Quarantine Diaries Day 330: Feel Good, Inc.

“How do you want this next phase of the pandemic to feel?” That’s what my therapist asked me last week after I spent the first half of our session cataloguing the fears and anxieties that are currently dragging me down and eclipsing any hope that things will ever get better. People have been giving lip service to the importance of mental health since the early days of the pandemic, but I saw the writing on the wall the day the first stay at home order went into place. At the time, I was newly in therapy, working my way through a mental health crisis that had started the previous fall, but really that I had been living through, in a cyclical fashion, since I was 18 years old. In winter, the world goes dark and I can’t see my way out. It’s not just about the sun and the seasons. The first time it happened, I tried to end it all in Tucson, and I’ve been suicidal in June, too. It’s never been quite that bad again, but last winter it got close enough that I scared myself back into therapy after four years of trying to twelve step my way through all my problems. By March, I was working my way up and out of the latest deep hole. I felt more optimistic about my marriage, my parenting, my work–my life. I wasn’t thinking about dying. 

Then the pandemic hit, and death was imminent and everywhere. Even if COVID wasn’t coming for me, it was gunning for my grandma, and my parents, and my in-laws, and even if they survived, somebody else’s grandparents, somebody else’s parents, somebody else’s children would not. I read those early projections in horror: 200,000 to 2 million Americans could die before this thing was over. Faced with the threat of disease, something inside me shifted, and I started actively trying not to die, and to not kill anybody around me, either. I stayed home.

That’s not to say my mental health during the first part of the pandemic was great. It was absolutely not! Luckily, my weekly counseling sessions transitioned relatively seamlessly to phone and then video, and I was able to keep doing the hard work of carrying on in these difficult times. Therapy was a lifeline. Knowing I had space to talk about intense feelings enabled me to set them aside and live my life in the meantime. Therapy helped me respond to ordinary stressful situations, cope with the additional challenges of the pandemic, and even address issues that I didn’t even realize were still lurking in the background (read: leaving Mormonism). Therapy helped me hold it together.

The cracks started to show in the summer. What happened was I got sick. It came on suddenly. In the morning I was running around in the summer sunshine with my daughter. By lunch I had a splitting headache and wanted nothing more than to take a nap. By mid-afternoon, the room was spinning, my stomach was churning, my temperature was spiking, and I couldn’t stand up. As my physical symptoms mounted, so did my panic. I was too tired to move and feeling guilty about it. I was snapping at my family and feeling shame about that. We were supposed to go camping with friends in a few days and I didn’t know what the hell to do about that. I didn’t know what to do because I didn’t know how much of what I was feeling was real and how much was a physical manifestation of the deep anxiety that comes with getting sick in a pandemic. I didn’t know if my symptoms warranted a COVID test. I didn’t even know where to get a COVID test. I didn’t know if my non-COVID symptoms warranted a doctor. I didn’t even know if I could get an appointment with a doctor. Even if I wasn’t really sick, my anxiety was so off the charts bad that I knew I needed to talk to someone. You see, sometime after headache came on but before the gastrointestinal issues set in, my thoughts had turned toward self-harm. As the hours wore on and I got sicker and more confused about what to do, it started to look like the only way out. 

It is my professional and personal opinion that one of the best things to come out of the COVID pandemic is expanded access to healthcare through telehealth. Unfortunately, when I was in desperate need of a virtual appointment, I was too sick to figure out how to navigate the health plan website to request one, and it remains unclear whether I would have been able to get one as urgently as I needed it. Instead, I pulled on heavy sweats (because I was shaking from chills), an N95 mask, and rubber gloves and drove to urgent care, barely managing to not throw up on the way there. When I got to the front door, I was met with a sign telling me to go back to my car and call instead if I had any symptoms of COVID. I had to sit on the ground and catch my breath before mustering up the energy to walk back to the parking garage. 

