Tag Archives: bipolar & the workplace

Catching Up; The SSDI Denial

At this point, more than one curious person has asked me about my attempt in applying for SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) and to be totally honest, it is something I have been trying to write about for a few months now.

I received my denial letter a couple months ago (I submit my application in December 2012) and after all the time that has passed I was overjoyed to receive this denial letter.

The reason I was overjoyed to be denied was because my path through the application process was neither easy or uplifting, to say the least!

My first hurdle was working with a team of lawyers who told me appear and act a certain way. They strongly suggested I give up this blog completely, which I was very uncomfortable with. On one hand, I wanted to win, but I truly believe (as do my family, friends, and doctors) that anyone who understands my symptoms and has seen me interact with others would not doubt my claim that I am unable to hold a full time job. It was important to me through this whole process to hold onto that and to be ok if things didn’t work out (because I had been honest the whole time), but it was very difficult to feel manipulation and pressure by my lawyers who were advising me to do things that would undermine many of the things that keep me afloat enough to survive (blogging, therapy, spending time with other people, etc).

The second hurdle was the judge I was assigned for my hearing back in February 2014. Apparently different judges who are making the decision regarding SSDI claims have different political affiliations, different beliefs about the way SSDI should be structured, and different viewpoints on the topic of mental illness (among other things). I was told my judge was the toughest in the county and to expect that I had a chance of about zero. While I expected that walking in, what I didn’t expect was the way the judge treated me in the hearing.

On one hand I could understand that it was the last hearing of the week on a Friday afternoon, and that maybe he’d had a bad cup of coffee earlier or was anxious to get home… but I was not prepared to be verbally abused in the courtroom. For the next couple months I became psychotic, trapped in my mind where this judge was constantly attacking me. I was so distraught that I consented to try Seroquel again.

The third hurdle was a full investigation of me, as prompted by the judge and federal government. The investigation happened when I was (naturally) experiencing a hypomanic period, seemingly corroborating the theory that the judge had that I was attempting to commit SSDI fraud. Detectives posed as Seattle Police officers to gain entry to my apartment where my fear of the SPD kept me from mentioning anything regarding my own mental health -again seemingly corroborating the theory that I was faking it.

When I received a copy of their report in the mail (along with notations of voice recordings, notes from being tailed for a week, and copies of blog entries I had made that were taken out of context) I began to nosedive into a second psychotic tailspin. The men who were agents for the government had spoken to my landlord, neighbors, even people in a weaving group I had no longer been part of for over a year -all about my mental health. The paranoia became overwhelming, and I could no longer feel comfortable in my apartment knowing that space had been violated… so we moved.

It might not seem like such a surprise now that I was hospitalized around Halloween last year. I could hardly even talk to my grandmother on the telephone for fear that they were listening to me, let alone send emails or write in this blog. My lawyers told me not to talk about it, so I relied heavily on Corey (my boyfriend), my therapist, and my psychiatrist. I provided my healthcare team with copies of the paperwork I had been sent about what happened and they were both horrified and flabbergasted, but ultimately they had proof that I was telling the truth and could corroborate that the situation had triggered the symptoms I was having.

The final hurdle was a second hearing, scheduled to address the findings of the undercover investigation against me. Initially the hearing was scheduled to take place the same week as my birthday in November 2014 but was cancelled by the judge and rescheduled for April 2015 (the same week as Corey & my anniversary… lame!).

For many months it had been clear I wasn’t going to win, I just wanted the inquiries and fear to end. Honestly I expected the judge to berate me further in the hearing, but to my astonishment he was much more polite (my lawyer said that was likely because of the documentation of his actions directly leading to my most recent hospitalization in my file). After the back and forth with my lawyer he simply looked at me and said my file was inconclusive because of how inconsistent everything was, from the notes from my healthcare team, to my work history, to the report from the detectives, etc.

This was the one small window I was waiting for. For the first time I was able to do what I do best; relate my symptoms and experience with someone else in a way they can understand. I told the judge that inconsistency is the very nature of my disability… that I can be simultaneously the best and worst employee you’ve ever had, and that it feels impossible to remain consistent when I might have strong feelings of joy one minute and intense feelings of despair or fear the next. Most of my employers have considered having an unreliable employee worse than a mediocre one, so that inconsistency has been a huge hurdle in trying to remain employed.

