According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 5.7 million adults in the US suffer bipolar disorder. I’m one of them.
While I try not to over-identify with my diagnosis, the truth is that my diagnosis is one of the largest reasons I am driven to make the entrepreneurial life work for me. At first glance this may seem paradoxical, especially if you don’t know much about bipolar disorder. With a deeper look at the disorder – and how it manifested in me – it actually makes sense. Consider me an entrepreneur by necessity.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 29 years of age. However, I’d had my suspicions for many years that bipolar disorder could have been at the heart of my wildly tumultuous youth. I’d been both driven, and scattered.
My first career was activism (activism rarely pays), and odd jobs. This didn’t exactly lead to the development of a solid career path.
LaSara Firefox & The Ecstatic Presence Project & Gratitude Games
“Finding Balance in the Extreme: Working With Bipolar Disorder“
2nd Runner Up, Hot Mommas Project 2008-2009 Global Case Study Competition.
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And now, the rest of LaSara’s story.
After years of “fighting the good fight,” I decided I was done fighting, and transitioned my desire to create change to another format – healing from the inside, out. But that’s another story.
I moved around physically a lot, too. In my early 20s, I lived out of my truck for over a year. While that may seem to you like an irresponsible choice, to this day I understand that it was the most responsible choice I could have made given the circumstances.
Though I didn’t know exactly the reasons, I knew – with no small amount of shame – that I was unable to hold any job for longer then three months. Three months was all I could take, before the pressure of external expectation broke me down.
The requirement to show up at the same place, at the same time, and do the same thing – regardless of mood, ability, or desire – was truly too much for me. Therefore, rent and bills were an albatross I couldn’t abide by.
Sometimes bipolar disorder shows up on an emotional level. Sometimes it shows up as physical symptoms. Along with the mood swings, periods of deep depression, and then the recurrent inability to sit still, I also suffered migraines, skeletal problems, stress disorders, and chronic pain.
For me, none of this lead to an easy relationship with employment. I simply wasn’t a good candidate to work for anyone — but myself.
I work hard – if you’re an entrepreneur you know; long hours, sometimes less return than you would hope for. Yet it’s still the best choice for me. The upsides are many, but the down-sides are too.
Thinking of Becoming an Entrepreneur by Necessity?
On most days, if you were to ask for my recommendations on building a career, I’d say this; If at all possible…work for someone else. Someone who will be helping you build towards retirement, paying into your medical needs, and guaranteeing you a paycheck every two weeks.
The stability and predictability of that life is something I yearn for often, but will never be able to have. Kind of like a diabetic kid, nose up against the candy-store window.
For those of you who cannot, or will not, heed that sage piece of advice (from someone who didn’t couldn’t wouldn’t heed it herself), here are some benefits to the entrepreneurial endeavor, some cautionary comments, and some strategies that will help you make working for yourself work for you!
* Working for myself allows me to build a career at my own pace.
* It allows me to focus on the tasks I am up to on any given day (or week, or month, or season) and put the ones I can’t master at the moment off until I am capable.
* It allows me to create my schedule according to how I feel, and to take care of myself by staying within my limits.
* It allows me to have something left for my kids when they come home – not having used up all my “good hours” in a day at the office.
* It allows me to stop working and go for a run when I need to, or do yoga, or sit outside in the sun. Or, if it’s a really rough day and I just can’t shut down the inner cacophony, watch TV.
Cautionary Comments for the Bipolar Set
* Trusted advisers, allies, and friends-in-the-know are a must for keeping feet on the ground, while reaching for the stars.
* Sometimes hypomania manifests as the insistent and driving need to get it done NOW! The stress I put myself under with writing and project deadlines can lead to a serious intensification of my symptoms, and in the past on more than one occasion, has lead to a full-on break down, which then necessitated a long period of recovery.
* Say yes to a project only after you’ve truly weighed its merit. And say no as often as you need to to stay healthy.