From the safety of my car, I called the urgent care practice and spoke to a nurse practitioner. I told her I had a fever, chills, nausea, cramps, and vomiting. I told her I couldn’t breathe, but that might be because I was also having a panic attack. I told her I wasn’t okay, that I was anxious and depressed and didn’t know what to do. I told her I needed help, I needed to talk to someone, anyone now. I stopped short of describing exactly how bad things were in my mind because I was afraid. I didn’t want to go the ER in a pandemic. The NP told me none of my symptoms were typical of COVID so she couldn’t recommend a test. I could get one if I wanted but I wouldn’t get results for five days. She didn’t say a word about my mental health. I took the jab in the nose and it came back within 24 hours negative for COVID, but I stayed sick for weeks, cycling between anxiety and depression the whole time. I still don’t know if I had COVID. The fatigue I labored under all summer makes me think “Yeah, maybe.” It’s the aftereffects of the encounter at urgent care that I still can’t shake, though. I know our healthcare system is broken, and I know COVID has put it under unbelievable strain, but I am a white, married, cisgender, able-bodied, employed, and insured. I never dreamed I could walk into a doctor’s office begging for help and be sent away. 

I had to wait for my next therapy appointment to start to process that trauma. I identified the root of my panic as not having a place to go or a person to call when I am thrust into a medical crisis.  My former reliance on urgent care and the emergency room to address any serious pain or scary-seeming thing was not viable in a pandemic. With my therapist, I made a plan to finally get a primary care physician. I haven’t had one since I was living under my parents’ roof. When you have a history of abusing prescription pharmaceuticals, going to the doctor is fraught. It took awhile to find a doctor covered by insurance (fucking insurance websites!) and it took even longer to get an appointment (fucking COVID!). By the time I got in the door, I was desperate enough to fill out the intake questionnaire honestly. Little interest or pleasure in doing things? Yes, many days.  Feeling down, depressed, or hopeless? Yes, most days. Thoughts that you would be better off dead or hurting yourself in some way? Yes, some days. At my appointment, the doctor broached the subject gently. “Your depression screening was positive. “Really?!” I chirped. “You mean I don’t have depression?” “No, that’s not what I mean.” I deflected some more. “I mean, doesn’t everybody feel hopeless right now? It’s bleak out there.” The doctor couldn’t disagree. She raised the issue of medication. I had a lot of resistance, but I asked the doctor what she thought. She looked me straight in the eye. “I think you could probably feel better.”

It’s not like I hadn’t thought medication about it before. You don’t plumb the depths as long as I have without wondering if one of the pills everybody else you know is taking will pull you up and out once and for all. Like going to the doctor, taking medication when you’ve been addicted is complicated. I’m afraid if they give me the good drugs, I’ll abuse them. I’m afraid if I tell them about my concerns, they won’t give me the good drugs. The good drugs, of course, are the only ones that seem worth the trouble. I don’t want to alter with my brain chemistry if it’s not going to get me high. I don’t care if it will make me feel better. I want to feel good.

My doctor told me to call her if I wanted to revisit the conversation about medication. I agreed, but was renewed in my commitment to toughing it out on the basis that my brain is not always a scary place to be. I have more good days than not. I generally enjoy my life, except when I’m sick, and in non-pandemic times, I really enjoy my life. 

That was six months ago. I knew this winter would be hard, and it’s been so much harder than I thought. At this point, I am completely devoid of hope that the world will go back to any semblance of normal, that my daughter will go back to school, that I’ll go back to church, that I’ll see my family on the other side of the country, that we will get together with friends, that we will be free to walk around outside without me freaking out when my daughter strays too close to a neighbor, that we will be able to gather in groups, that we will stop wearing masks. The light on the horizon is gone, and operating in this context is getting to be too much. I’ll spare you the grisly details and family dramas and leave it at this: I’m worn down, and it feels like I’m going lower than I’ve ever been before. I was explaining all this to my therapist when she asked me, “How do you want this next phase of the pandemic to feel?” I mulled it over for awhile. My knee jerk response is that I want to feel good, goddamnit, but I know that’s asking too much. It would be weird to feel good right now. Really, all I want is to feel better than I do. I hearkened back to the doctor’s words last summer. “You could probably feel better.” I hearkened back to my own words back to her. “Doesn’t everyone feel hopeless right now?” 

