My Mental Health in the Time of Corona
Updated: Oct 2, 2020
May 16, 2020
I’m not a person who has ever really suffered from depression. I have been sad. Devastated. I remember crying in the shower as a teenager when a guy I really liked broke up with me. At that moment with the tears flowing down my face and the water running over my body, I was sure I would be sad forever. But I listened to sad music (“End of the Road,” Boyz II Men) and ate a pint of Ben & Jerry's Phish Food, and a week or so later, I was back to doing whatever it is teenagers do without a thought about him. I had survived a hard thing.
I was in my 20s working at my first real job when my grandfather died. I experienced that shock that happens when you lose your first relative, disbelief that the person is truly gone forever. Complicating the situation was the fact that I was in Washington, DC, and my family was in LA. I really didn’t want to disrupt my newly independent life to fly home and attend a funeral. I did it for my mom, who had been close to her dad and begged me to come. I remember returning to work afterward and checking in with my boss, whose emotional intelligence did not equal her brilliance at her economic policy job. Her first question was how old my grandfather had been. When I said 91, she implied that his death was not really that big of a deal since he was so old. She didn’t use those words, but that’s what she meant. I was shocked and appalled. Any death is a tragedy with deep consequences for those left behind. At my grandfather’s funeral, my grandmother was so out of her mind with grief and her own mental health issues, she screamed that she wanted to throw herself into the ground with him. And my mom was the one who had to pick up the pieces. Is it sad when a 91-year-old man dies? To my family it was. But we got through it together.
When my oldest son was born, I checked in with myself during those first few weeks for signs of “the baby blues.” I never got it. I was exhausted, but happy. Especially in the beginning, when family came to help and friends dropped by to visit, life was like a new adventure. Then the months started to drag on. I was home all day managing all of the housework that comes with a baby, and of course taking care of the baby himself, and not sleeping. I tried to explain to my doctor that something was wrong, but she dismissed my concerns as that of a typical new mom. But even as my son started sleeping better, I still could not sleep. I would wake up at 3am to some real or imagined baby noise and not be able to go back to sleep. Night after night, I tossed and turned. The bags under my eyes grew bags of their own. Words that I knew slipped beyond reach. I would take any opportunity just to lie down. I spoke to another doctor. She told me that being tired would not kill me. I fantasized about crashing my car and being taken to a hospital where they would give me drugs that would help me sleep for days. Eventually, I got help. I worked with a therapist and got to the bottom of the issue and learned techniques that I still use for falling back asleep if I wake up in the middle of the night. I also learned the importance of taking care of my own mental health deliberately.
Fast forward nearly nine years to today. We have been under stay-at-home orders for two months now. I have been vigilant about protecting my mental health. I walk every day. I go outside all the time, working from the backyard whenever possible. I stretch every morning and eat fruits and vegetables and whole grains. I come up with new projects for the family such as making cake pops or raising caterpillars or going on hikes and picnics. I text friends and video-chat with far away family members. Whenever something new opens up, I’m there. The kids and I were among the first people at the re-opened skate park and tennis courts. I booked the Kona Ice truck to come by the house and invited all the neighbors -- we ate our shaved ices together standing 6 feet apart. I spend plenty of time on my creative outlet -- writing. My kitchen is full of all the bread, cake, and pie I have baked. I’m like the poster child for mental health!
Except that I’m not. A rainy day sends me into a spiral. A weekend without any plans to look forward to makes me weepy. No friends reaching out for days has me talking to myself out loud like a parrot. Everything seems under control until it’s not. It feels like my mental health, a muscle built up through the trials of life: the teenage breakup, death of a grandparent, struggles of a new mom, is weakening. Or maybe it’s not weakening, but the load has gotten heavier. The burden has increased to include the people I’m helping at work and the difficulties of my kids at home, and the monotony of it all. I’m afraid. I’m afraid that I will slip and everything I’m carrying will come crashing down. I think this is what depression feels like and I’m on the edge of it fighting not to fall into the colorless, cold world below. I know I can do hard things, but I don’t know for how long I can do this.