Jean MacDonald

Stress Fracture

In 1993, I was living in New York City and doing three very stressful things:

  • Working at a high-profile literary agency
  • Planning my wedding
  • Organizing a three-week business trip to Europe

Were it not for the wedding, I might have muddled through. The wedding itself would be quite low-key, but agreeing to commit myself to my boyfriend of seven years flipped a switch in my brain, apparently.

I could not sleep. I would stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning, and then get up at 7 for work. I felt myself starting to lose it. I argued with colleagues. I stopped arguing with my fiancé. I believed that I needed to agree with everything he said, now that I had made the commitment to him.

Good friends and family members said I was trying to do too much. But I didn’t think I could back away from any of it. I did not want to let anyone down.

It was not a sustainable load. Eventually, I ended up in the emergency room of New York’s finest psychiatric hospital. (My fiancé tricked me into going there, but that’s another story. Spoiler alert: we break up.) The staff immediately diagnosed me with bipolar disorder, something I had never heard of. I just thought I was having a “nervous breakdown,” something women on soap operas had all the time back then.

Over the next two years, I was a patient of psychiatrists who treated me with drugs and therapy. I was also a sometime resident of psychiatric hospitals, which were mostly more inclusive versions of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

But I got better, I took lithium, and life went on. Until this summer.

In 2017, I was doing three stressful things

  • Leading App Camp For Girls
  • Helping to launch a new venture called Micro.blog
  • Still grieving the loss of my friend and App Camp right hand person Michelle, who passed away from pancreatic cancer the year before

I was trying to do too much again, and over time, it had serious repercussions. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. When I did get to sleep, I would wake up tucked into a ball of anxiety like I had never felt before. But I knew, based on my experience 25 years earlier, that lack of sleep was the entrance ramp on the road to madness.

This time, instead of being hospitalized against my will, I spoke up and asked for help.

In September, I asked my sisters, who have always been there for me, to sort out my App Camp For Girls responsibilities. I asked Manton for a period of leave from Micro.blog. And I went to my psychiatrist and said, “It’s just not working anymore.”

I got new anxiety meds plus an increase in lithium, which helped me to sleep. I got the incredible gift of having no responsibilities for a couple months. I got better.

But some damage had already been done. Being so busy, I had put off making my various routine doctor appointments. In the last two years, my normal cholesterol and blood pressure numbers have shot way up, and so has my weight. When I was 33, I had similar issues after my bipolar breakdown, but it is way more difficult to bounce back at 57 after neglecting self-care.

So this extended period of time off has been dedicated to doctor appointments and self-care: traveling less, cooking more, chilling out, doing a podcast purely for fun. I started driving part-time for Lyft to earn a little extra cash and to get out of the house and engage with humans in real life. I never have taken such a complete break from everything. My family, Manton, and all my wonderful App Camp colleagues just made it happen. No one talked to me about a single stressful thing.

After a couple months, I went back to work at Micro.blog. Taking it one step at a time, I’m still on leave from App Camp, whose board has done an incredible job of managing the program, including hiring a wonderful permanent executive director.

So, I’m writing this on the last day of 2017 to let you know what happened to me, why I dropped off social media and didn’t attend the conferences I normally love. I’m also writing this to say “Be careful.” I knew stress could be harmful, but I behaved as if the rules didn’t apply to me. If you can’t sleep, if your eating habits go awry, if you find it increasingly difficult to do things you are good at, take it seriously. See a doctor. Listen to those who care about you when they say you are doing too much. Don’t go it alone.

I’m looking forward to 2018.