He looked admittedly thoughtful and said he would reconsider the evidence. This, if nothing else, helped me shake off the fear and paranoia that had accumulated the past couple years. It was the first opportunity I had to defend myself and my life and my reason for applying, and even if I was denied benefits at that point I was simply happy to be rid of the specter that had been haunting me.

Several months later I received my denial. I am happy because it means I am free. I am no longer worried that the government is watching me (though who knows), and though I might not be able to take care of myself financially, I do have, however briefly, (heh) my sanity.

Typically I pride myself on being open about my life and my emotions, and I genuinely went into this SSDI application situation with the intention of writing about it every step of the way. The whole experience was much different than I expected, despite knowing I would be at a disadvantage because of my age and my disability being a mental disability as opposed to a physical one.

While not having benefits means I am in a difficult spot financially, I have proven the last five years that there are many organizations willing to help support those with mental illness who do not make the applicants sing and dance, or trigger extreme worsening of their symptoms before they are willing to help. While the point of this post isn’t to shake my fist at the government or attempt to bring shame on those involved, I can’t help but question this system after I have experienced it firsthand.

Of course, this comes with my usual reminder that this was a situation that happened to me. While I have heard many accounts of people in my local support groups achieving SSDI benefits, I haven’t heard many stories like mine… and though I don’t know if they’re out there, I wouldn’t be surprised if people aren’t completely terrified to share them (I sure was!). This is not the inevitable end of every SSDI application, just one, and to me it seems like one worth pondering.

Ultimately, being under the scrutiny of the federal government was one of the least fun adventures I’ve ever had in my life…

I’ve never been so happy to be denied something before!

I do not intend to reapply any time in the immediate future because, well, I can’t without some kind of proof of my symptoms worsening, for one. Even if I could reapply immediately I don’t think I would, based on how emotionally and mentally overwhelming the whole experience was. I really need some room to breathe in the mental health department, and I have always had the outlook that I do much better when I am poor and slightly more content than when I opt to trade financial stability for increased emotional instability.

The last two years involved the longest periods of psychosis I have ever experienced, so thank you to my friends and family and anyone who was even the least bit supportive in that period (well, and ever). Sometimes it has felt easy for me to believe in the power of the judicial system and “justice” in America, but realistically it is the sense of community in the people that rally around me that have done the most to help keep me going.

So, no SSDI? Ok. I still consider myself to be one very lucky girl!

“Bipolar”; Synonymous with Passion?

When I think of passion the thought of artistry or craftsmanship often enters my mind. After all, artists (of all kinds) are often considered the most passionate people around, and I initially coupled this idea of “passion” with something like a tenacious drive to succeed or create.

Earlier this week I was contemplating this notion, and I concluded that I didn’t really have a solid idea of what passion really is. I was having trouble putting my thoughts into words, and when this happens I generally find myself making a run for the dictionary.

While I did see some definitions that involved enthusiasm or romanticism as a main theme, I was surprised to find the following definition at the top of the list in regard to passion:

A powerful emotion, such as love, joy, hatred, or anger.” 

The idea that passion could be linked to any strong emotion was a new concept to me. As I began to consider it, it became clear; what is my life experience, but the amalgam of powerful emotions?

I am someone who can be, admittedly, a person who can be hard to compromise with. I know that a lot of that comes from the fact that I have strong feelings attached to everything I do, and because of bipolar disorder (or whatever it is that inherently contributes to the depth of my emotions) that passion can quickly overshadow the shrugs and indifference of the people around me.

I also know that this passion is something that draws many people to me, particularly those that also experience big or powerful emotions themselves. Frankly, it can be difficult for me to understand the motivation of people who don’t seem to care about much, and when I am surrounded by passionate people I feel the most at home.

While I don’t want it to sound like passion is limited to those who have bipolar disorder, I think we simply experience those big emotions much more frequently than the “average” person (average here used in more the mathematical sense than a dictation of social standing). Frankly, the disorder itself it based on the fact that we do. 

Of all the words I could possibly use to describe my emotional states (many having negative connotations) I think it is important to level the linguistic playing field from time to time and remind people that the attitudes we use to describe our lives have a big impact on overall social acceptance. At the same time, I find it extremely important to remind myself that the thing I keep trying to silence has truly contributed to an interesting life.

