What It’s Like to Still Be Struggling With Mental Illness During COVID-19
Looking back at the past year, there is both too much to say, and yet not enough. I feel as if I have lived through enough historical events to last a lifetime in a mere 12 months. Days bleed together, I go weeks without leaving my property and my routine has become so monotonous that finding an old drawing pencil I lost years ago becomes the most exciting thing to happen all month. I wake up late in the morning, check my school email to see the same “health check” survey I have been filling out since the school year began, attend my virtual classes, do some homework, play some games, make dinner for my family, put on my playlist and wallow until three, four in the morning when my insomnia finally breaks, and the cycle starts anew.
Each day, my friends and I say how much we miss each other and talk about our plans for when we can all finally pack a bag and take a big trip together to make up for the lost time. Before, I had been able to see them each week when we played games, worked on creative projects and laughed the night away. Even when I transferred to university, I was close enough to home to be able to come back and see them often. Life was finally looking up. For the first time in my life, I had direction, my grades were the highest they had ever been and I was hopeful for the future.
Then, everything changed.
November 27, 2019, the day before Thanksgiving, I was strolling through the parking lot of a grocery store with my mom getting some last-minute supplies for the holiday.
“This whole thing in China is scary, huh?” I said to make casual chitchat as I quickly rubbed my cold nose without a second thought.
“Yeah,” she replied, “I heard their hospitals are overrun and I can’t imagine it being winter is helping any either.”
I hummed in acknowledgement while I mused the idea over in my head. “You know, I like to think that if anything like that happened here, we’d be OK.”
More than a year later, and those words play over in the back of my mind on an endless loop. The first COVID-19 death in the United States. We’d be OK. Two-week spring break. We’d be OK. In-person classes are canceled for the rest of the year. We’d be OK. State-issued lockdown. We’d be OK. Local small businesses can no longer afford to continue operation. We’d be OK. Twenty-seven and a half million cases. We’d be OK. Half a million unnecessary deaths. We’d be OK. Mental health spiraling again. We’d be OK.
Long before this all began, I have had a history of mental health problems. Freshman year of high school, I was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and minor borderline personality disorder (BPD). Though undiagnosed, I also learned later I exhibit most, if not all, signs of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in adult females. High school was hard enough on its own, but going through it with severe mental illnesses made it a living nightmare.
I graduated on my 18th birthday, and it was the scariest, most rewarding thing I had ever gone through up to that point. For most of my peers, it was a day they all saw coming, and looked forward to, for four years. For me, it was a day I had convinced myself I would never see. Throughout my young teen years, I had a vague plan of going to college for theater and the desire to become a stage costumer one day, but it was something I never deeply held myself to. If that day came, it came, but between bad grades and constant thoughts of suicide plaguing my mind, it always felt like a long-off dream.
I went through three years of community college because my mental health made it too hard to receive my associate degree in two. As the days turned to weeks, weeks turned to completed terms and terms turned into years, I could feel the sun poking through the clouds in my mind for the first time. I still had days where I had to sit in my car in the school parking lot and have a 30-minute cry session between classes, and days where I couldn’t even bring myself to get out of bed, but I knew still things were getting better.
I was accepted for transfer into the only school I had a real desire to go to, and though I had to ditch my plans of studying theatrical design, I found an excitement for my new path in communication. Scars of self-inflicted wounds had finally seemed to fade from the eyes of the rest of the world, and I covered the marks I could still see with a tattoo I designed in reference to a show that always makes me smile. We’d be OK.
I never cared much for the stereotypical “college experience” as my high school friends did, so when I finally left home and transferred to university, it didn’t feel like much of a change. I made a few close friends and met people in passing, but social anxiety kept me away from making many friends. It also doesn’t help I’ve been described as “intimidating” with my height, dyed hair, tattoos and septum piercing by people who now know me well enough to know I jump at the sound of a pen drop. This didn’t change my now upwards look on life, though. I was happy having just a few people I could call close friends.
Being a huge theater nerd, I was so excited to see back-to back-shows put on by my school and the ever famous Oregon Shakespeare festival (OSF) just a few minutes from my dorm room. I went to a talk with the director of the OSF at the end of February to write an article on it for one of my classes. I wrote little stars next to the shows she gushed about I was most excited to see. My hometown had a decent theater, and I enjoyed the few plays and musicals I saw my community college put on, but this was the big leagues. This season, of course, was set to begin in early April of 2020.
