Why Are You Looking At Me?

First published in Special Needs in June 2012

Quoting Robert De Niro’s famous line from Taxi Driver is an apt one when one has Bipolar. The context suggests menace and persecution, both of which I can identify with.  And conveniently with the Bi in Bipolar, this aspect has typically two impacts – the home and the workplace. And it’s been my experience that workplace causes the most suffering.

For me it’s not just about chemical imbalances, or faulty wiring of the neural pathways, but about how external factors can trigger mood swings or exacerbate them.

By definition, but maybe more in hope than experience, the home and one’s loved ones offer a more supportive environment for Bipolar. By contrast, I found the workplace much less forgiving. Indeed it felt at times as if it was precisely the worst place to be in terms of managing the condition.

In the Euphoric phase, Bipolar sufferers can be creative, beguiling, fun and enthusiastic. Throw in a sort of happy naiveté too, and you have the perfect ingredients to succeed at interviews.  The mere prospect of an interview is likely to fuel the Euphoric phase, ensuring you perform brilliantly. And this is further supported by the motivation of a new start, allowing you to ditch the idiots you are currently working for. The search for new beginnings is one of the pivotal ‘in denial’ tendencies, where the sufferer convinces him/herself that there is nothing wrong, and that they just need to find the right company. And so the cycle begins again.

It’s one of life’s touchstones that the more we see of our spouses, siblings, friends and colleagues the more likely we are to see ‘their spots’:  who hasn’t trotted out the comment ‘the trouble with you is’.

So work is characterised by the fresh start that comes with a new job, followed by the inevitable tarnishing of one’s image, as we make mistakes, or say something dopey in a key meeting, or have a bust up with a colleague or boss. Of course this can happen, and often does, to anyone, but to someone with Bipolar, all such events are brought into sharp focus.

Whilst the issues can be complex and labyrinthine, it can be distilled into a few outcomes. For me, if in the Euphoric phase, the condition could lead to moments of daftness that suggest immaturity to your peers. This could be manifest in a fatuous comment in a meeting, or too much nonsense at a cocktail party. The feedback is immediate, like farting in spacesuit. The minute you’ve done it, you regret it, but then you can’t get away from the smell.

Such gaffes prey on those with Bipolar in a way most people would find surprising.  It lingers and festers. It can often tip the sufferer into the Dysthymic phase and gloom and despondency take over. Someone may seek to assist, but find the self pity hard to take, and this in turn can lead to more rejection, anger and hostility. And before you know it you are looking for a new job, where it will all be better. And detaching yourself physically from the ‘scene of the crime’ also has immense appeal.

So in short, your Euphoric phase qualities get you the job, and the Dysthymic phase ensures you don’t keep it long. And if you are/were like me your life would seem to a one long post mortem of who said what, to whom, and why etc.  The need for reassurance is overwhelming, and this then impacts on your home life.

So reader – what to do?

Well I can tell you that it really is not, and never was, as bad as you think. I learned, looking back, that my image, reputation, or whatever, was never remotely as bad as I had imagined. It became clear to me that I had left prematurely. Sure I dropped cods here and there, but you are so self bloody obsessed that you fail to note that loads of your colleagues make similar gaffes every day.

A good and supportive boss helps a lot, but this is less easy to achieve than finding a spouse or partner. You get what you get. Tips? Well stop looking for the Holy Grail – it doesn’t exist. Accept your foibles, and avoid the thought the grass is greener. Of course it could be at times, but more often it’s an illusion. In my experience, the gaffes invariably happen in meetings, where there is a that frisson of anxiety  and a desire to ‘perform’ . On such occasions say little, watch your body language, and switch off to the plonker who will no doubt be irritating you just by his/her presence. In reality, there are likely to be less than two or three occasions a month when one is in the ‘spotlight’. The adage ‘ better to be thought a fool than open one’s mouth and prove it’ is very apposite.

Let me end on a positive. Years ago I sat fidgeting in a meeting, becoming more and more frustrated with a colleague whom I knew everyone disliked. The compulsion to shut him up and be a ‘hero’ to my contemporaries spilled over.

‘Ron’, I said, ‘ we’re going to make you the Sex Director’

Pause for effect

‘When we want your f****** opinion we’ll ask for it’

I felt dreadful afterwards and felt I’d seriously blotted my copybook. And yet here I am thirty years later, where I have old work pals who still speak of that moment as one of the best moments in their work lives. All had wanted to say that and admired my courage in doing so. Yet for years I beat myself up about it.

So reader, if you are like me – stops waiting for life to start. It already has! Enjoy it.

Kit Johnson

First Published in Special Needs Magizine

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