Stepping down to ez-mode.
October 31, 2012 10:25 AM   Subscribe

I need a new career. Special snowflake factors: I like my current career, I've been very successful -- but I've been diagnosed with severe bipolar disorder and can't take the stress anymore. Details very slightly obfuscated.

I've been in a small subset of the tech industry for about ten years. I've basically risen to the top. There's nowhere for me to go but:
- lateral moves within the industry or stay steady where I am -- in a very high-stress, perpetually-on-call situation. I'm prone to becoming emotionally involved (yes, I'm in therapy).
- move up and increase responsibility -- more stress, more on-call, more everything.

I do like it -- it's fulfilling and I'm very well compensated (I would be pulling in over six figures this year, if it weren't for my unpaid FMLA leave). I manage a lot of people and I like most of them. I feel that this job, more than any other I've worked, takes advantage of all of my skills.

However, I was diagnosed with severe bipolar disorder earlier this year. I had a major manic episode last winter and I've been continuously cycling ever since. I've been hospitalized three times. Jesus, the people who knew me back when I was more... normal would have NEVER believed this -- I was always the super high-achieving, most-likely-to-succeed stone-cold bitch. And now I'm in a fucking mental hospital, screaming at everyone that I'm normal and don't belong there (when clearly I do). My doctor seriously recommended ECT! I'm 30! You don't give ECT to successful 30-year-old professionals, do you?! (Yes, I've seen -- that show you're about to talk spoilers about. I also found it terrifying.)

Looking at my mood charts, there's a clear pattern of calm and euthymia on weekends and (the very rare) vacation, and a psychological clusterfuck during each work week.

So, AskMeFi, what else can I do with my time? Primary criteria is LOW-STRESS and PART-TIME or 40 hours/week. No weekends. No on call. I want to leave work and be GONE. And... it would be sweet if I made even close to as much money as I do now. I know that's a long shot.

Big picture skills:
- I have truly excellent triage skills. I have great research skills, a great memory, and I know everybody and most everything to do with my project. I can juggle five things at once, take the initiative to research the salient points with the appropriate parties, prepare a report, and submit recommendations in less time than it takes the management to finish their coffee. Well, almost.
- I can take vague directives from management and turn them into completed tasks un minimal time, delegated across an entire team, broadcast with whatever spin is needed to turn it into a "that's a stupid idea, management sucks" to "that's awesome and I can't wait to work on it!" And then they do, and it kicks ass.

Small picture skills:
- I have good to great people management skills. I manage a very large team right now. My people love me.
- I'm a pretty good technical writer. I have a pretty good eye for graphic design. I make good-looking reports (Word and Excel -- in new versions, it's possible!).
- I have actual work experience generating Tufte-style metrics reports. I can make not-so-great infographics (Illustrator).
- I know scripting languages well (Perl, Python, Ruby, PHP) and relational databases very well (well, MySQL and PostgreSQL). I can set up and code a simple website very easily.
- I'm as organized as they come.
- Umm... I'm a gifted photographer.

I'm mature, confident, strong, and calm. Socially, I'm a nerd. In terms of demeanor, somebody called me "Zen" last week (not the first time!). Only trouble is... I'm actually totally fucking crazy and need some serious coddling at home to perform to those standards, and that's why I want to get somewhere else with lower standards or something. It's a lot of work to live up to all of the above. Like I said, I think that the vast majority of the people who work with me would be blown away if they knew about my mental illness. I swear, I'd be voted Least Likely to Be Institutionalized Three Times in the Past Year (and it's true! and they want to give me ECT because I'm still not fucking better! Oh my god).

I currently live in Austin, Texas, and am not very mobile (right now). I have no problem working remotely and flying into wherever every few weeks.

I just have no idea where to start looking. I've had my head down in my own small corner of the tech field, and I'm pretty sure I'm done with it -- it's unstable as hell. But I don't know much about anything else. I used to know web development, ages ago. I'm moderately familiar with mobile technologies. Help me. I feel like I don't have anywhere to go.
posted by sock puppet du jour to Work & Money (21 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: (yes, we're adjusting my meds -- again -- and yes, I've been in weekly therapy for months. It's just becoming obvious that we can continue to fuck with my body and mind with drugs and psychoanalysis for as long as we want -- or go so far as ECT -- but the ultimate problem is the high-stress career. IMO, the mental illness wouldn't be nearly as much of an issue if I lived in Wyoming and fly-fished all day. Actually, that sounds great. Once I learn how to fly fish.)
posted by sock puppet du jour at 10:28 AM on October 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Could you give details about "it would be sweet if I made even close to as much money as I do now" how close is close? 6 figures? (in US dollars?)
posted by pointystick at 10:37 AM on October 31, 2012

I agree that stress makes illness worse, but the primary culprit behind bipolar disorder is a neurological mechanism. It isn't work stress. That being said, imo you should try the ECT. If it were me I would opt for it BEFORE medication therapy. There is a long track record of success with this therapy.

Best of luck to you.
posted by corn_bread at 10:37 AM on October 31, 2012

Two things: if you're still not well it's not the best time to be analysing your skills and deciding on a future caterer, focusing on getting well is a less stressful goal. It sounds like your career change is causing you stress. (Naturally, of course.)

On the other point, I'm not a psychiatrist, I've just worked in private psychiatric clinics.... and ECT has a bad rap. It is actually a really good treatment for the right people. Patients are sedated and it doesn't hurt. They are tested before to make sure they are fit and it's a gradual improvement from a few treatments. I've seen many many patients before and after treatment, and if a competent doctor told me or my loved ones that it was necessary, I would have it.

I hope you improve soon. It must be very worrying for you and your family. Take care.
posted by taff at 10:40 AM on October 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I wouldn't be so quick to leave your current organization, especially since you seem to like the people, the projects and do well there when your bp issues are managed. Switching jobs, let alone careers, is extremely stressful. Plus, it will be difficult to determine during job interviews whether your new employer/insurance plan would be as flexible as your current set-up should your treatment needs require it.

Given that you've been hospitalized this year, your organization clearly knows that something's up. Moreover, they got by somehow while you were away. Did others learn to handle some of your responsibilities? Since you love your job (other than the stress) is there a way to job share with someone else and/or delegate some of your responsibilities to others? Could you negotiate a reduction in hours and/or responsibilities (with appropriate salary adjustments) such that you kept the good stuff but shunted off some of the stress?

What if you started by making a two column list of work reponsibilities you'd like to keep and those you'd like to ditch, given your desire to reduce stress. What does it look like vis-a-vis full or part time work for you, for another person, or additional tasks for the existing crew?

As your situation stabilizes, you might recapture some of those areas or find new ones to add to your portfolio, perhaps ones that will help you move to your next position. Take care.
posted by carmicha at 11:01 AM on October 31, 2012 [4 favorites]

"Move up" rarely means "more on-call," are you sure you're analyzing your career rationally? Typically in technical career paths you have a fork in the road between management and more-technical work, why does your advancement involve more everything than a lower job?
posted by rhizome at 11:05 AM on October 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Have a heart-to-heart with your immediate manager (if they are a human and not an ass) and say "Due to recent health issues, I have to restructure my job. I'd love to stay here, I like the people and I like what I do. Here is what needs to change, can we find me a place in the organization?"

I am sure, given your skill-set that your manager is incented to work with you to come to an accomodation.

Speaking of which, isn't Bi-Polar Disorder part of the ADA? Under ADA wouldn't your employer be required to make reasonable accomodation?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:25 AM on October 31, 2012

Can you get more time off or apply for Long Term Disability before you try to change careers? I feel like doing that might actually make you more stressed; learning new things, making new connections, going down in pay significantly (one of my big bipolar symptoms is compulsive spending, so not having as much money would probably make me cycle more). You could always dial back and step down a few rungs in your current field. Oh, or go work for the state, it's slower. It takes a lot of energy to find another job, especially in another field. I'd probably just stay in a holding pattern?

