How quarantine taught me..
I began 2020 by calling the suicide hotline. My brother was in crisis. I was there with him when he confessed it. I was there with him in the ER room. And I was there when they committed him to the mental health hospital. It was one of the scariest and most stressful experiences I’ve ever had. But I got through it, and more importantly, so did my brother. Everyone said that I did the right thing, that I saved his life–that I was a hero. Honestly, I was just happy to have my little brother back. But I was also proud of my ability to remain strong despite my own mental health struggle. I believed it to be a testament of my personal growth and psychological stability. I had finally beaten my depression and even gathered enough strength to help someone I love beat theirs.
But months later, only days after the shelter-in-place order, I walked into my brother’s room. And this time, I was the one that broke down in tears about my suicidal thoughts. I was naturally very confused with myself afterwards. I thought I had conquered those demons. But over the course of the next couple of weeks of quarantine, I spent a disproportionate amount of time proving myself very wrong by sleeping, drinking, smoking, and playing Division 2 ( a video game, ironically, about a post-pandemic America).
Homework and writing assignments for the Valley Voice went ruefully ignored. The bingeing helped keep my demons at bay. But they eventually came crawling back in vivid fantasies of death. My mind went through all the typical scenarios: handgun to the temple, carbon monoxide, a fall off a very high bridge/building, etc.
The closest I got was tying a yoga mat string around my neck and tightening it above my Adam’s apple, just to see what it would feel like. Two things stopped my fantasy in its tracks. One: the sobering and deeply unnerving reality of a possibly painful death. And two: the memory of my little brother wanting to take his own life. There was no way I could put my family through something like that again. And just like that…my desire to kill myself disappeared. But I was still left with an important question:
How did I get here in the first place?
Before the quarantine, I worked as an emergency dispatcher for close to a year, I excelled in my classes, managed the ups and downs of a long-term relationship, acted as editor for a brand new magazine, and withstood my brother’s crisis. It sounds impressive on paper, but it was my expansive support network of therapists, friends, family and support groups that helped me get through it. Not to mention my girlfriend, who was incredibly supportive through it all. As my little brother wisely explained to me, “It’s like you were broken and everyone else was keeping the pieces together.”
But when Governor Newsom gave the shelter-in-place order, all of that changed. Many of the people I had relied on over the past year receded into mandatory quarantine or became preoccupied with handling the pandemic. And with no routine or structure to tether my depression, suddenly I wasn’t so put-together anymore. My support system shattered. And I shattered along with it.
And I’m not the only one who fell. The LA Times recently released an article citing an uptick in call volume at crisis centers. The nature of many of these calls was “suicidal desire” with callers experiencing anxiety, stress, loneliness and isolation related to Covid-19.
Antonia Rose, a resident of Cutler, has been isolated since the shelter-at-home order. Rose has been open about her bipolar diagnosis and spent many of her days volunteering at the Visalia Clubhouse, a facility designed to provide free peer-to-peer mental health services. The first time we spoke after the shelter-in-place order took affect, she was doing well despite isolation. She said she was spending her time dancing, going on walks, and watching television shows. But when I called again a couple weeks later, she admitted that things were getting difficult.
“I’m actually really glad you called…I was about to leave for the liquor store,” she laughed, and then continued to explain how her recent breakup has been taking a toll on her without the support of her peers. “I mean, normally I would be at the clubhouse and I would see people on a regular basis, and I wouldn’t be so distraught.”
Unfortunately, the Visalia Clubhouse was one of the mental health facilities that shutdown during the pandemic, so like many other people, Rose is missing a major part of her support network.
Even the founder of the organization, Gwen Schrank, has not been immune to the psychological effects of quarantine. The pandemic arrived in the middle of her divorce and stripped away the checks and balances she had put in place to mitigate her risk of suicide. Luckily, she has managed to stay in touch with her therapist and psychiatrist over the phone. But the days are still challenging.
“It’s been hard,” Schrank explained. “The clubhouse gave me the opportunity to be around people who understood what I go through. It’s also been hard in the sense that I haven’t been communicating with them since we closed…And that anxiety of hearing what’s been going on, not being able to do anything about it is scary and overwhelming. And I feel guilty, because, man, they’re my family.”
Grief, Numbing, and Self-Acceptance
Like Rose, Schrank found herself gravitating towards vices, a trend that is reflective in other parts of the state and even in our county. USC News released an article detailing the surge in alcohol sales as we entered yet another week of quarantine. And the Valley Voice covered the dizzying long lines outside marijuana dispensaries just after the shelter-in-place order was instated.