Maybe I’m glutton for punishment, but I’m not going on meds. Not right now. I can’t do it, not during the pandemic, for the same reason I’m not buying a bigger house or moving to the country or adopting a puppy or putting my kid in private school. I don’t want to make life-altering decisions in reaction to circumstances that, God willing, won’t last forever, and I don’t want to introduce another variable into the hot mess that is life today. I don’t want to wake up in a post-COVID world and wonder why I moved to a red state. I don’t want to wake up happy and wonder if I could’ve gotten there on my own. I might wake up in a post-COVID world and decide I still want to feel better after all, but at that point I hope the decision will feel like mine.

Quarantine Diaries Day 180: Something Wicked

After a sweltering August, summery sun like liquid gold, I was fully expecting August to stick with us through September. I was counting on more beach days with my daughter and more early mornings on the paddleboard for me and more weekday evenings walking around the park with a popsicle listening to the cicadas drone. September, it seems, has other plans. We went to the beach early on Monday, too early, we were almost the first people there except the sunrise watchers and the volleyball players and it was like the beach wanted to turn us back to where we came from. The sand at the edges was covered in seagull shit. A different pair of hostile bees guarded every couple of square feet we tried to lay our towels. I watched a woman walking her laps down by the water with a halo of bees flitting around her crown. After we settled, chased away the birds and nervously eyed the bees, we jumped in the water and, good Lord, I have never known such a hasty rejection. Just four days ago the water was fine; now it was frigid. I tried to fake it for my daughter–I always think the water is too cold and it always warms up when I go under–but today even her thick kid skin was not impervious to the change. “It’s cooooold, mama. Can we go back to the sand?”

Since labor day, the sky’s been gray and drizzling rain and it’s cool enough to trade short shorts and baggy tanks for the fall uniform: leggings and a cardigan and a pair of rubber wellingtons for walks. I felt the season shift before the weather did. Truth be told, I’ve felt it since the full moon last week. It feels like something wild inside me being summoned by something wilder outside. It wants to break out. It also feels the opposite of that, like something yawning open inside me wants to pull the wild in. I wonder, briefly, if this sensation is new, something I’m only noticing since I started studying the wheel of the year and the witchy holidays: Imbolc in February, Beltane in May, Lammas just past, and Samhain still to come, I can practically feel it crackling under my skin.

I know I’ve been sensitive to the shifts longer than that, though. Fall is always a darkening. First I was nostalgic for something I never experienced–crunchy leaves and football games and pumpkin ales–and even after my life did look like that the fall still made me sad. I marked the days with sad songs and rain tracking down the window of the bus, the car. I never wanted to be where I was going. In the fall I wanted to get blotto, to disappear in a cave of pills and TV and not come out ’til Christmas and even then only briefly, reserving my rights to go back under until spring.

So, summer to fall always messes me up good and this year we have so little to look forward to, no back to school, no tailgates, no fall festivals or trick or treat, no nights out with my mom friends and, I fear, no police reform, no new administration, no justice, no peace. I was sad at first, but under the sadness I feel something more savage rising up.

This Sunday is Rally Day at my church. Usually, there would be balloons and a procession of children to start the service and a picnic and a pledge drive to kick off the new church year. I can’t worship in my church right now.

I can leave offerings for the trees.

I can clear space on my altar, start bringing the earth inside.

I can source ingredients for simple spells.

I can burn sandalwood and brew tea for dream magic.

I can light a fire under my intentions and will the world to change.

I can sit inside a sacred circle, stand up, and take a step in a new direction.

I can practice the craft the craft that carried women where Christianity refused to go, that served women when Christianity wouldn’t, that let women and the world be wild.

The world is rewilding itself now. I’m still civilized enough but hating it in this new incarnation. Without all the barbeques and picnics and parties to trick yourself into thinking there’s a point, I’m thinking, what’s the point? Maybe in the midst of another month of stupid sameness, it’s time for something radically different. I’m not talking about purple hair or a new house. I’m talking about a whole new worldview.

