Emerging from the Darkness

Everything about our lives has changed. Our daily routines have been altered, our connections with people have become digital, and some have been lost. Without knowing vaccine status, hugs, handshakes, and innocently reaching out to touch a hand are only memories.

While many people are desperately eager to get back to normal, some have a great deal of trepidation about how to do that. Globally, our lives were on hold for well over a year. We grew accustomed to wearing masks; some of us are not quite ready to stop wearing one. 

When I reflect on the magnitude of events this past year, it literally sends chills down my spine. COVID-19 has already taken the lives of 610,909 people in the U.S. and more than 4.1 million lives globally. For months, as I viewed the daily stats from Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Dashboard, the numbers kept me awake many nights. I could not stop thinking how each one represented a life lost.  Morning Zoom meetings at work left me incapacitated. I could not function under business as usual with everything going on around me. Watching the nightly news led me into a downward spiral. 

The impact of COVID-related trauma grows exponentially when you look at just how many people were affected by each death; family, friends, healthcare professionals, first responders, teachers, and funeral service workers. My mind is baffled at the thought of how to process this kind of grief. How will we as a nation deal with so much loss?

The month of June propelled our start to normalize in a world that is not yet free of COVID-19. I can’t help but wonder how people are coping. How are we managing our emotional well-being? Before January 2020, our country was already facing a widespread mental health problem. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness, a stark statistic.

The pandemic has given rise to variables that negatively affected our daily lives, causing grief, isolation, loneliness, divisiveness, financial hardship, and fear. For those already experiencing depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other mental health conditions, the past year served as a vehicle to exacerbate a pre-existing mental health issue. Complicating matters, mental illness has always been plagued by stigma, stereotypes, and cultural barriers. 

Recently I came across a poignant TV series, The Me You Can’t See, produced by Oprah Winfrey and Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex. The series provides candid portrayals about the realities of mental health issues that individuals live with every day. Each person who courageously articulates their story reveals their vulnerability to millions of people. But it is precisely that courage to speak out that helps break down the stigma and prejudices associated with mental illness.

Like others, I grappled with intense anxiety throughout the pandemic. For me, it was health anxiety. My fear wasn’t that I would get sick from COVID-19; it was that my husband would. He didn’t share or understand the panic I was experiencing. Anxiety that I previously felt intensified with the need to protect my husband from COVID-19. Earlier health-related trauma resurfaced.

Several years before we met, my husband had a heart attack requiring triple bypass surgery. A serious surgical procedure, it went well, but years later a new problem emerged: idiopathic epilepsy. My husband had seizures on two occasions. I happened to be with him at the exact moment he had a grand mal seizure in the ER. I sat in the ICU for two days while doctors cared for him and finally found a medication to stop the seizing activity. I vividly remember being awake for two days. The shock, fear, lights, and noise in the ICU made sleep impossible. Fortunately, with good medical care and follow-up, our lives returned to normal.

But those underlying medical conditions placed him in the unlucky lottery of being at high-risk for severe COVID. My mind became consumed with protecting my husband from the virus. For months we didn’t go anywhere. I’m eternally grateful to all frontline workers because Amazon and curbside pickup became our sole method of purchasing all goods. I carried and washed all of the groceries before they came into the house. I was petrified to have my husband come into contact with anything that could potentially harm him. Neither of us physically saw anyone for months.

While I thought my bubble of protection kept him safe, it certainly didn’t benefit my husband’s mental well-being. He couldn’t understand my behavior at the time, nor could I explain it.

During this time, I was having stomach problems, heart palpitations, insomnia, was unable to concentrate, and had pain in my neck, back, and shoulders. I saw doctors and mentioned my anxiety was a 9 or 10 on most days. They all did standard tests and said nothing was seriously wrong. Twice I ended up in the ER, both times because of anxiety. 

Finally, realizing the stress and fear was wreaking havoc on my body, I sought counseling. We are lucky to have good health insurance, but I still had difficulty accessing help. I called at least 10 providers who were either not taking new patients or only had slots available during my work schedule. Eventually, I found someone, but seeking care and finding the right match was exasperating. How many times can you call a service and leave a personal message about needing help with a stranger? I can only imagine the difficulty for individuals experiencing severe depression or feelings of despair. Help when we need it should be close by, not a far reach. 

The pandemic made for a very dark period in life. Eventually, I learned how to manage through it and find things that bring happiness. Small things helped, like meditation apps, talking to family (for whom I am so thankful), creating a garden with my husband, watching our baby hawks learn to soar, bluebirds relentlessly pecking at our window, the unconditional love of pets, and finally reconnecting with others. Life is finally gaining some normalcy, and there is a brighter light in full view.

However, we as a country need to be prepared to regain our mental well-being. As the nation continues to emerge from the pandemic and experiences setbacks, we must ensure a better, equitable, and accessible mental health system for all who need it.