I have been lapsing here but at least wanted to keep up my tradition of #MentalHealthMonday. I would like to point out these are just meant to be notes on what helps me with my own mental health, and not necessarily suggestions for everyone, as this subject is actually a bit sensitive even to myself. I am gainfully employed, full-time, as a librarian at the Chicago Public Library. And although I have conflicting feelings about how my job affects my mental health at times, I am overall grateful for it, especially since I feared for a time it would be taken away from me.
You see, I was asked to take a leave of absence during my manic episode, but my supervisors were very understanding. I had a good track record and they could see it was my mental illness and not myself that was acting up. I was a children’s librarian for about ten years, and I loved my job. I literally spent every day singing and dancing with kids, making arts and crafts with them, and helping them find books. Okay, I admit there were some really annoying parts too, like homework and science fair and tantrums and overbearing parents. Let’s not romanticize it *too* much. But for awhile there, I truly felt like what Kathleen Hanna would call “the queen of the neighborhood.” I lived in the neighborhood where I worked and often saw the kids and families there, who would warmly acknowledge me or even run up and hug me at times. Everyone knew the story time lady! I remember one mom even passing me in the street once and saying “Girl, you’re a superstar!” I adored the kids and, apparently, they adored me.
Most people who are familiar with bipolar disorder could probably guess what happened after I took that leave for mania, though. That’s right, what comes up, must go down. And when I was “well” and rational enough to return to work again, it was very difficult to concentrate and fight through the fog of my depression. And in fact, the next couple of years sort of passed in a blur of trying different medications, hospitalization stints, and even electroconvulsive therapy. I was dealing with the worst depression of my life, and it was also compounded with the post-traumatic stress disorder of what I had done while manic, which I still had nightmares about, and the constant, often irrational panic that I was going to lose everything, including all my relationships, my home, and my job. Thanks to the grace of disability laws and the Family and Medical Leave Act, my supervisors continuing to believe in my recovery, some rock-solid relationships in my life, the care of a higher quality facility, and honestly some painful lessons, I held onto the job, sometimes white-knuckling it, or zombie-lurching through it, but now it’s coming up on fifteen years. And I still have it. Sort of.
Another facet of my depression is the realization started to dawn on me that I couldn’t be a children’s librarian anymore. I just didn’t have the physical, creative, or emotional energy in me anymore after my several attempts at recovery and my continued effort to maintain it. So I transferred downtown. I now work in the newspapers and periodicals department. I actually work with a large population of people experiencing homelessness and mental illness, which I of course have empathy for, and I sometimes get to help them in some small way by giving them a newspaper to read or looking up a shelter or meal program. I also help researchers find articles and photographs, which is fun. I even got my first book credit! And I get to work in this big, beautiful building. I also work in the same building as a few of my best friends. So really, though it’s not the same, it’s probably just the fresh start that was needed.
To touch on the sensitive issue, though I’m proud I was able to hold down a job, I really felt for awhile like I wouldn’t be able to do so and even considered going on long-term disability. One of my doctors actually suggested it. I know that is the right solution for some, and that depression is a leading cause of disability, and there’s no shame in it. But not only would it have been half of my paycheck, which would have drastically altered my quality of life, I generally like working. Feeling like I have a sense of purpose, and that I’m helping people, really helps my own mental health and adds to my quality of life. It’s good to exercise my body and my brain–librarians always like to learn new things. And often I feel like I’m helping people like me–good people whose lives were interrupted by circumstances beyond their control.
Again, it’s through good stories like the ones that appear in Mental Filmness that I learn stories like mine are actually more common than they are uncommon. I felt embarrassed then, and sometimes still do, about how much time I spent rotating through hospitals and meds and doctors and struggling. Through hearing other stories, I learned that many people do similar things while coping with serious depressive episodes of serious mental illnesses. I learned that going in and out of the hospital is not abnormal for someone who has my condition, and is even expected in a way, so I feel grateful that all along I got to take the breaks to get the help I needed, and to keep the job.