Managing mental health in work

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This article was published on celebrity Niall Breslin’s A Lust For Life website, a movement for mental health and well-being.

I dreamed of connecting with a wider community through writing for A Lust For Life on previous occasions, and this is my third article on the site! Why did I want to connect? Because my experience of bipolar disorder was a lonely existence for a long time. I was fed up with how restricting depression and low mood could be; I was intensely uneasy and agitated; I was troubled with how elation and overactivity lifted me from off the ground; and I absolutely had it with the total disconnect of mania. In short, I needed people and perhaps they needed me too.

Mindful of my disability

The first big test in managing my mental health in work came when I was accepted onto a six-month paid internship programme in the civil service. I was thrilled to be working again; it was the fruit of some hard grafting, being faithful to the recovery process and dreaming of something more for my life. I quickly fitted into the position of a normal employee: attending meetings, working on projects, adhering to deadlines and having a bit of craic with the staff. I received support from disability representatives who coordinated reasonable accommodations for me – actions taken to alleviate any disadvantage caused by my illness – such as extra short breaks and calls to support persons during the working day. My line manager gave me some feedback at the end of my contract, saying “To be honest, Gavin, your disability was not an issue”.

After a period of unemployment when I occupied my time with hobbies, I got a part-time job at a workplace in which I was previously on placement. Since I only worked two days per week, reasonable accommodations were no longer a major part of managing my mental health. I noticed that my colleagues also got stressed out from time to time and they had their own ways of coping. Moreover, I had developed many helpful tools to stay well such as to slow down or keep going when my mood was off balance, to journal and write in my own blog and to unwind at the end of my day. I experienced times of flow or engagement, for example, when passionately writing for a website. And it also helped having warm, inclusive conversations with my colleagues which got me through the sometimes tedious nature of work life.

I was no stranger to challenges as I also started a full-time masters degree six months after getting the part-time job. I met with a college support person early on to help manage my expectations and maintain a balanced lifestyle. However, there was a time when I pushed too hard by working six days per week; I felt like a slave to life and I got stuck in the ‘poor me’ victim state. I spoke with a spiritual guide who prompted me to get some awareness over my situation, and I adapted by reducing my working hours and prioritising my tasks. At the same time, I had freely chosen to pursue the degree so I did my best to freely put the time and effort into it.

Full of surprises

I got one of the biggest surprises of my life when I was invited to give a talk on spirituality and mental health in Cork. I had never spoken in public before, but after sussing out what was required I knew I was up for it. I gathered some reflections together and tweaked them to present to my audience. You can imagine how I felt upon seeing about 40 faces gazing up at me on the day; thankfully most of them were smiling! I spoke with surprising passion and conviction when sharing my experience of bipolar such as the reality of relationship difficulties which in fact we all live with. I shared a story about the importance of self-care and believed that we all have the capacity to ‘burst out in praise’ in the midst of pain or suffering. I maintained that personal growth begins by turning from a closed fist into an open hand.

Another surprise came my way recently when my masters results on the college website read ‘First Class Honours’. This meant so much to me because I was keenly aware of how hard I worked over many years to make it happen. I was accepted onto the course in 2013, but due to poor mental health I chose to attend a college for people with disabilities for four years instead. I had plenty of career ambition back then, but I adapted to a more manageable pace and I readied myself for the right moment. I celebrated my graduation with family and friends and took the opportunity to express my gratitude. I told them, “I realise that my strength is not so much from my own resources but from you all. So this celebration is your celebration. Thank you very much!”

I started to dream again after a short break, this time to pursue further studies with a PhD. I met with the head of a university department and we bounced ideas about research off one another. She said that she would be happy to supervise me and so I returned home to work on a proposal. At the moment, I am looking into wisdom from contemplative traditions to promote the well-being of the general public. My MA thesis has convinced me that traditions such as Buddhism and Christianity, which have been around for thousands of years, have plenty to offer us all. I am trying to be free about the whole thing: if my plans change I will ultimately have to accept and hopefully embrace the reality.

Getting my priorities right

A recent Zen Buddhist retreat which involved silent sitting interspersed with silent walking helped to realign my priorities in life. I realised that I do not want to use my mental illness as an excuse for not pursuing family life. If truth be told, family life is more important to me than working life. So, this means that any plans of a PhD or other career choices will have to come second to the adventure of meeting someone special and following that path to its fullest. Managing my mental health in relationships has also to be seriously considered and discerned. I trust that I will make a good partner through channelling my energy towards beauty, light and love.

My aspiration to connect with a wider community continues right now. I am filled with joy to proclaim, “I love bipolar!” I am well aware of its ongoing pain and challenges, but having gone through the upsides and downsides and being dynamically attracted towards fullness of life leaves me with few complaints, when all is said and done. I support A Lust For Life in their movement for mental health and well-being. I hope that I have offered some pointers in managing mental health in work, and to emphasise that it is all part of the bigger picture. Stay well, and keep dreaming!

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