21 times I left the house

Last March everyone in my office was sent home to work remotely due to COVID-19. Within a couple of weeks I became mysteriously ill. It didn’t seem like COVID, so that was something, but it was devastating. Symptoms came on suddenly on Friday March 20th. I was pale, light-headed, weak, sometimes short of breath. I had constant heart palpitations and dysrhythmia, “brain fog,” and soul-crushing fatigue. I managed to get out of bed to go to the bathroom or grab a snack. Otherwise I moved from my bed to my work desk, and back to my bed to rest. If I was on my feet for more than a few minutes I would get so weak and tired I would have to sit down wherever I was. So you might just find me on the kitchen floor trying to get up the strength to go back to my bedroom/office. That was my life for five weeks. I only left the house to go get blood drawn, pick up the grocery order and prescriptions, or once for an EKG. Less than once per week. Every time I left the house it would hail, which seemed apt.

All the doctors could figure out was that I had very low ferritin, so I started on iron supplements. In retrospect that was probably responsible for most of the symptoms, (also) secondary to a new autoimmune thyroid disease that wasn’t making itself quite obvious yet. I wasn’t absorbing my iron because of an autoimmune process. At the time I was scared it was something serious, yet I had to err on the side of waiting it out versus getting medical evaluation and treatment, because of COVID. My primary care doc was trying to listen to my heart through video-conferencing. The first hospital I went to, to get my EKG, turned me away because the nurse who did the screening at the door said it wasn’t an essential procedure. I was secretly convinced my heart would just stop while my kids were at their dad’s and no one would notice for days. Or that I’d pass out in the shower or on the basement steps and conk my head.

I felt a little extra crazy, too, because COVID stay-at-home order and panic had me so isolated that no one really saw what I was going through unless I went out of my way to try and explain it. I was taking very little leave time at work, because I didn’t have any. Since I worked a desk job 4 feet away from my bed, I was trying to just do it, the best I could. I wasn’t up for all the paperwork that goes with FMLA. So I was too sick to take sick leave? My job is very independent, I had one teleconference meeting in that time and no video conferencing. If a tree falls in the forest? If a ghost-pale woman gets short of breath trying to go 10 feet to the bathroom while her heart “skips” 10 beats per minute continuously…? My mother in law is the only person who both saw and *registered* how sick I was. She would come take the kids on bike rides and we would talk from a distance in the driveway. She had heart problems when she was a young otherwise healthy woman, so she was alert to the possibility that my providers were minimizing my cardiac symptoms. But mostly she just SAW me. The look of alarm on her face was so validating. I really am sick, aren’t I? It sure feels like it.

I need to take you further back for context, though. I had been manic in the summer of 2019, so March 2020 arrived after a long dark night of rebound depression. What goes up must go down, and, the higher up, the further down, in my personal bipolar experience. We knocked the mania out with lithium, and that fall and winter I had no further threat of hypomania or mania. Instead I was just down. Way low down. Stable but shitty. So when the pandemic hit and I became ill, I was already just hanging on by a thread, trying to recover from the episode and put my life back together, waiting and hoping the depression would lift. I was already relying on take-out or freezer meals to feed the kids. The house was already cluttered and in serious need of cleaning. I was already out of shape and spending too much time hunkered down in my bedroom. Then I needed to adjust to full-time remote work, remote school for the kids, and all of the other pandemic related stressors… and then I was seriously ill in this new way and no one knew why.

What was the post I was setting up to write? Oh yeah, 21 days of walking. Now I’m 8 months into the pandemic, my iron is back up and I’m on thyroid meds. I’m trying a new med for bipolar depression. Most of the acute low-iron problems have subsided and the remaining issues have to do with being bipolar, terribly deconditioned, and now with an autoimmune disorder. I don’t know what to do with this vague autoimmune and inflammatory stuff. Maybe an elimination diet if I ever get the energy to try that. Mostly what everyone agrees I have to do now is try to get in better shape. I’ve been exhausted, I’ve been sedentary, I’ve been sick.

I used to love walking. I told people I do best if I walk 5 miles per day. And there were times (mostly during hypomania or mania) where I maintained that. I was in decent shape for a year before the last manic episode hit. I didn’t think so at the time, but in retrospect I was healthy. I went to the gym 2 or 3 times per week, and did some cardio and simple weights. I went on long hikes sometimes. And I walked on all my breaks at work, 3 per day, and around the neighborhood or to and around downtown on the weekends. When I think about “getting in shape” I go first to walking. I decided that just to leave the house and walk, any distance, every day, was a good goal for me to start with.

