Work Shy – Working While Bipolar

depressed_workOne of the very first jobs I held was as a barista at a coffee shop that was like a bar for underage goths to drink black coffee and pretend to read Sartre. It had vegan food before vegan was really a thing. And it was in Florida. Amusingly, Florida is pretty much the goth capital of the country. Marilyn Manson (the band, not the guy) hailed from Fort Lauderdale and, you know, parents and people who liked banning things in general, pretty much thought they were the devil. You would think that with the sun scorching down people wouldn’t really want to wear black from head to toe but you would be wrong.

I lived in Tallahassee.I moved there while in a manic state and was still pretty ‘up’ when I got my job. I was what all the Craigslist ads refer to as a ‘rockstar barista.’ I was fast, funny, thought five steps ahead and was pretty much always on. The hypersexuality of my mood state helped. It fueled my game with the customers. That continued for awhile. I had a lot of ‘firsts.’ It was probably the longest hypomanic episode I’ve had.

When I crashed, my work suffered. This is not uncommon for bipolar people. The excitement of a new job itself can be a trigger for hypomania. Eventually that train runs its course and the boss thinks you’ve lost your passion, that you’re losing your touch, that you can’t handle the workload or that you’re on drugs.

With depression those things can be very true–but it’s a transient state, much like the hypomanic one the boss loved so much to begin with. I loved that job. But my touch was no longer golden. My manager called me to the back office and I went, heavy-hearted, terrified about what was about to happen.
“I’ve noticed you haven’t been yourself lately,” he said, both feet on the floor and his hands clasped in front of him. It was a power position. He did it a lot.
I was quiet…I didn’t know what to say. “Did I do something wrong?”
“It’s not one thing,” he said, a little hesitantly, “it’s a bunch of things.”

I knew what he said was true. Being depressed, I probably felt worse about my performance than he did. I felt like the sun fried the energy out of me, boiled my life blood. That’s what depression always feels like to me. Like being burnt. I started crying. Fuck, I thought. I hated crying in front of people and it happened more often than I would like.

He dropped from power-boss stance to compassionate-guy position, obviously rattled by the waterworks. Most men don’t like making women cry, and Alex was a decent guy in a kind of old-fashioned way, even though he was probably 23 at the time. “What is it?” he asked. He was reaching out a branch, I could tell. There was no anger in the confrontation, just a kind of sadness. A bunch of years later, having been on the other end of this scenario–a manager firing an employee who was clearly depressed–I can say with some certainty that he was looking for a reason not to fire me.

“I have to tell you something and I don’t want the others to know.”
“Ok…” He now looked truly nervous. Alex was not a dude who liked being in the company of bare emotions. I don’t think he wanted to be the only one in on my big secret, particularly after a traumatic event happened to me earlier–one that everyone knew about to some degree.

“I’m bipolar. I’m having a depressive episode. I really don’t want to lose this job. I love it here…I promise I’ll try harder.”

His whole demeanor changed. Was it self-preservation? (As I later found out, Bipolar Disorder is protected by the Persons with Disabilities Act.) Did he have a relative with Bipolar Disorder? It didn’t really matter to me what mattered was his reaction. He told me not to worry about my job, that he was sorry I had to live with this disorder and that if I ever needed chunks of time off, he would happily accommodate me. I was relieved. I was somewhat ecstatic. I thanked him profusely.

That was then. I am now scared to death to tell my employer about my mood disorder. He’s going to notice. Even though I religiously take my pharmacopia like a good Catholic takes Communion, the disorder seeps through. Some days I am drained of energy, feeling burnt. Sometimes it last weeks. Sometimes I talk like I have no off-switch. I am good at my job. I have ideas above my pay grade but I live in constant fear that my disorder will show itself, that the depression will make a fraud out of what I believe to be the real me. This fear leads to paranoia and anxiety which in no way help the situation.

All of this shit has made it difficult to find employment. I have talked myself out of jobs I’d be suited for. I spent the better part of a year sick, eeking out freelance work and finding myself hospitalized. But I thrive while I’m working. The structure gives me room for creativity. Like many other things about me and other Bipolar people I know, it is perverse. Work is the thing that makes me function creatively, it gives me energy. At the same time it makes me feel my disorder more than anything else.

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2 thoughts on “Work Shy – Working While Bipolar

  1. I wasn’t aware that Bipolar Disorder is protected! That’s interesting, actually. I assumed it would just be dismissed if I even ever brought it up (though I don’t think I really would, anyways. It’s a bit personal). I enjoyed reading this, I mean, I don’t like that it’s a bad experience for you, obviously. I just mean that it’s a helpful story, and I can relate to it, also suffering from the illness. I wish you the best of luck, and all of the balance between happiness and sadness 🙂

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