You might find a good med combo eventually, and be able to return to a semi-normal life. It happens. I'm Bipolar II, I was off work for 3 months this summer because of it (and some other health conditions). I stressed myself out so much that my body and brain just stopped working. I have a very similar job to yours. I'm stable on my meds now and I'm back at work and doing better than I was before I left.

It helped being off work, and I was pretty close to going on Long Term instead of coming back; I couldn't imagine going back while I was at home, but I did it and I'm a lot more functional now. I was going to find another job while I was off, but I decided just to focus on getting better and being functional in my current job for the time being. I had no energy while I was off to even think about it. I haven't started looking yet, just trying to make it through each day.

Oh, can you get your Vitamin D levels checked? Mine were super low and going on a 12 week megadose helped me get stable, along with meds.

I know bipolar I is a different beast entirely, so maybe this advice isn't applicable. Good luck, this disease sucks balls.
posted by hotelechozulu at 11:38 AM on October 31, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks everyone -- things to think about already. Couple of clarifications: yes, full-on whole-hog bipolar 1; I would have made six figures this year if I wouldn't have taken so much unpaid leave already.

This organization isn't very helpful. I asked for accommodations earlier this year -- two hours off every week to attend therapy -- and was denied. In fact, I got written up. Long story. Unfortunately, I don't have a lot of options at other companies in the area. Most everywhere else is having layoffs. In fact, if I hang on a few more years, I stand to make a great deal of money if the company is sold off. (Hundreds of thousands, if not more.)

It's entirely possible I'm not being rational. I know I'm depressed right now. I've seen research that suggests that depressed people -- in particular, suicidally depressed people -- tend to dismiss their options and overstate their helplessness. But lordy, I feel like I don't have a lot of options. I feel trapped. (I don't want the thread to get derailed into feelings of hopelessness and the implications -- but that was the reason I posted in the first place: to get some hope for the future.)

I understand that ECT is a safe and effective treatment, but I don't love my job enough to do it. It feels like a tradeoff. On the other hand, I guess I do love my job enough to take toxic shit like the 15+ pills I take every day. Hmm.
posted by sock puppet du jour at 11:46 AM on October 31, 2012

Are you in work right now or still on leave? Do you have some savings? Can you afford to leave your job and take some time to focus on health while doing something for a few hours a week? Is consulting or freelancing a possibility while you regain your footing?
posted by murfed13 at 11:58 AM on October 31, 2012

Best answer: I understand that you want to remain anonymous, but would it be possible to say more about what you do? When I saw that you mentioned being "on call", my first assumption was that you're in a DevOps or IT role, but it sounds like you're in management, and you're not managing an IT team. That sounds very unusual to me; the only situations I know of where that's expected might be in an early-stage startup where there isn't enough manpower to be around. Without know more about your job role, I can't say for sure, but I'd be very surprised if you couldn't find a position similar to yours that doesn't require being on call.

If you simply don't like the sort of responsibility that comes with being a manager or a team lead, you could find an individual contributor role. It sounds like you'd be making low six-figures if you worked full-time. That's not out of the ordinary in Austin for someone with a few years of experience (and not unheard of for people coming straight out school with a B.S.).

I know you've said that the job market is bad, but have you tried looking for other jobs? I can't speak to your particular sub-field, but the job market for tech people in general is very good right now. A friend of mine threw his resume up online a month ago, and had three job offers at startups offering between $120k-$140k, with equity (in each case, somewhere between the standard .1% and 1%), within two weeks. Another friend of mine found a job within three weeks, after spending the past year and a half hitchhiking. He quit his previous job from a barely post-IPO company, with two years left on his vesting plan (probably worth $300k+), so he's a known flight risk from pretty much any job, and people still wanted to hire him.

I know that taking on a job search when you're depressed and stressed out is hard, but I think that, unless you're in a particularly narrow subfield that's doing very badly, you'll find that it's not that hard to find a good job. And, if you're in a "bad" field, it should be very easy to switch -- employers are desperate for good technical people. Good technical people who have good people skills are gold.

