A couple of years ago, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I’ve walked a long path to where I am today, and I was in my early thirties before seeking help and getting a diagnosis. Looking back, the diagnosis helps things to make sense for me. I grew up in unique circumstances in an extremely rural environment far from the resources to readily identify my condition, which made itself apparent in my early teens.
Looking at the journey with the benefit of hindsight, I can trace the things in my career that worked and the things that didn’t. I had to blunder through the things that didn’t work before landing on the things that did. And then it was a lot of work to keep hold of the things that did and make sure I didn’t lose them.
Here are some of the keys that have worked to help me succeed as an employee and colleague. It’s not an exhaustive list, but sketches out my experiences working in this field with a disability.
- Know myself. Everything rises and falls on my self-discovery and knowledge of my condition. This certainly applies in the broader context of my diagnosis and treatment, but also applies day by day. It has taken time and patience to divorce myself from my emotional state on a certain level. Just because my mood destabilizes and I feel terrible doesn’t mean that my situation is any different. There are times where I’m extremely low, and in those moments I have to hold on by my fingernails and wait for times to get better. By the same token, I can’t always trust my happiness as readily as I would like. There’s a hint of suspicion to elation; I need to be careful that I don’t get too high or too low. It’s a constant balancing act: monitor yourself and build up structures to support you in the highs and lows alike. I use a mood tracker to help me in this task.
- Find meaningful work. By “meaningful,” I’m not talking about the vocational awe that tends to come long with librarianship. Rather, I mean finding something to do that makes a difference somewhere. To me, it almost doesn’t matter where, provided my talents are put to good use and I can truly help move the team forward. My career path has not led me where I’d planned to go. I got my start in cataloging and classification, with the hope of working in an academic library. I ended up working for an ILS vendor, a museum library, and public libraries. But I’ve often felt a pressure to find an opportunity and cling to it. To prove my worth through my work, in good times and in bad. When the times are good, my work is tremendously fulfilling. The key has always been managing the bad. I was stuck once in a job with no work to do. I was told in no uncertain terms that cross-training opportunities for which I’d volunteered would not be given and that I needed to “stay out of the way.” I spent a lot of time in my office, getting paid to stare at the wall. A few of my coworkers looked on that situation with envy, but I felt that I had stumbled upon my own personal hell. I needed something to do that was meaningful. Without it, my precarious condition flared up regularly.
- Find a good supervisor. It’s such a game-changer to have a supervisor who will do the two things above with you: (1) know you and your limitations, and (2) find meaningful work for you to do. It’s a rare combination, I’ve found. I once had a supervisor who was willing to serve as a mentor and guide, and it made a huge difference. I didn’t feel so much like I had to prove myself every day, but I was fed a steady diet of projects to help make a tangible difference to the organization and its mission. And this supervisor was deft in encouraging me to take days off when I was getting close to burning out. Before my diagnosis, I would implode about once every three months or so. I would ride high, produce a ton of great work, and flame out spectacularly. After this happened a few times, my supervisor told me in no uncertain terms that I was to take time off. I didn’t have the distance and perspective to understand it at the time, but her observation that I exploded once per quarter was an important piece of the diagnostic puzzle for me.
- Learn to trust. It took me along time to get the hang of trusting my team and delegating tasks. I eventually learned that leadership is built on a web of trust. Trust between me and my supervisor is one level, and trust in my teammates is another. To believe they can carry forward the mission of the organization as well as I can is important. And it’s critical to fall back on the assistance of others when I’m feeling unable to go on.
- Have confidence. It’s easy to have less confidence because of my diagnosis. While it gives me a handle for understanding myself better, it’s also given me clarity for my limitations. With that in mind, however, I’ve built back my confidence in myself, and it’s been a slow build. I can’t rely on manic episodes to fuel my view of myself. Nevertheless, I see myself more clearly than ever having something to contribute and something to say in my field. I never want to lose sight of that. It removes some of the fear from the equation for me; I have talents and abilities that are valuable regardless of what medications I take, or whether or not I’m in therapy to help monitor my moods.
In many ways, I feel fortunate that my disability is easier than others. Mine is an invisible disability, however, and that leads to a whole host of issues in itself. I can “pass” as not being bipolar, and that is certainly a double-edged sword. I can function without obvious accommodations, and can mostly do so without social fallout and preconceptions that can come from other diabilities. Being bipolar is not something that I often disclose. I sometimes do, though. I feel that it’s important for my colleagues to know about me because of the nature of being bipolar. I’ll need to build trust with them so that when my limitations become more pronounced, I can work with them to find solutions.
It’s difficult not to feel a bit guilty, too. There’s a deep well of it, both from personal shortcomings and professional ones. I still struggle with the notion that things could be different for me, “if only.” And yet, that’s an unhelpful line of thought. What is helpful is reflecting on the beauty of my situation. Indeed, were it not for my diagnosis, I would never have understood myself at a level necessary to find fulfillment in my life and career. I would have continued to cycle through my emotions without really “getting it.” And though my path has been a long one, it’s something for which I’m grateful.