World Bipolar Day

This post was originally posted on my company’s Facebook page. Company name has been removed for privacy (even though most of you already know where I work).

Did you know that March 30th is World Bipolar Day?  Bipolar disorder is also known as “manic depression” and is a mental illness that affects about 5.7 million adults in America.  Bipolar disorder is characterized by dramatic shifts in mood, energy, and activity levels that affect a person’s ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. These shifts in mood and energy levels are more severe than the normal ups and downs that are experienced by everyone.

I am one of the 5.7 million people with bipolar disorder. “Bipolar” is a term that gets thrown around a lot. I often hear people describe someone with ups and downs as bipolar, or that the weather is bipolar when we shift temperatures dramatically.  It’s hurtful when I hear people say things like this because they’re saying “bipolar” with a negative connotation; that being bipolar is a bad thing. And while life would certainly be easier without it, it doesn’t mean that having bipolar disorder ruins your life.  I was diagnosed at age 19 after being diagnosed with depression at 14 and anxiety at 16. Most people would never know I have bipolar disorder because I manage it with medication and therapy. Although it’s always in the back of my mind, it doesn’t prohibit me from living a full life.  I have a wonderful circle of friends, a very happy marriage, and I work here full time at the Company. But things weren’t always so great.

There was a time in my life, around my diagnosis, where I felt very out of control of my life.  I was unable to work or go to school and felt lost and hopeless. But with the support of family and friends as well as determination and strength, I found an amazing psychologist and psychiatrist who helped me get back on track. I was able to go back to college (part time, then full time), and I’ve been consistently employed for the past 7 years.  Even though I have more good days than bad days, I still have my down times. During those times I try to remind myself that it’s ok to feel bad and that this feeling won’t last forever. I practice self-care by spending time alone and reading, taking a long hot shower while belting my favorite showtunes, going to spin class, or sitting on my couch and rewatching my favorite feel-good shows.

Having bipolar disorder changed my life but it by no means ruined it.  It used to be something I hid from the world but now it’s something I’m comfortable sharing, which is why I wrote this post and shared it with all of you.  If you have bipolar disorder, or any mental illness, know that you’re not alone. There are literally millions of people who understand what it’s like to live with a mental illness and many more who offer their love and support.  There’s even a community here at The Company, the mental health employee resource group, with people who provide an understanding and supportive space when you might need it the most. Our motto is “Less stigma, more support” and we stand by that. We’d love to have you join our #mental-health channel or join us at our biweekly get togethers every other Thursday at 4pm.

Keep fighting the good fight.
Kate is a technical writer. She has bipolar type II and isn’t ashamed to say it. When she’s not writing documentation, she writes about mental health on thebrochick.com and Psychology Today.

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Mini Challenges

If you read my last post, you’ll know that I’m not a fan of large groups, whether they be social gatherings or work related meetings.  It’s a challenge for me to enter a group setting because of my social anxiety that comes from a place of needing to feel accepted.  I know this now because I talked to my psychologist about it (I can’t take credit for coming up with that on my own).

I guess this anxiety comes from always feeling like an outsider when I was growing up.  I was called “weird” a lot and it made me feel anything but normal, like every middle school kid ever.  But that feeling of being seen as different stuck with me. I know part of it came from being very quiet as a kid.  People think you’re weird if you’d rather keep to yourself than join in a conversation. There’s some stigma around people who prefer solitude over socializing.  Although with things like JOMO (Joy Of Missing Out – I hear it’s a thing now), that’s starting to change. Either way, the feeling of being perceived as weird is what often keeps me from talking to people.  However, my psychologist encouraged me to “embrace the weird”. He said I shouldn’t care so much about what people think about me and it’s ok to be weird. I know he’s right, but easier said than done.

As I was talking to him about all this, he encouraged me to challenge myself to do more social things, like talk to people or at least stand in a room with them.  I thought of them as ‘mini challenges’. So I started to think about other mini challenges I could do and here’s what I came up with, including how realistic my attempt will be:

  • Make small talk with my bike neighbor at SoulCycle (highly unlikely)
  • Talk to one new person at a party in two weeks (likely)
  • Don’t hide behind my husband at the next family gathering (very likely – he usually disappears within 5 minutes of arriving)
  • Make small talk with a coworker whilst getting coffee (somewhat likely)
  • Say good morning and smile at coworkers I don’t know (likely)
  • Make small talk with someone in a random scenario, like the subway, a coffee shop, etc. (highly unlikely – I live in New York and we pride ourselves on avoiding this sort of interaction)
  • Not feel super awkward making eye contact with someone in the bathroom (unlikely)
  • Strike up a conversation during a pause at a family dinner next weekend (somewhat likely)
  • Remember that it’s ok to be weird (very likely)

Well next week I have another big meeting on Monday, and this time I’m going to go.  Well, I’m going to try to go. I’ll do my best, so stay tuned!

What kinds of mini challenges can you put yourself up to? Leave your responses in the comments, I’d love to read them!

 

All by myself

I’ve noticed that when I feel “good” I really struggle to write, which is one of the reasons I don’t post weekly on here.  I believe in ‘quality over quantity’ and I’ve never wanted this to be a place where I dump content just for the sake of posting.  That’s not what this blog is about. This blog is a safe place for me to share my thoughts with others who may experience things similar to the way that I do.  It’s also for people who are curious about mental illness and my wonderfully supportive loved ones to get a glimpse into my mind.

I’m writing today because I’m supposed to be in meeting.  I guess, technically I am in a meeting – I dialed in, but I should be there in person.  Why did I dial in? Because it’s a department-wide meeting and seeing a large group of people I don’t know very well made me turn on my heels and head back to the safety of my desk and my big headphones.  Groups of people I don’t know well make me very anxious. Sometimes even groups of people I know make me anxious. Basically, I don’t like big groups. Crowds are fine. I live in New York City so I’m fine being shoved around by people I don’t know.  But put them in a room where I could potentially have to speak to one of them? No way. Abort.

I don’t know why people make me so nervous.  Maybe it’s because I grew up as an only child and spent a lot of my childhood, and adulthood, alone.  I love being by myself and it’s crucial for my mental health. As I sit here, half listening to this meeting, I keep thinking about why groups of people make me so anxious.  Where did this social anxiety come from? Maybe it’s because I’m an introvert and that’s just who I am. I don’t like being around people I don’t know. I don’t like making small talk.  Maybe that makes me anti-social, but whatever it makes me it’s who I am. I used to wish I could be extroverted. I look at people who walk in a room full of people and can talk to anyone and think, ‘how the hell do they do that?’.  But that’s just not who I am. I get really quiet when I’m a group of people I don’t know well. Being around people also makes me really tired – it drains me. Even being in a group of people I love makes me tired. It takes a lot of energy for me to be around people, especially when I don’t know them well and I’m so focused on trying not to be awkward.  Even though I don’t want to admit, I do care what people think of me. I think most of us do.

So here I sit, away from the people at the safety of my desk.  I’m lucky that if my manager asked why I never come to meetings and call in instead, she’d understand.  But I’d be lying if I said I felt completely comfortable with my decision to sit alone. Part of me wants to be ‘part of the team’, but a bigger part of me is fine with being on the outside looking in.  I wish the thought of being in a big room full of people didn’t make my heart race, but I have social anxiety and that’s just part of my deal. I know I’m not the only one, I see the other people who call into the meeting who I know are here.  Maybe they’re too busy to attend, or maybe the feel the same way I do. Maybe I’m not the only one who feels this way. And maybe that’s ok.

 

Support in a Surprising Place

When you’re dealing with anxiety, depression, or any other unpleasant feeling it’s not uncommon to feel alone.  I’m very lucky to have an incredible support system of loved ones and mental health professionals, but one of my favorite support systems came from an unexpected place: work.

During the first few months at my job I changed medications and the process was anything but pleasant.  I felt physically and mentally drained, and was having a hard time keeping it together at work. With the fear of being reprimanded or even fired, I decided to say something to my boss.  Not only was he completely accepting, he had been through a very similar experience himself. I felt more comfortable at work and mentioned that I had a mental illness to a coworker who told me about a mental health group at our company; an online support channel made up of employees.

In this group we share the highs and the lows and speak freely without fear of judgement.  We even started meeting in person in the New York office, which have such a loving, supportive energy.  This groups gives me a feeling that my company supports me and I have a support system within these walls.

But don’t just take my word for it, here’s what some of my amazing, brave coworkers have to say:

“I took a 4 months of medical leave from work to deal with a debilitating episode of depression. Managing my ongoing transition back to work (along with the continued depression symptoms, and the seemingly endless search for “the right meds” and “the right therapist”) has been difficult. But having a manager who I can be completely honest with during down and unproductive weeks, a team that proactively reaches out to offer their support, and a group of like-minded individuals in a public slack channel (!!) who are open and honest about sharing their own positive and negative experiences has motivated me to continue prioritizing my wellbeing and self-kindness. Without these compassionate work support networks, I imagine that I’d still be on leave, and I feel grateful to work at a company that really does let me “bring my whole self to work.””

“Having an inclusive and safe channel to discuss my mental health at work helps make me more productive. I’m less afraid and anxious to go to work in the morning when I know I have a place I can turn to for support from my peers that understand what I’m going through and can help me navigate my way through the tough times.”

I know most companies don’t have support groups like this, but there are hundreds and thousands of other online support groups out there.  Just having someone say “me too” or “that sounds really hard, I’m sorry to hear that” can have such a positive impact. Do a Google search for the type support your looking for and you will find endless resources.  Remember, there is no need to suffer alone; there are people just like you who will understand.

