Fear can make us small. It can make us paranoid, nervous, suspicious, unfriendly, close-minded and all these things that I don’t want to be. My anxiety and OCD means that I get scared a lot. Ordinary things that don’t scare other people scare me. Some days I’m more scared than others. Some days I have to really psych myself up to go outside or get in the car or even video chat someone for the first time.
OCD means that even when I am exhausted or in pain, sometimes I can’t help but engage in my rituals and obsessive behaviors. In these times, I can find myself washing up the dishes, and then suddenly I’m doing laundry and cleaning all the counters and the toilets and I don’t know exactly how I got there. Especially because I still hurt.
It took me a while to accept (admit?) that I needed to go back on my psychiatric medication after spending the best part of a year reducing my medication for the first time since I started taking it four years ago. I wanted to see how I would do after years of steady therapy, exercise, acupuncture, and a steady process of learning more about myself and my mental illnesses. And I admit this, I did want to be “normal” and be okay without medication.
When all the cancellations started, at first I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my appointments. Some of them were just canceled outright and for others, I had the option to meet via phone or zoom. Luckily, I have health insurance that covered them like a normal appointment so it was an option for me.
There are limits: I decided not to get blood work done yet because I didn’t want to go to a medical facility and risk exposure. That meant that my provider and I could only discuss and plan so much. Others worked better, in particular my psychiatrist and therapist appointments. I was able to make the hard decision to increase my medication after a steady ramp down over about a year.
With everything going on my anxiety has been on an upswing. I’ve struggled to sleep and focus. I’ve been obsessing about the little things again. I check the news too often. As a result, by talking with my psychiatrist and therapist I was able to decide to temporarily increase my medication.
This is a reminder that health, including mental health, has its ups and downs. Just because I was doing better a year ago or six months ago, doesn’t mean that I will be fine right now. If you’re worried about asking for extra help or help for the first time right now, don’t feel bad. You’re not the only one. This is incredibly stressful in so many ways and there are only so many things we can do or have control over. And that’s hard. Feeling helpless during a time when so many are hurting is hard.
I find that it is especially difficult to do nothing when I am anxious, even if that is the best thing I can do. I have trouble letting things go. I want to act even when I know it’s better not to do anything at all or to wait to do something. I want to send that difficult email immediately, I want to call that friend, I want to do something to relieve the anxiety I feel but sometimes it’s better for everyone else if I wait, think about it, and make a measured response that is best for everyone. And of course, right now, the best thing most of us can do is nothing, is to wait, is to stay home.
I need therapy now more than ever. A lot of us do because we don’t know when this will be “over.” No one does. And we need help dealing with that kind of uncertainty. Anxiety is all about uncertainty. Working through anxiety means sitting with it sometimes. We need help working through anxiety when things are hardest, like now.
I just finished reading Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb. I learned a lot by reading it but I was thrown when she describes teletherapy as “therapy with a condom.” The implication is that condoms block connection and sensation, so sex, and in this case, therapy is not as good with them. However, I think many people would agree that that is not a reason to not use them, especially if they are your only option!
I personally believe that this is not a reason not to use telehealth, especially now. It’s also not a reason not to use telehealth ever if you’re disabled or don’t have access to mental health treatment in your area. In fact, it’s a reason to encourage full access to online mental health treatment and prevent barriers to such access like variations in state licensing or insurance rules. Hopefully, some of the easing of restrictions happening right now will persist after the worst of the pandemic is over. It would be a silver lining to the pandemic. Hope like that helps me manage my anxiety just a little bit better.
In 2009, I got swine flu. I had just returned to college from summer break, and either brought it with me or I got it from my roommate, who got it almost as soon as we returned to school. I got it a few days later.
I had barely heard of it at that point. Online research says that in mid-September when I got it, it had already been around since April. However, no one was all that worried or panicked about it. There was no shutdown.
When my roommate and I contacted health services, they told us to stay in our rooms for two weeks and wear a mask when we interacted with others (and with our third roommate, who somehow avoided getting it despite sharing a two-room dorm room with us).
We were quarantined but felt too sick to leave anyway. I remember being exceptionally exhausted and sleeping for twenty-plus hours a day. I had to ask a friend to email my professors and parents to let them know what was going on.
I’m not going to downplay how awful getting sick actually was—it was probably the worst flu experience I had ever had and with my back, the body aches were beyond awful. But no one was all that worried. It sucked and then, at some point, we got better and it was over. Most of our friends didn’t get sick and the school didn’t change anything. The dorms were open, classes happened, and life went on.
I don’t remember hearing much about it beyond the usual coverage of the annual flu season—like CVS telling us that flu is widespread in our area and to stock up on cold and flu meds.
So the past few weeks I have been trying to understand why this pandemic is so different. As far as I can tell, the mortality rate is similar (sadly, I remember that someone at my college who as immunocompromised did die after contracting it) and it also spread through all states eventually. It was an official pandemic (not the first of my lifetime either).
But there was no widespread response—definitely nothing like the shutdowns we’re currently experiencing—and I am confused by it. I don’t know if this is better—on the one hand, if we can prevent many people from getting sick and dying, that’s amazing!
On the other hand, the panic and stress from the constant 24/7 media reports seem like the opposite of a healthy response. I keep trying to stay away and then isolation makes me wonder what’s going on in the rest of the world (or even my town) and I got back down the rabbit hole.
I wish we could proactively and compassionately respond to a pandemic in a timely manner without resorting to fear and constant anxiety. I’m not sure what that would look like exactly but a responsible media response has to be part of it. Fear cannot be the best way to convince people to quarantine or practice social distancing. I know that for the many with anxiety and OCD that it just makes everything so much worse. It’s incredibly unkind to everyone who is trying to do their best despite all the uncertainty.
So, like many of us, I’m going to keep trying to update myself mindfully and at strategic times, focusing on a few reliable sources and not click on everything, especially the scary, panic-inducing click bait articles. The keyword is “try.” I will probably fail again and again through this period, but I will try because if I don’t, I won’t be able to keep my anxiety in check and that won’t help anyone, least of all me.