The HR Juggler

The 25% Club: Born This Way

Posted on: January 23, 2013

born this way

This post is part of the 25% club series dealing with the topic of mental health, particularly as it relates to the workplace. Some of the posts, like today’s, will be anonymous, others will be accredited – all have a powerful impact and help to shine a light on a topic that we need to talk about so much more than we currently do.


Even if you know me really well, you probably wouldn’t see the extent to which my every action, my every word, my every bite to eat, my every hour of sleep, is ruled by the never-ending battle to hold off the next slump into depression or the next peak into mania. I may be in my twenties but I got very good at concealing the turmoil beneath behind a smiling mask early on…

As a child, I was “sensitive”, “mature” and “a shining star” academically; a shining star with a shocking attendance record. To the outside world, I was the perfect child, except with my parents and extended family, I was a demon… flying into a rage or never-ending tears at the drop of a hat. Things were complicated by a few other conditions that exacerbate or are exacerbated by my mental health issues, and all of it together led to several years off school. I was plagued by panic attacks and obsessive compulsions, my parents endured a bout of kleptomania, and I went through more stints in therapy than I would have liked by the age of 18.

I tried medication once, for the anxiety, and I remember panicking about not being able to feel the panic yet knowing it was there. I took myself off those pills. Turns out I should never have been on them in the first place.

University was a never-ending cycle of up-months and down-months. I did every activity going when I was up, enjoying the moment… When I was down, the weekly deadlines slipped, and supervisors learnt to set them earlier than necessary as I was more often than not too ill to make the first deadline. I never missed the second one. My room-mate of two years once described me as Jekyll and Hyde, by turns the most hard-working person she’d ever met, and the most f****ing lazy. It was meant in jest, but pre-diagnosis, I saw the truth in the statement.

It worked, until my final year. I’d had my dreams smashed by an injury and was stuck in a fog of depression, catatonic at times. No more ups for me. By Christmas-time, I had descended into alcohol addiction, my self-destructive habits around food and men also spiraled out of control, risking my health further and a number of relationships with key people in my life. I had a lighter by my bed that I would hold to my arm, burning my skin. It distracted me from the pit of despair for a moment, pain on the outside overwhelming the pain within; the visible blister a punishment for what I saw as reprehensible thoughts and actions.

Things came to a head when my mother found me one morning in the holidays, covered in bruises and scratches from my stomach to my knees, having essentially beaten myself up in the shower. That wasn’t my lowest point, but it was the point at which it became very, very clear that I didn’t just have a “tendency” towards depression (or an occasional habit of bouncing like Tigger on speed). Choosing between being sectioned or going into intensive therapy under my own volition, I went with the latter, my first real choice in months.

I am Bipolar. To be exact, I have Bipolar II, with an additional general anxiety disorder. I don’t medicate, except for the occasional half valium if I can’t get out of a panic episode and need to get up, get out of bed, and function. Apparently I’m “too self-aware” for medication, whatever that means.

Months of travelling back and forth between home for therapy and university weren’t fun, and it wasn’t an immediate upwards trajectory by any means. By February, I was at rock bottom, struggling to cope, and suicidal thoughts that had plagued me for years came rocketing to the top of my consciousness. By then I did have some of the tools to keep myself from taking the final decision, but one close friend would receive phone calls in the middle of the night, pleading with him to come and take the knife, pills or whatever out of my hands. I ended up coping with a red felt tip pen, marking on my arms all the slicing marks I was imagining making with a knife. It kept my mind in check, seeing that tangible reminder of both what I yearned for, and what in my heart of hearts I didn’t want to do – not for myself but for my family and friends.

In the spring, I finally took a turn in the tunnel and found a tiny spot of light waiting for me. Another of my conditions had flared up but I had begun a healthy, stable relationship that gave me a handhold whilst I processed all of the tools I was learning in therapy. I stopped self-harming, graduated and found a job, and aside from crippled hands, I was ready to re-enter the world of the really living by the autumn…

A little while on, I sit in the office surrounded by amazing HR professionals, who deal with cases concerning mental health every day. I have never felt the need to hide my mental health issues in terms of non-disclosure but I know people forget because I seem so “stable” and “normal.”

