I have bipolar disorder. When depression comes, it often makes it hard to function. When I’m depressed, every task requires more energy than usual. It’s a lethargy that overcomes my whole body, made more complicated by pain and fatigue from myasthenia gravis and polycystic ovarian syndrome. When my depression flares up, my psoriasis also flares up. Over the past month, I’ve been struggling with a depression that comes and goes. Thank God—I have been able to function at work. But even when people with bipolar are productive at work, sometimes we are not able to function in other areas like relationships. Sometimes, when we are perceived as unreliable, our relationships are strained.
It takes so much energy to do my job during depression. My job-job is being a high school debate coach. Last weekend, three of my students won at a debate tournament. One freshman came in third place and another came in first place. My coworkers can’t tell that I am depressed. However, the past few days, I realized that I wasn’t functioning as well in other areas. For example, I am working on a very important mental health project with my friend. We’re almost done. What she needs from me is pictures. I needed to scour through photo albums and my computer to find these. I told her I’d get the pictures to her by Friday. Friday afternoon came and I can barely get out of bed. I told myself that I would finish it that night. But I didn’t. I was tempted not to tell her anything. I reasoned: This depression will end soon. I don’t have to talk about it. I’m too tired to have this discussion. I’ll get the pictures to her soon. But I realized that in the past when I rationalized this way, things did not turn out so well. However, when I bit the bullet and opened up to people (example: talking to professors in college when I was depressed and had a deadline coming up), they understood and gave me more time.
Mental health discrimination, or what some people call “stigma,” is definitely real. But sometimes we don’t give people a chance to understand. Essentially, we forget that they also have stress and deadlines to meet. Saturday, I still didn’t have the mental and physical strength to complete the task. But I felt much better knowing I had texted the night before. When we’re depressed, it’s so hard. We can forget how our actions (or inaction) affect innocent people. There have been times in my life when mentally ill friends let me down. Because of my own experience, I was able to forgive them even when they didn’t tell me they were depressed. But, in the moment, the lack of communication did make my life harder. On Monday, I was finally able to send her all the pictures she needed. When things are rough, be honest with yourself: Do you really know when this depressive episode is going to end? Can you really finish what you need to do? How do your actions, however unintentional, affect other people? Pick up the phone. Make that call, send that text message, or write that email. Being reliable not only helps other people but it also reduces our own stress. Honest communication helps us maintain support networks that are essential in managing illnesses like bipolar disorder.
5 Tips for Being Reliable:
- Ask yourself, “How would I like to be treated?” We’ve all been in situations when we were working on something with someone and did not hear from that person for months or in some cases, that person stopped communicating altogether. How did it make you feel? Empathy is a two-way street.
- Send a brief update. You can say something like, “I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you; I have been really depressed lately. I’m working on it.” Or if you’re not that close to the person, something less intimate like, “Sorry I haven’t gotten back to you. I have been sick lately but I promise, I’ll get back to you ASAP.” When I don’t hear from someone altogether, it’s very upsetting and stressful. When someone gives me a brief update—even if it’s just to say they’re trying their best—I feel better. Also, I can help my friend. I find that most people are understanding when I’m honest instead of avoiding them.
- Give as much information as you need to. It’s not necessary to tell everyone in your life about your illness; I know that discrimination is real. But when I’m working with someone who is a good friend, I allow myself to be real. In return, I find crucial support that lifts me up.
- Just start. It’s easy to get overwhelmed. When I’m not feeling well, I take it one minute at a time. Not one day at a time—but one minute at a time. I start an article by writing one sentence at a time.
- Prioritize the most urgent tasks. Do you have a deadline? As I’ve discussed in my TEDx Talk here, one strategy I use for being productive with depression is classifying all tasks according to urgency (4 **** = due today; 1 * = not anytime soon) and I focus on finishing the 3 and 4**** tasks first.
–Your Stylist, Jessica Gimeno