Why Triggers Matter

Two weeks ago, I was sitting in front of my computer in my home office cranking out a poster design for a movie set, when I noticed my leg was extremely itchy. I reached down and scratched it, then felt the itch move up to my hip and then my torso. Soon my entire body tingled uncomfortably, but I couldn’t stop to figure out what was wrong. I had urgent deadlines to meet, and I was already overwhelmed with more work than I could handle. I ignored it. I didn’t have time to take care of myself or even think about my needs.

I’d been the graphic designer for this particular feature film for months, and more broadly for film and television for sixteen years. Because I loved movies, and art was (and still is) my passion, I’d always believed Film Industry Graphic Designer was my dream job. I joined the local film union and got benefits like retirement and health insurance. I negotiated my pay rate, and I made decent money. I took months-long breaks in between shows to compensate for the fact that I worked twelve-hour days when I was on the clock.

I have bipolar disorder, and even in light of my mental illness, I thought I’d found the right work/life balance. Since I was thirty-one, I believed I’d discovered the perfect combination of creative expression, challenging stimulation and lucrative income stream. I was fully convinced my lifestyle allowed me to look after my mental and physical health. I was wrong.

So, back to me sitting in front of that computer a few weeks ago. My skin was itchy and irritated, so I popped a Benedryl and got drowsy, but I kept working, because I had to. I was the movie’s only graphic designer. If I didn’t do my job, they’d find someone to take my place. That night when I hopped out of the shower, I noticed a large red puffy rash on my upper chest. I slathered on some hydrocortisone cream, slipped on my robe and went on with my evening. I couldn’t think about it. I had to be up at six in the morning the next day, and I only had an hour left to cook and eat dinner before bedtime.

I hadn’t been sleeping much. My long days were nonstop tasks, one after another, with barely even a lunch break. My nights were plagued with fitful dreams in which I moved pixels around on a screen just like I did every day. I was unable to escape the stress of my job even when I was unconscious. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt truly rested.

The next morning when my alarm went off, I did the same countdown in my head I performed every morning as I argued with myself to get out of bed.

How many more days until this job is finished?

How many more days in this week?

Once I’d forced myself upright, I saw that the rash on my chest had migrated to my stomach. I ignored it and got dressed so I could start my day. I already had an inbox full of emails that had come in overnight with more emergency projects. I couldn’t see a dermatologist to investigate my skin issue, because I didn’t have time to take off work.

The next day, I had a spontaneous nosebleed, and both of my legs broke out in full-blown hives. They looked like a dense red minefield. My body felt like it was on fire. What was happening to me? My body was falling apart. Who was I kidding? I was falling apart. For months, I’d been erupting in angry verbal outbursts, snapping at my boyfriend for trivial things like putting the toilet paper roll on backwards. I’d gained weight around my middle, most likely from a buildup of cortisol, the hormone released from stress. I’d been seeing more hair in my brush. My patience was gone. I had no energy. What was wrong? I had a wonderful life and an amazing boyfriend and an awesome career.

Then it hit me: I did not have an awesome career. My job was breaking me. My profession that had supposedly been the “perfect” one for my mental health, was destroying me both physically and mentally. The cumulative years of stress had built up and were triggering my mania and depression at the same time. I was exhausted and cranky 24/7. I was in a constant state of heightened alert and anxiety when working. That isn’t healthy for anyone, and it’s definitely not good for someone with bipolar disorder.

This wasn’t new, I’d just avoided addressing the red flags from the past. I’d cried in movie set bathrooms on more than one occasion because I couldn’t handle the stress. I’d experienced sleep loss, weight loss/gain, despair and anger, but I’d always sucked it up, ignored the fact that my mental illness was being triggered by my job, and kept working.

It took an extreme physical reaction for me to put two and two together. Working that many hours under that much stress for that many years finally caught up with me. What had once felt like a rewarding choice was now a huge liability. I’d told myself that I could handle the long hours if I took breaks in between jobs. I thought the stress was worth it, because I was designing such cool stuff. I minimized my mental illness and what my job was doing to undermine my recovery. I ignored my anxiety and exhaustion, took jobs, got worn out, recovered, and then started the vicious cycle all over again year after year.

I’d convinced myself that my career wasn’t triggering my mental illness, it was just “how I was handling it.” If I could just meditate more, or learn not to take everything so seriously, then I’d be okay. I’d left a bad marriage when I realized the issue wasn’t my reactions to my husband, the problem was that I’d married a verbally abusive man. And yet I’d stayed in a destructive job for far too long.

Triggers matter. They should not be ignored. My body finally shouted, “listen to me!” and I could no longer shrug everything off. By not paying attention to the warning signs, I’d done myself a great disservice. But it’s not too late. I may be burnt out, but I can recover.

In light of this, I’m finally walking away from my career. I can no longer ignore or minimize the fact that this career/lifestyle has triggered my bipolar disorder and made me very unhealthy. I can find another, less stressful job that doesn’t compromise my mental health. It’s time to practice what I’ve preach my bpHope articles: self-care. That’s what recovery is all about.

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