When It Comes to Mental Illness, COVID Solidarity Brings Comfort
‘Now, we’re all hibernating at home, scared of being sick’
About a week before the president of the United States declared a national emergency regarding the novel coronavirus, I traveled back home to Rochester, Minnesota, due to what can best be described as a mental breakdown.
I’ve always been an incredibly anxious person. Prior to my March 6 trip to Rochester’s Mayo Clinic, I had been diagnosed with “obsessive compulsive behavior,” Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome (which is comorbid with anxiety, and a childhood case of trichotillomania (also known as hair-pulling disorder). So, on the average day, you could find me washing my hands more than one time (often three or four times every time I would wash my hands), Clorox-wiping my colorful pen collection, overthinking (and overthinking and overthinking), and overworking myself in an effort to be perfect.
In the weeks leading up to my nervous breakdown, I began panicking about getting sick (also known as emetophobia). It consumed my every thought: What if I throw up in front of the ultra-attractive guy in my poetry workshop? What if I get sick in the car while driving my roommates for a much-needed grocery shopping trip? What if I barf while attending the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild events I had been looking forward to? What if I puke? Hurl?
Pretty soon, I became a hermit in my apartment, obsessively scrubbing doorknobs, countertops, and sink handles, and praying to God I wouldn’t get sick.
Pretty soon, I became a hermit in my apartment, obsessively scrubbing doorknobs, countertops, and sink handles, and praying to God I wouldn’t get sick. My “compulsion” was an odd one: I thought if I ate peppermints or jellybeans, I would somehow avoid getting sick. Like, if there’s something in my mouth, there’s no way I could puke. So, I started living off peppermints, jellybeans, and bland, safe foods like pasta, potatoes, and plain white rice.
Then, I started having panic attacks at the library where I worked. The day before I went home, I had a panic attack in the middle of a cognitive neuroscience exam – a full-out I-am-going-to-pass-out-or-throw-up-and-also-breathing-is-irrelevant panic attack. I ended up barely passing that exam. This was not normal behavior for me. So, I white-knuckled my way back home to Rochester, where I was prescribed two antidepressants: Buspar and Prozac. I hoped that would be the end of my anxiety over getting sick, and I returned to UW-Eau Claire to hopefully get my life back to normal.
Then the coronavirus hit the Chippewa Valley, and everyone (literally everyone) started worrying about disinfecting their doorknobs and wiping down their kitchen sinks, panicking about what they last touched and whether that object had the virus on it. It was like watching the entire world quickly transition to what my reality of life has been like for what seems like millennia. Suddenly, everyone panicked about getting sick. And for good reason: this coronavirus is downright terrifying.
I felt oddly calm, relaxed. Experts say that it’s common for people struggling with anxiety or mental illness to feel calm during chaos; this kind of panic doesn’t feel any different from our normal day-to-day panic. So, maybe my mental breakdown had really good timing, or maybe I’m learning something about how our lives aren’t really as different as we make them out to be.
Life as we knew it changed. Yet, I felt oddly calm, relaxed. Experts say that it’s common for people struggling with anxiety or mental illness to feel calm during chaos; this kind of panic doesn’t feel any different from our normal day-to-day panic. So, maybe my mental breakdown had really good timing, or maybe I’m learning something about how our lives aren’t really as different as we make them out to be. Suddenly my friends are pulling out the disinfecting wipes, no longer scoffing at my excessive collection. My family members wash their hands more. Habits I once thought made me “crazy” or “different” are suddenly becoming commonplace.
Don’t get me wrong: I still very much struggle with mental illness, and I still very much require and appreciate the medication that helps my brain function more normally, but there’s some odd kind of relief in knowing that other people in the world are experiencing life like I do. Now, we’re all hibernating at home, scared of being sick; and I’m beginning to realize I’m less alone in this than I originally thought.
After this is all over, we are all going to have to navigate life again. We are all going to have to re-evaluate a new form of “normal,” a new way to cope with fear, stress, anxiety, and learn to move past the fear of getting sick. And I’m glad we get to do it together.