The Pandemic and Mental Health

I remember when the news first started covering covid-19 in January. I immediately thought that we needed to shut down travel from other countries, but I knew it wouldn’t happen because our government didn’t want to lose money (in the end, we lost more money and more people). One of my random interests has always been virology. When I was a teen, I wanted to become a virologist and find the cure for HIV and Ebola. I read The Coming Plague when I was 14. This book is a little bit outdated now, but it’s still a relevant read. Anyone who follows virology or epidemiology saw this coming. The human race has often been brought to its knees by viruses throughout history, and that’ll never change. The difference now is that we can travel across the world in hours, not weeks or months. If world leaders don’t learn from this and change the way they deal with globalization and pandemics, it will happen again. This is very bad, but it could be even worse. I’m grateful that kids have mostly been spared.

I lost a friend to this disease. At first I thought she died of pneumonia, but as time went by, we found out she had covid-19. She got it in early March, when it was already in our communities, but our government was ignoring it. Her death was sudden and shocked me. She had chronic illnesses, but she was supposed to have about five more years to live. I miss her a lot. There are thousands of people who have lost loved ones to this virus, and if only our government had listened to science, there would be a lot less deaths. Viruses don’t care about politics or the economy. They’ll exploit our greed and weaknesses. Now we sit here and watch our country become ravaged by this virus. We live in a state where masks were mandated early on, and due to sensible practices and actually listening to scientists, we’ve been able to get the spread under control. Wearing a mask isn’t political, it’s a proven way to protect people. While my state plateaued, states in the south and west exploded with cases because people refuse to wear masks in public and would rather go to bars than protect themselves and others. These states have basically shot themselves in the foot. If you want to be selfish and not wear a mask and not avoid large gatherings, everyone pays in the end. The virus doesn’t care. What’s sad about this pandemic is that not only could thousands of lives have been saved, but it’s also had an impact on people’s quality of life and mental health in huge ways.

I understand that it’s a struggle to balance the need to feel connected to others and also control a deadly virus. I worry about businesses and our economy, especially small businesses. However, if you go about your lives like everything is normal, it’ll set back progress and businesses have to close again, which is what happened in the southern and western states. Life isn’t normal, and it won’t be for a while. I worry about my daughter; she’s three and at a critical age for learning and social development. It was difficult to explain to her why she couldn’t go to school or the playground. For months she would continually ask to go play with her friends. She told me on many occasions that she missed school. It breaks my heart. Even though it’s been isolating and difficult, I’m glad my state is cautious. Now I can bring her to the playground, and that’s a relief for both of us.

This pandemic is affecting everyone’s mental health, and some more than others. Just as some have preexisting medical conditions that make them more susceptible to the virus, people have preexisting mental illnesses that make them susceptible too. I had mild asthma, and I got covid-19 in mid March. One day I started having shortness of breath, and it was scary. I thought maybe I had bronchitis, so I called my doctor. I had to wait 6 hours while they called the Department of Public Health for protocol on how to treat me. Unfortunately there weren’t many tests available back then (an absolute disgrace and a huge failure of our government), and they wouldn’t test me because I hadn’t recently traveled and didn’t have a fever. I was tested for every respiratory virus possible except covid-19. I told my doctor that I’d read about this disease, and it presents differently in many people. I had never experienced shortness of breath like that in my life, and I knew I had it. I started an inhaler and went home. The next two months were terrifying. I ended up in urgent care and the ER multiple times. Urgent care failed me. It was my second time needing to see a physician for shortness of breath, and they still didn’t test me, telling me I needed to have a fever. I couldn’t believe it, I could barely breathe. The rescue inhaler did next to nothing. Finally, on the third visit they gave me a chest x-ray. I’d had shortness of breath for three weeks. The x-ray showed I had atelectasis, or partial lung collapse. There were times when my breathing was so bad, that I’d have to check my lips to make sure they weren’t blue. I went to the ER and had nebulizer treatments and oxygen. I’m lucky I never needed to be admitted or put on a ventilator. Finally, my family doctor put me on prednisone, a systemic corticosteroid, and my breathing slowly got better. It took months for my lung function to improve.

Those were some dark times for me. At night, when lying down, breathing felt impossible. It felt like I was being strangled from the inside. I could only manage a tiny dry cough, and it wasn’t enough to clear my lungs. I was a healthy middle aged person with mild asthma who didn’t need a daily inhaler prior to this, but I was struggling to breathe. I can’t even begin to explain how scary this was for a trauma survivor who has been choked and strangled. The inability to breathe and take a deep breath caused a lot of anxiety. It’s awful to take air into your lungs and still feel like you’re not getting enough oxygen. I had to use my CBT skills to calm myself and keep my anxiety under control.

