I’m going to share a hard story with you about what’s been going on behind the scenes. It’s a story of struggle, perservance, and slow triumph and it’s still in-progress. I’m breaking it into parts both for readability and so that I’ll start sharing it sooner rather than later.
On September 30th, 2011, our world got turned upside down. Angela (my wife) was on emotional overdrive and we couldn’t turn it off.
Of course, you’re probably wondering how we got there. In November of 2009, Angela was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. Ulcerative colitis is a medical condition similar to the more known Crohn’s disease; the lower colon becomes inflammed and develops ulcers. It causes a lot of digestive abnormalities, which is bad enough, but given the taboo nature of the such things for women, it’s even worse.
People with ulcerative colitis (UC) have flare-ups as a reaction to food and/or stress. A UC flare-up disrupts digestive processes even more; whatever is eaten immediately comes out, unprocessed. One of the medical responses to flare-ups that don’t clear up on their own is to take prednisone. Prednisone is a steriod with a whole slew of side effects, one of which is anxiety and nervousness.
Throughout last September, Angela was dealing with a particularly bad flare-up and was on a long, high dose of prednisone and it triggered acute, debilitating anxiety, OCD, and depression. Relatively simple tasks like deciding what to eat for lunch paralyzed her, and then knowing she was paralyzed got her either obsessed with what was wrong with her or depressed that she was paralyzed. It didn’t help that she was getting 2-3 hours of sleep a night, at best.
It was hard to see my normally rock-steady wife lose herself. She’s the glue that holds so many things together, but she reached a point to where she couldn’t hold herself together. The day we released 2012’s planners, I came downstairs and found her crying and frustrated because she’d spent the last 7-10 minutes unable to decide between a turkey and ham sandwich.
After that, I called and got her into her doctor as soon as possible. I’d never seen her like this and it was getting worse – we needed help.
Time to Reset
The trouble with talking about mental illness is that it has such a stigma, despite how prevalent it is. Most of the words we have are so culturally and emotionally-charged that you end up either having to calm people down when you tell them about it or explain why you’re not freaked the hell out about what’s going on.
I say this because I’ve been very careful with the way I’ve talked and thought about everything that’s been going. “Breakdown” or “lost her mind” would be the words that most people would use to describe what happened to Angela, but neither resonate with us.
Angela needed to reset. We couldn’t turn the emotional and psychological maelstrom off, but what was going on wasn’t her.
She was prescribed some drugs I won’t mention by name lest we all get spammed to death. It was a tricky pharmaceutical dance: we had to take one medicine to fight the extreme anxiety, others in conjunction with that to get her to sleep, and, later, others to stabilize her moods and fight the background anxiety.
And we pulled her off the prednisone as quickly as we could. While consulting with her G/I doctor, it was determined that a) prednisone was off the list of drugs she could take and b) she may have been misprescribed it in the first place. Some of the symptoms of UC are the same as IBS, but since she was diagnosed with UC, it was presumed to be the culprit. It turns out that over-the-counter Immodium AD and de-stressing works better for her. (Doh!)
I spent a lot of time in October in and out of doctor’s offices and taking care of Angela. It wasn’t safe for her to drive, she needed someone to be with her, and she needed to rest. I didn’t have to be with her to keep her from intentionally hurting herself, but, rather, if I wasn’t around, she’d start trying to work on something. I’d run upstairs to get something, field a call from her parents who were understandably concerned and wanted to know what’s going on, and come downstairs to find her raking leaves or cleaning the kitchen.
Except she really wasn’t raking the leaves or cleaning the kitchen. She was overwhelmed by all the micro-decisions that come up when you do mundane tasks like that. Those micro-decisions were straws being placed on the camel’s back, which is exactly the opposite of what we were trying to do.
Anxiety, Depression, Obsessions, and … Suicide
The reset period was especially hard because it was akin to slamming on your brakes on the interstate. Angela has always been really active in one thing or the other and being pulled out of everything was hard. It’s hard for most of us to sit still anyway, but it’s especially hard when you’re battling anxiety and obsessive thoughts.
The way I came to understand the anxiety and obsessive thoughts were like she had a psychic claw dangling from her head. The claw grabbed whatever she placed her attention on and would not let go. One of our cats was sick with some kind of weird sneeze and Angela would worry about that for a few hours until the mail came and she saw the outside of a bill. The psychic claw would grab onto the bill and she’d worry about that for a few hours until she saw something in the kitchen that needed cleaning. The claw would then grab that. Round and round we went.
While I didn’t have to worry about Angela intentionally hurting herself, she was having reoccurring thoughts and obsessions about how much better off we’d all be if she were no longer around and we didn’t have to take care of her. At other times, she’d be thinking about ways she would kill herself if she were going to kill herself. Conversations like these are something I’d never wish someone to go through, either as the person having the thoughts or as the person hearing their beloved suggesting that they’d be better off with their partner dead. (Well after the more intense parts of the reset, Pam sent me the link to Out of the Darkness, a piece on the New York Times that struck really close to home – the name of this part is a tip o’ the hat to that piece.)
I participated in some of her earlier therapy sessions since I had to take her there, she felt more comfortable when I was with her, and because I wanted to make sure that Angela shared her suicidal ideations with her psychologist. Her psychologist let us know that what I just described was normal for what she was going through. The object of her obsessive thoughts didn’t matter and it didn’t even matter whether they were “real” issues, and, unfortunately, trying to rationalize them away only fed the obsessions. It was hard for us both not to try to rationalize and reason through things, given who we are. Suicidal ideations are also common for people struggling with depression, too, but it was good that we were talking about them and addressing them head on.
That rationality thing played out in another challenging and unexpected way since Angela has a PhD in Sociology with a specialization in family and mental health. She knew exactly what was going on with her and how she’d be expected to feel, but that actually made it worse. It’s like being able to see yourself falling but not being able to do anything about it at the same time that you feel everything that comes with falling.
Putting the Pieces Together While Waiting
A lot of October and early November was an intense waiting game; the meds had to kick in and get things stabilized, but an anxiety-obsession-depression spiral would throw us off for at least a day and sometimes several days. The mornings were hard because we’d have to work through so many counter-productive patterns and the nights were hard because we never knew how the next day would be. “One day at a time” is easy to say but incredibly hard to practice sometimes, especially when the days are so long.
Through all of this waiting, I started putting so many puzzle-pieces together in a way that made them all make sense. This was a long time a-coming – you’ll see how in the next part.
In case you’re curious, yes, Angela and I are both ready to share this publicly. We don’t want to perpetuate the trend of people not being able to talk about ulcerative colitis and mental illness, and, as a business leader, I don’t want to perpetuate the myth that entrepreneurship and small business is all unicorns and kittens. Sometimes it sucks AND some of the best lessons come from working through challenges. (Click to tweet – thanks)
Continue the story by reading “The Lead-Up to The Reset.”