|Image: The Life Divine|
In college, I worked whenever I had time. I started out working in my dorm cafeteria serving food, cleaning, and sometimes just checking the diners' ID's. Later I worked at a Lil' Caesar's Pizza and then a Subway--it was hard to get jobs in better restaurants without experience. Eventually though, I got a job waiting tables at a Tibetan restaurant owned by a nephew of the Dalai Lama. I will never forget working there and also meeting the Dalai Lama when he ate there one evening. Then there was my stint doing research on the sensory perception and mating system of a parasitic wasp. Also in college, I did construction work and odd jobs such as pulling weeds in large gardens and cleaning rental houses (very much like my childhood chores). One of my favorite jobs was working as a party photographer. I mainly took pictures at fraternity parties and other Greek events. It was interesting to observe a lifestyle in which I had no interest in participating, and I was proud to win a few awards for taking best-selling pictures.
After I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism, my father persuaded me to work for a company he partly owned. He was afraid of me working as a writer--what I was trained to do--because he thought the starting salary would be too low, and that the health insurance probably wouldn't be good enough to cover my medical expenses for bipolar disorder. So, I ended up working in a barbecue sauce factory where I worked in production, and also helped out in the office with accounting and other paperwork. While the job was somewhat interesting, I wanted to see what it would be like to work for other companies.
I decided to work for a temporary service as a way of exploring different work environments. It was interesting to work in various offices, but I soon realized that I was just doing a lot of work that no one else wanted to do. I spent a few months working in the foreclosure department of a major bank. That was quite an experience. I was responsible for calling people to tell them that if they didn't make a mortgage payment, they would lose their house. I heard a lot of sad stories--many of them probably true. People sent me letters explaining the causes of their financial problems and they often included pictures of their families and their homes. They were desperate.
Around that time I started thinking that I would be happier in a permanent job. I still had little idea of what I wanted to do, but I decided to try working outside of an office. Because I had a lot of athletic experience, I applied to work at Lady Foot Locker in a local mall. I was hired to be the assistant manager and the salary and benefits were decent. I was in the management training program and did quite well managing people and tending to the store and the paperwork. In addition, I excelled at selling athletic shoes and apparel. I was only there for a year and I won a mountain bike, a tennis racquet, and a trip for two to Chicago based on my superior sales performance.
I had never tried to sell anything before and, at Lady Footlocker, I discovered I had a talent for it. So I decided to look for a job selling higher priced goods or services knowing that would boost my income. One day, I was sitting on my couch, trying to envision what to do, and it came to me. I started to think of telecommunications and how complicated it must be behind the scenes, and how much money telecommunications companies made. Shortly after that, I looked at the classifieds--this was 1997--and discovered that Sprint was hiring. I applied right away and got the job. I consider Sprint to be my first professional job. I stayed there for three years--my longest time with any job until that point. I did really well as a business solutions specialist and I even won a Sprint President's Club award for being one of the top salespeople in the company. The reward was a nice plaque and a week-long conference at the Ritz-Carlton near Laguna Beach, California. While I was at Sprint, I had to go on short term disability twice for serious mood episodes, but it didn't matter. My performance was good and I was respected and rewarded anyway. Sometimes I could kick myself for leaving.
Next up was a short stint at National City Bank. My plan was to start out as a teller and then train to become a branch manager. After a few months though, I learned that a local telecommunications company was hiring, so I applied to work there as an account manager. I got the job, based on my experience at Sprint, and I liked it, but six months later, the company needed to cut back, so I was laid off with 200 of the company's 600 employees. I was given a severence package and instructions on how to apply for unemployment benefits, and that's what I did.
While I was unemployed, I decided to apply to AmeriCorps VISTA to become a literacy coordinator in my local school district. I did that for two years and then decided to become a teacher. I used my educational awards from AmeriCorps to pay for graduate school and my school district paid for half of my tuition because I worked as a provisionally certified elementary school special education teacher while I was also going to school full time. I took out loans to cover the rest of the tuition. Sometimes I don't know how I survived that period of time. It was quite stressful and I was really busy. While I was in school, I wasn't taking the best care of myself, and the medication I was taking was overly sedating. I drank tons of Diet Coke to stay awake--probably the equivalent of 2 liters a day. I also didn't have much of a social life, but I looked forward to spending time with other teachers at school, and my classmates in my night classes. I also coached my elementary school's chess team, and I really enjoyed spending time with my students and chess players, and their families.
I graduated with a Master of Arts in Teaching on time and with a 3.8 GPA--much better than I had done as an undergraduate. I guess I can thank Diet Coke and my sedentary lifestyle. I was more focused as a graduate student, so it was easier to be responsible and complete all of my work on time, but as an undergraduate, I was in great shape and I had a great social life. I think most people would have judged me to be more successful than my more educated, experienced, older and heavier self. The point is that with bipolar disorder, it is challenging to keep everything in balance. Although I still need to lose weight, I now enjoy better physical and mental health than I have in many years, but I am only working part time.
After almost four years of working as an award-winning teacher (I had won awards for raising test scores, coaching chess, and even perfect attendance) I suffered a debilitating depression and had to take medical leave. During my medical leave, I went through shock therapy, which I also consider to be debilitating. At my parents' suggestion, because I seemed to be worse off than they had ever seen me, I applied for Social Security Disability, and I qualified easily, but I have been told that the lawyer who represented me is one of the best in my state.
While I was undergoing shock therapy, I volunteered at the same barbecue sauce company that I had worked for in my twenties. I was in charge of obtaining and organizing four pieces of paperwork for every ingredient we used--and we had several hundred. I had my own office--thank God! I was tired and sleepy for the entire 6 months that I received shock treatments and I caught myself sleeping face down on my desk several times each day. I wondered if anyone ever opened my office door and saw me like that, but if they did, nobody ever said anything about it. It was so strange to have a shock treatment and then come back to work and see work that I had obviously completed, but had no memory of working on. I am thankful that I could work there, even though it was without pay, because I know it was better for me than staying at home by myself.
A few months after my shock therapy was over, I started working for another company my father partly owns. It's a food manufacturer and franchisor for a small chain of Cajun restaurants. I started out volunteering by working as a management assistant, but after a year and a half, I was hired to be the director of administration. I'm responsible for filing the paperwork required to do business in various states, writing the company newsletter, collecting data from franchisees, and other various administrative tasks. I'm working part time and am really happy with this company. My job is interesting and my coworkers are fun to work with. Because I had to be hospitalized for mania last fall, and went through a severe depression after that, the people I work with know that I have bipolar disorder, and they don't have any problem with it, and because I am working part time, it is easy for me to work on living a more and more balanced life.
I am grateful to be in the position I am in right now. My family has helped me a lot. It doesn't hurt that my father is a business professor and serial entrepreneur, but I have also worked very hard over the years on my education, work, and on overcoming the obstacles presented by bipolar disorder. Over the summer, I began working with vocational rehabilitation on finding full time work and getting off of Social Security, but both my psychiatrist and therapist believe that I am more stable than I have been in quite some time, and that it would not be a good idea to make any changes in my employment. I am hoping that my company will continue to grow, and that I will be able to work more hours as that happens. But for now, I am okay. Social Security plus my part time pay allows me to pay my bills, and that is all I need right now. Someday though, I hope to earn more money, and maintain the stability I have established, but I know I have to be careful, because stress has thrown me for a loop many times in the past.