Lower my expectations!
May 9, 2015 7:50 PM   Subscribe

I have bipolar II disorder and anxiety that's led me to recognize that my dreams are not realistic. What are good careers for people with mental health issues, how can I adjust my goals and expectations accordingly?

Apologies for this massive wall of text/tmi.

I'm a 21 year old woman about to graduate college. When I was 14 I was diagnosed with rapid-cycling bipolar II disorder and generalized/social anxiety. I've been in therapy and on medication (with some breaks) ever since. I'm really depressed and anxious almost all of the time, and have no energy. The rare times that I don't feel terrible are the occasional day or two when I'm hypomanic, and even then I have anxiety attacks, and do impulsive things I regret. I cannot remember the last time I felt happy or even just okay. Meds (currently just lamictal, but I've tried several) and therapy have helped somewhat, but after this many years and medications I've given up on the idea that I will ever be able to get over or even really ameliorate my disorders. It feels like this is just how I am and always will be.

I feel like I've wasted college, if not totally fucked it up. I majored in philosophy with a Chinese minor (I know, super practical). I'm smart, but I've had a lot of trouble getting papers in on time, or at all. I've gotten low grades in classes I should have aced just because I wasn't able to get all the work in. I feel like I cannot think clearly 99% of the time, and procrastinate heavily. The end result is that my GPA right now is a 3.2 - there's still the chance I could raise it by turning in overdue work, and so absolute best case I end up with a 3.4.

I really enjoy philosophy, and professors have strongly encouraged me to pursue it. But I feel like my GPA/undergrad struggles and general mental health issues rule out pursuing academia as a career. I’m interested in law, and got a 174 on the LSAT without much studying. But from everything I’ve heard here and elsewhere, law school and law practice is incredibly stressful and not suitable for anyone with mental health issues. I've studied Mandarin for three years, although I'm nowhere near proficient. I’m really interested in international affairs in general and China in particular. I'd love to go to grad school for international relations, and then try to join the Foreign Service, or work on China policy in some form. But again, my mental health issues makes all of this feel like a pipe dream. Even living in China or Taiwan for a year or two to try to improve my fluency seems like too much to hope for, given how difficult it is now when I have a support system right here.

I feel like by trying to be realistic I've whittled my dreams down to nothing. It's hard to hold on to hope that I'll get better when it's been so long and I'm still so fucked up. People who don't know my shit tell me that I'm extremely intelligent and could do whatever I want to, but I feel like my depression and anxiety disqualify me from pursuing any of my dreams or any career path that might actually utilize my skills. I'm trying to accept that, but now I don't know what I should aim for. I'm scared to even apply to real jobs because I feel like I wouldn't be able to handle them. Everything I've considered doing with my life feels unattainable, but I'm not sure what reasonable goals would be, or how to let go of all the things I want to achieve.
posted by cosmic owl to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Honestly, your dreams may be unrealistic for you and that is ok. I suggest you begin by finding a full time job (do you have any prior work experience?) and seeing how you fare. Work is different from school and usually lacks the homework part which might be good for you. I suggest a retail/service (management if you have any relevant experience) position for you. When your shift ends you don't have to think about it again until the next shift. There is no homework and each day is a fresh start. Also the flexible hours might suit you as you could trade of days if you are having an episode.

I have know people able to hold it together in the work place when they had issues similar to yours in school. If you find that showing up on time and putting in a days work is manageable than shoot bigger!
posted by saradarlin at 8:18 PM on May 9, 2015

Best answer: I'm also rapid cycle bipolar and it sounds to me (I am not a doctor and all that good stuff) like you're on the wrong meds. Sometimes, you've gotta go through a few of them before you hit that sweet spot of, "Oh, so this is what it feels like to be 'normal'." It took me 25 years before I was able to get my shit together (I was diagnosed at 19), but I refused to take meds for 15 years of that because I was young and stupid. That means it took a good five years of the med go round before I found the right meds that worked well enough for me to stabilize enough to start walking the straight and narrow, and then another five years for me to get it together enough to get through college.