I hope that if you take nothing else away from this post, you will take away a short and sweet reminder this Friday:

Through all the ups and downs, there is one constant: your life is one of passion! 

Support Needed for Mental Illness in the Workplace

Happy Monday! Today I want to share a recent article from USA Today that seems to address some issues I’ve been seeing (and living, let’s face it) about a lack of support around people with mental illness in the workplace.

I’ve been hitting a lot of big roadblocks when it comes to applying for SSDI, and I’ve honestly had some big questions about how our disability system works (or doesn’t work) here in the US. I’ve come across countless people who are against the whole idea of SSDI because it doesn’t support people who are disabled and want to work part time, and the current system seems to only support an “all” or “nothing” style of support. There have been so many situations I’ve found myself in where I know I could mentally benefit from working a few hours a week (giving my life a better sense of structure and a bigger sense of accomplishment and purpose) but the way the system is set up, trying to help myself this way is extremely frowned upon.

The article I’m sharing today addresses the idea of a “supported employment program” that potentially allows employers to do a better job of bridging the gap between the needs of their companies and realistic employment abilities of those with mental illness (which, let’s be honest, can widely vary for any given person over time). Personally, I consider this to be a stellar idea… I am just not sure how well this could realistically be executed. If companies aren’t currently willing to make the necessary accommodations for exceptionally well qualified applicants with mental illness as it is (something I have experienced several times), what would encourage them to use a program like this one?

At any rate, you can check out the article here. Give it a read and let me know what you think!

Curbing Bipolar Overreactions

When it comes to bipolar disorder, it can be hard to discern which type of mood episode is more harmful in any given situation; the moods that pop up sporadically without warning or the big overreactions that can happen in response to a stressful situation.

I think for most people, understanding that bipolar disorder includes un-triggered mood episodes outside of our control is simple enough to attribute to the disorder itself.

But what about overreactions? These big mood flare ups have often been a bigger source of trouble for me when it has come to my relationships with other people, because it can become easy for others to write these actions off to “a dramatic personality”. It can be difficult for people to separate a mood disorder from what our culture has been putting on a pedestal (via reality television); the drama queen.

For this reason, it has become important over the years for me to learn to adapt in situations where big emotional overreactions might take place and find a solid method to curb those overreactions (or express them safely) so that my boss, my co-workers, my family, and friends aren’t subject to a toxic emotional blow-up.

Having said that, I don’t claim to have a 100% success rate. I definitely still blow up at people, but having a strategy in mind when these situations come up has helped me funnel most of my blow ups in such a way that I’m no longer destroying as many relationships because of them. Obviously, this is a system that tends to work for me, and though I can’t say for certain that it will work for everyone else, it is a good place to begin if you are interested in putting your own system in place to curb overreactions.

Alright! Here we go!

Step 1: Isolate

A lot of the time I am lucky and experience a delayed reaction when it comes to overreactions. I can put on a serious face while getting bad news, and it isn’t until 10-60 minutes later that I often experience the explosion of emotions that come after. This has been helpful because in that time I can seek out a “safe place” to be when the emotional wave hits me. In public or at work that generally means finding a restroom as quickly as possible, but that could also be as simple as removing myself from a group and stepping outdoors, or into a garage; any space where I am alone.

This tends to be a bit more difficult when I am in a situation where I am extremely reactive, or immediately angry at something someone has said to me. Though my success is not quite as good when it comes to curbing these types of overreactions, it can still be extremely beneficial to just turn and walk away. Walk away and isolate, again; garage, the front porch, or a restroom can all help out.

Step 2: Purge (safely)

Once alone I move on to the “purge” phase, which simply means expressing my emotions in a healthy way. The idea is to get as much of that excess emotion out as quickly as I can and do so in a safe way. 

Here are some of the safe ways that help me express my emotions in these situations;

  • crying
  • screaming into a pillow
  • punching a pillow
  • crumpling paper or leaves
  • writing out my feelings in a journal, on paper or a napkin
  • calling the crisis line to talk to someone
  • calling my therapist to talk to someone
  • calling my boyfriend (who is good at diffusing these situations)

These are just a few ideas, but there are many more ways to express what you’re feeling in a safe way. Personally, in these situations I tend to avoid calling most friends or relatives because when I am upset I can often say some very upsetting things. I have learned from experience that it is best for me to express my frustrations (or whatever I’m upset about) to a licensed professional who is familiar with mental illness, or to someone who knows that I am just having a blow-out and (usually) not a full-blown crisis.

