October 7, 2008 by Michelle
I have always been more manic than depressed. Since childhood I remember my daily flights of ideas. I always had “projects”… ideas for books, movie scripts, rearranging my bedroom furniture. I would relive conversations I had with friends in my head, but in fast forward. I thought it was normal. I was lively, voted the “most outgoing senior girl” of my high school class. If there was a club, I was either in it, started it, or was the president of it. In college I would take a full load of classes and hold down three jobs without breaking a sweat. It was who I was. It was my personality… a part of me. There was never a moment where I wasn’t thinking or dreaming up another new idea, project, or business venture.
In my pre-teen years it started with track. Then the piano. Then the violin. The cello. The clarinet. The saxophone. Then tennis. Then basketball. Then softball. I was the editor of my high school newspaper and community journalism. I became involved in theater getting most of the leads of all the plays. I didn’t want to just excel, but I had a grandiose notion that I would become famous. During my downtime I manically wrote in my journal. I would write my own scripts, make my own movies and my own documentaries. I couldn’t get enough. If I wasn’t the best at what I did, I would quit and move to my next big thing.
Needless to say, the word overachiever was planted on my forehead. I didn’t stop when I went to college. I was in the school government; I was obsessed with getting into law school to become a prosecutor. I would incessantly buy and read true crime books, interned with private investigators, worked with the county prosecutor, and went on “ride-alongs” with the police department.
I never remember being tired until I completed my first year of law school. I wasn’t interested anymore. It was all hype and too much money. I wasn’t the best in my class, yet I wasn’t the worst; however, I felt that I needed to move on and become a “career woman.”
Then a bomb dropped on me. Right on my brain. I couldn’t get out of bed. I cried all the time. I was lazy. What was wrong with me? This was not the person I knew. I knew there was something wrong, but I blamed it on other things such as my marriage, my family, the friends I hung out with. I bounced between mania and depression at a rapid pace. I became irritable and started to withdraw. I turned to cocaine and alcohol to help keep me at the level that I wanted to be at. That funny, manic, high spirited, wild and hard working person I always knew. It nearly destroyed me. After 14 years and a psychotic suicide attempt I found out I was bipolar.
I thought since I finally knew what was wrong with me, was on medication and going to “dual diagnosis” group therapy I would regain the life I once worked so hard for. Except it didn’t. It got worse.
My resume started turning into a book. Keep it to one page? Blah! No one has a one page resume anymore! Next thing I knew my resume was nearly three pages long. All great jobs, great references, yet something was wrong. I got fired for the first time. I worked at a high stress patent and trademark law firm as a patent prosecution paralegal for nearly three years. I performed at a very high level. I would come in at 7:00 a.m. and work through lunch, never stopping. My boss was so impressed with my level of performance and everyone around me found me bright, funny, beautiful, and full of promise.
Then came the boom that knocked me off the ship.
I was functioning at such a manic level for long periods of time and out of nowhere I would crash. It felt like I was having a cocaine crash, except I wasn’t doing drugs anymore. After having an amazing month of work, I couldn’t get out of bed for days at a time. I called in sick all the time. At lunch instead of socializing, I would isolate myself by either retreating to the parking garage and sleeping in my car, or I would shut my office door and sleep under my desk. I was crying all the time, yet nothing outright seemed to be wrong to explain how low I was feeling. The next thing I know I had to take two medical leaves of absences within six months. The human resources department found out that I had bipolar disorder and when I returned from my second leave of absence I was fired.
“We just don’t think you are happy here.” I was fired, yet they were willing to give me a severance and a good reference.
Over a two-year period, I had four different jobs in the legal field and I was fired from all of them. Not for my lack of experience, or quality of work, but because I would function at a manic pace and then crash and call in sick days at a time. Somehow, through my insurance records, the human resources people always found out that I was bipolar and when I would return from my darkness, I was fired yet again.
From September 2006, through February 2008, I was fired from five jobs. After I was fired from the first job, I immediately gained employment with another law firm that knew of my stellar reputation and contacts. That job lasted three months. After that job, I worked with a temporary legal service and worked with another law firm where I was also fired for calling in sick. I had to start re-writing my resume to make it look as though I had just “taken some time off” and that the reason why I left my previous employer was due to my own unhappiness with the actual position – not the fact that they were unhappy with my frequent absences and irritability.
My third legal position seemed very promising. It was for a reputable law firm working as a paralegal doing work in business law, something that was new to me. I have always been excited to try new things, so my first few months were good. I soaked up the new atmosphere, the new people, and the new legal content. However, after nearly six months, I was fired again. While they gave me no real reason, they offered me unemployment compensation and severance pay. By this time I knew that my bipolar condition was the reason I was getting let go from all these jobs. I had suddenly become “undependable” and my self-esteem, along with my happiness, went from confident to non-existent. While I searched for another job, my resume turned into a book. I started drinking heavily because I was not only bored, but I felt that my life was going nowhere and I had no control over what was happening to me.
