Angie Read Doyal - My invisible scars: how my stroke impacted my mental health
Angie Read Doyal, of Overland Park, Kan., spent over 20 years working in public relations, but her life was recently turned upside down. Suffering two strokes, Angie was left with severe anxiety and depression, but she’s fighting it with everything she has.
My life changed forever on the morning of July 25, 2017. It was a Tuesday, and like every other weekday morning, I woke up at 6:30 to start getting ready for work. But on this particular morning, I wasn’t able to get out of bed. At the time, I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t able to push myself up and out of bed. In my head, I was going through the motions but in reality, nothing on my left side was working. My attempts only resulted in rocking the bed back and forth, which eventually woke up my husband, Steve. He asked what I was doing and I said, “I’m trying to get up and take a shower.” Well, that’s what I tried to say, but my words came out jumbled. My husband couldn’t understand me, so he got up and turned on the light. He looked at me and said, “the left side of your face looks like it’s melting off! I think you’re having a stroke! I’m calling 911!”
A stroke? No way. I was a healthy 46-year-old woman, with no known risk factors and no family history of stroke. The word stroke just didn’t make sense so I argued, “no, don’t call 911. I’m sure I’m fine. My left side must just be asleep.” Fortunately for me, my husband didn’t listen. Because Steve was right, I was having (or had just had) an acute right-side ischemic stroke.
I was lucky Steve called 911 immediately because I was able to have life-saving clot-retrieval surgery within an hour and a half of that 911 call. I had two clots removed, one in my neck and one in my brain, and very shortly after returning to the neuro-ICU after surgery, I was able to lift my left arm a little. The doctors and nurses exchanged looks of shock. And from that point on, my recovery continued to surprise and delight the amazing stroke specialists at Saint Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City. Family and friends deemed it nothing short of miraculous. Or they attributed it to my “tough-as-nails, can-do anything” attitude toward life.
I remained in neuro-ICU for two days and then moved to a regular room for two more days. Shortly before I was discharged on July 29th, one of the doctors (I can’t remember which one – I saw so many in those four days) told me to watch for signs of depression and anxiety. He said both were common with stroke survivors.
Fast forward. After only seven weeks of intense physical, speech and occupational therapy, I was ready to return to work. Physically, I looked (and felt) like my pre-stroke self. I was “victorious;” not only had I survived a massive stroke, I also wasn’t about to let it set me back or slow me down. I felt unstoppable. But that feeling was short-lived.
Even though I was forewarned to watch for signs of depression and anxiety, I wasn’t prepared for what was about to rock my world even more than the stroke itself! I figured I’d be fine since I didn’t have any lasting physical deficits from the stroke. It made sense that someone who’d become disabled from a stroke would have feelings of depression and anxiety. Even though I’d been taking medication for anxiety for about 15 years, I’d never had debilitating, crippling anxiety like I was starting to experience post-stroke. And I’d never suffered from depression. But between September and November, it got so bad that I wasn’t able to sleep or eat (those could have been side effects of my new medications), and after a few months, I completely broke down. I was overwhelmed at work, I couldn’t keep the pace of my pre-stroke, ambitious self. I was always exhausted yet somehow never able to sleep. I was convinced that my world was falling apart for unrealistic reasons. And I was losing interest in hanging out with friends or being around other people, period.
Right after Thanksgiving, I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder. Things got so bad that I had to be hospitalized for a total 15 days (at two different mental health facilities). Needless to say, Christmas last year was rough. I didn’t put out any decorations and I couldn’t even muster the energy to decorate the tree. I didn’t feel strong enough to fight crowds and long lines, so I did all my Christmas shopping online. Somehow though, I pulled off Christmas for my kids (ages 19, 17 and 14) but I found no joy in the season. All I wanted to do was lay around the house and watch TV. It wasn’t until mid-January --after switching psych meds several times and going through an Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) for anxiety, along with going to weekly individual counseling -- that I started feeling like “myself” again. I was even able to go to the grocery store alone, which may sound silly but it was a huge accomplishment at the time! And I was finally sleeping and eating again! (After months of struggling to find the right combination of psych meds that didn’t give me horrible side effects). Looking back, I had taken 13 different medications since the stroke, including five different psych meds. No wonder I was so off-balance!
I wish I could tie up this story with a nice little bow. But that’s not reality. In April I suffered another, although much smaller, stroke. I’m convinced that the ongoing stress of my job, and my continuing struggle to live up to my pre-stroke “always on” professional self, caused the second stroke. As soon as I learned about the new stroke activity (revealed in tests following a car accident) I knew I wouldn’t be able to return to my stressful job for yet a third time. In fact, my doctor warned me that it could kill me if I tried. That was a blow to my ego; I was always someone who set (and achieved) higher goals for myself career-wise. The second stroke also set back my mental health recovery by several months. My therapist and psychiatrist noticed some major regression and we’ve been working on rebooting my healing process ever since. I am now on long-term disability from my employer. I’m actually looking at making a complete career change, something entirely different. A fresh new start.
The truth is I still struggle daily, but my depression and anxiety ARE getting better. I’ve fought like hell to get here, and I’m determined to continue healing. Sure, there were times when I felt like giving up; I even considered taking my own life during my darkest hours last winter. But I kept thinking that God kept me alive for a reason, and if for nothing else, I owed it to my kids to keep fighting, to keep living. To keep being their mom and to set a good example of courage and strength, no matter how hard!
What I want people to learn from my story is that mental health deficits after a stroke can be just as debilitating (although “invisible”) as physical deficits. And that it’s not your fault, it’s not something you could have prevented. If you’ve had a stroke and have feelings of depression and anxiety, you’re not alone! Don’t wait to tell your doctor or neurologist if you’re suffering. It’s OK to ask for help. In fact, your life probably depends it. It’s not just a matter of feeling “stressed” or “sad.” Clinical anxiety and depression are all-consuming feelings, and they LIE! Overcoming these challenges might seem impossible, but with time and a lot of hard work, you can survive this too. Nothing about it is easy by any means, but I have to believe that it will be well worth it in the end.
The happy ending to my stroke story is just around the corner, I can feel it. I hope yours is too.
Learn more about life after stroke.