What I Feared Most Happened to Me

I wrote an essay and published it over on Medium about my fear of mental illness before I was even diagnosed. It shows my ignorance, bias, misunderstandings, and fear of ever living with a severe mental illness. You can find it here.

Trying to Manage at Home

I’m on the tail end of a panic attack. It was so bad; I had to increase my medication today (something I try not to do unless I have to). I wish I could sob. Not cry, as I do many times each day now, but let the tears and snot fly. I need a release.

The tears that I cry on and off all day are from hearing stories about people dying alone in isolation. I also cry when I hear about all the kind things people are doing right now, like bringing groceries to seniors or families visiting through windows at nursing homes. There are so many sad and sweet things happening right now, there is no shortage of emotion, but I need something more than misty eyes or a single tear that rolls off my chin.

The stress I feel is like a pressure cooker. The tears I cry throughout the day are a small release valve, but I need to pop the lid off the pot and let all of the steam out. Staying home isn’t stressful for me. I stay home all the time, but thinking about getting the illness or a loved one getting the virus and not having a hospital bed, enough nurses or doctors, or no available ventilator builds up the pressure.

The stress of doing everyday tasks like getting the mail, going to the supermarket, taking the trash down the hall, or going to the garage to do laundry, these things, once easy and that required no thought, have become stressful, and they require special preparations and precautions. Everything is harder during this stay-at-home order.

I asked my “friends” on social media what the saddest movie they have ever seen is because I need a terrific cry. I honestly do. I don’t know why the level of stress has kept me from sobbing, but it has, maybe it is all the adrenaline.

I have my first telehealth call with my psychiatrist on Thursday. I am going to ask him to recommend a therapist. I feel like a therapist could help me get through this difficult time. Not everything is terrible, I love having my husband home, but I don’t love the reason why he is at home. The uncertainty of information is hard to handle.

Some officials say that California is successfully flattening the curve, but at the same time, they say things are going to be horrible over the next few weeks. What does that mean? If we are flattening the curve, then isn’t that a good sign, and shouldn’t we be able to avoid shortages and a catastrophe in our health system? No answers, or no certain answers. We are all living on hope.

Typically, hope is such a positive and welcome thing in my life, but I have to admit, I’d be happier with facts and statistics right now. Show me graphs, numbers, and science. Today, it was rough. I’m taking steps to make it better (I plan to watch a tear-jerker before bed), and I’m seeking out my treatment team and looking to add another member to that (a therapist).

If you are feeling the pressure, the stress, the uncertainty, and it is getting the best of you, please find a way to take care of yourself. We all have to be creative about what we can and can’t do to protect our mental health during this time. Reach out if you need to reach out. Watch a sad or funny movie if you think it will help. Don’t forget those who help care for you under normal circumstances like your primary care physician, your psychiatrist, and others. It is an excellent time to use all of your available resources to make sure you are okay. It’s not forever, but it is right now.

The Flight of Birds and Planes

Today marks the seventh day since my husband left the house. I left the house a couple of times to take out the trash and pick up the mail. We aren’t short on fresh air, though. Unless it is raining, we sleep with a large window open in our bedroom. Our living room has three floor- to- ceiling windows, so natural light is in abundance. One window is open now, and although I can hear the distant hum of traffic on I-5, it is eerily quiet for my neighborhood. On a typical day, I can’t leave the living room windows open and work because every twenty minutes, or so a plane flies almost parallel to our window or so it seems to be that close. We live in the flight path of a metropolitan airport.

Before Covid-19, we would have to pause movies or turn up the television so we could hear the voices of the actors or the news anchors on the programs we were watching.  Now, we can watch what we want with the volume at a reasonable level, because there are very few times during the day that we hear the rumble or roar of an airplane.

Many days, I sat on the couch and watched the airplanes, British Air, Jet Blue, Southwest, Alaska, and others, and I would wonder where all the people were going. Were they returning home from a once in a lifetime trip to New York to see the play, Hamilton? Were they returning from a week on the beach in Hawaii? Were they traveling for business? Were they returning from seeing a sick family member? Were they here to vacation to bask in the sunshine of the city where I live?

There are endless scenarios for what brought people to fly by my window and land at the airport less than five miles from my house. Now, the air is still. As my husband and I work side by side during the day, a plane going by is something we notice because it only happens every few hours when before it was a constant stream.

The deep silence that has us noticing a motorcycle on the distant freeway is a reminder of the pandemic. We used to complain about the roar, the loud noise a plane makes as the pilot slows the engines down. We used to look out the window at the long machines carrying bodies from country to country, continent to continent, city to city, and state to state.

As I type this, I can hear birds in the distance, not right outside my window but much farther away. I hear them chirp and sing and call to one another. This pause in our daily activities that we once took for granted is changing my perspective. What once was common now is a luxury. What once was a necessity now appears to be excess.

If we slow down and stay at home for long enough, we might start caring about things we long let slip away from our lives. I might play a board game with my husband. I might plant some herbs in my kitchen. I might spend the whole day reading magazines from cover to cover, or curl up on the couch and finally finish all those shelved books.

The birds are still singing somewhere in the neighborhood. I’m sure they always were. I just couldn’t hear them as life and busyness and distractions, the hustle and bustle was the way we evaluated and lived our lives.

Long After the Virus, or a Letter to Later

Will I remember with fondness the days I woke up side by side with my husband both of us staggering to the kitchen? Him making coffee one day and me making it the next. A little bit to eat. Me, a banana, or canteloupe and some yogurt. Him, a smoothie or a bowl of cereal. A deep hug held for what seems like minutes in the kitchen we have called ours since 2009.

Now is different, though, he will spend the day at this computer, conference calls, video meetings, e-mails. I will stand at my desk upright, sending out pitches to editors trying to land my next assignment. The two of us, in the same room daily for the first time in twenty-two years.

All the years prior, kissing good-bye at the door in the morning hugging in the evening and then sharing conversation about what happened in his world, my world. These exchanges have become not his or hers, but ours. We take a break and play our Xbox Kinect video games. We use our bodies as the controller and get exercise while we compete playing a game of table tennis or a round of bowling. Tossing the ball and getting more gutters than strikes.

I make him a sandwich while I warm up steamed zucchini, carrots, and cauliflower au gratin that he made earlier in the week. We keep a running list of things we are getting low on or that we might like to eat. We don’t know if the store will have any of the items on our list. There is so much that was a certainty a month ago that is uncertainty now.

The uncertainty of living through a global pandemic with the stay at home orders coming from the governor has made people grasp at things to try and gain a sense of control. Hoarding toilet paper, hoarding paper towels, cleaning supplies, bleach, alcohol anything to keep us, we, them, from the death toll that bombards us daily.

It is a virus that has us calling doctors, nurses, janitors, and grocery clerks, heroes. It is a virus that has me spending every day with my husband. For the first time in twenty-two years, we search through recipes together and plan to bake things like oatmeal cookies, cinnamon rolls, and cook things like vegetarian meatloaf with beans instead of beef.

We have always been close. We spent six months in a 17ft. van traveling to thirty-four states. We can be together 24/7 in small spaces. We are fortunate we enjoy each other’s company. His jokes don’t get old. His voice is still pleasing.

This social distancing that we are doing, this stay at home order might be another story we end up telling like our trip to Paris or Abu Dhabi or cross country. Maybe, it will be more like 9/11 or the work we did in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Maybe we will one day talk about out bi-monthly brunches with friends that have turned into meet-ups on video software. Maybe, we will talk about the fear we have for each other and our aging parents, along with everyone we love.

