From A Devastating Diagnosis To The Path Towards Financial Freedom

Little did I know that Memorial Day Weekend of May 2018 would change my life forever.

My husband DJ and I at the Smart Success Physical Therapy Live Conference over Memorial Day Weekend May 2018

At first, the symptoms were imperceptible – a little more talking here, a little less sleep there. 

But then things started to become bizarre… Before I knew it, I was on high drive, full of ideas, extremely talkative, highly irritable, and unable to fall asleep at all

My body felt off and I didn’t know what was going on. 

I figured I was just tired and all I needed was a good night’s rest. 

But rest did not come…

In fact, I went over 96 hours without sleeping at all. 

Over the course of 4 days, my mental state worsened until my mind was filled with grandiose delusions and I began to hallucinate. My emotions became volatile, swinging from one extreme to the next. One second, I experienced sheer panic and the fear of imminent death, while the next I was filled with euphoria.

I was still deep in an alternate reality when my husband DJ brought me into the ER well past midnight on May 31st, 2018. I was quickly assessed by the ER physician and then heavily sedated due to my aggressive behavior. 

The next thing I knew, I had woken up in the behavioral health unit.

I was admitted to the San Juan Regional Medical Center early Thursday morning, May 31st, 2018

They ran every test. Every last one came back normal. 

Then came those fateful words – “You have Bipolar Disorder.” 

I’ll never forget the shock I felt when I first heard those words. “Bipolar Disorder!?”  I thought to myself. “Me? There’s no way…there must be some mistake.” I refused to believe it. 

I had never even once had a semblance of a mental health disorder. I had never felt depressed. I didn’t struggle with anxiety. I wasn’t schizophrenic or suicidal. I had never previously suffered from abnormal mood swings. So how could I have Bipolar Disorder?? 

The psychiatrist explained that I had suffered from severe mania, a characteristic feature of the disorder, and that I was at the typical onset age of 25. 

Little did I know what the implications would be, the depression that would follow, and the catastrophic effect the diagnosis would have on our finances. 

I was strongly encouraged to take a three month medical leave of absence from work in order to rest and recuperate. I resigned from my job immediately, determined to find a less stressful work environment. 

And just like that, 50% of our income was gone. 

With DJ’s sole income, we had barely enough to cover the bills. We had just finished paying off $20,000 in credit card debt just a couple of months prior. In addition, our savings account had recently been completely wiped out after our only car had broken down, causing us to use our savings for a down payment on a used vehicle.  

The next few months dragged by… The new medications I was on caused weight gain and fatigue, and I was lonely and restless. Going from constant interactions with people all day, every day as a physical therapist, to being at home by myself – day in and day out – was extraordinarily difficult. 

By the Fall of 2018, DJ and I decided to move from Farmington, New Mexico to Tampa, Florida. 

Moving out of our home in New Mexico!

I was born and raised in Orlando, FL, only a short drive away, and my family still lived there. We also had close friends who lived in Tampa and possible business and job opportunities.

What had seemed like a great idea at first quickly turned into a nightmare. By October 2018, neither of us had jobs and all of our monthly expenses were being charged onto our credit cards. Neither DJ or I had secured jobs before moving, we had simply moved in good faith and the hope of an opportunity (which in hindsight was absolutely not a smart move.) 

By November 2018, both of us had secured jobs as PRN (as needed) physical therapists for local clinics. However, the income was simply not enough. We were still charging thousands of dollars to our credit cards each month. We were stuck in financial quicksand with what seemed like no way out. 

It was at that time that I entered into my first true depression. 

All I wanted to do was sleep. I had no drive, motivation, or desire to do anything. I was completely overwhelmed and disillusioned. The bed was my solace and sleep was my escape. 

I had no option but to drag myself out of bed the few days a week I did have work. But the rest of the days, I spent curled up in the fetal position, silent tears rolling down my face. 

