Bipolar and Work

Someone said something interesting to me online a week or two ago.  They said they thought that it was strange (I think that was a polite way of saying “stupid”) that I had mentioned in my blog and on my twitter feed that I have bipolar at a time when I was also looking for a job.  It’s not something that had really crossed my mind until that point and, as you can see, the comment obviously hasn’t put me off talking about it again.  What it did reiterate, however, was the public’s perception of mental health issues.  I’ve already discussed this before in relation to depictions of mental health problems in film and TV – and, since that post, I have since seen the fourth series of Canadian cop show Rookie Blue, which really should be ashamed of itself in its depiction of someone with bipolar as an obsessive stalker who puts people’s lives at risks through her actions.  We appear to take two steps forward but then one step back.  (That said, I still have a soft spot for Rookie Blue).

Now, all of that isn’t to say that bipolar makes a career or a job an easy thing, and I’m the first to admit that choosing a profession carefully so that you can somehow accommodate your highs and lows is a priority.  However, we don’t live in a time where people can pick and choose where they work or what they do.  Six years after the banking crisis, a job is a job and many need to grab whatever they can find.  Despite that, allowances need to be made and realism has to play a part because bipolar or depression or any other mental health condition is likely to cause issues at some point.

Let’s take, for an example, a job in an office in which the employee is expected sit at their desk and process 100 forms per day.   The chances of me, with bipolar, being able to perform at the same level constantly day after day, week after week, is highly unlikely.  By the very definition of the condition, one day might result in 200 forms being processed, and yet on another I might struggle to get 30 done.  A daily deadline of this kind is therefore not really feasible; during a depressive phase everything I do is almost in slow motion. However, a weekly or monthly target is certainly possible.  So, if instead of 100 forms a day, I was told I needed to 500 per week or 2000 per month, that would be fine, as I could make the most of the times when I was feeling OK and therefore give myself breathing space for when the inevitable down periods came along.

I’ve been studying for the best part of eight years, through my BA, MA and then PhD, but I did work full time for nine years before I started studying.  I hope things have changed in the workplace since then, and there is more understanding of conditions such as bipolar and depression.  I remember having a particularly bad spell back in 1998 and having some time off work because of it.  Most colleagues tried to be understanding, although the truth is that they didn’t understand because people were less educated about these conditions back then.  On my return to work, I was constantly asked if I was “OK”, and my line manager at the time told me my work needed to be checked thoroughly by her because of my “mental instability”.  The truth was that my work was fine, it was just me who wasn’t.  However, I got to the stage where I realised pretending I was fine was the way forward.  So I started going to work each day, assuming a bright and breezy cheerful persona for eight hours in order to stop all the questions, and then arrived home knackered each night because I had been putting in an eight hour acting performance of which Laurence Olivier would have been proud.

As it happens, the coping mechanisms that many of us have in place after having these conditions for so long probably make us more reliable workers than many others.  I knew I had to work around the bipolar while I was studying, and so would get coursework done a week or two in advance of the deadline in order to give myself a breathing space in case a bad patch came along.  I did the same with my PhD, finishing it within the three year period and writing a 70,000 word novel alongside it.  That’s not intended  to be a boast, but a sign to potential employers reading this that we are as reliable as anyone else, and to those with the condition it’s a message that it can be worked around if we put out mind to it.

There are shit periods, though, and last week was one of them for me – probably the worst I have been for a couple of years.  Luckily it was short-lived and I seem to be back to “normal” now.  But, even then, the marking of essays still got done on time, and the seminar still got prepared and delivered in the same fashion as any other week.  And no, I didn’t sit at the front of the seminar group rocking back and forth crying and screaming.  At least, if I did, no-one mentioned it afterwards (I jest).

What I’m trying to say here is that the prejudices towards (and misinformation about) those with bipolar and other mental health issues still continue.  Slowly but surely we are hearing of people who have turned their lives around and who are not only living a “normal” life but achieving more than many without the condition.  Determination is a wonderful thing.  Yes, allowances will have to be made at some point – not just by employers, but by friends and family too.  Bipolar isn’t just a pain for the person who has it, but it can be a bastard for the people who have to live with it as well.

And attitudes are changing, especially among the young.  The support amongst the younger generation on social media of campaigns to stamp out mental health stigma is staggering…and beautiful (and the same is true of campaigns to stamp out homophobia and bullying, too).   And a difference is slowly but surely being made.

But there is a long way to go.  If sufferers are going to do their best to live a normal life with their condition, then there needs to be more understanding (or, more accurately, flexibility) amongst employers as well.  Just because mental health issues aren’t always visible doesn’t mean they don’t exist or that there shouldn’t be a certain degree of allowances made within the workplace to accommodate the various ups and downs that come with these conditions.   We’re trying our best, and all that we ask for is that we are met halfway.

Guilty Pleasures #2: The Flaming Urge (1953)



The Flaming Urge is an odd little film for a number of reasons.  Perhaps its biggest appeal is the chance to see Harold Lloyd Jr in the first of his two leading roles in feature films – the other would come a decade later in Married Too Young.

The narrative would have us believe that the film is about a young man called Tom Smith who is a “fire-chaser”.  In other words, he likes to watch fires.  However, this goes beyond a liking on his part, for this is an urge, an addiction.  Tom becomes known as a fire-chaser in the town he has chosen to make his home and is the major suspect when an arsonist goes on the rampage.  Tom knows that he has to find out who the real “fire bug” is in order to clear his name.