I'm also in Austin. I don't personally have anything for you (we look for people who know assembly like the back of their hand, have a good understanding of computer architecture, and are, hopefully, comfortable busting out a kernel debugger), but I know people at various companies who are looking to hire (because, well, everyone is looking to hire). If you want to MeMail me your resume, or more about your niche, I'd be happy to ask around and see if you're a fit for any of them. But, right now, the job market is so good that if you just search on indeed (which happens to be a local Austin company that's hiring), I have no doubt that you'd find a slew of companies that would love to have you.
posted by suncoursing at 12:30 PM on October 31, 2012 [3 favorites]

ECT is not for your job, it's for you.
posted by taff at 1:09 PM on October 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: To answer your immediate question, I've known technical project managers for large organizations who work part-time. In Austin, you might want to check out National Instruments for that or technical writing. I worked as a web editor and rarely had weeks over 40 hours. They're flexible, hire younger workers, and have great health benefits, too. Pay is under-market, but I know people who've done pretty well there.

Consider, though, that one of the drawbacks of getting a new job is that you won't qualify for FMLA for a year after switching. If you have another episode, that could be difficult.

I'm in a really similar situation to you, by they way (although not as severe), with work being a big trigger. The only way I've found to deal with it is long contracts with breaks in between. I have to stick to COBRA, however, which is pricey.

And I wouldn't discount ECT. It's big and scary, but it's also been around forever and the effects are well studied and known. That's more than you can say for most of the medications out there.
posted by lunalaguna at 1:22 PM on October 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

UT Austin has an interesting Software Developer... pool? I'm not quite sure what to call it. They train people to basically be program managers/software developers and then embed them into groups that need their services, complete a project, then move on to the next thing. I can't speak from experience, but I got the impression that it was a 9-5 job.

Universities (though I'm not sure about UT) typically have pretty generous benefits.
posted by fontophilic at 2:32 PM on October 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks again, everyone.

I'm in the game industry. It's supposed to be sexy and glamorous. It's not. It's small, incestuous, unstable as all hell, and everybody is on call at all times, regardless of role or reason. Oh, the stories I could tell. But that would out me even more. =) I've been in "the industry" for a long time and I like it for a lot of reasons. I'm just starting to think it might kill me.

lunalaguna, thanks for the FMLA tip. I had totally forgotten that I wouldn't qualify for a while if I left for a new job.

I'm married and my spouse has a good job with good benefits, so I think we're okay. We'd have to buckle down on our spending if I quit or took an extended leave, but hey, I've spent a ridiculous amount money this year on THINGS I MUST HAVE NOW NOW NOW (and my out-of-pocket medical costs have been expensive too). Hopefully both of those cost sinks would be reduced if I weren't working and dealing with the subsequent stress.

I'm not very familiar with the requirements behind real long-term disability leave. I always figured I'd be working. (Or winning the lottery and learning how to fly fish.)
posted by sock puppet du jour at 2:44 PM on October 31, 2012

Oh, the game industry. That explains it. With a few, very rare, exceptions, most game companies do not have good work environments. I know folks who worked for Bioware in Austin before the EA acquisition, which was considered a great company to work for (for a game company), and they still worked what, to outsiders, would seem like unreasonably long hours under great stress for relatively low pay. If you really love working with games, then maybe it's worth the tradeoff, but it doesn't sound like you're that enamourmed of it.

My offer to pass your resume around, above, still stands, but I have no doubt that you can easily find a better paying job that exercises the similar skills with much less stress if you're willing to move to a non-game tech company. Game companies look good on the resume because everyone's heard of them, and people in related industries know they're high stress environments. You have the trifecta of good design skills, an ability to program, and good leadership skills, along with work experience which demonstrates that. You may not want to leave your job now, for reasons mentioned above, but you should have no problem finding another position when you decide it's the right time to leave.
posted by suncoursing at 3:01 PM on October 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just get out of games! You sound like a producer type - the equivalent of a project manager, which is a generally high demand skillset and which usually pays more than games for the same amount of, or less work.