I have a MA in English, BTW. So college is doable. And a 3.2 isn't a horrible GPA. I know people who aren't mentally interesting who can't pull that off, so don't be hard on yourself. I say try grad school, maybe talk to your doctor and let him/her know that your meds aren't working the way they should be, because, honestly, they don't sound like they are.
posted by patheral at 8:19 PM on May 9, 2015 [10 favorites]

It took me about ten years, three colleges, and many different meds to get to a good place. Once I found the right meds, my life changed dramatically. I graduated summa cum laude, got a great job, and am currently in grad school with a 3.8 GPA. I know the med thing is a source of debate, but really, getting that right was the best thing I've ever done.
posted by Ruki at 8:23 PM on May 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

You're not "just a fuckup." Nor does intelligence make you capable of doing anything you want. You are an intelligent person with mental health challenges that mean you will need accommodations for most jobs you're qualified for. I'm the same, though I have different issues. My strategy is to document my health issues and know what's covered under ADA, and to work with local state rehab and disability advocate organizations to find the kind of work that will challenge me intellectually but not overtax me health-wise. It's the same as if we had physical disabilities. We have every right to be accommodated.

Check out your local NAMI chapter. That might be a place to begin. And you're in frequent contact with a psychiatrist, right? If not, you would benefit from that. Also, if you do need to get on disability one day, it's nothing to be ashamed of. The demands of a typical workplace are not fair, and not easy for anyone, but especially hard for us neurodiverse people. That's why we need accommodations if we're to try living a conventionally productive life.

I repeat, you have nothing to be ashamed of. It sounds like you're self-aware and have accomplished a lot despite severe challenges. Above a 3.0 is a good GPA anyone should be proud of.

Lamictal is good, but you may need more. I know quite a few bipolar people, and most are on about three meds. Some of the ones my friends have mentioned to me are lithium, Seroquel, and Pristiq. Abilify is often used to augment other meds. I wouldn't give up on finding the right combo.

Vocational rehabilitation has helped me, and I encourage you to take advantage of that too. Programs like that are run by state voc rehab offices. Try Googling for it, or talk to the disability office at your school.

Being proactive has made all the difference for the people I know with bipolar disorder. They have challenges, but everyone does. This does not make you a freak and you're not alone.
posted by Beethoven's Sith at 8:26 PM on May 9, 2015 [5 favorites]

Best answer: First, as someone whose entire identity for the first half of my life was based on grades, I'm sometimes chagrined to say this, but nobody will ever ask or care about your grades once you leave academia.

Second, you did not waste college. You could debate whether the money spent on it was equal to the value you've received -- at this point in time -- but much of the value of attending college (relationships and connections, experiences (good and not-so-good), random things learned that are totally unrelated to what you set out to learn) is not appreciable for years or decades later.

Third, you are surrounded by people your own age (and a bit older) who don't have the mental health concerns you're experiencing who are also completely wrecked over what to do next and wondering how they can have any hope for the future based on (what someone of my ripe old age would consider) limited data. I don't say this to minimize what you're going through -- I just want to point out that this scary thing is something you will get through and get past.

Fourth, you are wise to consider that some careers come with greater stressors than others, but that doesn't mean your life options are extremely limited. It's OK to dream big -- if your therapists haven't told you that there are many, many people who have bipolar and anxiety issues who lead happy, healthy successful lives and achieve their (large and small dreams), then a good summer project for you will be to read about people who have done just that, as it may give you confidence to emulate their more positive life skills. You get to define what success for you means, and it won't always mean the same thing; a bad day at 48 can be shockingly better than a good day at 25. But why not have tiny and small and medium dreams for along the way, too?

Fifth, without know more about what you absolutely have a passion for (as philosophy and Chinese are probably not the only things that fascinate you), it's hard to make career suggestions. But I've got another secret for you. The careers we pick at 21 are almost assuredly not the ones we'll be in at 36 or 52. (I went to grad school because I was positive that even though I had a degree in what I wanted to do, I had no marketable skills. After grad school, I got a job and realized that I had gained information, but not skills, in grad school, and that I was already equipped to do (or to learn how to do) what I needed to do. And then I ended up in a completely and entirely different career -- one that didn't even EXIST when I was 21, based on passions, interests and (some skills) largely unrelated to that first career. And now, I'm simultaneously, as I approach the half-century mark, making gains in a third career. Trust me, a random stranger on the web -- you will be AMAZED by all that will happen in your life and career that you could not have reasonably expected.

