How does one describe an experience of mental illness? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately as I think about putting into words an odyssey I’d rather not dwell on too long. In the last four months I experienced a series of situations I wouldn’t wish on my greatest enemy (not even Trump). It was intolerable, full of suffering, and of course, as these things are, full of grace.
It’s hard to know where to start. I’d rather not divulge certain details. Suffice it to say several anxiety-producing situations (apart from even Covid) converged sometime in August that interfered with my sleep. When my sleep fell apart, I started to go down an abyss of no return. I remember my first night without a minute of sleep. I rotated between listening to a podcast, praying for everyone I knew and writing bits of poetry. But I felt anxious and scared all night. I was scared to go to sleep. I had already had an anxiety attack once and was fearful of another. I thought that perhaps the natural childbirth I had gone through (twice) was easier and preferable to this. At least that would have an end point.
I don’t want to recount the events linearly. Maybe someday. What I do want to remember and will never forget are the depths I was in. Because I still can’t believe I’m on the other side. Every day I wake up and I’m amazed I’ve come out of one of the worst experiences of my life. I’m safe, I’m loved, I’m whole and my worst fears never actually happened. This feels like a true, bonafide miracle.
At the worst point I was having anxiety attacks about every three days. My first attacks were “manageable.” I jogged around the house to get out energy. I did calligraphy to distract myself. I played board games with Peter for spurts of five or ten minutes. I polished silver. I chanted to myself over and over that I’d be OK. But the attacks got worse. The first ones lasted 15 minutes. Soon they were lasting an hour with no end in sight. I begged Peter for help. Fortunately, he had a prescription for anti-anxiety meds (which I had taken before) and although I felt bad taking a drug I hadn’t been prescribed for recently I took it anyway. In an hour I was better. I began to carry around the drugs just in case. But they took an hour to take effect.
During the attacks I became delusional. I thought I’d spin out of control and they’d have to take me to the hospital to a psych ward and I’d never see my family again. I’d be treated by paid staff who would be nice but clinical. I’d never get better. I became so convinced of this I couldn’t get out of the attack. I had other delusions but they are too scary to even write down.
We tried different things. One day I went golfing with Peter to get some fresh air. I was nervous the whole time that I’d see someone I knew and collapse. Or I’d have an attack on the course and I wouldn’t make it back to the car. I gave up driving for the better part of a month. I couldn’t go to the store. I desperately wrote a list of staples we needed so Peter could keep food stocked in the house and did most of my shopping via Instacart. My worst fear was being alone. I couldn’t take walks by myself for fear I would collapse. Now I know I was suffering from something called agoraphobia.
All this was sadly familiar to me. In spring 2011 I suffered a similar string of anxiety and agoraphobia when living in Spain. Peter was in the US when this started happening and when he arrived back he found me in the bathtub trying to relieve a searing pain in my side. It turned out the pain was an ovarian cyst (we never knew if it was related to the anxiety) and I had to spend a traumatic night in a local hospital. That sequence of events is perhaps for another time and place but it ended up sending me back to California to get well. It took me a full year to recover that time. After the anxiety was treated in May or so I spun into a manic episode for much of the summer of 2011. I tried to hide the episode or downplay it, being embarrassed that someone as rational as myself could slide into this. I saw few people and managed to conceal it from all but a few people. In the meantime, I was busy. I almost bought a house, almost bought an office building, wrote a book, had plans to start an olive-importing and chocolate-importing business and had many other grand ideas that were great but didn’t pan out. My doctor warned me that the longer I stayed in this manic place the longer I would eventually fall into a depression. I didn’t believe him. I refused to take drugs. I was having the best time of my life. Why would I want it to end? I had never felt closer to God or happier. But he was right. In October 2011 I slipped into depression and stayed there for a good six months.
After recovering from the events of 2011/2012 I never thought I’d go through anything like that again. My doctor didn’t even really know how to qualify me, as it is very rare for someone to experience their first manic/depressive episode at age 42. He called it the Allison de Laveaga syndrome. In any case, I was stable for eight years and took a light dose of mood-stabilizing drugs. I never understood why I had to go through that hell but I had a false sense that I had beat it and it would never come back again.
It turns out I learned a lot from that first episode. When events unfolded this time I was ready to admit what was happening to anyone and everyone. This time I was open to taking medication and talking to people. I asked for help. A real turning point came when I asked my friend Vicky to come over three days a week to spend time with me. That’s when the healing started. We played board games, did crafts, talked and cooked. I felt normal as long as I had a human with me. I needed medicine too and as soon as I started a regimen of anti-anxiety meds I never had another panic attack. The relief I felt was off the charts. For his part, Peter was an amazing nurse. He stayed with me during the mornings before Vicky arrived. He waited for me to fall asleep every night. He rubbed my back and watched Winnie the Pooh with me to help me fall asleep. For the most part, I couldn’t tolerate TV. It was too violent, to crass, too unpredictable. But Winnie the Pooh was perfect.
I was not in a dark night of the soul. I never lost faith in God, though I did question why so many people had to suffer and I was mad about that. I prayed a lot. I prayed with Peter. I prayed with my parents. I welcomed prayer and I have no doubt there was a spiritual component to my suffering. The evil one loves to see his treasured children suffer. In the midst of all this I was scheduled to lead a spiritual direction group. It took all my strength to lead a group of people in praying to God while I thought I’d fall apart at any minute. If anything, the group helped me more than I helped them. They were a kind and gentle group of close friends and they were tender and supportive as I honestly shared where I was at.
As so happens with these cycles, I’m now hypomanic, not quite fully manic but not far from it. It’s the best feeling in the world. If there was a drug to induce this it would be in high demand. I have endless creativity, exuberance and excitement for life, not much need for sleep, and an overall contentment. I’m carefully monitoring the situation with my doctor as I don’t want this to accelerate and then crash. But I’m also sad if he chooses to medicate me. After all I’ve been through I just want joy. But more than that I don’t want depression.
I know the work isn’t over. During my panic attacks I was reminded of certain long-standing phobias. I am sometimes afraid of going to the store. Maybe I will faint or maybe I will lose my wallet and embarrass myself. I am afraid of driving over highway overpasses. Even before this current episode started I was adjusting my driving to avoid steep hills and overpasses. I have a book called “Mastery of Your Anxiety and Panic.” My doctor recommended it. He recommended it in 2011 and I bought it but after things got better I gave it away. I didn’t think I needed it. So this time I bought it again and I know I have to face these things if I want to live a normal life. In addition to my psychiatrist I am working with a therapist to overcome these phobias.
One of the worst parts of this current episode was the concurrent depression. I lost interest in a lot of things and couldn’t write or read. I was especially upset about the writing and reading. But I just couldn’t concentrate. When people talked to me about slightly complex matters I just blanked out. I was scared I’d lose my keen mind and the reading and writing that I treasured. I could barely speak Spanish too, another favorite pastime, and I had to give up my weekly group. I could write a bit of poetry though and did continue with that. I could also address get-out-the-vote postcards and took some pleasure in that. I discovered I am terrible at jigsaw puzzles but I’m good at coloring.
As I told my spiritual director, my world has been widened through this experience. I understand more fully what it means to be human, to traverse the depths and heights. I also have a relationship with Peter, my sons and my parents that’s incredibly sweet and honest. To be fully loved is an incredible feeling. I cry more often now. I feel more deeply. I’ll never go back to being as rational and controlled as I was before. Many other truly incredible “coincidences” happened during this time. I’m just starting to unravel them. “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”