Working the Frontline Side by Side with Bipolar

on May 14, 2020
Working the Frontline Side by Side with Bipolar

COVID-19 has brought difficulties for us all. I find myself in the fortunate position of having full-time work and stability in my life. I work on the frontline helping individuals living with mental health and substance use conditions, which is a line of work I found through my own challenges with having bipolar. In these strange times, a lot has changed for me at work, in my life, and with my bipolar.

In the past few years, I have had to negotiate with my bipolar on how to work full-time and still be in a place of wellness.

Most days you can find me in the downtown south of Vancouver handing out food to individuals we consider to be the most vulnerable right now. I have the great privilege of being able to support the basic needs of folks who often share the same diagnosis as me. I’m usually known for my involvement in peer support, but these days my work life looks a lot different. Conversations between coworkers are often focused on the uncertain future before us and how long it will be until our jobs return to normal. My hands are raw from hand washing, I wear the same clothes every day, and I go home incredibly tired. We go where we are needed and we do what we have to do to keep our ship afloat. But I’m grateful to be an essential worker, despite the new adversities it brings.

In the past few years, I have had to negotiate with my bipolar on how to work full-time and still be in a place of wellness. It hasn’t been easy; we fought often on whether or not mania is a good idea, and have wallowed together in pockets of depression. The two of us are still figuring out which medications work best, which has been a balancing act between controlling the symptoms and still maintaining a good quality of life. If I’m being honest with myself, working 40 hours per week isn’t ideal — but it has to work for now. So, in order to make full-time work for me, I’ve had to develop self-management strategies unique to my life and my work.

A person with red hair curled upin bed sleeping.

Nothing has helped me more than sleep hygiene.

I still don’t particularly fancy the idea of going to bed at the same time every night, but I can’t ignore how much it has helped me find balance. I’ve struggled a lot with insomnia, which has taught me that poor sleep makes my anxiety just awful to deal with. And when I’m not sleeping well, it’s extremely hard to support other people at work — nevermind people in my life and, perhaps most importantly, me. Above all, these are the tips I can offer:

  • Work with a healthcare professional to sort out any biological issues that may be contributing to poor sleep. My psychiatrist was and continues to be a great resource for me.
  • Get up at the same time and go to bed at the same time every day. I loathe it, but it works!
  • I try to avoid caffeine after 12pm so I’m not buzzing around my home unable to rest.
  • Emotionally decompressing after work or before bedtime helps me deal with rumination. I, like many others, have trouble not thinking when my head hits the people. I’m lucky to have a partner who will always listen to me and offer support. Journaling has also been effective in the past.

Exercise is my coping mechanism.

It’s been really hard not having my main outlet in the form that I want it — my gym and my yoga studio. My usual routine is to exercise immediately after I get off work, and for years that has been a significant key to my success. When the gyms and studios suddenly closed, I felt a bit scared; for me, exercise is just as important as taking my medication. But what I found was an amazing community effort to acknowledge just how sudden and overwhelming this shift has been. My yoga studio offers daily yoga classes online on their instagram that are completely free. There’s also an amazing website called Do Yoga With Me that has very high quality yoga videos, and I use it all the time now that they’ve given free access to their premium videos. As far as good cardio goes, I decided to start running outdoors. It’s a rather sad sight to behold at the moment, but with time I know it will be less of barely being able to run a mile and more of running a few miles.

A close-up shot of a wooden paint mixing palette, with a brushing dipping into brown paint.

Having a hobby to occupy my headspace and my free time has helped me get by.

I never used to think of hobbies as a job that no one pays me for, but framing it that way has helped me focus on staying positive. I have really, really struggled with rumination to the point of constant panic attacks and being paralyzed by my thoughts. Having something else to think about that is only fun, that is untouched by negativity, has been necessary to my functioning. When I began taking a closer look at my thoughts throughout the day, I realized I was really just thinking about work and what is wrong in my life. It’s not something I’ve conquered at all, but having a side project that takes up time has been fantastic for me. And hey, who knows — maybe someone will buy all the art I’ve been working on. Who says hobbies can’t be surprisingly lucrative?

No matter what thoughts persist in your mind, know that this stranger on this internet is rooting for you.

It’s easy to isolate right now, but we need to stay connected. My downfall in life has been isolating when I need support the most. It is nigh impossible to isolate in my home that I share with my partner, and I am thankful for that. I know many people are living alone or feel like they are living alone, and that could possibly make life unbearable right now. So reach out in whatever way makes sense — to family, friends, colleagues, or even strangers on the internet. We live in a wondrous age of fast technology, so there are plenty of tools to help us connect to our loved ones from afar.

Despite all the fear, all the uncertainty, we will get through this together. I don’t know what the frontline will look like for me in a month or even next week. My bipolar tries to drag me down into that familiar place of doom and gloom, but I’ve found a way to reason with it through all the skills and tools I’ve learned throughout the years. No matter what thoughts persist in your mind, know that this stranger on this internet is rooting for you. Even in the darkest places in our world and in our minds, there is always one spark of hope — and connection lights the fire.


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