Then I got the call for an interview for the job of my dreams. My interview was a breeze. Anyone with bipolar who is manic can manage to make everyone at an interview immediately fall in love with them. I promised them the world. I also promised to myself that this time would be different. I would stop drinking and hanging out with undesirable people and get my life back together. My dream job lasted only three months. However, this time I was fired for BEING bipolar, not because I had done anything wrong.
I started my job as a paralegal for a personal injury law firm. Not some “Dewey Cheatum and Howe” type of firm – a reputable personal injury firm where I felt that I could help make a difference in someone’s life who was truly injured. My immediate boss, an associate attorney who was pegged as “hard to work with,” embraced me, and we worked together wonderfully. My mania kicked in and my production level went into overdrive. Needless to say, the attorney I worked with who was “hard to work with” was great to work with, and we accomplished and settled many cases. It was winter time and I was having a hard time in my personal life, as I always do during the holiday season. However, this time I was fired for being a “liability” – not because of my absences regarding my bipolar disorder.
I am a single mom. I have an old 1995 Geo Prism with bad tires. It was a horrid winter season. Every day, it seemed my son was sick, my car was running badly, or my tires were flat. I had no one to help me, but I did my best to get to work no matter what. I knew that this was the job of a century, and I was determined not to screw it up.
I technically did not lose much time during my tenure at this firm. When my son was ill, my ex and I worked together – I would keep him half of the day so I would not lose a full day of work. When my car broke, I found a way to get to work. When my tires blew, I got the car fixed on my own time. However, it was a small firm and when I first started and filled out my Anthem insurance application, I had to fill in the dreaded “pre-existing condition” section. I knew that the office manager would be inputting my information directly into Anthem’s website and she would see my illness. Instead of keeping mute, I confronted her and told her that my health status would not cause a problem. She uncomfortably shrugged me off and said, “Well, I don’t know much about that stuff.”
In February, 2008, after a long month of manic work product (much to the happiness of my immediate attorney) I crashed. I came into work and felt like crawling under my desk. I knew I was about to hit the wall, and I tried my hardest to fend it off, but it was unstoppable. By noon, I asked the owner of the firm if I had accrued any sick time, because I was just “not feeling myself.” He had absolutely no problem with me going home and told me to “get well.” When I got home, I immediately hit my bed and did not wake up until the next morning when I realized that my crash was going to take more time to recover from. I wasn’t worried about my work status, because I had accrued sick time and had only missed the previous half day. I spent that entire day in a bipolar coma and managed to get up the following morning well enough to work.
When I got to my desk, the office manager called me into her office. I immediately knew something was wrong, but I had no idea they were going to fire me. Evidently, the owner of the firm had called me a “psycho bitch” behind my back and said I was a liability to the firm. The attorney I worked with was so upset, she nearly got fired for putting her butt on the line to help me keep my job. The office manager said to me, “You can’t just call in sick because you are stressed out.” to which I replied, “I wasn’t stressed out!”
I cried and begged to speak with the owner. I even gave her the phone number of my psychiatrist, so they knew it was health-related and not out of laziness or that I was playing hooky. It didn’t matter. Their minds were already made up. I was labeled a “liability” and was sent packing. Three months later, my boss left the firm knowing that they had pushed me out purposely and had discriminated against me. The fact that she saw through them and knew I had done nothing wrong made me feel better, but it didn’t change the fact that my resume was now literally the size of the bible.
“You are finished in this town.”
There is no way that one can walk away from four jobs in two years and get another job in the same field. Everyone knows everyone, and everyone talks. I knew I was finished. All the hard work, all my blood, sweat, and tears meant nothing. I was finished.
Even though I have a son, suicide entered my mind again. What kind of mother could I be if I couldn’t even hold down a steady job? No one was going to hire me in this city again with the resume I had. There wasn’t a possibility of starting a new career in a new field when my entire background was in law. I couldn’t afford to not work and go back to school. I couldn’t afford a pay cut. I felt destitute and completely screwed. I wanted to die. Until I found out that I was eligible to apply for social security disability.
After four months of no income, constant panic attacks, agoraphobia, the loss of any self-respect or self-esteem I had left in my bones, I was accepted by the state as “disabled” for bipolar disorder and “unable to work.”
Having bipolar has made me feel useless, scared, alone, and misunderstood. I finally gathered all my strength and courage to contact an attorney to file suit against my former employer and I am following through with it. I want him to know what he did was wrong. I want him to know what he did to me was unacceptable. I want him to know that he can’t get away with this. I hope I’m right. And I hope the law will be on my side.