My point? YOU'RE NOT STUCK. You are just beginning, and while the bipolar and anxiety will make things much more difficult than for the easypeasy kids, I bet if you looked at someone else who had all of your attributes as well as your health issues (or completely different, but similarly demanding, health issues), I bet you'd have more hope on that person's behalf. So, as difficult as it is, please don't give up hope.

You can be interested in law without being an attorney. Perhaps you might work for a non-profit that helps immigrants secure social services and legal representation, and you could help translate for them. Or maybe you will find a career path (with the help of your university's career services department and personal contacts) in a different direction, using bits and pieces of what you've learned academically and otherwise.

I know others will provide advice about meds and medical treatment, and about career searching options. My best piece of advice is always to take a deep breath and take tiny steps in a positive direction. That might mean talking to your doctor (or a new doctor) about better meds, and getting more support for doing some behavioral training to achieve your goal tasks, and talking to experts about career paths suited to your passion and abilities.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 8:28 PM on May 9, 2015 [11 favorites]

I just want to say that your school performance probably wouldn't keep you from anything you wanted to do. If you got a 174 on the LSAT without much studying, you are obviously really, really smart (as you and others know) and mental health issues aside there are many things you could do to compensate for a not amazing GPA (that also isn't bad at all, even if it's not what you could've done based on aptitude alone; you had legit struggles to overcome) because you are actually smart enough to prove yourself in other ways (nondegree classes and work experience when your mental health is under control, standardized tests, blah blah). So please don't think based on your performance you've ruined your chances for academia or law (you could get into splitter friendly T14 schools with your stats as is right now, frankly). I know how much it sucks to know that you could've done so much better, and not because you were even fucking around. But I just really want to assure you that you shouldn't be concerned about that. When things get better for you, avenues like law school and grad school will still be open for you. So if that's a further source of anxiety and depression for you, I hope you believe me.

I think the best thing to do right now, while continuing to aggressively pursue treatment options that will improve your condition, is to pursue your interests in a more low-key way. You don't have to move to China to attain further fluency in Chinese--maybe you could take more nondegree classes, or find a native speaker to practice with, or even hit up one of those language after school programmes Chinese kids often go to find places where adults could go. Similarly, maybe a part time job working in a law office and eventually as a paralegal, could help you gauge your long term interest in law. Law is definitely a stressful career path in general but frankly there are tons of paths within law that aren't like, working as a death row attorney or 90 hours a week in a biglaw firm. Something like academia for international relations or academic law could be a good option for you a few years down the line.

I don't think there is any reason to believe that you will have to spend the rest of your life 100% debilitated by your disease and stuck in jobs that are not intellectually stimulating to you. Teens and early 20s are often the worst time for mental health issues, and there are people with bipolar who do lead overall great lives with great careers. I'm not saying that it'll ever be sunshines and smiles and no anxiety forever obviously, but that doesn't mean you're doomed to feel as bad as you are feeling now forever--you're already in a situation that is really anxiety inducing for most people, so a few years in the workforce and knowing that it is something you can do might help to start relieving at least the anxiety aspect. It must be extremely frustrating to have dealt with this for so long with no real solution, having tried so many different things, but I think resigning yourself to a live void of your dreams, rather than trying lowkey ways to pursue it that won't be too stressful for you to manage right now + taking baby steps towards your goals, won't help your overall condition either. You may not get to live every dream and some might be impossible because of your bipolar, yes, but I think some will still be possible even with your current limitations.
posted by hejrat at 9:17 PM on May 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

In my personal and professional experiences, one thing that's important for everyone, and is very important for people with MH experiences / conditions, is a good fit between strengths and job tasks. Among your strengths are research, writing, thinking, analysis (I am basing on GPA plus majors plus professors encouraging). Perhaps you have or could develop emotional intelligence and/or the type of social intelligence that helps with relations and strategy. All of these traits can contribute to an interesting life path / career. Maybe along the lines you are thinking, or maybe another line. Don't sell that short. There may be a few paths that are closed or difficult (and each of those would be debatable), but there are many open.

(Disclaimer: Biased and projecting. I was very symptomatic / ill at the same age (in college and law school) as you now, and later stabilized with, inter alia,* positive job set-up and medication, and have over time had really positive employment experiences.) *For all the meta-lawyers/law students
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:49 PM on May 9, 2015 [5 favorites]

2nd ClaudiaCenter. Boredom is stressful, as is feeling you lack control over your conditions. So is a sense of lack of accomplishment, if you're the type who wants it (and have the capacity, as you do).