Maybe, we will talk about the slowing down of life, the looking at each other instead of our phones, the conversations we start that often trail off as we go about the days side by side. Maybe, we will talk about how we got this time to get to know each other again. To listen to each other’s hopes, dreams, and fears. Maybe, we will most remember the comfort and joy and passion we shared twenty-two years ago that led us to a little chapel in Las Vegas where we promised to love each other for better or for worse.

I assume some people would call this the worse part, but after breast cancer scares, lymphoma scares, sarcoidosis, schizophrenia, and all the rest, this is the better. Being next to each other and getting a glimpse into each other’s otherwise unknown lives- this is a gift brought to us by the tragedy of a deadly virus.

My First Panic Attack Since the Outbreak Started

Today was the first day since the beginning of the novel coronavirus outbreak that I had a full-blown panic attack. It happened to be the perfect storm. I didn’t take my second sleep (which is what I call the rest I need after my morning dose of medication) because my husband is working from home, and his presence made me forget or disrupt my routine.

For the past two days, I have been obsessively swallowing thinking or imagining that I am beginning to get a sore throat. That continued today. Later in the morning, I thought I had a fever and asked my husband to feel my forehead. He said, “I don’t think so.” I interpreted that as, “It is possible,” and went to get our digital thermometer. I sat in my recliner and put the tip of the thermometer under my tongue. When it beeped, indicating a reading, I looked, and I had a temperature of 94.8. My husband looked that up and said if that were accurate, I would have hypothermia.

I met with a writer friend on Zoom, and I worked in my COVID-19 diary for twenty minutes. I told her after our writing exercise that I was feeling stressed and anxious. After logging off from Zoom, and saying good-bye to my friend, I went back to sit in my recliner, and that is when I started to panic.

I told my husband, who was busy working at his computer, that I was in the midst of a panic attack. He asked if I knew what had triggered it, and I said, “My temperature.”  He went and found our non-digital thermometer and took my temperature for a second time. This time it was 96.6, which is within a healthy range. That didn’t stop the anxiety attack, though.

I realized I was hungry (low blood sugar can cause me to have an anxiety attack). So, I went into the kitchen and ate some hummus and crackers, steamed zucchini, and steamed carrots. After I ate, my husband rubbed my back and put on worship music.

With three things triggering my anxiety: fear of being sick, no second sleep, and allowing myself to get overly hungry, there was no way to break the panic without medication. I took half of my one of my anti-anxiety pills, and we started binge-watching a show we like right now.

Twenty minutes into the show, I started to relax. We watched a full forty-minute episode, and then I fell asleep for an hour. I am happy to report I am now fine and trying to get this day back on track.

Please don’t feel bad if, during this isolation period, you have unproductive, difficult, trying days. It is hard on all of us, mental illness or not. Everyone feels the stress, whether it is financial, health, social, or physical. Challenges are coming at us left and right. As someone on the Internet said, “It is okay, to not be okay.” That’s where I was today, and maybe you are too.

COVID-19, Caregivers, and Mental Illness

I don’t know about you, but when I am facing uncertainty, I play out many scenarios in my mind. What if Jean-Claude gets the novel coronavirus? What if I get it? Will our symptoms require one of us to be hospitalized?

There is also the fear of not enough equipment at the hospital or not enough ICU beds, or ventilators. Those are the concerns of many, but for us, if one of us goes into isolation at the hospital, I will lose my primary source of support in managing schizophrenia.

If I am in isolation at the hospital, Jean-Claude will not be allowed to visit me. I don’t know how being in a hospital surrounded by strangers, without any family or friends will impact me. I don’t think I would fair well.

If Jean-Claude goes to the hospital and into isolation, I know that my symptoms will increase dramatically because of stress. Not seeing him and not being able to judge if he is improving or declining in health will make the situation even worse. Not only will my symptoms be exacerbated, but the person who helps me manage those symptoms will not be present—a tsunami of worst-case scenarios.

