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Living With Bipolar and Paranoia During the Coronavirus Pandemic

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Somebody put tall fake hedges next to the front door of our building. I walk in, and they look like people out of the corner of my eye. I got scared of zombies right around when the COVID-19 lockdowns started. I walked by the empty museums and parks, and I imagined them overrun with post-apocalyptic bandits. On March 13, I sat on my bed watching clips of “The Road,” gray wasteland and bunkers. When I sleep, I make sure to close all the doors to the bedroom. But I’m always scared of zombies, so I’m not being paranoid.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

My psychiatrist and I met in that park four weeks ago, my first time seeing her in person in almost a year. Millennium Park was near-empty, fenced-off in lots of places. The huge, now-abandoned field where I once stood in line to see Yo-Yo Ma. I got my psychiatrist a small bag of chocolate truffles for a New Year’s gift. I’d never given a present to a doctor before. We talked and walked until we hit a fence, turned around. She’d suggested we meet outside to help me get out of bed. 

During my days in bed, I replayed a possibly offensive Facebook comment I made seven months ago, a birthday wish to a distant relative. Imagined my friends testifying against me at a trial. Freaked out about the chances of a future totalitarian president. I tried not to tell my fears to anybody except my husband. Even with my therapist, I kept the more bizarre concerns to myself. I didn’t want anybody to call me “crazy.” I worry about offending people. To a lot of people, what can be more offensive than an unrelatable mind? Lying in bed, my chest got tight, my head stung. Shaky breaths.

Hours before the insurrection at the Capitol, I told an old roommate how I was doing, and I left out the days worrying in bed. I was getting used to leaving the house again. These small acts make me overconfident sometimes. Like, look at me, I can survive. After two days of coffee runs, I texted my roommate back that I was pretty good. I was starting not to mind the cold air through my mask, even the “thank you!” to the barista, yelled above the drone of the coffee grinder.

When I started leaving the house again, I decided to grab coffee to-go from the corner spot. I don’t need to cross any streets. If I order ahead, I don’t talk to anybody, except to say thanks. And the lighting isn’t too bright. Over the phone, I told my psychiatrist I thought I could do it, grab a coffee. I’m supposed to leave the house every day. A guy on the street called me “gorgeous” while I was wearing a mask. He waved and stumbled toward me.

The guy was real. Had to be. I’ve never hallucinated people. I walked faster, but I wasn’t being paranoid. One night I heard voices, years ago. Now I hear our neighbors’ noises through the bedroom wall with dread. I count all the times I think I see people: a stepladder, the hedges. The side of the fridge. I’ll tell my psychiatrist later. I’ll ask her when it’s “normal” to see things.

“I have to put off the psych hospital as long as I can,” I told my husband. I’d gotten out of bed to eat lunch, and I hunched over the table. “What if I got COVID in the hospital?”

I accidentally watched videos of the mob at the Capitol. They automatically loaded when I tried to read the news. Shaky up-close views of a bunch of jackets. The back of somebody’s neck. I didn’t click away at first. Watched the jackets — blue, black, white — crinkle and move. People’s hair. My friend later said she wouldn’t watch. Too much violence. I agreed. But I’m OK, I only saw a bunch of jackets.

Sometimes, I think American democracy will end. Because I couldn’t click away fast enough — I saw their strutting walks, arms swinging. They’re thrilled to destroy. They can’t wait. And I’m worried my friends will get sick or die. And I don’t know the next time I’ll see my family. But I’m allowed to worry about these things now. Nobody needs to up my meds. Not for this.

I don’t know where my anxiety is supposed to stop anymore. I don’t know how to pick at my worries, point out the abnormal ones and say, “Too creative.” Everybody’s thinking about sickness, arguing how much to care about the risk of other people’s sickness. I leave the house tracing my risk of causing somebody else’s death, by inches, a moment with my mask down. I try not to let the calculations get out of control. I try to act cautiously without thinking too much why. I haven’t seen my family in a year. If I think too much why, I won’t be able to count the loss. In the news, I check red graphs, dipping and spiking. I get updates from my friends on their first dose, second dose. 

“And I don’t know if they’ll let you visit me in the hospital,” I said to my husband. He’d visited me every day last time, sitting on the bus for an hour to get to the hospital. We talked or played Connect 4 for 20 minutes before I got tired.

The worries all started with a notice that one of my passwords had been breached. I checked the login history for one site, horrified to discover logins from another coast, three times before dawn going back weeks. In a few days, I changed all my passwords to tricky combinations, tracked down obscure sites I hadn’t used in years and called customer service to request resets that sometimes took days to verify. Later I decided somebody was going to hack into my email and blackmail me with old messages from high school. I lay in bed going over lines. I tried to remember who I’d messaged, whether they were trustworthy. Soon I couldn’t get out of bed most days from worry. But I heard my fears were common. Timely. I guess I need to stop worrying when I start wanting to die.

“If you’ve gotta go to the psych hospital, you’ve gotta go,” my husband said. “What if it helps you feel better?” I nodded. 

Walking around empty Millennium Park, I thanked my psychiatrist for talking to me around New Year’s. I had hesitated to contact her for days, finally emailing one line (“I was wondering,” “I’m not sure”) with the subject “Question.” She responded to my email in four minutes. Standing together in front of the Bean, she put the truffles in her purse and told me she loves chocolate. I’m so relieved that she’ll enjoy the gift. We’d talked over the phone after that email, and she switched up my meds. My thoughts loosened up enough for me to get back to what I wanted to be doing. She told me to reach out again next time. Now I get out of bed every day. Maybe I’ll stay out of the hospital the whole pandemic. I almost feel embarrassed thinking it. Like who am I, to lay out my life, to think I can control myself?

The night after the insurrection at the Capitol, I revealed a few worries to a friend. Some of the secrets that had driven me to bed. Dictatorship, civil war. I apologized for my pessimism. I waited for him to call me “crazy” or stop talking. I hoped he wouldn’t get infected with my paranoia. “Sorry, is it a downer for you to talk about this stuff?” I texted. “I’m sorry I didn’t ask.”

He listened. We traded links and videos. I still wasn’t sure if I was being paranoid. But I could ask him later. I kept leaving the house.

One morning, I went outside before the sun rose. I couldn’t tell it was dark because the streetlights keep our windows bright. I stepped into the cold and walked around the corner for a coffee. The park looked almost black across the street. Rumbling El tracks at my back. I pulled my coat hood up. Maybe I could do this every day. Set an alarm clock to wake me up alone, leave my husband asleep. I could get out of bed in the dark, look on the empty street with only enough fear.

Photo by Lucia Macedo on Unsplash

Originally published: February 25, 2021
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