Balance. That is important when managing bipolar. Balance is the key to recovery. Balance is the goal of recovery. Balance is what I strive for daily.
Work/life balance is a tricky thing, especially when it comes to managing bipolar. Having racing thoughts is one of my most prevalent symptoms, both with hypomania/mania and with depression. Racing thoughts affect everything that I do. When I am working they dramatically impact that work, and my emotional reaction to it.
When I am hypomanic/manic I will often obsess about what I am working on at that time. All of the little details smack me in the face constantly, especially if I have the audacity to slow down and rest, or go to bed at night. Everything needs more tweaking. Everything could be improved. Often I have grand ideas about how to improve everything I am working on, as well as grand ideas about what to work on next. This can lead to a flurry of creativity and productivity, but it comes at the cost of peace, rest, and balance.
When I am more depressed the racing thoughts are still prevalent, they are just less useful. Instead of obsessing over improvements that can be made or grand ideas that can be implemented, I focus on how much of a failure and a fraud I am. While, with hypomania/mania, my racing, obsessive thoughts tell me that while nothing is perfect the imperfect can – and must – be improved, with my depressive racing, obsessive thoughts not only is nothing perfect, but nothing is good. Nothing can be improved because I am not capable of improving anything. I am a fake. I am a fraud. I am good for absolutely nothing.
When I think about the quest for balance in the midst of racing thoughts, both the hypomanic/manic ones and the depressed ones, I think the above image is woefully inadequate to express that goal. This one is much more accurate:
Balance often feels like an unobtainable goal for me, especially since I started back to full-time work a couple of months ago.
First, let me just say that working full-time, while it has had its challenges, has, on the whole, been an incredibly good experience. It gives me a purpose. It allows me to feel like I am contributing something, both at work and at home with my family’s finances.
While working has limited both the time and energy that I have to devote to other interests, like my writing and art, it has also allowed me to spend my time, vocationally, doing things that I find quite satisfying, including graphic design, web design, and, most importantly, mental health advocacy.
Again, traditionally, finding a good work/home balance has been difficult for me. When I am more manic I find myself immersed in work, working obsessively and for very long periods of time. 14+ hour days are not unusual for me. When I am more depressed I find myself unable to really work at all.
I have found that routine is good for trying to stay even and balanced when working. I get up at the same time every morning, 6:00am. I make coffee. I take a shower. I get dressed. I get the kids up. I get them fed and ready for school. I take them to school, and then I go to work. On a “normal” day this is like clockwork. Even taking Trevor for walks (he goes to work with me) and throwing a tennis ball to him in the park next to my office has a routine to it. I find all of this to be quite comforting.
But there are times when, due to bipolar and PTSD symptoms, as well as stress, I find myself unable to go to the office to work surrounded by many other people. Trevor helps with this some, but there’s only so much that he can do for my anxiety. He’s great, but there’s no perfect solution, and that’s fine. It is what it is. I am learning to be okay with it.
Because I am open with my employer about my illness and we have a plan to manage it, I have been able to work from home when necessary. Obviously I still need to be productive – being home and not working is not “working from home” – but this arrangement has proven to be quite beneficial for me.
Working both from an office and from home has afforded me the opportunity to really take stock of the positives and negatives of both ways of working.
The routine of going to the office regularly has been beneficial for my mood. Being around people every day, especially people with shared interests, has been great. When I have to go to work I can’t isolate, which is both a symptom of and a predictor for bipolar depression. Isolating is not good for me. I need to engage people and by and large this has shown enormous benefits.
That said, working long hours in a setting in which I am surrounded by people that I only casually know, at times raises my stress and anxiety levels an awful lot. This can lead to panic attacks, which I am obviously keen to avoid. Panic attacks not only feel horrible and crippling at the time, they can also knock me out of commission for multiple days. That is not good for productivity.
So here again balance is essential. Not only do I need to find balance between my work and home life, but also between my work from work and work from home life. All things being equal it is better for me to work at my office. All things are not always equal and so the flexibility to be able to work from home has been a godsend.
Things aren’t perfect right now; they never are. But things are good. I’m about as balanced as I have been in years right now, and I am optimistic that I can and will remain that way for quite some time.