I think you'll have to make careful choices about how to live and manage your condition, but I don't think the answer is to "aim low".
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:16 PM on May 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

Rather than lowering your expectations, why not try minimizing them? I was a 21 year old college grad with a 3.2 who felt like I had wasted my time in undergrad. But at one point, I decided that, rather than feeling sad that my birthday didn't look like a John Hughes movie or that my vacation wasn't all Instagram and nights to remember, I'd go into things without any expectations. Then a good day is a good day, not an okay day that would have been *perfect* if someone had just known to do something that I couldn't articulate.

You sound smart. Smart people frequently struggle with expectations. So don't. Think about what you want to do. After college, I applied for jobs that sounded interesting. Then I got one and did that for a while until I decided to do something else. I didn't have a career arc in mind, I was just following my interests. Why not try that for a bit? If you find you don't like something, try something else. The people in college who seem to have their entire lives planned out are the people who will have midlife crises in the near future.

You're 21 and about to graduate? You're not a screw-up. Life after undergrad is stressful but it is what you make it, so make it yours. Good luck!
posted by kat518 at 10:37 PM on May 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

I have a good friend with rapid cycling bipolar who spends about six months inpatient every couple of years: that's how not-quite-right her meds are. But meanwhile she did law school, a PhD, spent five or six years working for a top management consulting company, and is now in med school (currently derailed by a serious episode, but likely to be able to return if all goes okay.)

So it is possible. That's not to say you should put pressure on yourself if it's not possible for you, or not right now, but don't automatically discount your dreams either.

Moreover, it sounds like you are smart enough and educated enough to work in a professional career.I think you should aim as high as you can. An employer who values your skill set rather than just seeing you as a replaceable warm body (as in eg retail or whatever) is likely to be more flexible about your needs for time off, if you need to switch to part time, or other requirements that might arise. And professional jobs have better benefits and sick leave policies too.
posted by lollusc at 11:32 PM on May 9, 2015 [6 favorites]

I have a friend who has similar issues who eventually went into business for himself, with the help of his wife. I have ADHD, test high on Asperger's self-exams, and probably have some other candy tucked away in the bottom of the Christmas stocking that I haven't discovered yet. I would suggest:

1. Jobs that have a great deal of flexibility, without a direct supervisor

2. Something you enjoy, even if it pays a little less.

I've been on temporary assignment, away from my academic job, working in a rigidly corporate environment for two years, and it has taken a toll on my health and relationships.
posted by mecran01 at 11:49 PM on May 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

Nthing get your meds sorted out.

If it's any consolation, I got a low-average score on my undergrad degree. I'm now working in academia in a top institution after I aced my part-time Master's, after several years in industry.

Since you're good at law and have the paper credentials to prove it, maybe you could fold law into your future philosophy research.

But first, get your meds sorted out.
posted by tel3path at 3:38 AM on May 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Take it from someone who tried to act as if she never had any issues: you're wise to think now about how you can best navigate the world of work with limitations.

Dreams and concepts are just that: smoke. It's impossible to say right now where you'll land. But getting a support team on your side, in addition to whatever resources this bootstrapper country can offer you, will only help you.

A cautionary tale from a person with experience: for some of us, there is no "fix." And of course in Western culture that's anathema. But trying to fix yourself, or submitting to the medical community to do it, can be like struggling against quicksand. Medical treatment options for mental health issues are a lifesaver for some, a marginally acceptable alternative for others, and a life-denier for still others. Acceptance of limitations/fate can save some of us a hell of a lot of time and pain.

OP, only you can ultimately know which boat you're in, and it may be too soon to tell. You're in my thoughts and I hope you will find a reliable path through the forest.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 5:22 AM on May 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Nthing "don't think you have to aim low!" There was a New York Times article about a woman with a very serious mental illness who had a high-powered career - and that career, and the personal connections and meaning she derived from it, actually helped keep her happy and functional.