Managing Anxiety at Work

Dealing with anxiety is anything but convenient.  It seems to strike at the most cumbersome times like traveling, family functions, and work.  When anxiety strikes at work it can feel embarrassing and alarming since mental health is still stigmatized and misunderstood, especially in the workplace.  So how do you manage if you’re one of 40 million people in the US struggling with anxiety?  Try some of these tested and trusted remedies:

Listen to soothing music

Turn off the pre-workout playlist you use to keep yourself alert and turn on some calming tunes.  If you’re not sure where to find some, Spotify has many playlists dedicated to calming music, specifically cultivated to calm you down.  YouTube also has a wide variety of calming music to help settle your nerves.

Inhale some zen

Essential oils are great to keep in your bag for when you’re feeling anxious.  If you’re not familiar with them, essential oils are the highly concentrated version of natural oils in plants that have been used throughout history for their medical and therapeutic benefits. Lavender, Frankincense, and Ylang Ylang are just a few known to help with anxiety.  You can order them online or find them in certain health food stores and yoga studios.  When you start to feel anxious, just grab it from your bag, slip into the bathroom, and take a few deep inhales of the oil.

Take a walk

If you’re able to go outside, give yourself 10 minutes (or less if you’re really strapped for time) and take a walk.  Depending where you live, you can stroll up a few blocks or do a couple laps around the building.  The change of scenery and fresh air will help calm your nerves and take away focus from whatever is causing the anxiety, even if you don’t know what the cause is.  If the weather isn’t great, you can also find a department store or drug store and casually stroll the aisles.

Breathe in private

If you don’t feel comfortable doing deep breathing at your desk, go into the bathroom, stairwell, or your car and focus on your breath.  An easy breathing technique is to inhale for a count of three, hold for three, and then exhale for three.  Repeat as many times as necessary but aim for at least five rounds.

Anxiety may be stressful and obnoxious but that doesn’t mean you can’t take steps to manage and control it.  Next time you start to feel anxiety take control, stop whatever you’re doing and take just a few moments to try one of these techniques.  Remember, mental health first.

Work Problem No More

I have had a lot of jobs, I’m what some would call a “job hopper”.  My resume is two pages not because of my many accomplishments (queue sarcasm), but because writing all the different companies, addresses, and dates worked there takes up a lot of space.  The longest I’ve ever stayed at a job is less than two years, which to me seems like an eternity. It’s almost become a joke with my friends and family because you never know where I’ll be working the next time you see me.  All joking aside, I kept changing jobs because I wasn’t happy.  I put such a strong emphasis on job satisfaction leading to happiness that I set up myself up to fail.  I couldn’t look past my father’s guidance that jobs are here to pay bills and happiness is found outside of work.  My brain was unable to comprehend that concept and I continued my search for the “perfect job”.

The “perfect job” doesn’t exist.  Well, I guess some people get to wake up and do what they love and feel fulfilled every day, but I think it’s safe to say that most people don’t get that.  Not everyone can turn a passion into profit and use their hobbies and interests to sustain a living.  I get that now.  I left a lot of good companies because my unrealistic expectations weren’t being met, but I also left a few bad ones because my intuition was right.  Now I find myself at a technical writer’s dream job; a major tech company.  I’ve never loved what I do for work but there definitely parts of the job that I enjoy.  These parts were not always obvious to me, but I was able to pick them out when I sat down and really thought about why I’ve stayed in my field.  Even though I don’t love what I do, I’m very lucky that I love where I do it.  I have the privilege of working for a company that treats people like humans and makes a product that millions of people enjoy every day.  Although I don’t love my company every day, sometimes it feels like a massive cluster f*ck, overall I can honestly say I love this company.  This is meaningful to me because I’ve worked places I wished would burn to the ground. But even though I love my company, I’ve had times where I’ve hated my job.

A few months ago I found myself in the uncomfortably familiar place of not feeling any semblance of job satisfaction.  I was bored and felt underutilized and unappreciated.  But after I got over feeling sorry for myself I came to the realization that I was as a massive tech company – no one was monitoring my every move and no one was going to fix my problems for me.  I talked to my manager and before I knew it, work came pouring back in and I was feeling much better about my position. But something interesting happened yesterday.

Yesterday, we had a department-wide meeting where each team gathered together to write down their goals for the quarter and how they would achieve them.  Since I’m not a developer or a product person, I had nothing to contribute. I sat around for three hours trying to figure out what people were talking about and nodded so much that my neck is sore today.  When it came time for the teams to present their findings, I looked around the room and thought, “I am by far the dumbest person in this room, and none of the work I do really matters.” Strangely enough, this didn’t make me feel bad, it made me feel relieved.  