I know that most people are experiencing elevated levels of stress right now, but for caregivers and those who rely upon them, the level of stress can be challenging to manage. I know everyone talks about self-care, which is currently over a billion-dollar industry, but most people’s ideas of self-care (watching Netflix, drinking a glass of wine, taking a bubble bath) would do little or nothing to help out in this situation. Coupled with the stress is social isolation. In an ideal world, caregivers have help from family members or friends who can give them a break or carry some of the load. Right now, most of us, if we can, are practicing social distancing.

All of these things add up to more than just a problematic scenario. There is a possibility of a real crisis here for many people. What are all of you doing to take care of yourself and the people you love? Do you have an emergency plan in place? Do you have people checking in on you virtually? What are you doing, thinking? I would like to hear some creative ideas if you have any.

After COVID-19

I have a dream about this novel coronavirus’ appearance in our lives. I hope that when we are on the other side of this outbreak, and it is contained globally, not just in the United States, but everywhere, that it will change our relationships to one another forever.

I hope we will see each other (countries, states, cities, towns, human beings) as essential to each other’s lives, health, and wellbeing.

I hope that we will accept and embrace that what one of us does to the planet impacts all of us.

I hope we will see each life from Australians to Peruvians to Africans to Asians to Americans as valuable, remarkable, and irreplaceable.

I hope all of us will begin to speak and act in the best interest not only of ourselves but to benefit all.

I hope that this crisis pushes us not away from each other but into each other.

I hope we can work together as scientists, teachers, politicians, and parents to solve the problems of hunger and war and homelessness and access to clean water and medical treatment not just in our own countries but across the globe.

I hope that from this day forward, we will carry each other’s burdens.

I hope we will ease each other’s suffering.

I hope that we will forever remember we are intricately connected, and the best way forward is for everyone to have enough of what we need to be healthy and thrive.

I hope even considering the tragic loss of life that this virus has brought to us, I hope it leaves us better than it found us.

Connection During Coronavirus

Many writers are offering free meetings and classes online so that those of us who write won’t feel so isolated during this pandemic. I attended a poetry class on the Zoom platform today with a group of other writers. The prompt was to write to the coronavirus. I only had a few minutes to write, but here is the poem I came up with:

You may come to us once a year
infecting us,
but not in as great of numbers.
Some will have immunity by then,
and your presence will be less of a storm,
a tsunami, a hurricane,
a tornado, a locust
on the crop chewing
eating leaving nothing
to harvest.
I weep for those who are dying,
but death visits us daily
with cancer, heart disease,
car wrecks.
We don’t think how close it is to all of us,
and how what happens to someone anywhere
can easily be the stone
skipped across the water
that reaches us all in a wave.

I also attended an hour-long writing group on Zoom for creative nonfiction. I journaled for the first half an hour and then started working on this blog post for the second half an hour.

These groups are a great way to connect, especially for those people who are accustomed to going out to write in coffee shops and interacting with people throughout the day. I rarely write in coffee shops because I can’t handle the music. One of my symptoms of schizophrenia is that music often bothers me and agitates me. There are times when I listen to ‘80s music with my husband, and when my friend came out to stay with me from West Virginia, I bought us tickets to see a group that plays the Carpenter’s music. I am not sure why, but music from before I developed symptoms of schizophrenia can be pleasant, while most other music I want to be shut off almost immediately. I think it has to do with a malfunction of my senses, but I know nothing about that.

If you need to join a group to get through this, please let me know, and I will steer you in the right direction.

I am here if you need to reach out. If there is a way for me to help you through the pandemic, please let me know, and I will try. We really do need each other. Be there for someone if you can.

How to be a Hero to Millions of Americans

I went for a walk today to get out of the house, but to keep up with social distancing. We passed a bar, and dozens of people were sitting next to each other at the counter, and small tables and I wondered, “What is going to change people’s minds and make them care about the health of others?”