I would say it's the particular job environment you want to look out for. Two things I've seen derail people with mental health issues: extremely long hours, and a toxic boss and work environment. Steer clear of any job which has 80-hour weeks, constant travel, or where you're expected to be available via email or text at all hours. Sleep, leisure, and exercise are as important for mental health as they are for physical. And get a good feel for the atmosphere when you are interviewing for a job - the Ask A Manager column is very helpful for work advice. Don't take the job if there is any indication that your boss is toxic - a horrible boss can drive anyone to depression and anxiety.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 5:27 AM on May 10, 2015 [5 favorites]

I found that the relentless, strict calendar of academia plus the nature of the academic work I used to have to do (endless library research and writing lots of long term papers) was excessively anxiety-producing and not a good environment for me at all. The professional workplace turned out to be significantly better, because (generally) there was much more flexibility when you needed it - want to take a vacation? Take a vacation! Need a mental health day? Call in sick and take a mental health day. And no one is grading your work or expecting you to do additional work at night or asking you to write a 20 page paper on anything, unless you specifically go in for a job where you'd have to do that. My point is, if there are tasks in the school environment that leave you paralyzed with anxiety, you can easily find a good job that doesn't involve them.

And I wouldn't set the bar low when searching for a job once you graduate from college. Your language skills are very useful and all my philosophy major friends have really interesting careers in a variety of fields - IT, law, journalism, communications - because critical thinking and writing skills are in fact quite valuable. Maybe you'll find the professional workplace is a much more suitable environment and the challenges are enjoyable. What I wouldn't do is jump right into graduate school or law school if you haven't found a stable medication thing that is working for you. (Did you try exercise? I tried so many meds and I wish someone had told me back in college to try exercise, because wow, did it help a lot - with stress, sleep issues, everything.)
posted by citron at 7:21 AM on May 10, 2015 [8 favorites]

A 3.2? Is a perfectly fine GPA. You're not going to get into Harvard law on it, no, but you could get into a perfectly good law school, or a masters program (it took me 11 years and a 2.999 GPA to get through undergrad and I was fully funded in my masters program, and I'm a professor now), or you could take your perfectly fine GPA and your critical thinking skills (I can't favorite citron's comment enough) and find an interesting job and go from there (don't spend the time and/or money on post undergrad studies until you're sure of what you want to do. Go work somewhere for awhile without having to worry about school, get to whatever looks like stable for you, and then decide about more school.)

My wife has bipolar disorder and other health issues. She's a vet with an 80% disability rating (vets on disability are still allowed to work on disability, as long as it’s not 100%, and even then sometimes they can, but anyhow… ) She's also back in school in biology with a 3.4 GPA, after a successful career in corrections (though as Rosie M. Banks astutely noted, the 80 hour weeks and toxic environment were eventually going kill her, despite having intermittent FMLA which let her take a mental health day whenever she needed one, which is why she's back in school). She's had two episodes since we've been together, one of which was externally induced (meds interactions are a bitch) and one of which put her in the ER last fall. But otherwise, the VA finally has her on a med regimen that seems to be working, she's got two healthy adult relationships, which helps a lot, she's finally doing what she wants to be doing. She's doing well, bipolar, TBI, and all.

We don't know what's going to happen in the end. Things may get worse. Things may get better. Things may stay stable. She's talking professional school or grad school, she's talking CSI, she's got lots of options. I make a decent living and I have options for making a better living. If things go really downhill, she can work part time or get 100% rated and we'll be fine. We're going to just have to adjust and see how things go as we go along. What she’s doing is between me and her (and the VA, unfortunately). She puts a lot of pressure on herself about what she ‘should’ be doing, and I keep telling her that as long as she’s happy and healthy and above ground, I don’t care. We’re going to have to find the sweet spot for us and ignore anyone else who tries to tell us ‘oh, she’s so smart, she should be doing X’. My wife being alive and healthy is priority number 1.

So that's one side of things, and you'll get a lot of "no, really, you can do it" on the green. On the other hand, Sheydem-tants isn't wrong - everyone is different, and everyone with mental health issues manages differently. Some folks with mental health issues go on to be rockstar phds, some end up managing their local grocery store, some end up on disability. You're going to be getting a lot of folks who tell you that, with your interests and intelligence, that you need to graduate college and immediately go out and Save The World! Join the Foreign Service while you are Young and Unencumbered and Don't Have Kids Yet and You Can Do It! (Caps intentional.) Sound familiar? A lot of people (including the one in your own head) are going to tell you that you’re a fuck-up if you’re not doing Great Things.

