Community Contributions: A Balancing Act

what happens when left to my own illustrative devices

A new Community Contribution from Freed on striking a balance between what we’ve become very good at out of necessity, who we are, how we see and have seen ourselves, and fulfilling all those different potentials we have. Thanks, Freed, for bringing these questions to the forum. I can’t begin here to describe the extent to which I can identify with what you have described. My responses will be in the comments with everyone else’s.

So one of the things that has given me the most challenge to the idea of functioning is the career shift and/or complete reenvisioning of a career in response to a more complete understanding of my MI. As I think many of us do, I gravitated toward a career which capitalized on my most highly developed compensation patterns in order for me to be highly successful. Of course, this makes sense in retrospect, they are the defenses I made sure were the strongest throughout my life in order to preserve my appearance to the outside world as High Functioning. The more that they were rewarded in my career, the higher I climbed but (here’s the double-edged sword) the more I relied on them in my career the less I was able to hold the entire fabric of my functioning together. Hence, my breakdown.

Post-breakdown one thing has been clear: My career aspirations must be deconstructed and then reconstructed in order for me to succeed as a mentally stable AND professionally capable person. Has anyone else had to turn their back on a professional vision of themselves? I experience it as both exhilarating (because I am finding a better, more fulfilling fit) and grief-filled (because I mourn the loss of my former self image). Does anyone else know this teeter-totter? I am still very much in the midst of the reconstructing and I would love to hear from the forum about some of the strategies, experiences, or advice that you have for this sometimes painful, sometimes gratifying experience.

  1. Freed, great post. Yes, it is a crazy teeter totter. I was a teacher, a librarian in the public schools. The reason I got into teaching was of course idealistic. I got my library credential specifically so I wouldn’t have to babysit (a la prep) and could still work with books. Funds were always being cut so I only got to really be a librarian for 1 year. I became the babysitter I said I would never be again for the next year. It was agony. Seeing a different class every 45 minutes and trying to instill the value of information in them was insane. I had done it before and vowed never to do it again. It was 4 years later and I tried it again.

    I ate lunch in my car and usually called my wife stressed out. I eventually took clay into the classroom and, sometimes, in the five minutes between classes, I would simply smell it or squish my hands in it.

    Finally I decided I could not do it anymore and, the following year, I taught first grade. I had a class from hell, mostly. I had some wonderful moments but the 6 students with ADD tendencies and/or maturity issues (whizzing all over the bathroom and cussing at everyone on the playground and in class) took over in a hurry. I had no release for all I took in. The kids needed so much and I felt so much that my resilience was nothing. I was in one of the most challenging schools in the city. It has a bulletproof wall along one side of the playground. I had 2 small children, one in kindergarten and one in 2nd grade so I never got a break. That year, I decided to quit teaching (after my wife offered to support me). I thought I was quitting, not finishing, being a wimp, not fixing things I could, not trying hard enough.

    I was devastated by the children’s circumstances. I was unmedicated so I’m sure I was feeling everything to the hilt. For the last few months (after my decision), I would cry in my car at lunch. I had a hard time looking at other teachers. I felt like a failure. I felt as if I wouldn’t be able to solve social problems anymore and that was really important to me.

    For the summer, I didn’t work. In November, I got hired on at the public library but it wasn’t the caliber of job I was qualified for. I didn’t really care. For 2 years I got my shit together, felt glad I wasn’t teaching anymore, worked a mindless job, got medicated, and started my own business. I did tutor at a school because I was only part-time at the library. It all worked out but the decision was agonizing and living with it was too for a while.

    • said:

      Re “I thought I was quitting, not finishing…” Jesus Christ, I know what you mean. I have spent a lot of energy thinking about how we are taught to finish what we start, even if finishing it makes no sense or if we can’t even remember why we started. While I understand how Follow Through is a generally good thing, it took me forever to understand that Follow Through For Its Own Sake is just plain stupid.

  2. Hells yeah, I’ve been deconstructed. I spent two years getting my Masters, loving my field- THEN BAM! “Majo Depresso, Mr. Roboto.” Nearly three years later, I’m still not reconstructed. In the near three-year recovery from depression, I’ve struggled with everything from going back to my field to being a cashier/bagger at Whole Foods. I couldn’t handle either job. My professional image of myself was already in the toilet without being in my field, but not hacking it as a bagger? Holy crap! I’m former military! WTF? Now, I’m getting treatment for what, hopefully, is a correct diagnosis of BP. I hope, no I pray, I will find “exhilaration in a better fit.” A good thing about where I am, my therapist gently says, is that the canvas is open. I just need to pick up the paint.

