COVID-19. Novel. Pandemic. Coronavirus, aka Ms. Rona n’em. The coronavirus needs no introduction at this point. Starting around early March 2020, I started working from home for a few days and then going into the office for a few days. Since mid-March, I have been working from home exclusively. While I’m privileged enough to be able to do my job remotely, keep my same salary, and still have groceries delivered through Imperfect Foods, I cannot deny that Ms. Rona has been affecting my mental health.
First hearing about the virus in China, as it made its way from one country to the next, I was calm. Be smart, be proactive. Wash your hands. Cover your cough. We good ova here. Even when my direct supervisor became more adamant that I stay away from the office, as we heard about the first death in the US happening in the county I live in, as schools closed out of an abundance of caution and councilpersons sent almost daily emails with public health updates, I heard the anxiety in my co-workers’ voices, the tremble and panic marinating at our weekly staff meetings. Usually somewhere between stoic and calm, I became bewildered. Should I also be panicking?
Chaos and uncertainty were close friends of mine. We grew up together. They had circled me like vultures, constantly swooping down on my unhealed being, with a friendly reminder that we were best friends. This was nothing new: the confusion married to instability, not knowing how long it would last or when it would escalate. After years of being emotionally, sexually, and physically abused I had learned to function alongside all of those tumultuous emotions. It was part of my home.
It took me a few weeks before the “ohhhhhh” light bulb went off in my head. Unconsciously, it was easy enough to go through the motions and get through the day, focus on work as a distraction. After I sat with myself for an afternoon, and after starting and stopping a mindfulness body scan and journaling prompts from my therapist, was able to let down that facade blocking me from myself. I wasn’t really calm, cool, and collected. I was scared, I felt dumb for not knowing truth from fiction, I was nervous for my family and friends. My complex PTSD, anxiety and depression had been triggered weeks ago, and I was ignoring all the signs, making the restlessness, physical aches, and raised heartbeats at random intervals even worse.
Part of it centered around the language used: isolation, catastrophe, quarantine. Especially living in isolation, whether self-inflicted or not, triggered past relationships and the strategic, controlling method of not letting me contact family and friends, convincing me that this person was all I needed in this life of sin, me and my boyfriend. Emotional words like catastrophe automatically made me want to go into survival mode, my version of which manifests in me thinking everything is urgent and must happen nownowNOW. Joy was non-existent, stress was overwhelming but I had to deal with it on my own because nobody else would understand exactly what I meant and it had to be done by me only. Chile. My mental health was takin a beatin.
The predictions of a recession, of banks closing, with new estimates of 10 million unemployed people in the US and a tighter than ever job market had me questioning every financial decision I had made in the last year or so. All of the online shopping, clothes buying sans returning, the Door Dash orders, random trips to Starbucks instead of making breakfast, the Thai restaurant across the street from work I frequented throughout the week for lunch. If I had saved all of that money, not used my credit card, would I be better prepared? When were my finances ever stable, really? I had convinced myself I was climbing up this invisible ladder, thinking I was someday going to reach a different tax bracket, and my illusions were shattering as I fell backwards.
Every cough, sniffle, throat clearing made me more anxious. The overall discussion around anxiety lumped general feelings of uneasiness and worry together with diagnosed anxiety illnesses. I felt minimized, that my Anxiety Disorder was another case of “just stop worrying.”
In truth, I have been living with complex PTSD, depression and anxiety for over 7 years. At its worst, my daily reality was dictated by a fear of disaster striking. That tragedy was usually “what if I don’t make it out alive?” Out of this relationship, what if those pressed white fingertips around my neck were the last things I saw, that forced inhale of a tight breath unknowingly my last one. Even though the situation had changed, the feeling of being on the precipice of the end was the same, and it was coming back.
Being restricted in where I could go, who I could talk to was nothing new. Much of my time in self-isolation, after work hours, has been focused on again trying to process all the horrific traumas of neglect, sexual assaults, knives to throat and banging pounds to the head. I had previously, for many years, felt abandoned and overwhelmed. I felt like an evil person was targeting me, even when I did something good for them, making me think I was the problem and not good enough. It is all that more important for me to keep my bi-weekly therapy appointments: someone trained to see me as I am, to hold space for processing, and who was specifically focused on identity and trauma.
My overthinking, incessant analyzing, constant vigilance decided to hone in on a specific target: being a Black American meant I inherited a legacy of distrust of the medical system and minimizing of a Black person’s pain. I figured out many years ago that Black communities were disproportionately affected by access or lack thereof to health care, quality of care received, and more. Most of my health maintenance happened outside of any sort of medical office by focusing on my hierarchy of needs (hey Maslow!): housing, emotional wellness, transportation, job and financial security. With all of those, Black Americans were usually affected more, receiving the short end of the stick. (The interview through the Undefeated with Dr. Georges Benjamin explains it better than I ever could.) But there was a notion nagging me, lodged deep in the pit of my stomach, that if I got the rona, my recovery wouldn’t be the same.
The constant reminders to wash our hands, disinfect with bleach and water increased my heart rate. At first, I didn’t understand. What was I nervous about? I had water and soap, albeit an increased utility bill from being home during the day. But it was something more, a pecking against the left side of my decolletage. The residuals of environmental racism were keeping me awake at night, thinking again on how communities of color, poorer friends and neighbors, were going to be hit the hardest. I’m privileged to have clean, running water, to be able to wash and disinfect more. But what about those that weren’t? I felt helpless, not knowing what resources to turn to, what systemic change was in the works. The racist underbelly that created the soul, temperament and heartbeat of our society was showing itself in all its ugly glory, and I felt like a helpless heap of a human circling through it all.
What if we had systematically got rid of racism generations ago? What if access wasn’t compounded by the color of my skin? The flashbacks to abusive exes and their controlling tactics triggered me, but I had to admit to myself that what was really knocking me down was the thought that injustice was still as relevant as ever. Some were paying attention, some folks were out there, but once I allowed myself to be vulnerable with myself, I realized that this pandemic was also a reminder that I felt erased and unseen in this society.
Also, on my Instagram and Twitter feeds, I have seen many a post about being positive, productive, using this time to work on that next passion project. To have faith, never grief. To be happy. Only happy. The toxic positivity surrounding the narrative is unhealthy. While I think most folks are well-intentioned and trying to make friends feel better, not giving folks the space to process their emotions and minimizing what people are going through is not ok. Toxic positivity has been counter-productive to my healing in the past and seeing it pop up again is more discouraging than anything.
Overall, I’m still learning how my lived experience of constantly having to be resilient can misdirect me to think “survival mode” is the answer. When rona n’em introduced herself to me, I had an “Well, it’s not going to kill me so *shoulder shrug*” attitude. It was a lifestyle and I wasn’t new to this, I was true to this. I am still processing through it all, but my main goal is to do things when I’m off the clock that remind me: I am valued, I am seen, I am not alone. This usually means talking on the phone with someone for a couple of hours, or calling my best friend to make me laugh while I rant about something with no real beginning, middle, or end point. I can be myself because my friends remind me that I am seen. They can acknowledge that this calamity is taking a toll on me while also bringing some light and love to my life.