For years now, I have attempted to combat the stigma associated with mental illness. Again and again, I have given real world examples, approached the subject from differing angles, even used charts and graphs, hoping to help those who have never experienced it themselves better understand. Yet, sadly I still often feel like I fall short. While those who are living with mental illness have contacted me numerous times to thank me for putting their experiences into words, there are still those who could not wrap their minds around what it was like to live with our diagnosis.
That is, they couldn’t fully understand until this pandemic hit.
Day after day, for months now, I continue to see postings, comments and tweets that could have been written by any one of the millions of people who struggle every day with various mental illnesses.
People talk about being worried all the time, sometimes not even knowing what it is that they are worried about, only that the ever-present feeling of dread is looming there, hanging over them.
People talk about being afraid of their world falling apart, the economy crumbling, their job not being there after all of this is over. They worry about not being smart enough to home school their kids, and of the dangers of sending them back to school in the height of the pandemic. They worry about the house not being clean enough if they have to do a video conference with their co-workers or whether they are even capable to adequately work from home for any length of time. They worry about bills accumulating faster than money comes in and the continuous threat of losing their homes due to evictions and foreclosures.
Even seemingly little things like running to the store for food or toilet paper feel huge. The world outside doesn’t feel safe. What if the store is out of whatever we need when they get there? What if they bump into someone sick? What if they bring the virus home? The sound of someone nearby coughing makes them jump and want to run back home to safety. Many even put off going out for days until they absolutely have to, the dreaded eventual trip weighing on them.
People talk about being worried incessantly and excessively about their loved ones and friends, of imagining worst case scenarios of their illnesses and deaths, even though they know they are currently safe and healthy.
Though the common sense part of their brain keeps firing off, trying to remind them that everything is currently okay, and that things will likely eventually be okay again, they cannot help but feel like everything they are worried about is not only possible but probable. Everything seems to be hanging heavily and even little things feel too big to handle some days.
They feel restless. Their mind runs nonstop. Even reading the news feels overwhelming, yet they struggle to look away because they feel an urgency to stay informed. They feel like they have no control over their lives, as if everything is spiraling down into chaos, getting crazier by the day, and there’s absolutely nothing they can do to stop it.
They talk about the confusion of differing information out there, of never knowing what to believe, who to trust, and being fearful of choosing incorrectly and it leading to disaster.
People talk about being continuously exhausted as the pandemic drags on and on, about wishing things would just be over but fearing there is no end in sight. They’re tired of thinking about the coronavirus, tired of worrying about it, want it to just go away. Yet it continues to loom, to linger, to threaten their peace of mind and their very sanity.
All of that is anxiety.
THAT is what people who live with an anxiety disorder go through every single day over a multitude of things in our lives.
People talk about that feeling of hopelessness.
They feel trapped at home without any real purpose. They are constantly dragging throughout the day. They can’t stay focused. They are eating and sleeping all the time or not at all. Some complain about not even enjoying their favorite foods anymore or their favorite shows no longer bringing them any joy.
Some feel all alone. Many of those feel isolated even with others around, afraid to talk about what they are feeling and going through because they don’t want to seem crazy. They pull inwards, trying to cope and to put on a brave face, even though they feel like they are falling to pieces inside.
Homeschooling has become overwhelming – they don’t remember school being that hard and feel inadequate because they are struggling to help their kids with basic subjects. They feel they are letting everyone down by not being enough. Yet the thought of sending kids back to school feels equally as disastrous. It is as if no matter what choice they make, it’ll be wrong, that every option is equally bad and hopeless.
Life itself feels exhausting to them. There’s times they just feel numb to it all. Other times, they just want to cry. Often, they just resort to sleeping, or mindlessly scrolling through social media or watching random shows, though they can barely recall afterwards what it was that they saw. They feel they are just going through the motions and desperately wish life would just get back to normal – though they know there is nothing they could do to change anything.
Some people are attempting to regain control of their lives, to go out and do something, anything, to reclaim the life they once knew. Yet, while out and about, they are distracted by all that could go wrong, by wanting to return to the safety of their homes. Though part of them desperately wants to enjoy their time out, their thoughts and feelings hang heavy on them, throwing a dark cloud over it all. They feel guilty for everything – for even trying to go out, for trying to have fun, for being too lax or not taking enough precautions. They apologize to others for sucking all the fun out of what could have potentially been a nice day, feeling they somehow seem to be ruining everything they touch.
They see other people being productive, using their downtime wisely to accomplish so many things. They wish they could get things done, as well, but seem to have no desire, no drive to do anything. They find themselves procrastinating and then beating themselves up for their inactivity, which in turn makes themselves procrastinate more, caught in an endless loop where nothing gets done and then they beat themselves up for that lack of productivity.
All of that is depression.
That is what people struggling with a depression diagnosis go through on a regular basis.
I have seen people talk about wanting to be productive during this downtime, taking on a multitude of projects, more than any one person could legitimately handle, convinced they have the time and energy to do it all, only to crash into an overwhelmed, discouraged heap days later with everything half completed. They go through cycles of manic, larger than life aspirations and heavy, depressing reality.
People talk about feeling irrationally angry, of feeling fed up about everything and nothing in particular at the same time. They find themselves continuously annoyed with everyone in their life and even the pandemic as a whole.
They describe many of the feelings common with depression, but with an entirely different mess added to the mix. They talk about having feelings that boomerang and yo-yo from one end to another, or sometimes both extremes at once. They talk about feeling so much, in so many directions, that they cannot even put it all into words.
Those highs, lows and extremes are all aspects of bipolar disorder.
People struggling with bipolar disorder often find themselves experiencing a wide variety of emotions and extremes with no rhyme, reason, pattern or predictable duration.
The list goes on and on of ways this pandemic has helped mirror mental illness in the everyday lives of people who have never experienced it before and struggled to understand it. In the last few months, I have seen these sentiments appear and reappear throughout the country as pockets of positive cases sprung up and the epicenters continued to shift. No matter where the worst of the pandemic currently resides in the country, though, the narrative has remained largely the same.
Whenever I see people talking about their struggles during this pandemic, I want to call out “YES! Yes to this tenfold! That is exactly what it is like!” in hopes of turning it into a teachable moment.
At the same time, I find myself saddened, because I wouldn’t wish any of these experiences on anyone else, even if they are temporary and likely to end when this crisis is over. I know what it is like to live with anxiety and depression every single day for years on end. I grew up seeing my mother struggle with bipolar disorder and now watch my fiance battle it on a daily basis. I am intimately familiar with many of the struggles of living with a mental illness. It breaks my heart to see so many others going through these struggles because I know firsthand how hard it can be.
As strange as it sounds, though, beneath it all, this pandemic has given me a strange sense of unnerving calm. For the first time in my life, I don’t feel entirely odd, different, unbalanced or crazy. For the first time, I don’t feel singled out, the odd woman out in a world where everyone else seems to be breezing through life, coping much better than I could ever dream. For the first time, everyone else can finally understand all the feelings I go through every single day. At least in that one aspect, the pandemic has become the great equalizer for those of us with mental illness.
I can only hope that their memories do not fade, though, once all of this is over. Perhaps now that more people understand and have experienced many of the feelings commonly associated with mental illness even on a temporary basis, they will be more empathetic to the struggles many of us face every single day. Though even if those memories do eventually fade away, I hope everyone currently struggling to cope with the weight of the pandemic knows, as those of us in the mental health community often reassure each other, that none of you are alone. Though there are no easy answers or solutions to much of what you are feeling, we understand and we are all here, even if physically apart, to offer our support. Please never be afraid to seek help if you find you cannot cope on your own. Stay strong.