  3. said:

    Honestly, I needed to sit on this and think for a day because of my whole New Year’s Resolution 2011 thing. (That’s right…well into April and still upholding my resolution!) I didn’t “turn my back” so much as I put my professional vision of myself on the back burner to simmer for a couple years. There were a couple reasons for this and a couple results that proved it was so very much worth it.

    Reasons: (1) Necessity. I simply was not capable of working the way I was accustomed to working and the self-disappointment was too much for me to emotionally handle if I was ever going to figure out how to handle ANYTHING. While I was still in school, I was literally producing work I couldn’t turn in — I couldn’t write my name on it and suffer the embarrassment of having that crap associated with me. (It turns out that this sort of not-turning-things-in behavior does, in fact, lead to failing classes.) So, when I left school, I waited tables for two years because it’s what I could do. (2) Prioritization. Once it became clear to me that really basic stuff like perceiving reality, eating, treating others like they’re actually people, treating myself like I’m actually mortal, and maybe going outside when the sun is up, were all prerequisites for working. I realized that I couldn’t DO anything until I figured out how to BE something.

    Results: (1) The teeter-totter sucks…I totally know the feeling of oscillating between exhilaration and grief. My first grad program (after my two years “off”) was an amazing experience, but I was continually saddened by and often ashamed of the fact that it wasn’t what I had always intended to study. I didn’t yet feel prepared for my chosen field, so I was studying its little sister — somewhat less academically rigorous, somewhat less creatively challenging, somewhat more straight-forward and easier to grasp, somewhat more “within my reach.” I loved it and hated it. (2) Volition. The two years waiting tables and the two years of the first master’s program had an unexpected result. I had successfully derailed myself from the bullet-train tracks I was running on for a lifetime beforehand. I realized that Where I Thought I Was Going was just some arbitrary place I made up a long time ago, when I was essentially a different person. I learned that not only is it important and worthwhile to regularly step back and reevaluate the goals set by a younger version of me, but that doing so empowers the current version of me with a sort of volition vis a vis my past, present, and future. I get to choose again and again whether the goals I’m working toward are right for me. I get to change my mind. I always thought this would make me flaky. Turns out, it makes me a conscious person aware of her own growth.

  4. Damn, ∃, nice one. This post has resonated with me on many levels. Digging into the past has always been matter of fact and I’ve felt the change from teaching was the biggest re-evaluation I’ve done. Well, maybe that I’ve done, but not that I will do. I have a feeling. Yeah, I get those every so often. Fuck. Every spring as my business goes into insanity mode and I’m inundated with almost a hundred 100-page academic documents to edit and format, I re-evaluate. In the past, it’s been at the request of my wife due to the long hours. Right now, I’m alone. She’s with family and I won’t see my kids for 10 days. So I’m here working every minute. And ∃ asks me, “but is this what you WANT to maintain?” I cannot fathom what I want. I cannot reconcile what I want with what I (and my family) needs. I WANT to go back to school. I love school. Out of college 21 years ago, I wanted a science Ph.D. (genetics). Boy did that go wrong. I am not done mourning that one as clients tell me I’m next to get my Ph.D. Ha! If only they knew. I am good at what I do, so I continue doing it. The accomplishment feels good. I feel worthy. I don’t know what else would do that and allow me to succumb to bp at times. My job schedule is bipolar. Is that all I know? All I’m capable of? It gives me license to disappear for a few weeks in June and January. But it makes it hard to change the scenery. Seems just as I’m trying to get into other avenues, the work picks up. And I am happy that people come to me from word of mouth. The numbers are very validating. Be assured, by tonight there will be a post on my blog on this. Thanks ∃. The shroud has a peephole.

    • Meredith: So much resonates in your original post, being a teacher as well, and in an “lower income” school. Unable to look other teachers in the eyes because I knew I was doing crappy work to letting students down who very much needed the “cool” teacher I used to be, now a shadow self. Fellow teachers that I was close to, saying, “You were on FIRE at the beginning of the year,” and the kicker, “What happened?” For a teacher that won the “Teacher of the Year” award my first year, I was devastated. Still am. I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing? I ‘m so angry. The rage is all that’s familiar.

      • JT,
        I’m so sorry. It is devastating. I have been bipolar all my life and never had the good years behind me so I can only imagine the differing level of devastation. I was always working hard to keep it together and do the work I dreamt of. I wasn’t as good as you were. Anger is so justified. And I get that that is all that’s familiar. Oh I get that. Years after I was medicated, the angst and anger continued in grand force. I am happy to say I am on the other side of that so it does get better. But there is so much reconciliation involved. I wish you peace on this part of your journey. Hugs.