Quarantine Diary Day 166: Summermania

The first time I experienced depression in a way that I could confidently describe as depression was six years ago. Of course I’ve known the lowlands just about my whole life, I just didn’t know what they were called. I was a moody child before I was an angsty before literature turned me melancholic and then nihilistic. Music made me emo but I called it the blues. For the whole of my late teens and twenties I thought I could blame my suffering on my bad choices, on stress. It wasn’t until I was living the life I always wanted, apartment in the treetops in an old brick neighborhood in Chicago, working a big job, married to the man I’d loved since I was nineteen, mom to the daughter of my dreams, and I still felt total shit that I admitted maybe something was going on with my brain. I thought I needed I diagnosis to call it depression and I didn’t have the bandwidth to do get myself to a doctor back then so I called it seasonal affective disorder, ordered a happy lamp, and called it a day. Did you know that the original studies on seasonal affective disorder involved patients with bipolar illnesses who experienced an inversion of the winter doldrums in the form of extreme high moods and energy in the summer? The flipside of seasonal affective disorder is summer-mania. For me, depression felt manageable because it really was seasonal. Winter was brutal but spring was like waking up again. Winter was the price I paid for glorious summer and summer was like a months-long high. Fall was fine as long as the light came through the leaves and there were apples to pick and cider to drink but also dangerously nostalgic and increasingly apprehensive as the sun fell back. The highs and lows have ebbed and flowed over the years but the seasonality of my moods persisted through marriage and parenthood and illness and work–all manner of things that are no respecter of the calendar.

The novel coronavirus might have disrupted the cycle. It sure fucked everything else up, and it came close to killing spring. All those flowers blooming out of the trees and mama birds breakfast out of the dirt and I just wandered around town sobbing openly. A friend reached out awhile back, one who had sussed out that I wasn’t well. We talked about this blog and how much it’s helped me. He suggested that random crying jags would make a good post. “I hope you aren’t,” he said, but he “had a feeling.” I almost did write about it but I was embarrassed to admit that on the worst days I was listening to Lana Del Rey who not only was actively being cancelled for racist and incomprehensible posts on social media but is like shooting depressants straight into my brain. Is asking a depressed person what music she’s listening to like asking a victim of sexual assault what she was wearing?

When I responded to my friend, I didn’t tell him about the Lana Del Rey. What I did say: “I’m trying not to make my blog too much of a cry or help even if that’s totally what it is lol.”

There are people who have thanked me for my openness, who’ve said it helped them. There are more people who haven’t said anything at all. For most of those people, it’s fine, whatever. Not everybody needs to read my blog and not everybody who reads needs to comment. For others, silence is its own statement. There are people who’ve asked, reasonably, “Um, don’t you have a job?” I would’ve hoped the widespread conversation around vulnerability that Brene Brown ushered into the cultural zeitgeist and the ensuing shift in viewing vulnerability as an asset rather than a liability would preempt some of those questions, but I get it. I do. I’m aware that emotional volatility isn’t a good look, emotional exhibitionism even less so.

What is it, exactly, that I’m doing here?

I haven’t thought about relapse since I got sick, but by god I mentally beat that horse to death in the spring. Perhaps contrary to pandemic logic, my thinking about drinking had little to do with numbing or escaping or feigning a return to normalcy. I didn’t drink like a lady and I don’t want to, not even in my dreams. Instead, at their height, my drinking fantasies looked like me drinking too much and somebody I love scooping me up and taking me home. They were their own cry for help.

What I wanted then is what I want now is what I wanted always. I want you to see me, to see that it’s hard to be me, and to love me anyway.

Of course it’s easier to beg for love than to receive it. Months ago my mom tentatively suggested that maybe this time of isolation has been harder on some than others and I bristled. I know this is hard for everyone. I know my life is too easy to go on and on about how hard it is for me.

I’m actually doing okay right now. The pandemic has amplified every part of the seasonal mood cycle. This winter was longest and darkest and coldest it’s ever been. Spring too. But summer, oh summer, summer was a honeyed gift from the gods. COVID was no match for the summer sun. Obviously that’s not true in any kind of technical sense. The virus lives on in heat and light and kills people on vacation, but the news that the fresh air disperses the virus pulled us out of our houses and into a new form of community. The ability to say yes to some things made me want to say yes to everything. Playdate in the front yard? Yes! After dinner trip to the playground? Yes! Early morning beach trip? Yes! Weekend mini-golfing? Yes! Lunch dessert? Yes! Is how I ended up overextended and overexposed, literally, after doing too much last weekend? Also yes? Is this summer-mania? Is this just what it feels like to not be depressed? Is this a communal phenomenon, a moment of much-needed relief from pandemic fatigue, a last gasp of freedom before we settle into our first fall and second winter still in the grips of an unpreventable untreatable disease? Whatever it is, I’ll take it.

