Every now and then I get a glimpse of what my mental illnesses look like.
It’s been a long time. I have taken my medications without fail for years. I exercise, eat healthy foods, get as much sleep as I can, visit my psych-nurse practitioner every three months and I get on my knees every night and thank God for my sobriety. In other word, I do what I am told – an unnatural act for me.
But for the last two weeks I have been under an unconscionable amount of stress. I say “unconscionable” because I allowed it to happen.
As a reporter for a daily newspaper, I am accustomed to stress. For nearly 30 years I have lived with a deadline hanging over my head. I took six weeks off to have a baby, 8 weeks for my last major depression but other than the one- or two-week vacations, I have had a deadline over my head.
Recently, I accepted an assignment which today I realize I should not have done. I agreed to leave my home and my dog, suspend my exercise routine and healthy eating habits and forego nights of 8-hours of sleep to cover the Florida legislature’s last two-weeks in session.
I did this once before, nearly 30 years ago when reporters were only expected to write a story for the newspaper. Now, we must also Tweet, blog and make videos. Despite my degree in political science, after 30+ years in journalism, I’m kinda disallusioned with politics.
Florida’s legislature meets for 60 days every year. The last two weeks are a frenzy of deal-making. It’s like watching people play chess at the speed of light. Remember that commercial where a fast-talking guy reads the disclaimer so fast you can barely understand it? Or the chipmunks’ cartoon? Well, that’s how fast they speak on the senate floor : “Madam-clerk-read-the-next-bill.”“Senate-bill-9999: Committee-substitute-for-committee-substitute…”
It all sounded like English but I couldn’t understand what was going on.
Then there was the debate among the lawmakers on the floor. Being this is Florida, you can only imagine what that sounded like. Some of the logic was so bizarre that I has to ask myself: “Did he really just say that?”“Did I hear that right?”
A daily calendar listed the bills that were up for consideration. Silly me, I thought they went in the order listed on the calendar. But no, they take bills out of order or not at all – which left me in a constant state of “what the hell just happened?”“What does that mean?”“What happens next?”
Before I could even begin to process what just happened, the chipmunks wer back at it.
This went on 8-hours a day but before it started I had already spent at least an hour at a caucus meeting, looking at amendments that had been filed overnight, reading my emails and what other reporters had written.
I was too afraid to leave the press gallery for fear I’d miss the bills I was supposed to be following. There is a little break for lunch, which barely left me time to Tweet, blog, conduct of few interviews, do some research and edit some video I had shot.
When it’s over and the gavel slammed at the end of the day, I still had at least a couple of hours of interviews, research and writing to do. It’s a minimum 12-hour day at a pace and level of intensity I had not experienced since the November 2000 election, when Palm Beach County because ground zero for counting chads. After 37 days of that, I ended up in the hospital for four days.
So, you could say that I know better than to volunteer to be dropped behind enemy line. I knew not one lobbyist or 3/4 of the elected officials on the floor – much less where their offices are because the hallways on every floor are identical – same color and layout. There are no windows, the only way to know what floor you are on or which direction to go is to memorize the photographs on the wall and navigate by their location: if it’s the 1920′s photo of the girls in bathing suits, I must be on the third floor…I think.
Luckily, I’ve run a few marathons in my day so the 1/4 mile from the 5th floor senate press gallery to some senator’s office on the second floor in an adjoining building didn’t wind me.
Before I drove the 450 miles to the state capital, my editor told me this assignment was just straight old-fashioned reporting. I would be fine. I didn’t really need to understand what the machinations of the process – conforming bills, engrossed bills, enrolled bill, committee substitutes, second readings, third readings, amendments to amendments – just report what happened.
Only problem was, I didn’t know what happened most of the time. I didn’t know who to ask because I didn’t know anyone but a few other reporters who actually covered capital politics full-time in that god-forsaken place with so much marble on the floor and walls that the place always sounded like lunchtime in a middle school cafeteria.
I made it to the gym only three times in two weeks. I normally go 5 times a week. I exchanged my three-minute commute for 30 minutes in rush-hour traffic. I ate M&Ms and crap from vending machines when I didn’t have time to pack lunch AND dinner.
I lost track of time and what day it was. Sometime in the middle of the second week, I cracked. I started crying. I couldn’t breath. My heart felt like it was in a vise. My neck muscles were so tight that I felt like my shoulders had been locked in a shrug. My hands shook like I had Parkinson’s.
All night the tapes played in my head, telling me things that I knew weren’t true about myself and that I knew I wouldn’t do, but I couldn’t stop them.
I yelled “UNCLE” but apparently not loud enough. I said I was taking a leave of absence when the assignment was over – probably on disability. I was told I was doing great work and I would be fine after a couple of weeks off.
“I’m not fine,” I responded. “I’m a f*#&ing wreck.” I pushed on, working a 14-hour day on Friday, the last day of the session, and all day Saturday on a wrap-up story. Then drove 7 hours on Sunday to get back home. I did the math: I had worked 80 hours that week.
After a day at home I thought I was fine. My daughter was home with her sorority sisters and it felt like I had returned to my old life. My old self.
Then I went to the office to file expense report. I was consumed with rage. I could not go into the newsroom or my desk. I worked in back, isolating from my colleagues because I knew I would say something I would later regret. The longer I was there, the more consumed I was with rage – not anger – rage.
I went home and walked my dog. I began counting: 1-1-2-2-3-3-4-4-5-5-6-6- and so on and so on. Each step I counted twice. I caught myself doing it and then started again. Over and over I tried to stop myself from counting, then I realized that counting stopped my other thoughts – the ruminating and self-pity stopped when I counted.
The bad thoughts and things I do when I am sick – as in mentally ill – I could see in myself. I looked in the mirror and I could see my illnesses. My mania, my depression and all the -isms of my alcoholism. So ugly. I want to curl up in the fetal position, get under a blanket and sleep. So, I do.
“I’m f*#&ed up,” I said to myself. I have an appointment to see my psych nurse practitioner in two days. I guess in two weeks I will be fine. I will go back to work.
Stressed woman photo available from Shutterstock.
Christine Stapleton has been a reporter for The Palm Beach Post for 26 years and in 2006, began writing a column entitled, Kicking Depression.Like this author?