by Caitlin Billings
When I set out to write this article, I imagined the slickness of a professional bag or using the buzz words that dominate our growing consciousness about balancing professional lives with profound mental health challenges. Words like self-care, mindfulness, minimalism. But this writing, just like my attempts at balance, is messy. Balance is touching the soil of my potted plants to know if they need water, sun or shade. It is sitting in the grief of a mistake and crying for a few minutes before my next client because tears lessens the pressure just enough to let me finish my day.
The seventh time I was hospitalized, I quit my job. Again. This was after a series of positions I took on over the years and then left, so depressed and agitated it was impossible to think of any other option.
I have been working in the mental health field for twenty years. I’ve held employment in private practice settings, substance use disorder rehab, intimate partner violence shelters. I’ve managed teams of clinicians, juggled twelve different grants, and tracked productivity. I’ve reinvented myself over and over, each time with a new outlook, a fresh promise to myself that I wouldn’t over-do it, wouldn’t allow myself to be caught up in projects on top of full-time work on top of a small private practice. I’ve taken public transit, sat for an hour and a half commute, car-pooled and walked.
Bipolar disorder followed. It trailed at my heels, slid into my body when I wasn’t looking. Bipolar disorder was my secret shadow self lifting me up into heights of intense creativity and little sleep, and then dropping me into an endless cavern of depression. It waited for me at the bottom and whispered dark untruths into my ear, even as I lay in a fetal position and begged the images and voices of self-destruction to stop.
When you’re in the hospital, all semblance of the masks that you wear are removed. You’re a vulnerable self with no skin, bruised at a touch, helpless to do much other than face it. This might be the end of your career. If you get out of this alive, you’re not sure how you can recover the assured, responsible, competent professional you once were.
It’s not what I imagined for myself as a mental health professional when I thought about the word balance. I imagined myself in a pool of warm light, legs crossed, half-smile on my face, eyes closed. Self-care, vacation from the intensity of work, cardio or yoga or strength training. Clean eating. Mindfulness.
Balance with bipolar is a daily reset. It is checking in with myself at bedtime. Asking myself: Am I agitated? Am I full of ideas, chest brimming with liquid creativity? Did I nap this afternoon because a low mood enveloped me and the only escape from the sadness and despair was sleep? What does it mean when I gently place my bookmark between the pages of my book, turn out the lamp, and drift off without the help of anxiety medications or melatonin?
Balance is taking my medication every morning, shushing the voice telling me that it’s not bipolar disorder and big pharma has trapped me in its sterile arms.
This hypervigilance may seem excessive, but it’s how I’ve managed to keep steady. Highs and lows are inevitable but muted because I’ve created a life for myself that allows me to capitalize on the teachings from my mentors. As a therapist and clinical supervisor and group practice owner, balance means that I am not doing this alone. More and more, balance is not the gentle voices chanting while I meditate. Balance is community. It is finding ways to finally integrate myself with the shadow that I have embraced, given love and compassion rather than try to outrun.
Balance is radical acceptance. It is the opportunity to be fully within myself rather than live a secret life where I pace hospital corridors and cry into my thin mattress, a phone call from my husband or mom the only thing I look forward to. It is taking the risk to come out and finally, expose the struggle within. By embracing the balance of connecting with my community of support, friends, colleagues, therapist, supportive family, I am holding my shame up to the light because after all, at the end of the day, I’m just a person. Balance is not hiding, reminding myself that competence is not only my professional self. It is a competence at living and accepting myself and bipolar disorder. It is accepting my imperfect humanity.
Is balance the key to happiness or contentment? Only if you count this moment while you read this article. Right now, in this second, you are in balance. No matter if you’re choking on a lump in your throat or sitting on the couch in frumpy pajamas skimming on your phone or chopping vegetables or eating fries or breathing hard at the worst moment in your run. Balance is right now.
About the Author: A Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the state of California, Caitlin Billings specializes in treatment and therapy for complex trauma. Through this work, Caitlin aims to subvert societal expectations and pressures of idealism through embracing self-love and imperfection. Her memoir, In Our Blood, breaks the stigma around mental health professionals’ own mental health.