Meanwhile, I was also losing my supports. Obviously I had mental health issues before this, but this pandemic tested me more than ever. I’m glad that insurance companies approved telehealth, but phone therapy sessions weren’t as helpful as in person. Since I’m a former therapist, I knew why. A huge part of human communication is nonverbal, something we learned in grad school. The way a therapist sits, eye contact, facial expressions, and mirroring all matter a lot. Over time, it felt like my therapist wasn’t even there anymore, even though we talked to her on the phone once a week. It was especially difficult for my younger parts. Even though I explained it to them, they still felt abandoned. My therapist said that she used to think telehealth would be a great option for people and the future of mental health, but since this pandemic, she’s changed her mind. Luckily she realized that not having sessions in person can have an impact on someone, so we started meeting in a park. This was a huge relief for my parts and I, and it helped stabilize us.

I know a lot of people suffered in isolation and loneliness. People who need to keep their daily routines for optimal functioning lost so much. People like me who had built up a great support system and coping skills were left with nearly nothing for a long time. I’m proud of myself for being strong and holding on, and my heart goes out to people who have succumbed to their mental illness or addictions during this time. It doesn’t make them any less strong, it’s just a great tragedy all around. I’ve told my providers that they saved my ass during those dark months. I’m also grateful for my love of nature, because it became even more of a refuge and a place for healing.

Although I had breathing problems, flashbacks, and severe depression, I somehow made it through the isolation. Now I can go swimming again (although that may not stick around as cases slowly rise even in my state), and I had my first office appointment with my therapist in four months last week. It was weird. I really hope people stay vigilant so we can keep things like gyms and museums open. If we have to scale back our reopening process, it’ll hurt people’s mental health and businesses again. I feel like since I’ve gotten through this pandemic I’m stronger than ever, and I can face anything that comes my way. It’s made me appreciate the little things, like seeing my friends at the gym, seeing my therapist in person, and taking my kid to the playground. Before this pandemic, people took way too much for granted. A lot of people say they see life differently now. I hope that’s true, but I’ve seen many go back to their old ways already. I like to think that most people have learned a lesson about enjoying the moment and slowing down a bit.

This pandemic hasn’t been all bad for me; it’s helped me stay away from some unhealthy people (for example, my mom hasn’t asked to see my daughter), and it’s given me time to work on my healing. I was able to take the time to write my story down in this blog, which has been a huge turning point in my recovery from developmental trauma. We found our voices, and parts of me feel a lot of relief. We also started drawing again, and we’ve had more time to work on our hobbies. Slowing my life down helped me a lot. I was able to think about things and make more healthy decisions. I couldn’t distract myself from my pain, so I faced it. It’s been hard as hell, but I’m stronger than ever now. I feel free. Even though life is still weird and challenging, I feel freedom from the pain and anger that was holding me back, and I no longer tolerate toxic people in my life. Lately I feel less lonely and value my connections with kind people. I’ve even made some friends recently who are awesome and seem like healthy individuals. My future feels bright. If I can get through atelectasis and isolation, I can get through anything.

I’m not saying everyone can find a silver lining in this. People have lost loved ones, and their lives have changed forever. I’ll always look back at this dark time and remember how challenging it was to lose my close friend to this virus and lose my supports and coping skills. Essential workers have been run ragged, and medical professionals are exhausted. All these people (nurses, doctors, paramedics, janitors, grocery store workers, counselors, etc.) deserve our appreciation and love. African American and Hispanic communities have been hit particularly hard by this virus, both economically and medically, which proves there are large disparities in health care access and economic opportunities. It proves that systemic racism exists, and it’s a tragedy. I saw privileged white people online saying not to make it a race issue, but it is! Statistics don’t lie. Additionally, domestic violence has become worse, mostly due to the fact that victims were isolated from their supports and stuck at home with abusers. It’s also made online harassment worse.

I hope people move into the future understanding a few things. First, the GOP only cares about wealthy businessmen and keeping the lower classes working to fuel their profits. I’m not saying Democrats are perfect (far from it), but at least they care about healthcare reform and providing people who are economically impacted with needed payments. Again it’s sad that politicians care more about money than human life. The virus could care less about the economy. Second, I hope that people begin to value science and healthcare more. This pandemic has proven that the right to healthcare is a basic human right, and it shouldn’t just be a privilege for those who can afford it. Third, I hope it shows people how important it is to invest in mental health support for everyone. Telehealth should remain an option for those who can’t visit an office, and everyone should have access to mental health care. And finally, I hope it shows people that materialism and capitalism are not the answer to a happy life. Joy is found in connection, the moments that seem small, and the people in your life who make it worthwhile.

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