If you have a mental illness, any mental illness, you learn to shape your life around it. It is a part of you, sometimes a small part and sometimes a very large part. Regardless, you cannot ignore it. Sooner or later, it will not be ignored. At the same time, you should not allow it to define you. For instance, I am not bipolar; I have a bipolar disorder, just like other people have major depressive disorder, an anxiety disorder or cancer.
My hope is to live my most meaningful, joyful and satisfying life, while giving my illness the respect it is due but not one bit more. I have yet to figure out how to create this balance. I worry that, because of my experiences last year, I give my illness more respect than it is due. I have not gone back to the job I left in October or begun to search for a new one. I have not started writing a manuscript, registered for a half marathon or done anything else that might be considered a mid-to-long term goal. Absent the (more than) occasional bout of the plague among our three children, my days are pretty low-key. I am busy from early morning to past my bedtime, but I am not doing anything particularly challenging, or not intellectually challenging.
I miss the intellectual challenge of my old job and, at times, I feel confident that I could return immediately with little to no need for a catch-up or re-learning period. I worked as an Assistant Attorney General for six years and never once felt unable to perform my job at the highest level, until last year. Now that I have been properly diagnosed and am taking the correct medications, what is stopping me from going back? I’m not an invalid; I’m just someone with a mental illness. People with mental illnesses work. They work really challenging jobs. Why not me?
Honestly, I am afraid. I am afraid that if I go back to my old job, or on to something new, I will fail to recognize the line between challenging work-life balance and triggering overload of responsibilities. Or worse, that I will recognize that line but choose to cross it because, despite all my bluster, I will be unable or unwilling to admit I can’t do it all.
There is also the fact that sometimes, even on the easy days, my brain decides it wants to totally freak out and I have to dunk my face in a sink full of cold water so I don’t have a panic attack right as the twins wake up from nap. And the times when my hands shake so badly it is impossible for me to thread the elastic band through the side of my son’s nebulizer mask. There are nights of insomnia and weekends of heart-pounding anxiety and sudden tearful outbursts that I can’t explain, to myself or my family. These kind of mood swings make me question whether a regular office job is feasible.
Yet, I am an intelligent, well-educated, skilled and resourceful woman. I am (was?) a very good attorney. Though I feel like I should have been back at work months ago, I am thankful nearly everyday that I am not. I don’t know what the right choice is when it comes to work. And I never imagined that whether to work or not would be a difficult decision for me. I worked hard for my degree and I always intended to be a model of working-motherhood for my children. At the same time, I never intended to have three toddlers. And I need to take care of myself so that I can be healthy and safe and so that I can take care of my family. It feels so unfair to have to make this decision at all, that my illness has essentially changed the course of my life. Sometimes I start to trace back the winding path that resulted in my breakdown, but there are so many potential factors and certain events I would not change even if I could. Nobody did anything wrong, including me. It just happened.
While I knew there was some risk of postpartum illness as a result of a multiples pregnancy, I had no idea that it could contribute to late onset bipolar disorder. My doctors did not discuss it with me, despite my postpartum anxiety after my first son’s birth. My husband knew I had struggled postpartum before, but he had no reason to expect such different and more extreme consequences from a twin pregnancy. Moreover, even if we had all talked about it, there would have been no way to know whether the possibility of postpartum bipolar would actually affect me.
Would I have made a different decision if I had known what would happen?Absolutely not. L and C are my children. I love them. I would die for them. End of story.
My diagnosis and treatment have also had many unexpected benefits. I now have strong boundaries and a definite set of core values. And if either my boundaries or values are not respected, I am one hundred times more likely to refuse to accept such disrespect. In other words, I am no longer afraid to stand up for myself, even when it might hurt someone’s feelings, cause a fight or threaten a relationship. I will not pretend to be anyone other than who I am and I will not apologize for being myself. Ever. Again.
So yeah, I am afraid of what might happen depending on what I choose to do with my life. But I have my safety plan and my safety people. There is no guarantee that things will be okay, but there never really was. I might always be afraid of falling apart, but I can’t not live my life. I am afraid of trying but I am more afraid of not trying.