By Laura Germak Ksenak
Every weekday, I sit at the child-sized desk in my daughter’s old room, plug in my laptop’s charger, put my headphones in, and place my water bottle on a coaster. Underneath the desk’s writing surface, the obsolete keyboard tray bruises my thighs, kicking off the discomfort of the next four hours. In my pandemic “office,” I log into a Zoom call to attend an intensive outpatient program for virtual group therapy. Instead of a week-long sleepover in a psych ward, I engage remotely from home for counseling each day.
I joined the program not for my existing diagnosis of bipolar disorder, but for debilitating anxiety that almost drowned me last fall. Instead of mania or depression, overthinking and “catastrophizing” filled my headspace like an over-inflated balloon.
Anxiety gripped me in a variety of ways. My fear of falling triggered me to count the steps as I went down the stairs, squeezing the banister until my hand cramped and moving in slow motion until I got to the bottom. I hated my injured puppy Jimi, full name “Jimi Hendrix Dobry,” who had to be carried everywhere, inflaming my fear of stairs. Just thinking about driving paralyzed me to the point that I couldn’t even go a few miles to ShopRite.
The shame I felt about my mental illness made me reluctant to see friends. The fear of contracting or infecting others with the coronavirus amplified all of my sources of anxiety. There was no joy, even in my previously favorite pastime: writing. Panic ate me up, chewed slowly and spat me out all over the floor. I couldn’t put myself back together without some serious help.
At first I expected Zoom group therapy to fail me. Discussing my mental health in cyberspace with mostly millennials was disconcerting. I feared the young adults would turn off their video for a collective eye roll every time I attempted to speak. They unmuted themselves and virtually raised their hands in under a nanosecond, while I struggled with technology. One day I got up from my desk with my wired headphones still in my ears, and caught my laptop before it crashed to the floor as I fell off my chair. I was still on camera.
I would have warmed up to the program sooner if I had gotten to meet my fellow patients in person. I imagined entering the therapy room’s calming green walls where there was a circle of the “good kind” of folding chairs, equipped with cushioning. I’d sit down, and before the meeting started, I would chat with other group members. But instead, I held back from speaking to the talking heads with their backdrops of dining room hutches, messy beds and snoring therapy dogs.
Despite the rocky start, participating in group now gives me a sense of belonging. After the first two weeks, online therapy finally clicked and gave me insight into managing my anxiety. Once I found my voice and started sharing my story and my anxieties, fellow patients taught me coping skills that worked for them. Even the long-winded group members empowered me with calm and focus. I wrote down three things I was grateful for every morning. I practiced meditation (which needed a lot of practice). I tuned into a progressive muscle relaxation video to guide me to tense and relax one body part at a time. Doing these exercises over and over reset my fear-infected brain.
I now clutch banisters less tightly or not at all. I speed on the NJ Turnpike. Instead of resenting my puppy’s needs, I affectionately give Jimi plenty of belly rubs. I say yes when my neighbor invites me to sip “quaran-tinis” six feet apart with a fire pit and snow pants, forgetting about the pandemic for an hour or two. Best of all, I enjoy writing again.
Zoom therapy works.
Laura Germak Ksenak was diagnosed with bipolar disorder 1 in 2014 and has been writing ever since. She is now zooming with The Writers Circle in NJ.
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