“People seek comfort and tend to self medicate more when they feel insecure,” Debra Hansen, a psychology professor at College of the Sequoias explained. “And the pandemic has certainly made everyone feel insecure to some degree…Some of us turn to food. Some turn to alcohol. Some turn to weed.”
And when that doesn’t work, some of us turn to suicide.
That’s not to say that having a few extra beers or eating a whole bag of Oreos to yourself or shopping incessantly on Amazon is a sign of impending suicidal behavior. Let’s be honest, it might just be boredom. But it’s also likely that it’s stemming from an unresolved emotion like fear, guilt or grief. Lord knows, our nation is scared and grieving right now. Before the virus had even hit our borders life expectancy in our country had dropped from “deaths of despair.” Americans were already dying at alarming rates from alcoholism, overdoses, and suicides related to their grim outlook on life.
Now, we’re leading the world in the number of Covid-19 infections and nearing 40 thousand deaths. And for many locals, not only did this pandemic take the lives of their loved ones, it also took their jobs and their peace of mind. Tulare County alone has the most cases of COVID in the Central Valley. Our nation and our neighbors are stressed to say the least.
“Prolonged stress kinda leaves us like we need to do something,” Professor Hansen explained. “Grieving is a form of high stress and self-soothing or self-medicating is a way to try to make us feel better.”
Sociologist Brene Brown called this type of behavior “numbing” or “taking the edge off.” The problem with numbing, according to Brown, is that when we numb the painful emotions, we also inadvertently numb the positive ones. So, yeah, maybe day-drinking and binge watching Tiger King won’t make you kill yourself. Maybe it won’t even trigger addictive behavior. But it definitely won’t make you any happier in the long run.
But that’s beside the point. What’s important to note here is that numbing is a sign that something is wrong. For those stable enough to adapt or retain their support systems during the crisis, unhealthy habits may only result in a few extra pounds, nothing a couple months on the treadmill can’t fix. But for the mentally ill, who lack access to mental health services, this comfort seeking could be a sign of something more serious lurking beneath the surface.
According to Professor Hansen, the first and most important step to resolving the problem is becoming aware of the problem. So after I spent two weeks of numbing and my brief stint with suicidal notions, I took a step back and examined my behavior. I asked myself where this had come from. Was it really just the quarantine? Was I really just lacking a routine? Maybe I did just need to pick up a new hobby.
But that wasn’t the case. There was something more; it took me a couple days of sobriety and some reflection, but I found part of the answer: Shame. Lots of it. I felt shame for leaving emergency dispatch. I felt shame for failing to meet my expectations. I felt shame for sitting indoors, helpless, while my friends and former co-workers fought this pandemic on the front lines. I felt shame for hiding in my room while my father weathered contaminated clinics every day. I felt shame for ignoring the messages in my inbox. I felt shame for failing to get out of bed. I felt shame for being weak. And I felt shame for wanting to end it all.
The fact of the matter is we’re all carrying something. We’re all numbing ourselves from something painful. And the pandemic has only made things worse. Schrank carries the guilt of her isolated club members. Rose carries the pain of rejection. Thousands of Americans carry the sorrow of fallen family and friends. Millions more carry the anxiety of uncertainty. But we can only carry that weight for so long. We can only numb for so long. Eventually, we all have to grieve. Eventually we all have to accept our new reality–or maybe not. Maybe this will blow over sooner than we think. But the very least we can do in the meantime is try to accept ourselves, even the parts that bring us pain. I truly believe that’s enough. I believe staying home is enough. I believe taking care of yourself is enough. Because we’re all essential, every single one of us.
I’ll leave you with a quote by Nathanial Branden. It’s from his book on self-esteem, but it’s themes of acceptance, resilience, and reaching out seem appropriate:
“I choose to value myself, to treat myself with respect, to stand up for my right to exist. This primary act of self-affirmation is the base on which self-esteem develops. It can lie sleeping and then suddenly awake. It can fight for our life even when we are filled with despair. When we are on the brink of suicide, it can make us pick up the telephone and call for help. From the depths of anxiety or depression, it can lead us to the office of a psychotherapist. When all we want to do is lie down and die, it can impel us to keep moving. It is the voice of the life force. It is selfishness in the noblest meaning of that word.”