Now I want to to make a daily walk a habit. It’s a hard habit to start with because it involves getting dressed in preparation for weather conditions that aren’t the same every day. It involves leaving the house. It’s not something I can necessarily do at exactly the same time everyday. Because of these factors, I questioned if it should be my first goal for a new daily habit. Should I start with something like doing the dishes every night? But my physical health and conditioning is the highest priority. Should I start with an at-home physical health goal, like 5 pushups a day or some such? That would be easier, I could do it in my pajamas, I could set it for the same time every day when I first wake up. I do want to add some calisthenics at some point. I love the word calisthenics. squirrel!

But I can’t help but come back to walking, first. Yes walking requires leaving the house, taking advantage of natural light and vitamin D, seeing and waving to neighbors, moving my body, and in general taking a break from my home which is now my office, the school house where I supervise my kids education, and my everything else. Walking is mediation. If I manage to walk every day, even if it’s around the block, it’s like adopting several healthy practices in one. I get in better shape again, physically, but it’s also evidence based treatment for depression, both the being outside in natural light and the exercise and meditation parts. And as hard as it is to get out of the house, once I am the walk is instantly rewarding. It feels good, it feels like a treat even when it’s tiring. I enjoy a walk. Once I get my butt out there.

So walking it is. I’ve been doing it for more than 3 weeks now, but I’ve missed days. I can tell it’s helping, but would like to work at making it more automatic. Even when I do it daily, I’m not managing to do it at the same time every day. I want a comforting ritual to pin it to. But I don’t want it to be dependent on that ritual, either. Some days I have my kids, somedays I’m solo. Some days I work, some days I take federal leave to help my kids with school, and some days I have neither of those responsibilities. And my days aren’t very well structured even within those categories. I’m in survival mode day to day. We eat when we get hungry enough, do the dishes when we can’t see the sink, do laundry when there are no clothes left. We don’t even get up and go to bed at the same time (as each other or day to day).

This post is a mess, and not necessarily about walking. I intended it to be, but let’s just say the messiness is an accurate reflection of my life right now.

on walking wounded

Hello. I’m a twice-divorced, middle-aged mom with bipolar and ADHD, and this is my first blog post. I’ve been meaning to blog since 1998. I’m not surprised it took me this long. Much of my energy goes to working full time. It’s not easy for me to work. I’ve managed one career and many jobs. None of them stuck, none of them are what I’m supposed to be when I grow up. I’m single. I’ve been in love a dozen times, but I can’t figure out how to make a healthy relationship last. The most meaningful part of life is my two amazing kids, but I’ve never worked so hard at something just to be barely adequate at it. I’m blessed, and grateful to be alive, but I’ve also had days, months, and years at a time where it’s been impossible to derive pleasure from anything. At times being alive is so painful it feels like unyielding punishment from capricious gods.

Shall I count some blessings? Generally able body, privileged skin color, middle class childhood, supportive family and friends, flexible employment, aforementioned amazing kids. I’m smart enough, which is my working hypothesis for how I’ve been able to function at all, between the misdiagnosed mental illness and the undiagnosed neurodivirgence. In spring of 2019 I started ramping up into a manic episode that became disruptive enough I had to take medical leave from my job. I’ve since returned to work, but I’ve yet to return to my previous (tenuous, inadequate) baseline. I am struggling to function in the most basic, day-to-day regard. Everything is hard. Brushing teeth, doing dishes. Everything.

But dreams ain’t broken down here. They’re walking with a limp (pilfered from the near-perfect Tom Waits album, Small Change). I’m writing to you in an attempt to organize my thoughts, hold myself accountable, and gain some support. Even if it’s the support of an imaginary audience, I think it can help. I can’t give up on the possibility that life could be a little more joy and lot less struggle. I’m accepting myself as a person with a chronic mental illness, an out of shape middle aged mom with vague health problems. I’m failing at my job and desperately trying not to fail as a parent. But I refuse to accept this is all I am, or ever will be. I’ve lived dozens of lives in the first half of this drama, I have hope for at least one more good one before the curtains close.

A few weeks ago I started with a commitment to myself to walk every day, even just around the block, for three weeks. Most days I managed more, some days I didn’t make it out at all. It’s a cold, wet Pacific Northwest winter, and COVID makes it too easy to stay inside. But I was in better shape at the end of the three weeks, so it was worth doing. The idea was it takes doing something daily for twenty one days to establish a habit. I’m not sure the voracity of that. I read it on the internet somewhere. There’s a whole science of behavioral change, and I’ve studied some of it in a proper academic setting, when I was becoming a counselor. I’m not writing this as a counselor, though. That’s my background so it’ll be in attendance, but for now I’m just a messy woman trying to heal.

So we’ll pretend it takes doing something daily for at least 21 days to establish a habit. I’ll write more about the walking in my next post. I’m still trying to get it to stick.