Working with a disability can be difficult. After my big breakdown nine months after Hurricane Katrina, I realized that I couldn’t continue to work as a freelance writer—I wanted so much to do so but just could not take the stress of daily deadlines any longer. I let all of it go—the food column, the business news, the gardening and religion stories, everything. I had one final assignment I wanted to complete—I had contracted for it before the breakdown and resolved it was my last job. I wrote 15 profiles of all the community colleges in Mississippi for a college prep publication and earned close to $2,000 that month. I resolved to continue writing on my fiction project I had conceived after the hurricane—it felt like a natural move to go to a new field of endeavor in writing since I couldn’t do deadline work any longer.
The problem was that it had been 15 years since I had written fiction, and I just wasn’t very good at it. I kept sending things off to be published and kept getting rejection after rejection. I started questioning myself again. Why was I failing at this writing? What was I doing wrong?
The main difficulty was that I had not been stabilized on medication long enough to know whether what I was writing was any good or not. It sounded good once it left my fingers and appeared on the computer screen, but I had no ability to edit or revise it to the best it could be. That facility has returned slowly, and I am better able to recognize the flaws in my work.
But it highlights one of the difficulties of working when affected by bipolar disorder—if you’re in a high time, you feel like everything you do is wonderful and you lack the critical faculties to judge whether you are meeting an employer’s expectations.
Other difficulties can include stress—either imposed from the outside like mine was from publication deadlines or self-imposed for whatever reason. Studies show that stress can cause the bipolar disorder to worsen because it feeds into our over-achieving side—we may take on too much work when feeling well and either not accomplish it at all once the depression returns or again, not realize the true value of what’s being produced if you have the impaired insight of mania.
Not taking on too much work is important as well. Once I went to work again as a community college instructor, I had the good sense to go slowly. I took on one class the first semester and went slowly from there. I added another class the next semester and taught two classes a semester for several years.
Then one semester I was asked to take on an extra class because enrollment had gone up. I had no trouble adding the extra class lecture but didn’t reckon with the extra twenty-five papers to grade per week. Add it up and that was another hundred papers a semester, and I couldn’t do it. That made me realize that I couldn’t take on teaching composition full-time. So I’m giving teaching creative writing a try with a few students weekly. Less papers to grade that way.
Interacting with others can be interesting while working. You can get over-exuberant or monotone and silent depending on your mood and can cause discomfort in office interactions. I used to be very outgoing with men until I found out that some of my attitude was being misinterpreted by other people in the office. Now I’m much more careful in my speech and what I choose to talk about to men I deal with. Keep tabs on yourself, and simply try to be as pleasant as possible with people no matter what your mood.
Julie Whitehead currently writes and blogs from Mississippi at her personal blog. She has been a university lecturer, a disability examiner, and a freelance writer. She carries a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and blogs to create awareness and help others understand the disease and its effects.