Getting out from under the covers was considered a success that day

Though we had each graduated physical therapy school about a year and a half prior, by January 2019, I was only working part time twice a week, and DJ was working two to three times a month if he was lucky as a PRN physical therapist for local clinics. 

There simply was not enough money coming in. 

For the past several months, we had been using our credit cards to supplement our income, but by that point our credit limits had been reached, our credit scores had been tanked, and there was simply no more money left.

We had nearly $40,000 of credit card debt, hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loan debt, thousands of dollars of medical bills, and several thousand dollars of monthly expenses.

We had never before in our relationship been so close to the brink of financial collapse, and here we were, teetering on the edge.

Pent up emotions spilled over into our day to day lives and we argued constantly. The sheer weight of the financial stress we were under put a strain on our relationship that we had never before experienced in our 10+ years together. 

A screenshot of the balance of 1 out of our 3 credit cards totaling nearly $40,000

I’ll never forget looking at the few hundred dollars left in our bank account and thinking to myself there was no way we were going to be able to afford next month’s bills. 

“How are we going to pay for next month?” I kept asking DJ. 

He didn’t know either. 

In the end, it was decided DJ would call a close family friend and ask them if we could borrow money. It was embarrassing, but we had no choice. We had no idea how we’d pay them back either. 

The Light At The End Of The Tunnel…

I was on my lunch break one day, when I received a call from DJ. “Why don’t we do travel therapy??” he excitedly asked.

Travel therapy?

I had heard of it…but I didn’t want to do it. Travel therapy was for the people that were minimalists and lived in their RVs, traveling the country state by state. 

No, thank you. 

“Gabi…we could pay off our credit card debt in months. If we stay here in Tampa, it’ll take us years!” DJ said.

He was right. 

At our current pace, we would’ve absolutely been drowning in debt, spending years and thousands of dollars extra in interest trying to pay off what we had accumulated. We’d never be able to enjoy ourselves, being slaves to the debt life had cruelly forced us into. 

It took DJ several weeks to convince me that becoming a travel physical therapist was the right move.

 It made sense financially – travel physical therapists are paid significantly more than those in permanent positions. And it was less stressful and wayy less commitment – most travel contracts are only 13 weeks long. 

However, I was terrified. 

I hadn’t worked full time since May of 2018 due to taking a medical leave of absence from work after being diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. By that point, it was almost March 2019 – nearly 9 months afterwards, and I still hadn’t returned to work full time. 

My confidence as a physical therapist was at an all time low. I was absolutely terrified of being fired. I thought surely I would screw up so badly my contract would be ended. 

I didn’t know if my body could handle the stress of a full caseload and 40 hour work week. But we had no choice. It was do or die at that point. 

So we decided to take the leap. 

All packed up and ready to go! Everything we used for the next 7 months fit into our little sedan…

DJ and I moved to South Carolina in March 2019 and ended up staying until the end of September 2019, nearly 7 months, working as travel physical therapists. 

Lo and behold, I survived. I did not get fired. And better yet, my patients loved me.  

Becoming travel PTs was the best decision we could have ever made. It got us back on track financially and towards the path of financial freedom. 

While we lived in South Carolina, we did everything possible to save money. We rented a tiny $395/month studio apartment, we bought our groceries at Aldi, and we continued to use our single car, dropping and picking each other up from work each day. 

Moving into our tiny little studio apartment in South Carolina!

We certainly did not live a luxury life while we were in South Carolina. But our sacrifice paid off. 

In those 7 months, we were not only able to pay our monthly expenses, but we also saved up an emergency fund of $15,000 and paid down $20,000 of the nearly $40,000 of credit card debt we had amassed. 

South Carolina will forever hold a special place in our hearts as the place that saved us from the edge of financial catastrophe. 

Fast forward nearly a year later from those dark months and here we are…starting this blog about our financial journey. 

We will take you along the way. We hope you will laugh with us and that you will cry with us. We aim to be transparent and real. To share both the good and the bad. 

We have not met all our financial goals, not even close. But we are on our way. 

Thank you so much for taking the time to read our story. 

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