At all my other jobs, and this one for a while, I got really down about not pursuing my passion and that most of the work I did didn’t really matter.  But while I was standing in that room yesterday something clicked; none of that matters. I work for an amazing company that gives me amazing benefits and treats me better than any company I’ve ever worked for.  I work with good, smart people who don’t make me want to bash my h head into a desk.  I don’t need it to me my passion because it allows me the time and resources to pursue mine. I may not be needed or produce valuable work all the time, but when I do it makes me feel really good that I can provide a needed service.  My department doesn’t need me every day, but when they do I’m here and ready to help them. When I step back and look at all that, it looks pretty damn good.

Sometimes we have to reevaluate our expectations and realize that not everything looks the way we planned it, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  When you can appreciate what you do have and stop focusing on what you don’t, it makes the things you have seem great.  And if you aren’t able to see the good and need to make the change, give me a call – I’m a master resume writer and have a rolodex of recruiters.

Fighting Off the Invaders

It makes me really irritated when I find myself in a pissy mood or feeling down because of something another person did.  It makes me even more irritated when this person didn’t do anything directly to me and just their existence is infuriating. Or they did something unintentionally that drove me insane.  It’s such a waste of energy and even though I know this, I can’t seem to get the thoughts about how much I hate this person out of my head.

I really noticed it this morning when I went to grab a coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts.  The woman in front of me ordered one of the unhealthiest breakfasts I’ve ever heard someone order, and I found myself stewing with rage with every word that came out of her mouth.  But so what?  If this woman wants to be unhealthy and increase her risk for diabetes, that’s her business.  Her actions have literally no affect on my life, and yet here I am still fuming about it.  I’ve started noticing this happen with other people too.  A friend does something dumb and I take it as a personal attack.  A woman on the train won’t let me pass by her to get off the train because she’s trying to take the seat I just got up from, and she’s trying to ruin my life.

Now that I’m no longer in the midst of those situations they all seem like very silly things to get upset about.  But when you’re in the moment if feels almost impossible not to lose it.  So how do you make it stop?

I’m reading this book called Why Buddhism is True, which I highly recommend, and the author talks about a lot about “thought” and the “self”.  One thing that he talks about that I’ve been thinking a lot about is this concept of negative thoughts being invaders in our mind.  So when you’re sitting there, minding your own business, and you start think something like, “Wow, Jessica is so conceited.  All she does is post dumb selfies on Instagram,” that thought is invading your mind.  You know it’s wrong to judge people, even if they ask for it by abusing social media, but the thought just creeps in.  These thoughts aren’t always about other people too, in fact more often it seems that they’re about ourselves.  Like when you catch a glimpse of yourself in a store window and the thought “ugh my thighs are HUGE” comes in, or you think “I’m not nearly as smart as any of these people in this meeting. Why am I even here?” (I think this one a lot).  These are all negative intrusive thoughts that do nothing except make us feel worse.

So how do we make them go away?

The author of Why Buddhism is True believes (from the Buddha’s teachings) that meditation is one of the best ways to put up walls and protect yourself from these intrusive negative thoughts.  He also stresses the concept of mindfulness; the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment.  Mindfulness can be obtained through meditation because meditation is all about focusing the mind.

I started meditating because I wanted more control over my thoughts.  Part of having bipolar disorder, as well as other mental illnesses or just being a New Yorker, is being plagued by racing thoughts.  When most of these thoughts become negative, critical, and judgmental you start to find yourself in a very dark place.  But meditation or practicing mindfulness is like putting the brakes on these thoughts.  So when your mind starts to race and go after someone or yourself in a negative way, think STOP!  But just thinking stop isn’t enough because the mind will just start to wander back to the negativity, so you need to give it something else to focus on.  When you meditate, the breath is usually a good go-to.  Counting breaths, deep breathing, and other breathing techniques are a great way to quiet the mind.  But what about when you’re out in the world?  You can’t just stop and sit cross-legged on the ground.  Instead, the first step is to bring awareness.

One of my yoga teachers wears a bracelet and every time she has a critical or judgmental thought about another or herself, she moves the bracelet to the other wrist.  I started doing this too and it is truly disturbing how many times I have to move this damn bracelet.  I’ve noticed the #1 place the bracelet moves rapidly back and forth is the subway.  But for other people this could be at the gym, at work, or when you’re all alone and you don’t have any distraction from your thoughts.  I highly recommend giving this a try because your thoughts may surprise you.  So each time I start to notice my thoughts go dark, I take three deep breaths to give myself a “reset”, then I focus on something else like reading a book, playing a game on my phone, or anything I can give my full attention to. Pro tip: DON’T go on social media.

Don’t let your negative thoughts overtake you.  We all have them and we can all fall prey to them.  So buy yourself a bracelet (rubber bands work just as well), focus on your breath, and let that negative shit go.  Make the world, and especially your world, a better place by removing one negative thought at a time.