Convinced I had the “perfect” work/life balance, I dismissed red flags of excess stress. My symptoms built up until I finally realized that bipolar is only truly invisible when we’re ignoring it.
I was sitting in front of my computer in my home office, cranking out a poster design for a movie set, when I noticed my leg was extremely itchy.
I reached down and scratched it, then felt the itch move up to my hip and then to my torso. Soon, my entire body tingled uncomfortably, but I couldn’t stop to figure out what was wrong—I had urgent deadlines to meet, and I was already overwhelmed with more work than I could handle.
So, I ignored it. I didn’t have time to take care of myself or even think about my needs.
Balancing Bipolar, Life, Career, & Creativity
I’d been a graphic designer for this particular feature film for months, and, more broadly, for film and television for 16 years. Because I loved movies, and art was (and still is) my passion, I’d always believed “film industry graphic designer” was my dream job.
I joined the local film union and got benefits like a retirement plan and health insurance. I negotiated my pay rate, and I made decent money. I took months-long breaks between shows to compensate for the fact that I worked 12-hour days when I was on the clock.
Even considering my bipolar disorder, I thought I’d found the right work/life balance. Since I was 31 years old, I believed I’d discovered the perfect combination of creative expression, challenging stimulation, and lucrative income stream.
I was fully convinced my lifestyle allowed me to look after my mental and physical health.
I was wrong.
Drowsy & Drained but Determined
So, back to me sitting in front of that computer a few weeks ago. My skin was itchy and irritated, so I took some Benadryl. I became drowsy, but I kept working—I had to. I was the movie’s only graphic designer. If I didn’t do my job, they’d find someone else to take my place.
That night, when I hopped out of the shower, I noticed a large, puffy, red rash on my upper chest. I slathered some hydrocortisone cream on it, slipped into my robe, and went about the rest of my evening.
I couldn’t think about this new skin problem—I had to be up at 6:00 a.m. the next day, and there was only an hour left to cook and eat dinner before bedtime.
Busy Days & Restless Nights
I hadn’t been sleeping much. My long days were bursting at the seams—nonstop tasks, one after another, with barely even a lunch break. My nights were plagued with fitful dreams in which I moved pixels around on a screen, just like I did during the day, every day.
I was unable to escape the stress of my job even when I was unconscious. In fact, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt truly rested.
The next morning, when my alarm went off, I did the same countdown in my head I performed every morning as I argued with myself to get out of bed:
How many more days until this job is finished?
How many more days in this week?
Once I’d forced myself upright, I saw that the rash on my chest had migrated to my stomach. Pressed for time, I ignored it and got dressed so I could start my day.
I already had an inbox full of emails that had come in overnight with more “emergency” projects. There was no time I could take off of work, so I couldn’t schedule a visit to the dermatologist.
Stress—A Force to Be Reckoned With
The next day, I had a spontaneous nosebleed, and both of my legs broke out in full-blown hives. They looked like a dense, red minefield.
My body felt like it was on fire. What was happening to me!?
I’d gained weight around my middle, most likely from a buildup of cortisol, the hormone released from stress.
I’d been noticing more hair in my brush.
My patience was gone.
I had no energy.
What was wrong? I had a wonderful life and an amazing boyfriend and an awesome career.
Then it hit me: I did not have an awesome career. My job was breaking me.
A Mix of Mania & Depression
My profession, which had supposedly been the “perfect” one for my mental health, was now destroying me both physically and mentally.
The stress that had been accumulating for many years had finally reached a pinnacle, triggering simultaneous mania and depression.
I was exhausted and cranky 24/7, and I was in a constant state of heightened alert and anxiety when working. That isn’t healthy for anyone, and it’s definitely not good for someone with bipolar disorder.
My mood and stress weren’t new, I’d just avoided addressing the red flags from the past, like the times I’d cried in movie-set bathrooms because I couldn’t handle the stress or experienced sleep loss, weight loss or gain, despair, and anger.
I’d always sucked it up, ignored the fact that my mental illness was being triggered by my job, and kept working.
When Bipolar Symptoms Are Undeniable
It took an extreme physical reaction for me to put two and two together. Working that many hours under that much stress for that many years had finally caught up with me. What had once felt like a rewarding choice was now a huge liability.
I’d told myself that I could handle the long hours if I took breaks in between jobs. I thought the stress was worth it because I was designing such cool stuff. I assumed working remotely would make my job easier, too. I didn’t realize that I’d been minimizing my mental illness and what my job was doing to undermine my recovery.
Ignoring my anxiety and exhaustion, I took jobs, got worn out, recovered, and then started the vicious cycle all over again—year after year.
I’d convinced myself that my career wasn’t triggering my mental illness, it was just “how I was handling it.” If I could just meditate more or learn not to take everything so seriously, then I’d be okay.
In the past, I’d left a bad marriage when I realized the issue wasn’t my reaction to my husband—the problem was that I’d married a verbally abusive man. And yet I’d stayed in a destructive job for far too long.
Recognizing & Respecting Bipolar Triggers
Triggers matter. They should not be ignored. My body finally shouted, “Listen to me!” and I could no longer shrug everything off.
By not paying attention to the warning signs, I’d done myself a great disservice. But it’s not too late! I may be burnt out, but I can recover.
Moving Forward with Recovery
Now that I can see the impact of my job on my mind and body, I’m finally walking away from my career. I can no longer ignore or minimize the fact that this career and lifestyle have triggered my bipolar disorder and made me very unhealthy.
I can find another, less stressful job that doesn’t compromise my mental health. It’s time to practice what I preach in my bphope blog posts: self-care. That’s what recovery is all about.
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