I know it is not professional to admit that you’re drinking while writing but. given what I’m writing about, you’ll forgive me the admission. An aspect of the COVID-19 crisis that is not getting enough attention is the mental toll that the virus, the fear of the virus, and the economic shutdown associated with the virus, is taking on Americans. And even writing about it requires a little liquid fortitude.
I have always been candid about my past personal failures with regard to racism, my support of racist and bigoted rhetoric on social-media, and the racist government policies that I once supported. But I also need to be open and honest about my mental health. I suffered from severe depression for several years, as well as with what I now know were manic episodes associated with bipolar disorder. About two years ago, I was officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was prescribed medication. Ever since, my symptoms have been less severe and I have been able to maintain a normal existence both socially and professionally.
My mental health issues cost me just as many friendships, job opportunities, and relationships as my racism and bigotry. It was yet another weapon of destruction, though less self-induced than the other. There are so many people to whom I want to apologize and explain my behavior that I just cannot. What is done is done.
Which brings me to the topic of COVID-19 and the shutdown.
Prior to the shutdown, I had a small social life that helped keep me together and, maybe more importantly, I also had an office life on my college campus. I had colleagues with whom I could bitch about students, and I had students to advise, gave me some sense of importance and value. Now I have a classroom that I can be in four days a week and the occasional Zoom happy hour, but none of that replaces the intimacy of the office space or the after-work happy hour.
I get a brief reprieve a few hours a week, but I am alone and isolated for most of the time, and left with nothing but my own thoughts. I think about failed friendships, romantic relationships, and professional aspirations that feel apart when my constant cycle of manic and depressive phases just would not stop. I can still see the faces of those I betrayed in one way or another when my emotions were going up and down. And I can still see the looks of disappointment when old friends just had to let go because there was nothing they could do.
Combine all of those negative thoughts that can no longer be blocked out by the distractions of everyday life with worries about how the Hell am I going to pay rent next week, the loss of several close friends and relatives over the past months, and top it off with preparing to teach four in-person classes in the midst of pandemic. The pain, the embarrassment, and the stress are almost unbearable.
This isn’t just about me. I am not the only one struggling with these thoughts and feelings. Thousands, if not millions, of Americans are suffering in the exact same same way. I might feel alone and isolated in my house but I am not alone and isolated in this country.
There is a reason why people are clamoring to get out of the house and back to the nightlife of the bar scene or begging for professional sports teams to hold in-person events. It isn’t so much that they do not value their neighbors’ lives, it is they are trying to escape their own thoughts. It isn’t that they regard athletes as objects for their entertainment, it is that they are again begging for a distraction from the thoughts flowing through their heads.
There are people who would just tell people like me, and the others suffering from depression. to “man up” and get over it. But that toxic advice denies the reality of depression. We need help. We need access to mental health care. We need to find a way to connect emotionally with those around us and we do need an escape from the reality of our minds.
Some of us are not going to survive this shut-down – even if they do get help or temporary distraction. But a simple acknowledgement of the problem and the offering of some form of a solution will go a long way to keeping most of us alive.