The film seems to be coded in order to be read as about something other than fires, however.   Firstly we have the title, The Flaming Urge, with the word “flaming” synonymous with homosexuality.  Furthermore, Tom is not the only “fire-chaser” in town – in fact they seem to crop up with alarming regularity.  What’s more, we’re even told at one point that the “fire-chaser” can be cured by the love of a good woman, which is rather convenient.  Finally, we have the fact that Harold Lloyd Jr was a homosexual himself (and led a rather short, tragic life by all accounts).  Bearing all of this in mind, and the brief whodunit element aside, this little poverty row movie seems to be a film about homosexual urges rather than about urges to chase fires.

harold lloyd

This sounds like a clumsy, pretty awful little film.  However, it’s actually rather enjoyable whether you choose to believe it’s about fires or being gay.   The script is really quite good compared to other cheapies of the period, and even the direction has some interesting touches, and it’s rather a pity that Harold Ericson (whoever he is) didn’t direct more.    The major surprise, though, is Lloyd Jr himself, who acquits himself remarkably well, putting in a believable and rather charismatic performance.  It’s certainly a shame that he didn’t get the chance to act in more prestigious movies over the following decade.

This little curio is available from Alpha Video in a perfectly watchable print, but is also available in full on YouTube.  At just over an hour, it moves along at a fair lick, and is certainly worth seeking out if you fancy a cheap and cheerful undemanding little movie that is either about fires or being gay.  Or both.   And it’s got a cute dog.  What more could you want?

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1913)



It’s safe to say that cinema was obsessed with Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde during the 1910s and early 1920s, with multiple versions being produced on both sides of the Atlantic.  Most famous of these is the version starring John Barrymore, produced in 1920.  However, Grapevine Video has pulled together four silent versions (including the Barrymore film), a few silent comedy shorts, and a number of sound adaptations for their Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Collection, which is a three-disc set.   Do you need this many Jekyll and Hydes in your collection? Maybe not, but the price is good at $17, and it’s interesting to see how film adaptations changed as cinema became more sophisticated during the 1910s, and there is a vast difference between the 1912 version and the ones from 1920.

The 1913 version, starring the wonderfully-named King Baggot, is certainly not the best of the surviving silent films, but it is particularly interesting in that it was made at a time when Hollywood was making its first tentative steps towards feature-length films.  This may run at just under half an hour, but that was almost an epic in American film at this point, and it was well received.  Two years after the film’s release, The Moving Picture World wrote: “King Baggot played the name parts, and his work in the two roles ranked as the equal of the best he has done. …It was a strong picture.”.

For those people new to silent film, the benefit with this version is that there is no hanging around when it comes to telling the story.  Meanwhile, for fans of classic horror coming to this film, there will be special significance because this is the very first horror film to be produced by Universal studios, who would go on to make the classic horror cycle of the 1930s which included Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

This, and all subsequent silent and early sound film adaptations that are known to survive, include a love interest for Jekyll – something which is not present in the novella, which contains only male characters.  One can only surmise at the motives for introducing extra characters and subplots in an adaptation of a novel which runs for under thirty minutes.  Perhaps it was simply a case that American film by this point had a set of conventions which had become popular with audiences, and one of them was a female love interest for a male protagonist and vice versa. It should also be remembered that the first big stars of the movies were female, so the making of a film with an all-male cast may have been looked down upon by studio bosses.  It could also be that the story left too much open to interpretation if Jekyll was left as a single man – both Benschoff and Showalter have written about what Jekyll and Hyde might really be about.  However, the most likely reason for the addition of a love interest was that the 1887 stage adaptation of the story, dramatised by Thomas Russell Sullivan, included such a character, and it was common for many years to base film versions of novels on stage adaptations, particularly within the horror genre.  For example, both Dracula (1931) and The Innocents (1961) are based on the stage versions of Dracula and The Turn of the Screw respectively.  We can only surmise as to why the playright, Sullivan, included a love interest in the stage version, but presumably it was simply to make the narrative more conventional. 

A few words on the other silent versions included in the Grapevine set.  The 1912 version runs for around ten minutes, and is simply is a series of short scenes giving the basic elements of the narrative within its restricted timeframe, and thus is rather lacking when it comes to the thriller element.  This form of screen condensation of full length novels was a common practice by this time – earlier examples include ten minute versions of Ben Hur (Sidney Olcott et al, 1907) and Frankenstein (J Searle Dawley, 1910).  It was only during the early 1910s, as the popularity of longer films started to increase, that film adaptations of novels could begin to give a faithful  and complex rendering of the source text other than simple representations of key scenes.  The 1920 version starring John Barrymore is the most highly-regarded of the silent adaptations that survives, and is certainly the most accomplished film.  However, for pure entertainment value, the other version from 1920, starring Sheldon Lewis, is thoroughly recommended for it is one of those films we like to label “so bad it’s good”.  Lewis is outrageous as Hyde, and the film’s budget restraints result in a series of continuity errors and sequences that really don’t make much sense.  Near the end of the film, Lewis is seen changing from Jekyll to Hyde and back about every thirty seconds!  It’s a real hoot (but for all the wrong reasons)!