There are days where crying is enough and I feel good enough to resume whatever my previous activity was afterward. Other days I need to do more (especially if there is anger or desperation involved) or I might need someone to talk me down.

Step 3: Walk

Getting out the emotion and the swirling vortex of thoughts is important, but for me I usually need to also expel a big wave of physical discomfort/energy as well. Failing to rid myself of the energy or tenseness that came with the emotions often results in the emotional wave coming back around for a second go. The easiest way I have found to do this is to go for a walk.

Walking gives my body a chance to relax through gentle exercise. The fresh air often makes me feel more calm, and being outdoors can change my perception from feeling “trapped” in a bad situation or with bad news to feeling much more free.

Certainly it is possible to combine steps 2 and 3, and sometimes I do (though I usually wear sunglasses in the city so people can’t tell I’m crying). Typically though I like feeling like I’m in a “safe place” while letting my emotions out, and it can be a big bummer when you’re trying to release an emotional meltdown and someone with a clipboard is trying to get you to fund a program for rescued dogs (oh the city!).

Usually I can see a drastic improvement in my mood after even as little as 15 minutes of walking. I tend to go on a lot longer than that if I have a choice (just because it helps me so much) but I know when folks are working or in school it can be difficult to be away too long.

I like to walk to music but I’ve made special playlists limited to upbeat, positive songs for these situations. I try to avoid any music that is too emotional during these times because they tend to have a big impact on my mood, and the whole point of this exercise is to improve my mood, not shift it to an equally dubious place.

Step 4: Distract

The one thing I can do to undo everything I have done up to this point is allow my focus to shift back to what upset me in the first place. That means when I return to whatever it was I was doing before the overreaction, I need a distraction. Really, it can be anything that keeps my mind away from obsessing about what just happened.

This could be anything from…

  • a game
  • a conversation
  • a piece of work that requires my full attention
  • music (again, upbeat)
  • art
  • cooking
  • giving blood (I used that as a distraction once at the office, it worked great!)

Seriously, anything that takes my mind off of what upset me is a winner. Ultimately, if I don’t distract myself well enough, I run the risk of having another overreaction triggered solely by the thoughts I have about the original situation!

I know this system isn’t perfect, but when I use it I find that I often feel much better anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour later. I know that might still sound like a lot of time, but when these overreactions were causing meltdowns for me that were lasting all day (or triggering bigger episodes lasting days or weeks) I can safely say I’ve seen a big improvement overall in rational time after overreacting vs. irrational time overreacting.

Sometimes it is also important to remind those around us that massive overreactions can be an equally difficult part of bipolar disorder. Even my boyfriend (who has six years of bipolar-girlfriend experience at this point) asked me on Friday why I spent an hour crying, and then an hour walking after we got some distressing news about our prospective new apartment. Somehow he was still baffled that I reacted that way after all this time… all I could do was explain that overreactions like this just come with the territory. It is one of those things I wish I could stop (before it even begins) but it has never worked that way for me.

Instead I have to do the things that I can to get those overreactions out of my system in a safe way so I can move on to doing the things I’d rather be doing!

Can’t Stop a Moving Train

About a year and a half ago a bipolar mixed episode with psychosis and delusions wreaked havoc on my career in the fashion industry. My paranoia spread through the company until it got a grasp on the HR department and sent everyone reeling and investigating one another. It wasn’t until I pulled myself from work (for fear of hurting myself or someone else) and spent over a month in depression before I could see the delusions for what they had really been.

At the time I was extremely frustrated. This sort of thing has happened to me fairly regularly while working, I’ve never been able to hold a job for much longer than a year. My entire healthcare team (my psychiatrist, therapist, etc.) suggested I stop working because the stress of it was potentially triggering episodes far worse than I would normally experience.

I remember falling into this daydream-like state, wondering if I could eliminate all stress from my life (and primarily stress due to working) if things would quiet down. If the episodes would minimize, and I could have a stable-ish (albeit slightly boring) life by simply doing nothing at all.