Don’t listen to them.

We’re all doing great things. Folks in organizations like Doctors without Borders, that are out saving the world? Someone put together the trucks they’re using, someone was the account manager at the drug company that sold them the meds they’re using, and someone sold them their morning caffeine so they could get to class and graduate and do their thing. We’re all doing great things, and don’t listen to anyone (especially yourself) that tells you you’ve fucked up or that you’re ‘wasting your time’ if you’re not doing what they feel like is The Right Thing with your degree or your life. You’re 21 and you have a 3.2 GPA and you’re getting ready to graduate with a philosophy degree (which is FREAKING HARD) and you study Chinese (also hard). You’re doing great. (I’ll tell you a secret - I’m also an advisor, and the folks with a 2.0 that come through my office? Get jobs too.) We’re all doing great things, no matter what we’re doing.

So, graduate. Get a job, it doesn’t really matter what, as long as you enjoy it and you’re not super stressed out. (Or do some volunteering, if you’ve got the monetary means to do so right now and don’t have to get a full time job right away. Or work part time, if you feel like that’s what you can handle right now. It sounds like test prep might be a good match for you, or tutoring, and both can be fairly lucrative for the time you put in.) Figure out what happy and stable looks like on you. Futz with your meds, if you need to do that, and work on developing a life that isn’t just school or just work. Lean on your support network - none of us can do anything without help from other folks (I even have “But I need more than myself this time” tattooed on my left arm to remind myself of that). Stop worrying so much about whether you’re wasting time - none of the goals you mentioned are going anywhere. China isn’t going anywhere. The Foreign Service isn’t going anywhere. Try (I know this is hard) to stop worrying about what you ‘should’ do. The only way to figure out what’s going to be reasonable and realistic for you is to get out there and do some stuff and see what works. Aim for a job, aim for paying your bills, aim for feeling stable and healthy, and then go from there - and don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you’re wasting your time, especially your own head.

Hang in there. And hey - congratulations on graduating! :)
posted by joycehealy at 9:01 AM on May 10, 2015 [12 favorites]

Best answer: From an anonymous commenter:
Cosmic Owl, even though I am not you, I know that the fact that you may feel, deep down in your core, that you are simply incapable does not mean it is true. I can't guarantee you that it WILL get better--but how things feel right now is not an inevitable, unchangeable fact of your life.

Here are the ways I am similar to you:
-Rapid cycling Bipolar II disorder, diagnosed at age 19; also Generalized Anxiety Disorder and ADHD, meaning...
-When I am/was symptomatic, I did not have periods of feeling normal "ever," including when I was just on Lamictal; I was unhappy and very very anxious all the time
-Very similar struggles academically
-GPA was around 3.3 when I graduated and I got a 171 on the LSAT

This is what happened after I graduated from college at 21:
-My life was hard
-I was a mess, spent several years trying out different medications
-Had a terrible work history and barely worked for the next few years
-Was certain most of the time that working full time in a reliable manner was something I could never handle
-Then when I tried ADHD meds for the first time I finally applied to law school

This is how law school went:
-Went to a lower "T14" school (and had generous scholarship offers at non-elite but respectable schools)
-Life was still hard and I still felt depressed & anxious a lot
-Continued messing with meds but finally tried Seroquel, which basically saved my life
-Did internships I liked, was motivated to do well at those, and built up a good resume
-I needed to go part time at one point and the Dean of Students was totally unfazed; he said we had a lot of students with bipolar disorder and working around students' health problems is something that happens all the time

And after that:
-I have a job I love
-Life is still hard but it's way better than it was at 21
-I have those days where I feel like I am a total failure and am going to get fired...but 9 months in and I'm still here.

There was no stage at which I felt consistently confident that I could accomplish any of the things I have accomplished until I actually did them. But I've kept plugging along. And I don't think my life would have been easier had I chosen a less demanding professions. I would have been struggling no matter what because my mental illness is here to stay; I might as well struggle while doing something I like.

So right now, you don't believe you can do it. That belief is hard to shake and you will always be able to find "evidence" to support it, especially when you feel like shit. But actually doing something is the ONLY was to REALLY know for sure what you can do.