Hell, you could ONLY do technical writing and still make a nice amount of money and eliminate most work/people related stressors.

My husband's been in games for 10+ years too and even now that he's on a team/company that's very anti-crunching, they still crunch more than seems reasonable to me(and I used to work in tech too! game company hours are still ridiculous to me)!

Also, freelance project management is a thing, and you could be a GODSEND for those companies.
posted by sawdustbear at 4:28 PM on October 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

Bipolar Disorder - Americans With Disabilities Act (part I) | (part II)

If your company has fewer than 15 employees, they are not required to follow the ADA. However, if they do, you could file a complaint with the EEOC if you were so inclined.

New career? There's a ton of shit you could do. I don't think you even need to leave the industry. What about community management? Forum moderation and the like. Maintaining the web site. Social media interactions. Freelance writing about the game industry to help prop up your income until you can get your disorder managed.

I'm bipolar, and I'm on disability. My dream career, if I could do my life over again, would not involve any of the tech shit I used to do. (I was Unix/Network admin at a large ISP.) I wouldn't want to be in charge of anything. I would want to be given assignments and then complete them. Feeding animals at the zoo. Typing letters. Data entry. Medical transcription. Some boring job that I could leave at work when I left. I totally get where you're coming from. Like you, I'm pretty smart, and it can be disappointing to not live up to your potential, but I think it's better to be happy than successful.

I know ECT is more and more commonly recommended for bipolar disorder, and it has been recommended to me on more than one occasion. I just can't bring myself to do it, even though I have been extraordinarily treatment resistant. I understand your reluctance, and it's totally ok if you don't want to do it. Or if you do. Just don't let anyone pressure you into something you're not comfortable with.
posted by xyzzy at 5:13 PM on October 31, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: My good friend who was in basically the identical situation to you (swap IT for management consulting - otherwise all the same details) arranged with her employer to switch to being a contractor instead of a standard employee. She now works for them for a month now and again, and then takes two months or more off to recover (and does a bit of writing and/or teaching sometimes during the recovery months although the contractor pay is good enough that she doesn't strictly need to). Sometimes they just call her in to provide advisory services during a case, so she only has to work for a couple of days at a stretch.

Since you say you are at the top of your profession, I imagine your services are equally highly in demand and you are probably getting paid enough you could live off less salary than you have now, so I don't see why the same shouldn't work for you.
posted by lollusc at 5:41 PM on October 31, 2012

Response by poster: Ooh, freelance project management sounds really appealing, from what I can find. It sounds like a good fit for my skill set -- laterally, even, maybe with minimal training. Leadership, organization, confidence, judgment..

But is it possible to get into remote, freelance work if you don't have direct experience in either the field (say... mobile apps) or the job (project management as a discipline)? I imagine the first few jobs are hard regardless.

I'll be discussing options with my employer soon, thanks to everybody's support. I agree it would be much easier to stay where I'm at. lollusc's friend's consulting gig sounds really ideal, but I'm not sure if I can pull it off.

Anyway, I feel a lot better. Thanks again.

I'm also feeling a bit better about ECT as a potential option for my disorder. I'll probably start a thread about that when my timer's up (or you can volunteer me a MeMail in the meantime).
posted by sock puppet du jour at 7:31 PM on October 31, 2012

Yes, ECT is supposed to be very effective, but I would hazard a guess that most of your situation is due to stress. So you diminish your stress - which means going down a level work-wise or going independent.

Generally, you need to be in an environment that is more supportive of your health (which is why working for yourself might be good) - I think getting written up is yet another sign this is not the right environment for you. Yes, you might make a heap of money if you hang in longer, but, shit, you're currently living life today and your current life is not making you happy. What is the point of the money if you're miserable?

My first thought was project management or some kind of consulting work.

On preview - If you can sell yourself enough, direct experience should not be necessary. Do you have the skills to do it - if you can show people that, that will be enough (your existing skills are transferable).
posted by heyjude at 7:40 PM on October 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

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