  5. I have had a lot of trouble with this topic of not meeting up to the expectations I once had for myself, and that others had, and also, not being able to do things I damn well should have been able to do (if not for this little mental illness issue). I had severe depression and developed Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia and associated problems so in my early twenties, because of these things and financial issues, I wasn’t at a four year college. I was at a community college. Then I met this amazing professor who ran the honors program and she convinced me to apply to a “Little Ivy” women’s college for their program for students above the traditional age. I got in. I got a huge scholarship. And I got psychosis too. So I never went there. Instead, I ended up losing my dream and living in a homeless shelter for months, then living in a car, then living in a room of a friend of a friend for three years, then wandering aimlessly from place to place for a few years. Psychotic the entire time.

    Finally, six years ago, and six years after this nightmare started with the psychosis, I was diagnosed with Schizophrenia (later changed to Schizoaffective), and kept in a hospital for months, put on medication that worked for the first time. It seemed after some recovery time that I could go back to school. So I went back to my original community college here in Florida that I went to before I went to the one with the honors program professor. It’s not like I could manage the coursework anywhere else, or at least, I had no reason to believe I could. So I went and worked, and little by little managed to work away at an Associate’s Degree. It’s embarrassing to me that I was thrilled to get an Associate’s Degree. By all means, I should have been able to get a Masters, like I had always meant to. And that never happened; I probably will never be able to make it happen.

    Right now, I’m in this Bachelor’s program that I don’t actually like, because reasons related to MI have prevented me from going to a better college or university where I could do what I actually want to be doing. I finally applied to such a university recently, but because of all the classes I dropped in my younger years, they don’t know if they can admit me yet. This has left me in a state of limbo that’s really uncomfortable.

    I’ve had to come to grips with the fact I might never be able to do what I want to do with my life. It’s not that helpful when people say, “Why don’t you just go and be this or that??” as if there is no reason for it. I don’t know that I could go to college full time because I’ve never really managed that for long. I don’t know that I could handle a regular university that would be much harder than a community college. Even if I can work out the money and transportation issues, and get admitted to that university, I might not be able to hack it at all.

    This is a really painful thing for me. I always thought of education as the goal of my life. I don’t know why, really. I was just a nerd type and I didn’t care about being interested in sports or being in a big group of friends, or any of that. So growing up, it was assumed I’d go to college. I didn’t come from a family where everybody did that. Neither one of my parents had. When it came time to graduate high school, I dropped out because I had anorexia, depression, and addiction to self injury, a great deal of self-hatred, and because neither one of my parents really cared what I did with myself. So part of the problem started then, and I know this sounds like I am making excuses, but really, I never meant for things to end up the way they have ended up in my life. I have found that I get overwhelmed and can’t concentrate, and it has required tutoring and note takers for me to even get an AA degree! It’s humiliating to me to admit this.

    I find that there is also a social problem that comes into play with this issue. I don’t have a lot of friends, but the close friends I’ve had in recent years were people without intellectual interests and we had nothing in common really other than we all had mental illnesses. I’ve found that there is a void in such relationships. I have this close friend, and because I can’t relate to her about anything other than craziness, I don’t even know why we’re friends anymore. And I have these other people I know through an activist group of women I’m involved with, and they all have advanced degrees, for the most part, and careers or previous careers. I find that I can’t make friends with any of them, because I feel so inadequate. It’s not that they said I was inadequate. I just feel that I am, because I have nothing to talk to them about that would interest them, as far as anything going on in my own life. So I never get past the acquaintence stage with these people, and it bothers me since I would like to be friends with some of them. It’s hard for me to even go to the meetings anymore, because I have this self-esteem issue, and because it is true that society looks down on people who are not “doing” anything of interest. I have a part-time job, and it’s a low-paying, low-effort job, and it’s embarrassing sometimes to tell people that when they have careers that I wish I had.

    Well, I’m sorry I’m rambling on here, but I can relate to parts of what all of you said, and I just wanted to add my two cents. Thanks for listening.

    • Jen,
      Thank you thank you for sharing yourself. It is hard. And I relate to those feelings but from different causes. The devastation wreaked by mental illness is so underestimated. People think if we just get help and get on meds then everything will be fine. They have no idea how difficult life can continue to be and lost years are just that. It is very difficult, if possible, to get those back (or rather to reclaim what they were supposed to be about). I know what you mean about connecting with people due to one commonality then getting to the point where that is not necessary anymore. Sometimes we need that support in that area of our lives for a while, but then we need to move on. I have few friends as well, I’m an introvert. Frankly, the ones that mean the most to me are from this site and others that started out because of MI but thankfully continued because our conversations were multi-dimensional. I hope you keep pressing forward and doing what you can to do something of what you want. Hugs.