And look, maybe some of your ideas would go well, maybe some won't, but there is absolutely nothing to gain from whittling down your dreams.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:47 AM on May 10, 2015 [6 favorites]

My "street cred": Cycling cycles of Bipolar I and Bipolar II both, so my dx is Mood Disorder NOS. (I wanted to add them together and get Bipolar III, but my psychiatrist said no.) Other dxes: panic disorder with agoraphobia, OCD, and a whole slew of physical conditions, most of which contribute to the chronic pain I've been in for 2/3 of my life. Four cumulative years in four different colleges with four different majors before four different drop-out reasons, with a cumulative GPA somewhere around 3.8. Work history ranging from convenience store to fast food to private security to tutoring to librarian to retail to direct sales. Meds and moods all over the freaking place until the last few months, where things have finally started to feel stable.

I'm going to join Team You Can Do Anything You Want To Do. Bipolar isn't a death sentence, and neither is a 3.2 GPA. Your anxiety is likely what's got you catastrophizing that your life is over before it's even begun. In my not-a-doctor opinion, you've not yet found the right medication balance to treat your illnesses. That's why you think that even with your intelligence, persistence, resilience, and endurance, you're doomed to a life of mediocrity.

I don't know a lot about a philosophy major, so I did a quick Google search to see what kind of career options there are out there. From a quick scan of a few of the results, it looks like the shorter list would be what kind of careers are not suitable for philosophy majors. And even that list might not exist; it looks like the critical thinking and analytical skills philosophy teaches you are highly sought after in all career fields.

I was just discussing foreign languages with my housemate the other day. He had just learned that the high school his kids attend is no longer going to offer Mandarin as a language option, as there's not much use for it in rural central Kentucky. I was saddened by this news, because if any of these kids ever want to leave rural central Kentucky, Mandarin is probably one of the top two or three languages that would really come in handy in the larger world. (Another quick Google shows that Mandarin is the native language of approximately 1 billion people, more than double the number of native Spanish speakers, and triple the number of native English speakers. I love it when I'm right.) Your minor in Mandarin would be incredibly helpful in whatever career field you aim towards. Employees are often paid more if they're bilingual. Something like 1/3 of all businesses in the US are either owned or based abroad, and about 80% of businesses say that their sales would increase if their staff were more competent in international experience. Want to work in government? With your knowledge of Mandarin, you could garner large signing bonuses and/or part of your student loans paid if you go to work for the National Security Agency.

I truly believe, with all my heart, that once you get your meds straight (and let me just second whoever it was above that said most of us are on 3+ meds - I'm on 3 myself), you'll see just how much you have accomplished, and how much more you can accomplish. You go, girl.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 10:36 AM on May 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

Here's something to think about — there's many more tools in the coping toolbox than therapy and meds alone. Yes, absolutely make sure your meds are dialed in and working reasonably well; absolutely keep therapy appointments. But they are not enough, all on their own, to manage a mood disorder.

You also have to use tools like:

-eating healthily and well (for whatever other health issues/family history/allergies you might have);
-keeping good sleep hygiene;
-exercising regularly;
-self-soothing behaviors;
-anger management;
-predictable routines/stable living arrangements;

You have to use more tools, and practice using those tools, until using the tools is so second nature, you can do it even when your brain is telling you otherwise. At only 21, you probably haven't had much practice as an adult using all those tools, but have some faith that you will get better at it.

Your dreams aren't necessarily unattainable because of your mood disorder. Going to grad school for international relations and then joining the foreign service is totally doable, with some work and serious effort. You might not get into the grad school of your choice because of your GPA, but you'd definitely get into grad school, and there's no law against transferring later.

That said, I'm seconding joycehealy's comment about how people will tell you you're a failure if you're not doing Great Things.™ Ignore them. You were not put on this earth to live up to other people's expectations. If I lived up to the expectations put on me on your age, I'd have had to have been in the FBI, CIA, Peace Corps, and Air Force. Trust me, it's impossible to make everyone else happy about your life choices, so decide on a reasonable standard of expected behavior (e.g. I will not be cruel to others), and then let the rest go.

So apply to grad schools, and see what happens. Use the time between now and then to keep on practicing all the tools in your coping toolbox. There are more people with mood disorders in academia than you'd believe. You'll fit right in.

FWIW, I'm in my 40s, bipolar, and have been managing it for 20+ years.
posted by culfinglin at 4:28 PM on May 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

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