After posting my latest blog article on how I manage to do my research job with depression, I got an overwhelming response from people. Everyone appreciates my bravery, but the truth is that I am no brave at all. This is my reality. I live with my disability every single day. That blog article was also part of a series of article I intended to write about women with disability in research. Kimberly kindly agreed to share her experience of doing research with bipolar disorder and I absolutely love her article and how it feels like to live with an invisible disability.
Here’s the thing about bipolar disorder… it makes you feel the lowest of the low. It makes you feel isolated. Depression takes away your ambition, your will to function. What’s the point of eating…of showering…of moving? Bipolar disorder makes you feel like you’re nothing. That you lack a purpose in this world. And you believe it, wholeheartedly, because you no longer have control over your own thoughts.
I think one of the worst things about mental illness is the invisibility of it all
Bipolar disorder also makes you feel alive…the highest of the high. Mania makes you productive. You take more risks, just for the fun of it. It makes you think twice as many thoughts as you would otherwise, and some of the best things come out of it. It can also give you uncontrollable anger— not the kind you feel when you get in a fight or make a mistake— this is the kind of anger that makes you shake with rage simply because you think something shouldn’t be so. There’s no justification, no provocation. You’re just…angry—at everyone…at no one…at yourself. And you stay angry…until one day things don’t suddenly bother you as much.
I think one of the worst things about mental illness is the invisibility of it all. From the outside, you look completely fine, like there isn’t a storm swirling around inside your head…thoughts crashing into each other like waves desperately trying to reach the shore. But on the inside, you feel…everything. You feel everything so deeply that those uncontrollable waves of thought take over, and you are powerless to stop them. And because you are so powerless, you do nothing. You just…do…nothing. You act like everything is normal because it’s too overwhelming to do anything else. And suddenly, you find yourself acting 24/7. Everything must be fine because you’re no different on the outside. Right?
I never feel like I have to worry about job security because I still go to work when I’m depressed
My co-workers would describe me as passionate, dedicated, hard-working, motivated. And on the outside, they’re right. But there are days on the inside where I hate everything. I hate being passionate and dedicated and hard-working. I hate my job and socializing and having to work despite hating everything. I’ve created an identity out of my illness that continues on despite how I feel on the inside, and this identity gives others the idea that everything is fine, even when it isn’t. That’s why people challenge me when I say I have bipolar disorder. Because to them, I don’t “look” bipolar, I don’t “act” bipolar, I’m “normal”. This is called high functioning. Despite the storm inside me, I persist.
It’s a blessing and a curse to be high functioning. I never feel like I have to worry about job security because I still go to work when I’m depressed. I’m no less productive despite lacking all motivation. I still have a smile on my face. And when I’m manic, I don’t express the anger I feel about my own existence. I don’t share every thought that races by out loud. I do my job and nothing more despite the itch to make the world’s next big discovery simply because I think I can. But on the flip side, it’s so much harder to get help when I need it because no one else sees the signs. The work just keeps piling on despite the ever-crushing weight of my thoughts.
It’s hard to be honest about your mental health at work but having those conversations can really improve your experience at your job
So, how do I make it all work? I stay honest. With my supervisor, with my co-workers, and with myself. I tell them when I’m struggling. I ask for help to balance all the work when I’m lacking motivation, so that things don’t seem so overwhelming. I have therapy at the same time every other week, so they know not to text or call me at that time. It’s HARD to be honest about your mental health at work but having those conversations can really improve your experience at your job. At the end of the day, no one wants you to hate your work because you’re not getting the support you need to be successful. Everyone wins when you win.
If you’re struggling with your own balancing act right now, just know that you’re not alone. It doesn’t matter if you’ve just started addressing your mental health or have been battling it for 20 years; either way, you are not alone. Remember that sometimes, it’s okay not to focus on thriving in your career but rather just getting through the day. Those are the moments you should be the most proud of yourself because despite everything stacked against you, you persist.