Present Day, February 25th, 2018

The lack of societal progress in dealing with mental illness is as easy to see as attempting to determine if it is a disability. For this simple journey will make it rapidly clear that we still have no idea how to identify what we are dealing with.

This became clear to me during my recent (and latest of many) employment searches. Most applications now conclude with three voluntary questions that are largely demographic in nature. One dealing with gender. One dealing with military veteran status. But a third dealing with disabilities.

The questions itself could not make things clearer. It simply requires a yes, no, or choose not to disclose affirmation. For someone with a diagnosed illness, such as myself with bipolar, it gets even easier. Because it states in plain English, “Disabilities include, but are not limited to…” and then proceeds to list roughly 18 specific disabilities to include such mental illnesses as schizophrenia, major depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, PTSD, and yes…bipolar.

Here is the logic: disabilities include bipolar. I have bipolar (as has been diagnosed by no less than a hand full of independent professionals). Therefore, I have a disability. Right? Not so fast.

If in fact you have a disability that severely limits your daily function and ability to adjust to daily work, you qualify for something called Social Security Disability Insurance.  However, in the case of bipolar, or a number of other mental illnesses, the emphasis should be put on “severely”. This is because the criteria to qualify for benefits becomes much greater than any criteria that were originally utilized to result in a concrete diagnosis.

Put another way, the system is set to credit corporations and business for diversity hires of us mentally crazed individuals, but not set to do anything to help us. Get them in the workforce, and keep them there. Short of announcing my legally private mental illness to the employer, there will not be any consideration of accommodations, or assistance for living with what has already been defined as a disability. Begging the questions, what do they think it disables me from doing?

Why do I care? I mean, I go to work. I have a job. I have stayed employed for the majority of the past 30 years. What should it matter to me?

It matters because work is the single largest deterrent to my quality of life. For people with depressive disorders, and others, getting out of bed in the morning is a major chore. That chore is followed by a second one of getting out the door and engaging in a profession. The vast majority of my emotional energy Monday through Friday is exhausted simply attempting to stay gainfully employed. Day after day. One step at a time.

Now, granted, I think our country suffers from a larger systemic problem. Namely, we have made work the centerpiece of our lives. Just compare time off in other developed countries to America. Especially as it relates to things such as maternity (and or paternity leave…total novelty!), sick time, and personal time (for such things as doctor visits, and basic life care that is almost impossible to take care of outside normal work hours). I am not advocating a country of sloths, but how did it ever become the intention that we work in order to be able to live rather than work as a part of living?

I am less than six months into my latest place of employment, and I am fried. I am largely sedentary for eight hours a day staring into a dual monitor set-up conducting data entry. I shake off the hangover of my medications in the morning just soon enough to plop down at my desk and fall back into a full-time stupor of what can at times be fairly mindless activity. But I had to change jobs. Again.

I had to find something with at least some time off. With at least some form of decent benefits. With at least some compensation that could pay a majority of the bills. And while my family, my sanity, and my overall personal life suffers…I come nowhere close to the government definition of someone in need of disability benefits.

Which is kind of ironic, because that same government has joined the long line of doctors declaring that I am in fact disabled.

Present Day, July 12th, 2017

Quality of life.

An improved quality of life.

Sitting in my therapist office, reflecting on his traditional opening question (“So, what are we going to talk about today?”), I found myself giving that answer. Because that is what I had reflected on recently. That is what my mind had been on during the drive over. That was what I had come to believe needed to be a significant goal for me going forward.

As the one year anniversary of my hospitalization (and subsequent release) approaches, I have been faced with the reality of having survived the breakdown. Since the first week of September last year, I have avoided any episodes along the lines or magnitude of that horrific week. It has not been easy. At times, harder than hell. But I have managed. I have given intense focus to the big three (Sleep, Therapy, Medications), and have tried to consider most other things the minors to those majors. I have attempted to reward myself more, punish myself less, recognize small accomplishments, and let other takers be my worst enemy rather than fulfilling that role myself. But that all has left me with the question, “Now what?”

That is what has been stuck in my craw (because in Kentucky, we use phrases like that). Now what? Or, put another way. Possibly a more negative way. The question might go like this: “Is this really as good as it gets?” Is this the way I need to anticipate living the rest of my life? Is this the best I can do? This combination of drugs providing this baseline of emotions just this side of depression. This cycle of sleep merging nights and naps and zombie like periods of awake. This week after week battle to get out of bed and knock another seven days off the calendar.Having survived the big scare, it seems logical that my attention might shift to the year after. And dare I venture to let my mind explore the possibility not merely of having survived, but now attempting to find a way to thrive.

Having survived the big scare, it seems logical that my attention might shift to the year after. And dare I venture to let my mind explore the possibility not merely of having survived, but now attempting to find a way to thrive.

I have set some goals as to what this might look like. First, I have more than five months left in the insurance year with my out-of-pocket limit reached. Therefore, I will be meeting with my medications coordinator next Tuesday and asking her if we might experiment a bit. Venture away from the only cocktail I have utilized since leaving the hospital in an effort to find something that leaves me a little less comatose. A little less down. A little less fat!

Second, the employment situation simply does not seem sustainable for the long haul of my life. The doctors in Chicago didn’t think it was. The team at home seems to question whether it is. My own physical and mental stability seems to doubt it. Granted, for us bipolar, few employment situations seem sustainable for the long haul, but I do think there are three standards I can improve on: a) a later wake-up time than 3 a.m., b) weekends off, and c) the ability to accrue some paid time off (i.e. vacation). Seems reasonable, right? In four more weeks, I will have two children living out-of-state, and I need the opportunity to visit them. This job simply does not afford that. Financially, or time wise.

Finally, and this one is so hard, I have to lose some weight. I’m up 20 lbs since leaving the hospital…as the staff there suggested it would be easy to be. I’m up 30 lbs since losing almost 50 roughly three years ago. It takes a toll on me physically, emotionally, and motivationally. So as much as I disdain working out and dieting…I have to lose weight if I want to improve my quality of life.

For much of this, I have less idea of how to make it happen than I do the need for it to happen. But this is the next year before me. A year of quality of life. A year of improved quality of life. As long as I’m going to stick around, seems like I might as well enjoy doing so.