The only reason I’m writing this today because I don’t need your help today. This is not an accomplishment. My present current okayness is not of my own virtue or volition. I haven’t figured any of this out. I am not going to give you a listicle about how I hauled myself out of a COVID summer slump or cured my pandemic fatigue. I’m not healed, for god’s sake. The only thing going on here is that depression is cyclical and I’m all jacked up on vitamin D and a bit of human interaction.

I will probably need help in the fall.

I will definitely need it in the winter.

I might even need it tonight after I hear from my husband how our daughter’s first day of school went.

8 Minute Memoir – Day 8 – Birthdays

My daughter’s birthday is in late April, which sounds like a spring birthday, but in Chicago it’s basically still winter. I know this because it snowed two days before she was born and it has snowed right around her birthday every year since. Nobody really believes me when I say this, that we’re going to get accumulation, actual inches of snow, in the last week of April, but it’s true. We always do. My birthday is in mid-May, which I will represent is also basically still winter. I know this because every year my husband plans picnics and hikes and walks in the neighborhood because the man knows what I like and every year it’s cold, frigid even, and I am forced to tuck my cute outfit under a wool coat and my cute hair under a ratty winter beanie. After May we get a break until August, which is when the real birthday gauntlet–I mean season–starts, and the special days start rolling in, one after another, mom’s birthday, brother’s birthday, other brother’s birthday, husband’s birthday, sister’s birthday, dad’s birthday, other other brother’s birthday. (We cannot talk about nieces and nephews right now because I am a negligent aunt. In laws? Good god, no.) Other other brother’s birthday takes us into Christmas and then New Year and then we’re in the drought, the dry spell, the lonely sad season, the endless miserable winter that only starts to end the day my daughter was born.

What I Thought And What I Know About Depression

January blew in and out again in a puff of snow. Seasonal Affective Disorder and Postpartum battled it out in my head. I thought I understood mental illness because when I was a teenager I had a string of bad boyfriends and too many feelings and cried out loudly for help. I thought I understood mental illness because I lack impulse control. I thought I understood mental illness because even after I got a good boyfriend, I still felt sad. I thought I understood mental illness because sometimes I cry on the bathroom floor. I thought I understood mental illness because my aunt tried to kill herself and my other aunt lied about being on the pill because she wanted to get knocked up so she could move out of her parents’ house, and because my mom is a rock from a quarry of dysfunction. I thought I understood mental illness because my good friends are in therapy or on drugs. I thought I understood mental illness because my husband, the good boyfriend, is anxious. I thought I understood mental illness because I know depression is a disease and needs to treated. But I don’t understand this month-sized hole in my chest. And I don’t understand the static in my head. And I don’t understand waking up in the morning and rolling right back over again. And I don’t understand why the usual tricks like focusing on the positive! and giving it some time! aren’t enough to snap me out it. I don’t understand why I thought I’d be immunue. I don’t understand why I’m not immune. This month felt like a year and I hated it for taking me away from my child, my husband, my job.

I wrote the preceding paragraph almost exactly two years ago, in February 2014. Reading it for the first time since then I can’t figure why it took me so long to get help. I quit drinking that year in May, around the same time the weather turned, and my mood lifted considerably, but the blackness returned with the cold in December and I didn’t call a therapist until the following September after months of cycling on and off the wagon, in and out of anxiety, over and over again. The turnaround since then has been incredible. January 2016 wasn’t exactly a walk in the park, I still felt inexplicably sad sometimes, and I cursed the dark days, but I knew what was going on and I knew how to handle it. I didn’t always succeed, but I managed to be present for my family, my job, myself, and today I am happy even though it snowed and I didn’t see the sun.