Mental Illness and the Pandemic
I launched my memoir, Simply Because We are Human, this April right after my fortieth birthday. After years of wanting to tell my story, I was finally able to get the words out on the page to discuss my life dealing with clinical depression from age eight to the present time. My initial goal was to write my story to help others and assist in breaking down the stigmas that are associated with mental illness. To me doing what I can to break down the stigmas that are associated with mental illness is one of the most important things that need to happen in our world today. I know what untreated mental illness looks like. I’ve lived at the bottom of the well grasping for the sunlight from a distance. These nasty stigmas are fuel to the fire of fear that keeps people from getting the help that they need to manage their mental illness. In many cases if mental illness is left untreated, it can be the difference between life and death.
Life or Death
I must say this again to make sure you really are taking in the meaning of these words. I am not talking about deciding if you want cream or sugar in your coffee. What I am talking about is the difference from existing or NOT existing. Nothing is more important than finding hope through mental illness and situational chaos. That is why this project means so much to me. Launching my story out into the universe is my attempt at changing the way we look manage and perceive illness in this world.
Overall, this project took me five years to complete from start to final print. It went through many drafts. This was mainly because I wanted to be intentional when it came to my audience. I deliberately shortened my book to make it an easy read. This is because people that are going through difficult times tend to not want to sit and read a novel. It is hard enough to focus on anything at all in times of distress. I realized if I wanted to help make a difference, I had to keep my readers in mind.
My story is original in that it is mine, but by no means is it the only story like it. My story isn’t original, it is relatable. Even though every human being may not have a mental illness, everyone goes through hardships. Everyone goes through darkness. The only difference is many people don’t reach out and talk about their own stories of darkness. I thought that maybe by telling my story it would help inspire more people to tell their own. As I read my story to small groups to get feedback, I had people reach out afterwards to say thank you or that my story helped because they or someone close to them had someone with a similar story. Everyone has their own story. Sometimes it just takes to know that they aren’t alone before they can tell their story to someone else.
Hearing other people’s stories helped me in numerous aspects. With each story I felt less alone. I felt that I had helped set out what I wanted to do. I wanted to help people even if it was in some small way. Listening to others tell their own stories inspired me, and most importantly were a constant reminder to keep writing even when things got uncomfortably personal.
I was completely done with my draft before Covid-19 hit the world. Having a global pandemic was an unfortunate surprise in 2020. Our world changed overnight. People were isolated from their loved ones. People were ill and dying. Jobs were lost. Everyone all over the world was adjusting their entire routines to mostly be at home. Parents that both worked full-time were unexpectedly taking on the additional unpaid full-time role of teaching. Mental health concerns were higher than usual. Suicide seemed to be a common story. It felt like I was hearing about someone that took their own life every other week. Meanwhile, people were dying unable to be surrounded by loved ones because of the pandemic. Unfortunately, I began to realize that my story was even more relevant during these difficult times in the world. Could my story help?
Covid-19, Simply Because We Are Human, and mental illness are all similar in ways? Mental illness is very personal because no person goes through the same symptoms or manages their illness in the exact same way. The Covid-19 outbreak, in some ways, was and is remarkably similar. Why? This is because every person is impacted in different ways. All people deal with the outcomes of COVID-19 differently. In my situation, for example, I was worried about the wellbeing of my high-risk parents. My stepfather was finishing chemotherapy for his cancer, and my stepmother’s arthritis medications decreased the strength of her immune system. If either one of them caught Covid-19, they were likely to not survive. Therefore, my focus during Covid-19 was to keep my high-risk parents safe.
Then tragedy hit my family hard. My stepbrother Johnny died in 2020 on June twenty-ninth. He lost his battle with alcohol addiction. Addiction is such an awful illness. We never will know exactly what happened to Johnny that night, but we do know that the cause of death was pronounced as an accidental drowning that was possibly influenced by alcohol intoxication. His blood alcohol levels were extraordinarily high. Johnny lived in Texas with his mother, and we all lived in Minnesota. My stepdad could not travel as it was too risky for his health while he recently finished up chemotherapy. At that time in Texas Covid numbers were peaking and travel was strongly not recommended in that area. Watching my stepfather not be able to travel to be near my other stepsiblings to make funeral arrangements and losing my stepbrother were the most awful things I experienced during the pandemic. It made me wonder about all the other people that lost loved ones during the pandemic. The grieving process is so different when you can’t get together with family to celebrate the life of that loved one.
Nothing prepares a person for the death of a loved one. Especially one such as my stepbrother’s that was so sudden and tragic. I recall finishing up my senior craft paper right before Johnny passed away. This is something I worked on for three years and during this I studied grief memoirs. I read so many stories about grief and loss. When Johnny died, I looked back at the irony of my research and the situation that I was in. My first impulse was to throw all the memoirs I’d read in the trash. Nothing prepares you for what grief brings. Nothing, because there is this entire black nothingness where an important person filled. The only thing to do is let it flow through you, be a mess, randomly cry when something drastically reminds you of the pain and continue moving forward with your life because that is what your lost loved one would want. Life will never be the same, but it can be a different kind of better if you let it be.
