My Mental Health Struggles in 2020 (so far)

Or, if you are not doing great I hope it sort of helps to know I've been in rough spots too. |

Disclaimer: this little blog post is not a cry for help, and hopefully not (just) a form of self-therapy, but like my prior writing on the subject is meant to (hopefully) help those dealing with similar struggles or those not aware of such struggles. Content warning, discussion of depression. Reminder to friends reading this, I’m always happy to be there and help if you need it.

Two weeks ago, on the calm Sunday afternoon of August 23 2020, I started crying for no clear reason. No event in the recent past or on the horizon was on my mind, no particular trauma or anxiety was eating away at me; I just felt bad, to the point of tearing up, crying, even sobbing. All this, while pacing around the living room of my nice new apartment where I now live alone, or sitting down in my bedroom where I now sleep alone. After an hour or two, I calmed down and felt a bit better. The crying and pain was unexpected, as I had been feeling rather good for the past few weeks, and so I started to take note similar incidents from then on:

List of difficulties over past two weeks

Why write it down? I suppose to have an objective measure of how bad I felt, a proof that this was real and not something I could just snap out of. Because I could not snap out of it; though I knew that factually there was no reason to feel bad to the point of crying and sobbing (and moreover, that I am incredibly privileged and fortunate, have great friends and family, am still employed, etc.), still a darkness clung to me and made each day difficult, each moment of awakeness draining. Suddenly it seems I was in the grips of full-on depression, a type of sickness it would take a whole other blog post to try to explain.

Now, it is again a calm Sunday afternoon, and with two weeks having passed I am sitting here writing this, feeling fine. Normal. It has been one week since I last cried, and almost one week since I talked to a new psychiatrist about my sudden descent into misery and fatigue. Perhaps the psychiatrist’s recommendation of increasing my antidepressant dosage was what stabilized me, perhaps it was other things, perhaps both, who knows. As usual, having ascended from the distorted mental space of depression leaves me feeling like just being normal, like this, is all I could ever wish for.

And what got me into the depressive funk in the first place? It’s honestly been years since I was in a place as bad as that in terms of mental health, since I cried on a daily basis or had intrusive thoughts visualizing (though, not really considering) self harm. What got me there? Well, the general state of the world, of course. But, I also blame the decreased interaction with others that COVID 19 has made the norm for half a year now. It’s no surprise that isolation and the general repetitiveness of mostly-just-stay-home life would bear a mental cost, but in retrospect it seems like it has somehow built up, until I suddenly found myself in that dark place.

And so, I share these sordid personal details now. I do so because I think others might be accumulating pain and struggling too, and that just sharing how i’ve struggled might help in some small ways. Like, maybe me sharing this will help others feel less alone, or less self-conscious, or more motivated to keep going. It’s too easy to get lost inside your own head, especially this year, so perhaps this account of my recent – and less recent – difficulties could make yours more manageable.

What other sordid details of personal struggle shall I dredge up, you ask? Just a few. Again, with the intention of showing that at least for me, this year’s whole course and isolation in particular can build up to some rather nasty outcomes, and so maybe you should not feel self-conscious if the same is true for you. So, let us go on a quick tour of what I have to offer, in reverse chronological order:

July 30th: a month ago, I had a bit of a precursor to the week of crying I already told you about. A mix of deadline-induced stress (as well as general PhD grad-school-is-hard stress), isolation (living mostly alone, and on top of that multiple days of not really talking to anyone while working on the deadline), and a last-minute discovery of a nasty bug combined to give me a little nervous breakdown a day before said deadline. I sobbed a lot and had spirals of stress, perhaps even got close to panic attacks. Luckily, a friend was awake and helped me calm down just as this was starting, and the next day my collaborators were understanding and wisely suggested I not worry too much about the situation and take the weekend fully off.

A few days of rest and catching up with friends and family proved to be all I needed to return to normal. And afterward, I began a routine meant to help me stay that way (that evidently did not quite suffice, but still, I felt good for a few weeks):

July 4th: This was a few weeks after I had returned from living with family in Georgia to living by myself in California. That first weekend of being in my apartment proved more depressing than I had expected, and I felt down. Not as down as the things I had already described, but still, it hit me harder than I expected. I thought it was only natural to return to my own life after a time of staying with family, and moreover needed to move soon, and had this deadline, so it seemed to make sense to return here and focus on those things. But still, I felt miserable.

May 17th: The whole idea of living with family for a while came about unexpectedly, while talking to my mom on the phone. I was doing okay, but at this point growing numb to the sameness of every day, every week. Although flying was of course a risk, the truth was that I felt I needed this just then, badly enough to agree with my mom and book a ticket for less than a week later. I was in a state of malaise, of im-okness that felt like it was wearing me down day by day. The trip home did help, as expected, and perhaps I should have stayed longer.

April 23: A month and change into sheltering in place, the introverted notion of ‘wow, shelter in place is kind of nice and relaxing, I could get used to this’ had passed, and I started feeling less energetic and motivated. I was exercising multiple times a week, following a healthy diet, sleeping well, doing a lot of socializing with friends online, enjoying video games or reading or movies regularly, and yet somehow still I felt myself growing less energetic. After consulting with my general care provider, I decided to resume the taking of antidepressants (which I had weaned down to not taking just months prior) as a precautionary measure against depression. I got around to finishing “Things Everyone Should Know About Depression” soon after, in the spirit of such precautionary measures, and I suppose it was not too surprising I ended up having to remind myself of my own advice from that post over the last few weeks.

So there you have it. Despite being in an incredibly fortunate situation (able to keep working, friends and family largely well and there for me, etc.), and despite active efforts on my own part to maintain my mental health, I still had episodes of intense pain and misery. Does that show that I am weak? That I can’t take care of myself? When I was at my low points it was all too easy to feel that way, and I did to some extent, and that’s why I write this now to hopefully help others fight such thoughts, and accept that struggle is fine and natural this year and all you can do is your best to feel well.

And one last thing: I hope this can be a reminder to face your struggles, and seek help, if you need to. Though I’ve had a few tough days and weeks this year, for the most part it’s been ok, these are nothing compared to months-long episodes of depression I’ve dealt with in the past. And I really do think that this is because I pushed myself to ask friends and family to talk, and was open about my pain if I felt I needed to be, or otherwise just spent time with them rather than close off and stay alone. And further, because I talked to doctors when it seemed like a necessary step. Rejecting and ignoring your pain, just because objectively things are not so bad (or, if they are so bad), will just make it worse. Don’t feel ashamed about it, and instead be honest and face it as best you can.