Seems like a simple enough theory, doesn’t it? Remove all triggers and there is no reason for an episode to happen. I don’t know why I believed a move like this would work; I had seen plenty of people on SSDI at support groups who seemed totally out of control all the time (and they weren’t working either!).

My therapist at the time seemed to believe this would “work” (lessen my general episodes) because she, unlike me, believed all episodes had to be triggered by something. I tried to explain to her that wasn’t how it worked, and that episodes of bipolar disorder often seem to come and go as they please, but we were both too hopeful to pay much mind.

A few months ago I was sitting with her, now over a year since we put this plan into action. It was right around the time after my hearing (February) where I was significantly depressed. After all of the time I had put into applying and waiting for an SSDI decision I sat down in front of her and she said to me,

“You know what I think would help you? Working.”

Completely exasperated, I slapped my hand to my forehead and sighed. We had come full circle. Needless to say, my desire to get a new therapist (I start with someone new tomorrow) had been growing for quite some time.

As it turns out, you can’t just wave your hands and expect to stop a moving train. True, going without working is generally one of the things I attribute to not having been hospitalized lately, but it has honestly (at times) been just as stressful as working would be (with a much lower income).

Last week I managed two or three days of stability in a row, and I found myself thinking how great it would be to start working again, to meet new people, to have a task, and to have a little (as opposed to no) money. I’ve been here before though, I know this charade. I know that when I feel stable I generally feel like I can take on the world without any problems, and the truth of what happens when I do gets pushed to the background.

To top it off, even if I wanted to work (I say “work” but realistically mean roughly 10 hours a week) right now, there are some significant roadblocks. Some, like my social security disability application, I put there myself. I still haven’t received an answer after my hearing in front of the judge in February. My attorney has suggested that working (even 5 hours a week) will often return a negative reply from the government, because working 5 hours a week (and I kid you not) somehow suggests I could potentially work 40.

You can believe that if I could work 40 hours a week without becoming totally delusional, homicidal, and suicidal I would be doing it. I have always been an overachiever, and I’ve had several good positions at some very noteworthy companies (making sometimes incredible amounts of money). Why would I ever stop if I could handle it? Why would I ever give that up to sit in the dark alone, teaching myself to make a proper cream sauce for lack of anything better to do?

Honestly, I also found it a bit of a slap in the face when I met with my social security judge and the “vocational expert” for my hearing suggested I become a hotel maid, or a bottle-capper, or a mail-room clerk (because those jobs couldn’t possibly exacerbate bipolar disorder!). It felt rather humiliating that these “experts” were so quick to throw out the degree that I earned (and am still paying for) and my intelligence or goals or interests, simply because I have a mental illness. My attorney assured them that no matter what job, I am not capable of maintaining it (in my current, still unstable state) which I appreciated, though I still left feeling sour.

The other roadblock is the train itself. I am still looking for ways to help reduce my symptoms of bipolar disorder, and without some kind of useful treatment I am likely to become very volatile very quickly in the workplace. I like to believe (especially when I am feeling good or stable) that I am in control. After 10+ years under that delusion, I understand that there is a lot more to it. It appears that the more stress I experience, the less control I seem to have over myself. While I have been working hard to combat this truth with practically anything I can find, I am still doing so in an environment with the least amount of stress possible.

I’ve had a lot running through my mind. Frankly, I don’t know exactly where I am going to go next, and there are still many things up in the air (my SSDI decision, what my attorney will suggest to do next if it is a “no”, etc.). Right now I am putting all my attention on moving, because if there is one thing I want to get right… that one is it.

“Black Box” Features Lead Female Character with Bipolar Disorder

This month abc is premiering a new show called Black Box featuring Kelly Reilly as a leading neurologist with a big secret; she has bipolar disorder. 

This move by a big network name would be more surprising if it weren’t for showtime’s six emmy winning hit Homeland, a drama featuring Claire Danes as a CIA officer who (you guessed it) also has bipolar disorder.

I believe this interest in characters living with mental illness is both because of the increase in exposure Americans are having to celebrities, charities, and positive media concerning bipolar disorder, as well as the evolution of American television anti-heros. Let’s face it, we love it when our main characters have a secret to struggle with (i.e. Dexter, Breaking Bad, etc).