The question that I have received the most in response to my memoir since it was released in April was how was I managing my mental illness during Covid 19? My answer is not what most people expect. My mental illness, if anything, has prepared me to deal with difficult things such as a pandemic. I feel fortunate that my clinical depression experiences and treatment has helped me find tools and strength through difficult times. The fact is that through the years I constantly needed to check in with myself on my emotional well-being and because of all that hard work it developed my mental strength. People that don’t have to deal with a mental illness on a regular basis may feel more like they had the rug pulled out from under them. I could utilize the tools and tricks I learned through the years to help me deal with the pandemic.
Let me give you some examples to why my mental illness prepared me to deal with something such as the pandemic.
I am self-aware of my emotional patterns. I knew that the loss of my stepbrother could easily trigger my depression especially during the pandemic. I still knew that I had to grieve, but I needed to be a step ahead of myself just in case I got bad or started to spiral out into a depressive episode.
I talked to my Dr. about increasing my meds a bit and decided that was a good idea. It ended up that because of this change, I discovered the correct dosage I should have been on all along.
I set up a meeting with a grief counselor. Even if I didn’t need to talk to her at the moment, it was important that I had someone to talk to if needed.
I started training for a marathon because I know running is a good outlet for me and it was a way that I could let myself grieve in a healthy way. I also knew that I would stick to a regular training plan. Exercise helps me to sleep well which is important for anyone to keep a healthy balance and one of the main things that decreases when I’m not doing well.
I made sure to keep hydrated. Drinking enough water daily is important. When I’m going through a difficult time, I tend to deliberately drink more water. This is because it is easy to forget that basic need when distracted with hardship.
2. I’m more of an introvert than an extrovert.
Being isolated from people other than my immediate family was not hard for me. Most people don’t think of me as an introvert. It isn’t that I don’t like socializing, it is that I don’t mind being alone. For extroverts the pandemic really took a tole on their mental well-being leading to overall health decline.
3. Exercise for me is outside running or biking. During winter I have a treadmill and
spinning bike in my house.
Exercise is essential for me and many other people to keep balanced. Many people who play team sports or go to a club to work out were finding team sports canceled while gyms and clubs were closed during the pandemic. I already had stopped using my fitness club and had all my work out equipment at home. Many people struggled with missing their team sports. It took away from social activity and exercise, while I did not.
I have dogs. Walking my dogs always gave me some way of getting out of the house and allowed me to see other people even if they were waving at a distance. Having a dog gives you automatic companionship. When the pandemic hit my family spent most of their time home with the dogs. The companionship really helped and basically made dogs temporary rulers of the world.
4. My job was easily moved to a work from home setting.
I work as an executive assistant at Optum. My job can easily be done remotely from anywhere as long as I can get online. I did not have to cut back on my hours, lose my job, or collect unemployment. I was fortunate to have a career that didn’t stop because of a global pandemic. Many people couldn’t work at all. Some businesses were shut down temporarily or some went bankrupt and out of business completely. Any career in hospitality or tourism was temporarily non-existent putting many people in horrible financial positions.
5. My spouse had a job that was considered essential.
My husband was fortunate to have a job through the pandemic as well. Many double income houses were experiencing extreme loss of income. Mine wasn’t. I didn’t have to stress about it, and I felt fortunate every day for that blessing.
6. Most of my immediate family lives near each other.
My parents, my two sisters, dad’s family, husband’s family, and epicenter of my support system are all in the Twin Cities area. This wasn’t the same for many families. Traveling far is not an option or logical during a pandemic. When you live close it is easy to see family and friends during a drive-by, an outside socially distanced conversation, or a wave from the other side of a window. I could do so with most of my family while many didn’t have the option.
7. My husband and I were not high risk or germophobic.
I didn’t have to worry about my husband and I being high risk. Many people had to live in daily fear because they were high risk and would inevitably not recover from the illness if they caught it. Don’t get me wrong we were cautious, but my husband and I are not germophobic to begin with. I had friends that were terrified of germs and getting sick even before the pandemic hit, and when the pandemic hit it was like their worse nightmare had happened. Germophobic during a pandemic can get ill just from the worry of becoming ill. This was not something I or any of my immediate family experienced.
Now I’m not saying it wasn’t hard for me and my family. I recognize that no matter what situation a person was in, the pandemic was hard for everyone. What I am saying is there were many people that had to worry about serious issues during the pandemic that I did not. Also, there were many people that didn’t have a mental illness that were going through similar difficult times in reaction to this new awful situational experience. Many people never had to deal with these unexpected reactions to negative stress before, therefore many didn’t have the necessary tools to deal with these new experiences. Mental illness or not these experiences are the same type of hopelessness, anxiety, darkness, and despair. One may be a diagnosed mental illness, while the other is brought on by situational stressors, but they are both just as real. They both challenge
a person’s sanity and overall health.
As I said before, I wrote my story to help people and break stigmas associated to mental illness. When I started writing my story, I had absolutely no idea how relevant my words would be and then it finished up in the middle of a global pandemic. The fact of the matter is, situational hardships and diagnosed mental illnesses are not that different. People are hurting, need help, and need to know they aren’t alone in this universe. I’m thankful for all I’ve learned from having a mental illness. I’m hoping my story can help many people and above all make us realize that it’s okay to not be okay sometimes, it happens to us all because it is part of being human.
Till we meet again*