The following weeks proceeded to fly by as I was preparing for finals and my roommate that year was the president of school housing, so I constantly got the tea on the internal workings of the school’s plans and insider drama. A week before spring break, I hesitantly asked her if she knew what the plans were, as things were beginning to take a turn for the worse. I felt bad asking, knowing things had to be stressful enough as is, but just a couple hours before, I had gotten off the phone with my mother, advising her not to go to Portland with my brother for his Christmas/birthday gift as that was quickly turning into a COVID-19 epicenter.
Two days before I was set to return home for our now two-week spring break, I was lying in bed doing everything I could to keep my mind off the rapid spread of the virus. I became paranoid, so much so that I made myself physically ill and sat in the bathroom crying for an hour when my thermometer read 101 degrees. I retraced every step I took that week, we were still unsure of how exactly the virus transmitted and mask mandates were still weeks in our future. I called my mom the next morning trying to hide my panic when I told her how I felt sick and had a fever, but couldn’t think of any time I crossed paths with someone who was also sick. She helped calm me down, as she usually does when I get over-paranoid, and within a few hours, the fever was gone and I could breathe a sigh of relief.
My true fear didn’t lie in getting sick myself, but in bringing anything home to my family, mostly my grandfather. An invisible guilt hangs over me every step I take outside, around strangers, and even on the rare occasion I see two or three of my friends. A nagging thought, prodding at my brain, “You’re going to get him sick,” it calls out. “He’s going to die and it’s going to be all your fault,” it hums. Every innocent cough that escapes my throat is plagued with worry and fear, not for myself, but for those around me.
After our last finals, two friends and I were going back home for spring break. Two of us lived in the same city and the other was catching a flight out of it the next morning to go back home so we all huddled to hang out at my place for the night. What we didn’t know, however, was this would be the last time we saw each other face-to-face in months.
We got the email all classes would be held remotely that night while we were all together and promptly went to the store to grab some cheap alcohol to hide the mountain of stress just dropped on our shoulders. In our past experiences, we weren’t good with online schooling, and now we were being forced to do only that. A new major learning curve when we were almost done with our junior year. I said goodbye to my friend who was flying home and pondered the future.
The following week of spending the spring break I first imagined to be filled with time with friends and road trips was now lying at home with my mom, grandpa and older brother, “doom-scrolling” through social media and news feeds. It seemed everything escalated so rapidly that it lasted a year alone. I rummaged through my spare fabric and elastics I had laying around my crafting space and opened a quick template for homemade masks. I felt silly and over-paranoid doing it at the time, because masks weren’t yet required, but I have a constant need to be prepared for anything that might happen. Right when I finished my third one, I saw my brother walk past the window and called him inside, sitting back at my sewing machine to finish up the batch of masks.
“I’m making some masks, do you want one just in case?” I inquired, slightly blushing, feeling as though I was overreacting by jumping the gun and making them.
He paused for a moment, about to decline when I motioned to the small pile I had made already, “Well, if you already made it then I guess I’ll take one, just in case.”
That “just in case” turned into a state requirement only a few days later.
The beginning of the pandemic was filled with sleepless nights, long talks, planning out how my mom would work and I would attend school from home at the same time on our less-than-good internet connection, and lots of nervous pacing. The news was a constant cycle of the state of the world and climbing death rates. Each night, I’d sit in the living room with my family and silently hold back tears watching the devastation. It came to the point where my mom and I had to beg my grandfather not to put on the news because it was only a constant barrage of bad. We went from watching it every night, to avoiding ever having it on in the house.
The first couple of months, there was a sense of companionship between all mankind. Videos surfaced of people singing songs from their balconies, everyone learned how to bake bread to the point where I couldn’t find yeast for weeks and we held high hopes for soon reuniting and being together again. I was scared still, but was beginning to fall into routine as classes started and I had something to distract myself with. My college friends and I texted and called each other on Zoom, making plans to room in the student apartments next year. We kept each other motivated with the strange new online only format our classes turned into. Everything had changed pace, and my mind was OK with the change keeping me distracted from the events happening around me. Once I fell into a real routine, however, everything crumbled apart again.
