before I was able to secure another position in my area of expertise due to connections in the industry. My reputation had been stellar up until I moved to Louisville.
However, I was unable to be successful in that environment either, although it was a robust and healthy corporate culture. My memory began to fail me. I missed conference calls because I’d recorded them incorrectly in my calendar. I’d send emails with confidential information to the wrong clients. I produced documentation that was incomplete and inaccurate. I was flustered and anxious all the time. I was constantly triggered, in a persistent state of mania. I’d stay up all night trying to complete a project. I was exhausted and desperate to succeed. I’d do anything to succeed. But the conditions I’d created for myself weren’t conducive to success. Despite all attempts, my work was consistently sub par. I believed my firing was imminent, so I left that position.
Again, I was able to secure work in my field through a connection with a former colleague. I was a contractor and most of my work was remote, however I did travel to the client site frequently.
I did well in that position. I was working on a user guide, and technical writing is an area in which I excel. I produced a quality guide and was consistently recognized for my hard work by client management. After the guide was complete, I returned home to continue working remote.
Once back home, I fell into a deep depression, and simply stopped putting in the hours. Although I continued to produce quality output, I had no motivation, and my output dropped each week.
In late June 2017, I did not sleep for five days. I began to have auditory hallucinations. I was scared. I called my manager and told her I was going into the hospital and I didn’t know for how long. I did not tell her why I was going or to which hospital I was going. She knew something was really wrong, however. How could she not? Because I was a contractor, there was no compelling reason to see me through what was clearly a difficult period. She wished me well and let me go. I was in a psychiatric hospital for 11 days. When I was discharged in early July, I was without a job, without an income. That’s a whole other story — it’s coming I assure you!
I cannot say my experience with bipolar in the workplace parallels Colton’s, the man featured in the video. But his symptoms are my symptoms. He was incredibly blessed to be surrounded by the group of employees that not only understood his illness, but worked collaboratively through his manic and depressive episodes.
Understanding mental illness, educating yourself about bipolar when you work with someone that suffers with bipolar— that is the key to ensuring the ongoing success of the team.
Making the conscious choice to value diversity — not just in ethnicity, culture, and varying points of view — but also learning to understand and work with a variety of people that may suffer mental illness, actually any illness — that is the certain way to ensure quality workplace relationships and a win-win for all.