TRIGGER WARNING: Severe mental health condition focus
The below is an excerpt from an ongoing, psychologically themed, autobiographical work, The Bench. Because of the stigma still attached to mental health conditions, the author has decided to publish this work under the pseudonym, Kathryn. Diagnosed with Bipolar and Schizophrenia (Schizoaffective Disorder), in this work, Kathryn recalls episodes of ill health and follows them up with an explanation of the true events surrounding them.
This chapter is simply titled ‘Work’, and explains the effect one ten-day bipolar episode had on her employment. In blue is the reality of the episode from a first person perspective, in black the surrounding events.
EPISODE: This is outstanding. It’s been a week now of solid working and look how productive I’m being. Cutting out sleep really helps me to fit in more work and I don’t even miss it. I couldn’t sleep even if I tried, I’m way too excited. I’m superwoman. I’m working on ten different projects at once and they are all going to be spectacular. Or are they? Now I’m doubting myself. This could all be hopeless. I have to work like this to keep up with it all. How else am I going to make this business a success? Other people can go to work, then come home, leaving their work behind them. But if I take my foot off the accelerator for even a second it will all fall apart and I won’t be successful. I crave success. I must prove to myself, and the world, that I am worthy of this life, of existence. We must all find our place and I must carve out mine. It’s been years since I became a Limited company. I should be rolling in it by now. Or at least be making enough to live on. I may have failed but perhaps right now I’m making up for it. I just have to keep going. The thoughts are racing, I’m shaking, I feel like I’m riding a rollercoaster of ecstasy. It’s magnificent. I don’t want it to stop. I will never be low again. I can feel it. I can feel the energy pulsing through each vein in my body. It flows with a passion. My passion. I hope this lasts forever.
I had been working on my company full time for about six months at this point and things were going well. I had a few clients that looked like they’d be sticking around and my branding was getting better all the time. I was engaging in networking events and people were lapping up my confident bravado.
Ten days of mania saw me write a two-day Photoshop training course, settle on pricing and write comprehensive information packs for digital strategy, publishing and training, web design, digital channel set-up and maintenance, copywriting and video production and editing services. On top of this, I redesigned my website, had three consultation appointments with clients, designed and printed flyers, redesigned my business cards and got an average of two hours sleep per night. The work, it turns out, was actually pretty good and I continued to use the materials for years after, but it was too much and the problem with the highs is that lows always follow. For the following two weeks, I couldn’t get out of bed, answer my phone or respond to emails. I felt like the world was caving in and I had no problem with the vortex I was creating swallowing me whole. I wanted it to. I couldn’t go on like this. I told my clients I was ill with the flu and two weeks later lost my biggest one. That one client that had been providing me with my bread money for the last six months.
Losing that client put a huge amount of pressure on me financially. Without that regular chunk of income, all I had were the odd consultations and video contracts and, although these paid well, I needed a lot more of them to consistently make the rent. It seemed that all the work I had put in over the last month was completely worthless and worse than that, rather than propelling my business, had served to destroy it. The high I enjoyed saw me produce a huge amount of work, but the low that followed lost me the opportunity to utilise it at.
I realised then that I couldn’t go on like this, with weeks of highs then weeks of lows, and so went to tell my mum. I didn’t want to lose the highs but couldn’t cope with the lows anymore. It was ruining my life and my business.
Work has always been difficult for me because, although I have quite a few skills, I have never managed consistency because of my extreme mood swings. On a high, i’m too much to deal with, on a low, my brain doesn’t work and I am self critical to a fault and refuse to send anything out for fear it isn’t good enuough. I don’t know when my good and bad days will happen and when I’m manic I make myself physically ill with over activity, which knocks me out of work. You can’t hold down a full-time job, no matter how good at it you are, or how much you love it, if you’re off work with the flu every two months. I know because fresh out of university I was offered a full-time journalism job for a local magazine which I absolutely jumped at. It was exactly what I wanted to do and I lapped up the variety of the job and all the interesting people I got to interview. I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to write and I was unreservedly desperate to please my boss.
I was obsessed from the start. I would leave work and rush home just to get my laptop out again and check my articles from the day for the forty fifth time, just making sure the i’s and t’s were dotted and crossed. I worked through the evenings on new ideas then would turn up to work so tired I’d drink six or seven coffees before midday and feel physically sick. It was completely unbalanced and my obsession with work meant I regularly got knocked out with nasty colds and caught the flu every time it was anywhere near. I was also on very heavy medication and was advised not to work full time, but the company offered no flexibility so it was all or nothing. I chose all, and I crashed.
I’m sure now that my work was no better for my compulsive behaviour. It was rare that I ever did find a mistake in my articles so perhaps if I had rested instead of obsessed I might not have been ill so much of the time and it wouldn’t have ruined everything. But I had no control over this behaviour and was too ashamed to tell anyone, except my mum, what was going on in my head. My illness ruined a job I loved for me and put me off ever seeking out ‘normal’ employment again. I simply couldn’t trust myself or my brain to be stable enough to cope in the usual working world.
The problem with running your own business is that, until you turn over enough to hire help, the responsibility of every aspect of that business is on you. And for someone with mental health difficulties the pressure can be a catalyst for symptoms to develop. Following the journalism job falling apart, I thought my only option was to work for myself.
I did this for a number of years, using the highs to produce enough work to make it look like I was still working during the lows. I did manage consistent clients but because my confidence was so low I would take any project going without properly researching the people or businesses I would be working with. I had some very lovely clients and some appalling ones that damaged my confidence even more.
I think it is a common attitude of freelancers and small business owners, when starting out, to think they must take anything going. But one thing i’ve learned along my career is that this is a risky and self depreciating way to seek clients. You don’t want the small businesses that expect everything for nothing, you want to work with professionals that will respect you and your skills.
I know now that one of my triggers for ill mental health is stress, so running a business probably isn’t the way to go. But what choice do I have?
Kathryn is now happy and well in a flexible role with a company that both understands and accommodates her condition. Schizoaffective Disorder is known as a severe mental health condition. According to Richmond Fellowship, only 9% of people with what are classed as severe mental health conditions are in work but 90% of this group state that they wish to be in meaningful employment. Let that sink in…