Shortly after I got home, the governor of California followed Ohio and Illinois’s lead. He ordered all of our bars closed, and our restaurants have to move tables to provide for social distancing. My cousin in Ohio said, “If people are going to be irresponsible, then the government is going to have to step in and mandate that we do the right thing for each other.”

My husband has a compromised immune system and damaged lungs. He is at risk for severe and possibly life-threatening complications. My mom and stepdad and my dad and stepmom are all over the age of eighty, and most have underlying health conditions that make them high risk. It recently came out in the press that those over eighty who are sick in Italy will be left to die. Italy’s health system simply can’t handle all the people needing care (you can easily find articles about this online).

Perhaps the thing that gutted me the most was that people in every country where the virus is present, are dying alone. Family members can’t visit many who are sick because they are in isolation. Just knowing that people are dying alone without loved ones surrounding them pushed me to a new level of anxiety, fear, and sadness.

I don’t think any person should die alone. I don’t think anyone wants to decide who lives and who dies like the doctors are doing in Italy. I can’t believe people refuse to stay home for two to three weeks to save another person’s life. Rarely in this life do we get the chance to be heroes. If we are not doctors or nurses, we rarely had the opportunity to save a life. Now is the time. Right now is our time to be great, to be heroic, to do something that makes a life or death difference. I know you might never get a thank you for not going out to a party, or staying home from a social gathering. But I thank you. My husband thanks you and the millions of people who are high risk would probably thank you too if they knew that you made choices to put their lives over something as trivial as getting a coffee with friends.

How to Respond to a Pandemic?

Today, I was crying. I think my tears are like a pressure release value to let out some of the stress. I exercise most days of the week, and I am sure that helps with anxiety, fear, and the stress it causes, but maybe I should be working out more right now? I usually ride my stationary bike thirty minutes, six days a week, but perhaps I should try riding it twice a day until some stability and normalcy return to our lives. I don’t know.

I was searching through my computer files, looking for a review I wrote about guided journals. I have completed approximately thirty guided journals, and most days, I work in twelve of them. I write in a variety of journals, spiritual, gratitude journals, some of them are about increasing happiness, others are about getting organized, mindfulness, increasing joy, etc. I wanted to post the reviews here today in case you would like to buy a couple of guided journals to help distract you or calm you during the pandemic.

I didn’t find the review I wrote, but I did find a generosity experiment that I worked on for several months back in 2013. I consciously tried to be more generous by sending letters, gifts, and trinkets to friends. I bought people their coffee at Starbucks. My husband and I purchased a man and his two kids their groceries at the store. I kept track of all these acts and the generosity I received in return. For example, after I sent six of my friends a package with chocolate and earrings in them, I received an unexpected check for one hundred dollars from the house I sold when I was married to my ex-husband.

Not every act of generosity I performed resulted in something good or unexpected happening to me, but it was a great experiment. I thought this would be an excellent time to revive or create something similar to this.

I saw on the news that one of the health officials said that we were going to need kindness, care, and compassion above all right now and that these characteristics would carry us through this crisis. What are some things we could do to be kind, caring, compassionate, or generous right now?

I am currently checking in on my parents every day. I am reminding them to stay safe by staying home, washing their hands frequently, and just making sure they have what they need. All of us probably have some people in our lives that would appreciate us checking in on them.

Since we are all supposed to practice social distancing, we can easily have Skype calls with those who have mental health issues to make sure that they are not entirely socially isolated and suffering.

If we have a little bit of money to spend, and we know the type of books that interest someone, we could order a new release for a friend or family member and send it to them so they can spend some of their time enjoying a good read.

We could talk to grocery clerks, and baristas, and the people who are walking their dogs, we could ask them, “Hey, how are you holding up?” We could listen, really listen, to their answers.

It doesn’t take much to be more considerate of others than we usually are. I called my experiment the generosity experiment, but it could easily be titled CARING FOR ONE ANOTHER. Let’s do it, okay?