Really, whatever the reason, bipolar disorder is about to be back in the spotlight, and with abc’s new show it will be available for more people to watch than ever before.

Personally, I would say that I was a little confused by the initial preview I saw (a commercial on tv) as I am always a little skeptical about how realistically portrayed bipolar disorder is on television, but I checked out a few clips on the website and saw character Catherine Black displaying several symptoms I have personally experienced (and experience regularly).

At any rate, this is something you may want to keep on your radar. The first episode airs on Thursday, April 24th at 10, so check it out!

Confronting Delusions

The older I get, the more acutely I’m aware that my mind creates fictional situations and relationships all on its own. Once I started paying more attention to this process, I realized that this issue seems to come from my mind jumping to conclusions after stumbling upon something my mind considers to be a clue.

Here is a very simplified example.

I call my boyfriend.

Clue: he doesn’t answer.

Delusion: he is dead.

I’ve gotten better at spotting these irrational conclusions in simple situations (like the one above) but in the cases of hardcore delusions (like the one 16 months ago where I was certain my boss was trying to get me fired and sabotage the company we worked for) my delusions are made of a series of clues, usually all taken out of context, coupled with subsequent bad-conclusion-jumping.

It seems that in these situations, anything I read, anything that comes up in conversation, as well as physical clues (mail, clothing, you name it) all begin working together in a web of total fiction. The more clues I stumble upon that seem to lend themselves to my theory only make a stronger case for the delusion, and makes it more difficult for me to break the spell.

Generally, when I begin having delusions like this, I tend to make things much more complicated by talking to different people about it. I might easily find myself talking about the clues or suspected theory to friends, family, or my therapist even… and though one would think this might help (and it does occasionally) most often people take what I have to say at face value. Usually if I believe it, it isn’t totally unreasonable to suspect the people I tell will believe it as well.

There have been a few situations where I was contested about what I mentioned, but it wasn’t enough to “break the spell” until almost a month later. No, realistically what I’ve learned is that it is best to go straight to the source.

I had a delusion almost a year ago now that one of my friends was having an affair with another friend of mine. In that situation I knew I couldn’t completely trust myself and the conclusion I had come to, so I did the only thing I could… I confronted one of them and asked about it.

NOW, confronting someone you have a delusion about in an attempt to find the truth has been one of the most uncomfortable things I’ve ever had to do. In some cases it has actually been a bit rewarding (not having to continue obsessing over the delusion anymore is nice) but generally, you need to know that it really puts people off.

I’ve only done this sort of thing with people who are pretty close to me, people who already know about my (somewhat questionable) mental health. Even then, starting the conversation with something like, “so, I have a question for you, and I don’t want you to get upset because it is going to sound totally crazy -but that is only because I think I may be delusional. I just need to know what is real and what isn’t!”

Yes, people get offended. Or distraught. Or very silent.

(I guess this is starting to sound less and less like a good idea, but I swear it can be very helpful!)

The thing is, the way my brain functions, I need to be able to walk up to someone I trust and ask if something happened, or didn’t. If something exists, or it doesn’t. If they saw or heard something or if there was only silence a moment ago.

There are so many layers of things going on in my mind that sometimes I need to be able to ask if I’m the only one experiencing something, or if everyone else saw/heard/knows it too.

Though mildly concerning to the people I’ve asked of this before, the result on my end has been extremely helpful. By going straight to the person I’m having delusions about and asking them about the situation I am essentially bypassing days, week, maybe even months of delusional thoughts and “clues” that riddle my brain with no real point (apart from distraction), as well as averting potential crises (like setting a huge HR investigation in motion).

I’ve also had to consider what this does to my reputation. After all, it isn’t particularly common for people to be sharing their delusions (let alone confronting people about them) and it probably looks a little… weird. Since I embrace the fact that I’m a bit of an oddball, it doesn’t bother me much at all.

I guess the best advice I can give is to tread carefully.

No. Wait.

The best advice I can give is to have one person in your life that you can trust and be honest with who will tell you (gently) that you have no idea what you’re talking about. If you can find more than one, consider yourself very lucky!

Sometimes it is better to go straight to the source when it comes to delusions. If you can risk talking to the person about the delusional situation you could ultimately save yourself a lot of time and trouble down the road.