It had been months since I last saw anyone that I didn’t live with, or wasn’t a stranger in a grocery store from six-feet away; loneliness was creeping its way up to my mind. Though gatherings were prohibited, my brother continued to see his friends once every couple of weeks to play games and hang out, and one day while driving to make a quick errand-run with my mom, she mentioned he was going to see them again that night. I broke.
I tend to keep most of my emotions to myself, as not to bother those around me or add to the stress my mother was already carrying, but I couldn’t stop the tears from falling this time. “It isn’t fair,” I repeated over and over in my head, biting my lip, when my mom noticed something was wrong. She pulled into the closest parking lot and asked me what was wrong, and I couldn’t help from letting the tears flow out like a waterfall. Between gasps for air from my sobs, I explained the best I could how unfair it was he had no guilt in happily leaving the house to see a group of people he didn’t need to be around. She agreed, but affirmed he was an adult and she couldn’t control him, but she knew and validated my feelings.
We sat in the parking lot a few minutes longer as I regained composure, grabbing a fistful of napkins kept in her center console and drying my eyes.
“Is there anything else?” She quietly asked.
“What do you mean?” I dabbed the last of the tears away and sniffed the last few sniffles.
“Is there anything else you want to let go before we get back?”
Not a second after she finished her question, the waterworks began again. We sat in the parking lot for another 10 minutes as she listened to me vent about all the pent-up frustrations, anger and sadness I had been hiding away for months now. It was the closest thing to therapy I had had in a long time, and the following days felt better because of it.
The nagging sadness in my mind turned to anger as the Black Lives Matter movement was going into full swing. I felt hopeless and of no help as I watched innocent people get killed, shot at, threatened and hurt on the streets every, single day for standing up to injustice. I donated what money I could spare as I watched friends and family argue over the lives of innocent Black people just because of the color of their skin. I turned 22 in the middle of the height of the movement, but between COVID-19 and protests, I didn’t feel there was anything worth celebrating.
The months carried on and the constant worry and sadness just turned into its own routine. I longed for the summer days where my friends and I would go to the lake for the day and bask in the Northern California sun for hours while we waded in the cool water, but I had accepted our current reality. Being a socially anxious introvert seemed to play to my advantage as being stuck at home wasn’t completely treacherous, especially since a very small group of friends and I found safe ways to meet and hang out once or twice a month. I found myself making more art again.
As a teenager I was always drawing, though I wasn’t the best at it, it helped distract me from depressive episodes and gave me a way to express my sadness and anger. I stopped drawing for a long time as I went through the first years of college. I’d doodle on assignments or class notes now and then but rarely sit down and make completed artworks. While I still draw some “vent art” now and then with some mildly darker themes to just let the thoughts out of my mind, I’ve found much of my artwork now has a much happier tone. When I’m sad, I’ll pull out my iPad and drawing app and draw something that makes me happy.
If it wasn’t art, it was video games. I found comfort in a small-town farm life simulation game by the name of Stardew Valley. While playing, I could ignore everything bad happening around me and put myself into the pixelated world where I was just a city-girl-turned-farmer when she found the deed to her grandfather’s farm located in a small, quiet town. What I wouldn’t give for real-life me and pixelated me to change places for just a day. Going back to a normal life, taking careful care of my animals and crops, spending time with my community and ending the night in the local saloon, packed with all my friends.
I know one day we’ll get back there. One day, I’ll be able to step into a store I don’t need to be at and just spend hours mindlessly walking the aisles, meet my friends for dinner or drinks and meet new people while traveling to exciting places. Some days, it seems like this is never-ending, a hellish loop I’ve been thrust into.
When I begin to get too down on myself and the circumstances surrounding, I look back to all I have accomplished in my short time on Earth. The trials I’ve already been through, the loved ones I’ve seen come and go, the fact I’ve survived a whole year in a global pandemic with every force in my brain working against me. I’ll have dark days, I have for years, but I’ll always pick myself up and keep pushing myself forward, no matter what it takes. I’ll be OK.
Unsplash image by Sharon McCutcheon