The Importance of Drawing Boundaries, or, “I Leave at Nine”
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
I checked the schedule change request a dozen times before I submitted it. Sundays were still off, Wednesdays and Thursdays still ended at 5:30 PM. And my new request was for every remaining work day to end by 9:00 PM. I handed the request to the manager of my department. He asked why I had changed my availability. I explained it to him.
“I have bipolar disorder,” I said. “And I need stable sleep. Staying past ten isn’t good for me.” I didn’t go into details of what “not good for me” looked like, though I was prepared to if he had any objections. Insomnia is not good for me. Acting on ill-advised impulses is not good for me. Swimming in a pit of utter despair is not good for me.
I had the irrational but subliminal fear that he would say no, but I knew that he was the sort of manager who wouldn’t do that. He was one of the best managers I’ve ever had, in fact. He accepted it without any grumbling.
When I first applied for the job, an essential retail position, I said I was available for as many hours as I could muster. I cut days short when I had writers groups but I balanced it out by offering up my Sunday afternoons. Staying until 10:30 PM was an option, and although this impacted my sleep schedule, I took the schedule on. It was an act of people pleasing; I wanted my employer to like me. At the time of my interview, I needed the job badly, and didn’t want to give them a reason to turn me down.
The store closed at 10:00 PM. Of course, that didn’t mean that we clocked out and were able to leave the store when ten o’clock struck. First, there were the customers who lingered past the hour of closing to get “Just One More Thing.” If you were the last cashier standing, you couldn’t even think about leaving until all the customers were out of the store. There were also registers to be cleaned, floors to be mopped, and other tasks needing to be done behind locked doors to officially close the store. This meant that 10:00 PM crept into 10:15 PM, 10:15 PM crept into 10:30 PM, and 10:30 PM crept into 10:45 PM.
My commute home was not far, but the later I got home, the more trouble I had with sleep, and the more trouble I had with my moods. Bipolar II veers in a depressive direction more often than mania. There was a low grind of depression running through everything. At first, I thought I was simply feeling down because I wasn’t exactly happy about the job.
Granted, having the time you can leave perpetually shifted forward each night is not good for anybody’s peace of mind, but when you have a mood disorder, it’s even worse. Gradually, I realized that the depression was thicker and more pervasive than the merely circumstantial. Joy was out of reach even during the pleasant parts of the day. Rest did not refresh me. And even if it had been only a function of the job, I knew that the shaky sleep patterns I was having could catch up with me and send me into a more severe mood episode. I decided I had to do something.
I had previously rearranged my hours a few times to accommodate a seasonal, part-time, remote job that took up my weekdays. I would shift things for the length of the project, and then shift them back when the project was done. I knew the drill quite well by then with scheduling requests. So I filled out another form with the new hours and put down an explanation. I didn’t hedge—I openly said that I had bipolar disorder and that I needed proper sleep.
The request was granted. I received very little pushback. I became nervous when they asked me to clean the registers one time, but I was assured that I only had to clean as many as I could before I had to leave.
Then the store closed.
We should have seen it coming, given how often we’d wind up standing at the registers, waiting for customers to show up. The business was anemic, and there were two other locations not far from where the store was. So, I was offered a job at a nearby location and took it. I maintained the same schedule that I’d had at my previous location. I thought that would be enough.
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They did things a little differently at the new location and I adjusted to the changes. Instead of a single person cleaning all the registers, cashiers would clean their registers before departing. I would typically close early so I’d have time to clean. One of the things that remained the same was that I would have to wait for my relief before logging off and leaving. I would meticulously check to see who was supposed to take over so I could keep an eye out for them.
One night, I was scheduled directly until 9:00 PM. I knew who was relieving me, and she was performing more flexible duties that included getting on the register when needed. I asked her if she could hop on a few minutes early so I could clean up and still leave on time. I’d done it several times before. However, the supervisor in charge told her to leave the register and I accepted that.
When 9:00 PM rolled around he told her to keep doing what she was doing. So I was stuck on the register for over half an hour before he finally had my co-worker come relieve me.
I clocked out at 9:42 PM.
I didn’t yell at the supervisor. I wanted to. I was absolutely furious that a clearly stated boundary I’d set had been trampled over so thoughtlessly. I couldn’t see a single rational reason for what he had done. Even if he’d had one, he never shared it with me.
I took it up the chain of command to the manager and explained the situation. “I don’t want to go back to the hospital,” I said. He assured me that he would talk to the supervisor, although not in a way that indicated that he was taking my situation especially seriously. It worked, though. Mostly.
From then on, I made a point of having “The Talk” with any new manager to come down the pike. The Talk was this: “Hi, my name’s Sheila. I need to explain something to you. I leave at nine. I have bipolar disorder. I need stable sleep patterns. If I don’t have stable sleep patterns, I run the risk of having a mood episode. If I have a mood episode, I run the risk of going back to the hospital. I’d really like to avoid that happening. So, I need to leave at nine.” I left out the part about how I landed in the hospital, when I gave serious thought to drowning myself in the bathtub and called 911.
It was frustrating that I had to recite the spoken equivalent of a doctor’s note each time a manager rotated to another store, so I was able to leave at the time I was scheduled. Nevertheless, no one I ever talked to expressed doubt or contented with me on my schedule at work after I gave them “The Talk.” I suspect the phrase “back to the hospital” made them take me more seriously. However, it didn’t solve the problem entirely. What I told managers didn’t always get communicated to supervisors. One night when I was scheduled until 9:00 PM, just before it was time to leave, the supervisor handling the closing asked me to clean my register before I left. I nodded and shut things down accordingly. She told me she wanted me to stay open until 9:00 PM. I told her “Well, I can either stay until 9:00 PM and not clean the register, or shut down early to clean it before I go. Pick one.”
“I want you to do both,” she said.
“I can’t do that,” I said. “Pick one.”
Fortunately, one of the managers who I already made aware of my situation was behind the counter. The supervisor looked over at him with a can you help me with this look on her face.
The manager simply said “She has to go.”
I kept the register open until 9:00 PM and departed with it uncleaned. The next time I saw the supervisor, I gave her “The Talk,” and she thanked me for clarifying.
I’ve shortened “The Talk” down to “Hi, I’m Sheila. I have to tell you something. I leave at nine. I have bipolar disorder, and I need stable sleep patterns. Otherwise, bad things happen. So, I have to leave at nine. Thanks.”
I’ve had no major hassle as of late, though I still live in dread of a fully-laden shopping cart pulling up to my register three minutes before nine. Luckily, that hasn’t happened yet.
Boundaries are necessary and boundaries can be tough to draw and even harder to enforce. But with sheer, stubborn persistence, I can draw them and keep them intact. I don’t ask them if I can leave at nine—I tell them: “I leave at nine.” I’ve never apologized for my needs beyond “I’m sorry, I can’t do that. I leave at nine.” This has saved me a world of trouble.
And I sleep well, too.