Thanksgiving day 2008 was my first day of freedom. I shared the story of my last severe manic episode in One More Time.
After discharge, I felt anything but free.
Tony was still far away and our relationship was holding on by one strand of a single solitary thread. We talked on the phone while I was hospitalized. It’s hard to have deep, meaningful conversations standing in the hallway of the psychiatric unit while surrounded by other patients waiting to use the shared telephone. One more reason these units are similar to prisons!
My entire future with him and in life overall was a great big unknown.
Would I stay healthy?
Could I find work?
Was it possible to sustain an income and contribute to society?
Should I stay in Pennsylvania at the urging of my mom or return to the Washington, DC metro and attempt to rebuild trust and love with Tony?
Did he want to try?
Did he want me back?
I stayed in Pennsylvania into the New Year. I updated my resume. I talked to recruiters. I worked with my psychiatric team. I had conversations about the future with Tony by telephone. I cooked with my mom. I helped clean the house. I searched for the right path forward.
I worked through anxious thoughts about my past, present, and future.
I hung on by a thread.
One day after a thirty minute ride home from a follow up appointment with my psychiatrist, I barely made it out of the car in time to be sick all over the backyard. The pills take time to get used to. I learned that day I needed to eat a substantial amount when I took them to quell the nausea.
Lots of extra eating equals lots of extra weight which led to lots of extra anxiety about my body and my self image. Over time, I learned to time my medication dosing to sync with my regularly scheduled meals and snacks.
I spent Christmas day with my dad’s family at his sister’s rural farm. It was nice, but I wasn’t yet myself. I was nervous and uncomfortable in my own skin. I couldn’t yet talk about what I had been through.
My extended family was supportive in a quietly accepting, non questioning, non judgmental manner that allowed me to feel welcome while just existing and barely contributing to the conversation.
It was nice to eat and drink and enjoy the merriment of the day.
Shortly after the holiday, Tony and I agreed I would return to live with him in early February. I was nervous and excited.
Would he still love me?
Could we begin again?
Would we find our path forward?
Would he want me as a partner now that I couldn’t have children naturally?
Would he be physically attracted to me at my new higher weight and different appearance?
Would he find me appealing with zero self confidence?
I was a broken bird. Shattered. Nervous. Anxiety filled. Poorer than I had ever been in my life both financially and emotionally. I was new to living such a humble and simple life. I had not yet found the power of gratitude.
I was in the process of learning to live with a life changing diagnosis. Adjusting to not being able to conceive and carry children. Frightened about getting sick again. Terrified to be institutionalized, if I did get ill again. Closed off and private, keeping most of what I was feeling and going through to myself.
My parents drove me halfway to meet Tony. The four of us had lunch together. Then I transferred a few bags from their car to Tony’s and embarked on the journey forward to my future. Whatever that may be.
My first step was to find work. I met with a recruiter I knew and she helped me get an interview. The hiring manager was a previous client of mine and we also knew each other. That was fortunate. Tony and I celebrated when I got the offer letter even though it was less than 50% of my previous salary.
When you’re rebuilding, you have to start somewhere.
We agreed the entry level assistant work would satisfy my desire to contribute without overwhelming my mental health or jeopardizing my recovery.
This position offered the health insurance I needed to pay for my still expensive treatments. The medications started out being hundreds of dollars a month with insurance coverage. Years later, I would be able to get a 90-day supply of two generic medications for only $30 a month.
The insurance covered my visits to the psychiatrist. It was very difficult to find a doctor accepting new patients even with top of the line insurance coverage in a major metro area.
As a mental health patient, I required resilience and perseverance just to find a specialist to see! I called over twenty doctors trying to make an appointment. Many never called back. The ones who answered were never accepting new patients.
The psychiatrist I finally found was good on paper. He was a Johns Hopkins graduate. He had the training and knowledge to do a great job. The problem was, he had horrible office staff who didn’t return phone calls. It was difficult to make or change appointments. He didn’t have an email for patients to use. His office was really out of the way. Just getting there caused me a week of anxiety.
After my first visit, I wasn’t impressed. I was so disillusioned from the process to find my terrible psychiatrist that I didn’t even bother trying to hunt down someone better. I struggled with his subpar care until 2011.
I talked to him about my constant anxiety. He offered pills. I refused more medication and worked to find other solutions. Deep breathing and closing my eyes did help.
One day I was called in to my vice president’s office. She had received complaints of me sleeping at my desk in my cubicle. I was put on probation.