    • said:

      Jen, as always thank you so much for sharing. Two very different things came out of reading this for me. On one hand, you’ve really reaffirmed for me how important it is for me to remember to let go of the goals I once had in my life and celebrate my right to rechart my course. Most of the time, it feels like a cop-out, of course. Most of the time, I have a hard time mourning a future that will not be my own. But sometimes, I’m able to look through that frustration and really celebrate that I’m not the person who set those goals and just decide (for lack of another choice, really) that I’m going to set my goals in accordance with what will make the person I actually am these days happy.

      On a completely different hand, your experiences described something that I (and many people I know) have recently been through — something that has nothing to do with mental illness. This was a really strange analogy at first, but gave me a kind of optimism about the fact that we (with our MI brains) have experiences that others can relate to. In truth, during the last few years’ economic meltdown, almost everyone I know has failed to realize their goals, had to recalibrate, had to mourn the futures that will not be theirs, and had to deal with knowing that for all their best efforts circumstances were not going to be on their side. The big difference here, I admit, is that our circumstances are internal. Still, I can’t help but wonder whether the similarity might be useful in communicating to others what life is like. I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked, “Why don’t you just go and be this or that?” Sometimes, the answer has a lot to do with the MI…but in the last few years, the answer has often had NOTHING to do with it. There is a lot we could all do in this world if only there were institutional support and the political will to provide it. …I’m not entirely certain where I’m going with this right now. It’s still a half-baked thought that might get clarified later.

      Still, what I’d like to say is that you’ve done an immense amount already with your life. The knowledge and experience you’ve gained is, in many ways, far more useful than the kinds of achievements that are written on pieces of paper. When the economy melted, I learned the hard way that my pieces of paper were far less important than the skills I’d gained trying to live this crazypants life. (In fact, those papers are actually monetarily worthless right now. If you subtract my inordinate student loan debt from my earning potential, the answer is in the negative.) This world does a terrible job of valuing the education that comes from learning how to live. But, to be frank, it’s nothing less than inspirational.

  6. Jen,

    Just read your original post. Thank you for your frankness. It was clear that some of what you wrote was very hard to write. (Some of what you wrote was hard to read.) It’s difficult when expectations trip you up about where you think you should be. I told my therapist that it sucks actually. Hearing your journey gave me incredible insight into acknowledging my own repressed MI, especially in dealing with “friends.” One of my closets friends, who I’ve known for 20 years (went to school together), moved 1500 miles to be in my city. We had a great time until two traumas later, I went crazy. MDD, delusions which I was just now honest with my therapist about a year later, and now, Bipolar. At first supportive, my friend told me after it didn’t “clear up” that it was too much for her to handle. And that was just the first round of major depression. Since then, we only see each other at holidays (maybe) and pass back an occasional call, or email. This from one of my closest friends. I identify with you when you say that your career aspirations are in shambles. I’ve gotten some of the stuff you’ve wanted. It doesn’t matter. They’re all in a drawer of a house I can’t manage to get out of, most days. But my friend, my good, good friends. What about those aspirations that they’ll always be there? That spoke to me. Thanks for that.

  7. said:

    I am catching up on my friendly blog reading, and I’d like to take another moment to thank Freed for bringing this topic to our forum. It seems to have really struck a chord. For the readers out there who don’t regularly read other’s blogs, this topic has been taken here by Meredith, here by Jen, and here by bipolartude. Thanks again. You guys are all amazing.

  8. Meredith, thanks for your response and for the hugs. I appreciate your reading what I wrote and responding.

    Backward E, I understand what you mean. The economy has certainly set a lot of people back. It’s a good point you bring up, that we have something in common with those who have lost their careers because of the economy, even though in my case it’s from a mental illness. Thanks for what you said about what I have accomplished, because sometimes I do forget about the importance of the things that I have managed to do inspite of all that I cannot do. And I do agree, the pieces of paper don’t really mean much. I just always wanted to have them, and sometimes I buy into that idea that I’m worthless without them. Of course, this is a self-esteem issue, but it’s also related to the stigma that exists, and the idea that if you say your mental illness is your reason for not having done such-and-such, or earning such-and-such degree, then you’re just making up excuses for yourself. Thank you for reminding me that what I have managed to do with my life does count as an accomplishment and it does matter.

    Bipolartude, I’m sorry about what happened with your friend. That’s a terrible way to treat you and something I have experienced as well. I wrote about it more in the most recent discussion on friends that backward E posted.

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