The newspaper shouts, “AMERICANS AT THEIR UNHAPPIEST IN 50 YEARS.” You know we’re in a difficult spot when all the podcasts start inviting Laurie Santos, Professor of Psychology at Yale & host of the Happiness Lab podcast, to join them for insights, tips, & tricks about that most basic-yet-elusive positive feeling. A big fan of hers, I’ve listened to them all & the umbrella she’s speaking from under is the same--this COVID-19 health crisis is also such a difficult time for mental health & we must not forget it. It’s obvious isn’t it: take the lonely, the paranoid, the disjointed, isolate them from support & resources, & trouble doth ensue.
The COVID-19 epidemic & our world’s response to it felt real for me the second weekend of March. I was back in Texas, taking a bus from Austin, where I had spent a few days with old buds in old haunts, to Dallas for a wedding. It was a full ride, stuffed with University of Texas undergrads heading home for Spring Break, so full in fact the drivers actually enforced luggage rules, causing the gal beside me to ride the three-hour commute with approximately twelve pounds of make-up on her lap. On the way back to Austin, a mere three days later, the bus held a half-dozen of us, suspicious weary travelers with plenty of room for our overstuffed suitcases & worries.
My last couple nights for my trip was supposed to be about show-going & bookstore hopping & laughing among the people again. Instead, I spent it mostly holed up in my friend’s Airbnb (Thanks, Katie!), reading & fretting for what the next few months might entail. Before I could say, “buh-bye,” life handed me a hardship that crumbled whatever last crumb of happiness I had mustered from visiting my once-home; during my last slumber in Austin, I awoke to the feeling of my shoulder dislocating.
This wasn’t my first rodeo, my seventh dislocation, but this reaction to the medicine--despite my warning about my mental health troubles, they pumped me with a bunch of Fentynal--caused me a deep panic that I only recently saw the significance of, both as symbol & as catalyst. Enduring several tries at the ER to slip my shoulder back in place, I awoke in a haze of depersonalization & hallucination, unsure who, why, where, or what I was, only to be soothed by my accompanying friend (thanks, Kate!). A few weeks later, my mental illness & a medication side effect would cause a psychotic spell intense enough to drive my loving wife away for good as well, leaving me once again untethered from the self.
It became the cruel cosmic joke--I had moved back to Indiana to social distance, to be more myself, but the chips clapped in a way so that now I was untethered, alone & crazy in my grandparents’ house. Right after my wife skipped town, I advanced to complete breakdown, my mother having no option but to call the local police. When you’re a bi-polar, possible schizophrenic, caught in a tornado of panic attack & psychosis, a squad of police officers with masks on in excessive number, asking for you to “release the woman”--my wife was out of the house, in safety already, I remind you--is not a calming or reassuring situation; frankly, I am lucky to have gotten out alive, all thanks to a family friend & local officer (thanks, Jamie!).
At this point, I cannot answer questions like “What is a psych hospital like?” or “How do you like your new therapist / psychiatrist?” accurately because the last three months brought the experiences in such peculiar & convergent circumstances. The psych hospital limited our large group interaction due to COVID concerns; my time there was in a haze of wife-is-leaving-distress & the haze of Prozac, which we would later discover was the culprit for causing my intense psychotic episodes. Dealing with the extreme heartbreak makes it kinda hard to tell if my new anti-psychotic & mood stabilizer medicines are working. Living alone, I wade through gelationous days.
As these weird days beat on, I’m trying to lean on the things that make me confident, make me bold, make me energetic, make me me, but in the onslaught of six-figure death tolls from COVID-19, not to mention the social unrest following the murder of George Floyd, it becomes quite difficult to even out one’s own interests among the greater plight of the world. I appreciate the good things sent my way: the local diner gifting me a free meal (thanks, Holly!), former teachers sending me GET WELL SOON cards (thanks, Mary Jane!), friends taking me disc golf & kayaking (thanks, Zach & Josh!), good people making thoughtful podcasts (thanks, Bill et. al!). I’ve been thinking of what Mike Birbiglia said on The Hilarious World of Depression podcast, how he focuses not on “what am I” but “what I can offer.” As someone with a mental illness in this particular time, I must add it is also about knowing when that offer can be put to work. That is to say, life might be opening back up, but I might not be able to...just yet.