I didn’t have the strength to explain to her that I closed my eyes at work to avoid running out the door in an anxiety filled panic.
Pro ANXIETY MANAGEMENT Tip: Browsing the internet at a boring job you can complete in 3 hours a day is more acceptable in the workplace than resting your eyes and deep breathing.
My anxiety came from living a lie. No one outside my family knew about my bipolar disorder. No one knew I was adjusting to new medications in my body. No one knew I was terrified I would always feel this awful. No one knew I was grieving the fabulous life I had two years earlier before my roller coaster diagnosis and struggle. No one knew I was figuring out how to live on less than half of my previous salary.
I missed restaurants. I missed traveling. I missed nice clothes, shoes, jewelry, makeup, skin care, and perfume. Those are luxuries I could no longer afford or indulge.
No one knew how sad, lonely, depressed, and what an abysmal failure I felt like because I didn’t tell them.
On the home front Tony was always supportive. I struggled with my fat body. I didn’t care for myself the way I always had. Months would go by without me making the effort to shave my legs.
I had whiskers like a wild animal on my face. I wouldn’t shave. I wouldn’t pluck them out with tweezers like I did before.
Tony had an understanding that I would feel better about myself when I did these things and groomed myself. One day he straddled me as I lay on the bed and he tweezed out every one of my chin whiskers one by one.
He never needed to do that again. I healed some that day. I did a little bit better.
I crawled forward to one life changing day in the summer of 2009. I received a phone call from my dad that my mom was going in for a procedure in her brain to clip an aneurysm.
Life stopped and my troubles were sidelined.
My mom’s oldest brother died from a brain aneurysm when I was in first grade. I knew the risk. I had lived with this possibility for over 25 years because aneurysms are genetic and we always knew this diagnosis was a possibility for my mom. I grew up knowing this is how she might die suddenly and without warning one day.
Why do I come from a family of broken brains!
I talked to my mom everyday after my return to the Washington, DC area. When I started my new job, I called her at lunch to find the strength I needed to get through my anxiety filled afternoon. How would I survive my challenges without my biggest cheerleader?
Tony and I drove to Pennsylvania immediately. My mom remained in a coma for months after the procedure. When she finally woke up, she couldn’t speak. She couldn’t walk. She couldn’t feed herself or go to the bathroom. She never returned home despite weeks in a specialized rehab facility and the remodeling work my dad did on the house to accommodate her wheelchair.
Tony and I made the 4-hour plus trip back to Pennsylvania every two weeks until February 2011 when my mom succumbed to a stroke that ended her life and her suffering.
This was our two week routine. Friday nights at about eight o’clock after evening rush hour we’d get in our fifteen year old car that we bought after borrowing money from my dad and make the drive to see my mom and support my dad and sister. One winter trip our heat broke and that was a very long, very cold trip though the mountains and back.
During the week before our scheduled trip, I would create a meal plan and write a list of ingredients I needed to buy. On Saturday, I would go grocery shopping for the meal I planned to prepare for my dad, mom, and sister.
On Saturday and Sunday, I would visit my mom in the nursing home. I think she recognized me. It is painful to not hear your mom say, “I love you Dayna” anymore.
I sometimes painted her nails. She did poorly because she didn’t know, remember, or understand how to let them dry. She was childlike in reaching to touch the pretty colors too soon.
Dad and I played bingo with her and the other residents of the care facility. Bingo in a nursing home is perhaps the best lesson in patience available to someone like me who is learning how to relax and go with the flow. It went something like this:
Bingo number called.
2 minutes pass.
Nursing home resident #1: “Did you call a number?”
Nursing home resident #2: “WHAT?”
Nursing home resident #3: “B11?”
And on and on for too many Bingo games.
Sunday afternoons we would load the car up and return to DC for two weeks before making the next return trip.
As I remember that difficult chapter, I know it helped me heal. I know helping to care for her and cooking for my dad, sister, and mom so I could give them a homemade meal while juggling the challenges of real life hardship accelerated my progress to learning to live and thrive with my bipolar diagnosis.
There is a healing resilience found in serving the community around us and taking our focus off our own needs.
There was no time for me to be sick. No space for my life to fall apart. I had to be there for her, my dad and sister.
I had to be there for myself.
Being anxious and struggling with anxiety is a terrible way to live life. Professional and self help resources and ideas are listed on this page anxiety.org/treatments.
Read the next post, Personal Growth.