After raising two kids alone and running the family business, this manager stops denying her diagnosis and seeks tools to manage her bipolar I disorder.
Raising two children as a single parent. Climbing the professional ladder into the upper executive echelons. Doing it all while yo-yoing emotions made most days a study in fortitude.
That is the bare-bones backstory for Simone, 44. The companion narrative: Reluctance to fully accept her bipolar diagnosis. In consequence, a less-than-wholehearted commitment to treatment and recovery. Finally, after nearly two decades of turmoil, throwing her considerable determination and smarts into a successful wellness plan.
In retrospect, Simone can trace signs of bipolar depression back to her teens. It didn’t help that as an African American growing up in then-largely white Portland, Oregon, she felt simultaneously self-conscious and unseen. She was just 16 when that sense of alienation sent her across the country to Hampton University, a historically black college in Virginia.
The teenager put intense pressure on herself to succeed. At the same time, she lacked healthy coping skills and a support network. Instead, she channeled “emotional angst” into episodes of self-harm—leading to a hospitalization during her junior year and an initial diagnosis of depression.
Life after college proved no less challenging. She started a job as an administrative assistant at a Boeing plant near Seattle. She met and married a man who had an infant son. Four weeks into the marriage, the newlyweds learned Simone was pregnant.
“I went from no children to two very quickly,” she says.
The marriage dissolved within a few years. By the time the couple divorced in 2002, Simone had sole custody of her daughter and adopted son, ages 2 and 4.
Meanwhile, her mood symptoms were escalating—shifting between depressive and elevated states 10 to 15 times in a day. In 2003, she was diagnosed with bipolar I.
Simone dealt with single parenthood, her full-time job with an environmental services company in Portland, and her emotional instability as best she could.
“I struggled on both ends of the day,” she recalls of the getting her kids up and out in the mornings, ferrying them to activities, and shepherding them through to bedtime. By the end of the week, “I could barely get out of bed.”
She still feels guilty that her growing children spent so many hours alone on the weekends, playing with one another in the backyard—or going to the movies together when they were older and more independent—while she slept through the day.
Simone remains grateful for her parents’ support during that period. They babysat on Wednesday nights so she could exercise or visit with a friend, and subsidized her rent when she was too sick to work.
“My parents and sister [NBC Chicago journalist Marion Simone] combined resources to pay for my rent until I could afford to do it on my own. It prevented me from becoming homeless,” Simone explains.
“So many people who grapple with mental illness don’t have that safety net.”
Her safety net strengthened when Simone joined the family business, a professional staffing firm, in 2006. She ultimately worked her way up to president of Simone Staffing, with a six-year detour managing hazardous waste at a Superfund site.
Working with family had its perks—for example, the flexibility to leave early if she needed to get her children or attend a therapy appointment. Simone appreciates the compassion and understanding she was given.
“There wasn’t any blame for having bipolar disorder or the challenges it came with,” she says.
The downside of working for her parents, she notes, was trying to shield them from her drastic mood fluctuations.
“If they knew, I would have to manage their concerns, as well as mine, and [that] was too much,” she explains. Instead, she adopted a “fake it till you make it” strategy.
A RIVER IN EGYPT
For years, denial that her depression was part of a bipolar spectrum made long-term stability an iffy prospect for Simone. She rebelled against the bipolar diagnosis because in her mind, “that’s what crazy people have.” She wasn’t consistent about taking her medication, because the pills were “a reminder there was something wrong with me.”
She was 39 when she made her first real shift toward acceptance. At a business conference, someone recommended The Dream Manager: Achieve Results Beyond Your Dreams by Helping Your Employees Fulfill Theirs, by Matthew Kelly.
Somehow, doing the exercises in the book and writing down her dreams for the future “made me look at my life a little differently,” Simone says.
In addition to seeing mental health professionals, Simone has benefited greatly from working with professional coaches. Her coaching covers practical problem-solving—keep a supply of medication at the office just in case—as well as goal setting.
For example, her first coach “insisted that I maintain a good support system,” she notes. That pushed her to invest in developing female friendships.
“I went from having two people I’d call friends to being surrounded by eight girlfriends on my 40th birthday…. Having friends who accepted my illness, could watch for my mood shifts, loved me as I was, was incredibly helpful.”
She also draws support from her longtime romantic partner, who continues to weather her emotional storms.
DBT & ME
Simone has high praise for dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), an approach that emphasizes mindfulness, developing interpersonal skills, learning to tolerate distress, and regulating emotional extremes. It’s typically provided as a course comprising group-based skills training plus individual sessions with the therapist. “I didn’t want to be in therapy the rest of my life,” Simone says. “I wanted tools to manage the severe emotions I was feeling and to live more independently—to not feel like such a victim.”
Her therapist also helped her recognize that after each relapse, she gained greater self-knowledge and strength. “I realized that my recoveries were faster, that my climbs to remission were not so steep,” she says. “I now know how to manage my illness so it doesn’t manage me.”
In fact, Simone maintained her newfound stability through recent major life changes—including becoming an “empty nester” and making a career switch after Simone Staffing closed in 2018. She’s heading into her second year as an assistant city manager in Hillsboro, Oregon.
“I haven’t had a bad day yet,” she says.
• • • • •
What Works for Simone
GOING TO THE MAT: Simone practices yoga five mornings a week. “It brings me the ability to, for a moment, shift my mind away from the internal monologue and become present in my skin.” She recommends the free Yoga with Adriene videos on YouTube.
MEDS IN THE MORNING: Simone has trained herself to take her medication as soon as she awakens. “I leave water next to my bed. I have the bottles set up in the same configuration daily so it’s easy to pull the right meds at the right dosages. The rhythm of taking them out and setting them up has become almost soothing.”
SAVVY SCHEDULING: Simone works long hours on top of a long commute, but she prioritizes healing activities such as journaling, massages, and get-togethers with her girlfriends in her free time.
Printed as “My Story: Tackling Recovery with Grit,” Fall 2019
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