* If you experience bipolar disorder, or any other mood disorder, thought disorder, or disability, discuss it thoroughly with those close to you. Help them to help you. Create language that is safe for you and your loved ones so they can let you know when you’re symptomatic.
* Disclose your condition to anyone who is offering business advice, and tell them how they can best help you. Do you need to be assisted in staying focused on immediate goals? Do you need regular reality checks when making plans and setting goals? Do you need help figuring out the steps between where you are now, and where you want to be?
Let your business mentors know – because what might be good advice to someone who doesn’t suffer bipolar disorder (“yeah! take out a loan and invest in growing your business while you have that great idea!”) might end in bankruptcy for someone like me. Ideas come and go, but bipolar disorder and its impact on my ability to follow through is here to stay.
The Answers I Rely On:
The tried and true answers that allow me to live a more or less balanced life are:
1. knowing my limits, and
2. enacting my rituals. And by rituals I mean:
* Eating at the right time – even when I don’t want to. Mania can arrest the appetite, and so can depression, and going without food will intensify either of those states.
* Exercising daily, or semi-daily. In some cases, exercise is as effective as medication in the treatment of depressionand anxiety.
* Being dedicated and disciplined in my self care.
* Making time to spend with my husband, and with my kids, where a “no process and no work” rule is in effect. My husband and I have a weekly date night that we hold to religiously, and our family has a family night as well.
* Practicing and celebrating gratitude, especially when it’s a stretch to feel grateful.
* And, saying no, when I know I have reached my limit.
* Knowing when to be on medication, knowing when its safe to be off, and learning more about what helps me to maintain my balance all the time.
* When I get confused, to come back to my center through meditation, prayer, touch (hugging, cuddling, massage, sex), and yoga – of all types.
I believe that these “rituals”, when taken seriously by anyone, will lead to a healthier, happier life.
As I’ve grown into it, my “fatal flaw” has become my greatest strength. Living with a potentially progressive, occasionally debilitating disorder has lead me to a life that is honest, clear, and directed.
It has caused me to make lifestyle choices that keep me safe and sane. Made it possible to make peace with childhood memories of my father, who also suffers bipolar disorder.
And when it gets hard to be grateful for the personal cross I bear, I remember the heroes that crazy has brought us. Without a bit of it in the world, Einstein may never have discovered the theory of relativity. Beethoven’s 9th Symphony would never have been composed. And my book would never have been written, either.
There’s always something to be grateful for. Right now, I’m grateful for the choices I have made.
LaSara is one of three 2008-2009 winners of the Hot Mommas Project case study competition. Her story will appear in a major Prentice Hall textbook and PINK Magazine. Consider nominating someone as a role-model to tell their story.
Conversation starter. Here is my takeaway: Entrepreneurship gave LaSara back her life. I first read LaSara’s case when she submitted it for the inaugural Hot Mommas Project case competition. I was humbled by her combination of honesty, intelligence, and vulnerability. She is a leader not just among women, but in the mental health and entrepreneurial communities as well. She has literally picked herself up by her bootstraps. If she can do it, we can too. As an educator, I also found this a fascinating version of “necessity entrepreneurship” which, in the women’s leadership community, is a term normally reserved for emerging markets. I love the way LaSara gives us an entirely new perspective into the possibilites of entrepreneurship. It is so much bigger than just business.
- Discussion topics: Role models, work-life balance, entrepreneurship, career, work-life balance, focus, priorities, mental health, overcoming challenges.
Podcast with Kathy Korman Frey and intern and GW student, Madison Cooke.
- More on LaSara here.
- Full case with teaching notes and links here (login required) “Finding Balance in the Extreme: Working With Bipolar Disorder“
More on the Hot Mommas Project. We are an award-winning venture founded by Kathy Korman Frey, instructor of one of the world’s leading Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership courses at the George Washington University School of Business. www.HotMommasProject.org
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