Leaving academia and starting work was the best thing that could have happened to me, in that having structure, a reason to go to bed at night and get up in the morning, meant my body began to recognise elements of routine. Yet I live in constant fear that tomorrow I may not be able to do it. I may not be able to function. I may not be able to deal with “people” on a work day, and that once I give in on one day, I may not go back.

I know I am lucky. I have an incredibly supportive family and other half, on whom I break down when the week has just been too much. In total, there are about 6 people who I allow to see me cry, no one else. I’ll talk to anyone who wants to know, but they’ll never ever see the symptoms. I also work condensed hours so have a small pressure valve, though I could likely function without it. I eat well, and – when I’m not in a down cycle – I sleep regularly and enough. (I don’t exercise, but that’s another story!)

So the cracks don’t show. Months go by when at home I barely turn the light on or leave the house, but at work I’m Little Miss Sunshine. In my first year on the job, I would tell my manager the day after a major panic attack that had me fighting back tears at my desk, and despite the fact that we worked closely, and sat next to each other, he hadn’t seen. Now, I have a manager who, I am sure would be supportive, but as I’ve had a relatively even past six months, I don’t mention the days I’m scared I won’t be coming back tomorrow.

But all this takes work. Keeping the mask in place and smiling, chatting and carrying on whilst I feel dead inside can sometimes be physically painful. When I am down, I endlessly beat myself up for not being more motivated, more efficient, less “lazy” – even when, objectively, no one’s even noticed slightly lower productivity. Work becomes exhausting, keeping up appearances whilst life outside work passes me by, all my energy going on maintaining attendance.

The manic days, when I’m in a stable period but “up”, I fizz… I can feel adrenaline pumping through my body, I don’t eat, I work and work and work, dashing around, head in a spin. Those are the days when people notice something; when I’m walking along with a colleague, babbling, and then forget where I have parked my car. Those are the days that get passed off as “she’s had too much caffeine…”

Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t change a thing. My life works because I don’t have time off. More than 2 days off sick for any reason, and I’m on a slippery slope. The rapid cycling nature of my condition is hard enough to control as it is. I work long hours because I like it. I volunteer, study and socialise and 99.999% of the time these days, I don’t flake, I don’t let up. I’m hard on myself because I know, if I stopped, what I could become.

Working in HR, it sometimes seems a bit absurd as I sit across the table from a manager whose employee is off on long-term sick due to depression, or hear my colleagues discussing whether a particular case of depression comes under DDA. Giving advice, talking through support and action plans and risks, my professional persona is a shield and, I suspect, coming under the DDA myself (several times over), gives me insight into such cases. Detachment at work comes easily, yet personally, it can be difficult when I go home at night and reflect on the day, given how I get glimpses into a future I worry might be mine.

My story is one of millions. My way of coping is particular to me. I don’t think it’s the best solution to every mental health problem in the same ballpark and I know that my decision not to medicate (sanctioned by my doctors) is one that many would think irresponsible. I, like many of those other people in the 25% Club, live the way I do because it keeps me healthy, and because with bipolar, you’re only ever in remission, not in recovery. Sometimes, on reflection, I think that all of this makes me better at my job rather than worse. Coping with it all led me through a life that has included one of the best educational institutions in the world; brought me friends I would never otherwise have made; given me skills I otherwise couldn’t hope to have developed. Bipolar doesn’t define me, in work or out, but it is a part of who I am. Some may find it strange, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.


If you care about mental health and want to make a difference there are lots of things you can do

  • visit Mind’s website and check out their excellent corporate resources
  • take the ‘time to change’ pledge
  • attend our event with Mind on 5th February 2013 at 6pm
  • share your story and read those of others as part of this blog series – if you would like to contribute, please get in touch with me via Twitter (@AlisonChisnell) or by leaving a comment on this blog

2 Responses to "The 25% Club: Born This Way"

Wow, what a post. Knowing others with bipolar, it’s a very difficult situation. Congratulations on getting to this point. I respect your decision not to medicate: you’re not the only one I’ve come across in that situation. Wishing you the very best and thank you for speaking out here. Thanks for hosting this blog Alison.

[…] Courage, Another Anonymous Blogger: Born This Way, and Kate Griffiths-Lambeth: Speak Up If you don’t read any other posts highlighted in this […]

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