Bipolar Disorder Makes Me Fear Being Alone, but Then I Got COVID-19
In February 2021, I tested positive for COVID-19, and my husband thankfully didn’t. We split up our apartment. I took the bedroom, he got the living room. I saw him, white masks on, when I went to the kitchen to refill my water pitcher. Or when I grabbed my plate of food from the TV stand near my door. We talked over Zoom through lunch and dinner. During our calls, I talked about contamination.
“My mask fell off for a second in the bathroom,” I said to his Zoom square. “Wait a while before going in.”
“Sure,” he said. “I can wait a couple of hours.”
Usually, I try not to sleep alone. I started avoiding being on my own a couple of years ago, when I landed in the psych hospital four times over 13 months. Before isolating for COVID-19, I believed sleeping alone kicked off my depression and anxiety, going back to my early episodes alone in my parents’ house. And I wanted somebody around to help me if I had a psychotic breakdown. So I decided I never wanted to go back to the hospital, and I organized my life around not being alone. When my husband traveled for work, we made a list of our friends, local and out-of-state, who I would inconvenience the least — those who would say they don’t mind but actually do. Sometimes my mom stayed with me. Or my sister. I took the bus three hours to sleep in my other sister’s guest room. When I stayed with people, I babysat, ordered food. When my sister stayed with me, I hosted her friends and organized a trip to see Christmas lights. I tried to be fun. Tried to deserve their help.
“I might’ve brushed against a plate in the drying rack when I filled my water,” I said. “I’m not sure. I think I did. I should have used gloves. Damn it!”
“It’s probably OK,” he said. I watched him eat on the screen, a hallway away.
“So how was your day today?” he asked.
“It was all right,” I said.
I filled my days with phone calls to my doctor or therapist or friends, two or three calls a day. I asked my friends to stay in touch. I kept music on, Frank Ocean or “Singin’ in the Rain.” And for the first six days — before I started watching the black Zoom screen with desperation, snapping together Lego bricks for hours to block out the bedroom’s walls — I didn’t feel so alone. In those first days, I felt tightly gripped onto reality, the routine of sanitizing the bathroom doorknobs, counting my pills every morning and bedtime. Noticing my breathing, its ease or labor.
In isolation with COVID-19, I was surprised I could be alone. Those first days, I thought I was doing a pretty good job. I hugged a stuffed dinosaur since my friend said it was important to hug something. Watched cooking videos on my phone, swiping to watch the next person slice green onions. Pulled back my curtains every morning, sat in the chair next to the window to take in sun. I was very busy, trying to stay OK.
It feels like everybody else can be alone. They live on their own or their roommates go out of town, and I imagine them moving around their apartments, making themselves dinner or watching Netflix. They get on the El and show up to birthday dinners and joke around. They’re not hanging onto the edge of reality. Something is wrong with me, that I’m so afraid of being alone. Maybe I’d be braver if I had a cat. But I’m allergic.
I can’t be the only one with this fear. Maybe I’ll meet somebody else like me. We’ll sit on my couch some afternoon and talk over our anxieties, the deadly silence of hours alone, the growing panic. “No way, I’m scared in the shower, too,” I’ll say, and laugh. I’ll offer them a cup of tea. We’ll eat banana bread and chat for hours. “Who do you stay with?” I’ll ask. “Do you ever worry they’ll get sick of you?”
After six days in isolation, my anxiety caught up with me. I stared at the unchanging view of my bed, nightstand, TV and felt a deep dread. I checked my calendar many times a day, counting down the three days to getting out. I could feel the depression coming on, a tingling behind my eyes, a pull into the carpet. It was too easy to slide into bed, throw my food away.
So I stayed out of bed, or I sat up at least. Showed up to my Zoom calls, reassuring everybody I had a mild case. I submitted a new essay, messaged my siblings while we watched British people fold peanut butter into pastry.
I never got depressed. And maybe this is what it takes to be alone: keeping the noise going, marshaling my friends to talk to me constantly. I could send out the same calls to action next time my husband goes out of town. “Help! I’m going to be alone!”
Or maybe it was my husband’s physical presence, past the walls, that grounded me. Even if I couldn’t open a door without warning him.
In June, my husband went to Greenland for seven weeks. One video call, icy snow swirled in the background, and he shouted above the wind that the research team had dug a huge hole. Meanwhile, I visited and hosted family, but I couldn’t fill the whole seven weeks. Sometimes I was on my own, at one point for a week.
The two positive pregnancy tests still sat on the bathroom counter, from nine days before my husband left for his trip. We’d been trying, and I’d cried at the dentist when my phone buzzed with the pregnancy blood test results from my OB’s office, subject line “Congratulations!”
“Are you happy you’re pregnant?” the dental hygienist had asked me, leaning over a metal tray. I’d nodded. “Yes, I’m very happy.”
With my husband gone, I lay in bed every evening, nausea roiling up into my mouth. I ate dinner at an empty table, walked down our sunny street. Talked to friends. I was keeping my grip, even if I wasn’t exactly comfortable. Before sleeping, I unrolled the ultrasound photos on my nightstand and stared at our baby inside me. I wasn’t really alone.
Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash