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Coping with COVID-19. When Crazy Is Not So Crazy Anymore

Covid-19 might free us? Man standing on the edge of a gangplank of a pirate ship, holding the earth and apologizing to it.
I asked my friend Spencer to draw something for me in response to this post and this is what he came up with. I’m a bit dense around interpretation so he had to explain that the apology is to the earth, and we are standing on the gangplank. Once he explained that I thought the pirate ship was brilliant! Will COVID-19 punish us but also provide a new way forward? Thanks, Spenny!

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Coping in COVID-19 lockdown is a growing concern for everyone. As one of my coping strategies, I wanted to try my hand at personal blogging (versus the other kind of writing I set this site up for). This is my first stab at a post that shares more about what’s going on in my life right now. It still ended up focused on ideas. But I am sharing more of my rough edges than usual and you may get some tips that I hope help with your mental health as we all face what is a horrible time. And if you keep coming back, you’ll get to know me and see how well I progress towards the goal of more personal blogging. Thanks for reading.

Hopefully, you’ll get some insights into coping with COVID-19 based on my reflections on my own crazy experience

#MadCovidDiaries is an idea that surfaced on Twitter for people of #MadTwitter – those of us who identify in some way with the experience of madness – to share what these modern plague-times living with COVID-19 are like for us. I believe that people with experiences of madness have special roles to play at times like these (more about that later = MATL) but maybe that is an idea that seems bizarre. If the mere mention of madness didn’t make you close the page, thanks for sticking around. If you haven’t had those experiences yourself, this post is partly about the fact that COVID-19 is helping us all to become more familiar with some things that are very familiar to mad folks. And if you do identify with madness, I hope this will make you feel a bit better about life. Let me know.

(All the tips I read about writing personal blogs said to ask those kinds of questions. So I have done so. But I also wonder: are they annoying? If they are you can go ahead and … let me know!)

Crazy looks all kinds of ways. Despite the pigeonholing of psychiatry, each of us puts our unique spin on our dysfunction. And I like to believe that crazy isn’t always dysfunction at all. (By the way, one of the ways some of us with significant mental health challenges cope is to become more comfortable with ‘taking back’ stigmatizing words like ‘crazy’ and ‘madness’ to describe ourselves.) When I read other @MadCovid blogs on their website and I read the tweets of people I follow who face challenges with mental health, what I see is a lot of suffering right now, particularly around anxiety and changes in access to mental health support. However, a few of you shared what at first I was seeing as my current craziness. The fact that others have talked about this has really helped me:

Mental-health-wise, I am clearly doing better than I have done in many, many years. At the same time, the world is literally falling apart. WTF is going on in my head? 

Shame plays a central role in my personality structure, so naturally, I am a bit ashamed to feel fine while humankind is facing what may prove to be its biggest crisis since the Bubonic Plague. But it’s also true. My clinical mood has been more stable and “good” over the last five weeks than I can recall it having been in years. And the reason I say it’s a bit crazy is that while my circumstances are in some ways good (I don’t have to worry about the roof over my head, and I have lots of people to message with), many things in my life suck:

  • I’ve been physically sick since early March and no doctor will guarantee it’s not COVID-19 (MATL) but so far I can’t get tested.

  • My father is in a long-term care facility with a growing number of COVID-19 infections. It’s quite possible I may never see him, alive or dead, again.

  • I’ve just been required by law to shut down my small gardening business. This week alone I turned away what I conservatively estimate would have been an additional $10,000 of business income in the coming months. 

  • Financially I am stable for now but that’s because my business shuts down seasonally and I’m already on short-term unemployment benefits. I am not sitting on any savings (those went to start my business years ago). My benefits will run out eventually. 

  • I recently got turned down for a job working in mental health that for years I had hoped I might get once the person doing it retired.

(MATL – maybe – I did at least get an interview, so there’s that I guess. This morning I woke up three weeks after the interview and realized which interview answer I could have done a much better job on. Oh well.)

And yet, despite all of the above, I am feeling okay, in fact, just a bit better than normal…

With a clinical mood that is both exceptionally stable absent any daily meds at all, and beyond stable, actually good. And good in a relaxed, hopeful, non-hypomanic way that is very rare for me as someone living with a bipolar brain. What to make of feeling fine and even hopeful when millions of people may die in the coming months. WTF! Sounds a little sick … whoa David, step back from the edge of pathologizing!

Grief is going to hit hard and close to home for almost every one of us, and if it’s already hit home for you I am deeply sorry. I worked in the gay community in HIV/AIDS at the height of that epidemic. I remember what that level of grief was like. The next month or two are going to leave us feeling battered. Every day I cry more in a day than I cried in the whole year last year. But that’s sadness, not depression. Clinical mood for me is a pretty specific thing. And clinically, decades of experience tells me my bipolar brain is very stable right now.

I asked the question of why on Twitter a while back and some of you got back to me. I’ve thought more about what you said. I’ve concluded there is nothing crazy or even distorted about what’s going on in my head. And I hope that explaining why might help you, even if you don’t identify at all with experiences of madness (or didn’t before this whole pandemic started). 

Here are the insights I have had. Have you had any of them yourself? Can we build them into COVID-19 coping strategies?

Now everyone counts

While marginalization and oppression continue to be real and are playing out in ugly ways with COVID-19 (particularly for Black and Disabled folks), each and every one of us has a part to play in taking actions (or inactions) that can literally save lives. No matter how on the fringes of society we may feel, we can make choices that save lives. You are playing a part in changing the arc of history when you stay home, physically avoid others, wash your hands, and cover your face. We don’t need to feel insignificant anymore. We are literally saving lives by not getting out of bed. If you don’t have a home and a bed, okay, that’s a different reality. I am sorry for your circumstances (and yes, some homeless folks thankfully have phones and access to the internet). Arguably, how someone living on the street or in a shelter behaves in those circumstances counts even more in helping others. This virus is disrupting power in strange ways. All the actions of all of us count.

Expectations just got tossed out the window

Unless you are an essential worker, don’t know where your next meal is coming from, or at risk of losing the roof over your head, the pressure to participate, perform or succeed that gives rise to a lot of mental suffering has lifted.

We are in the middle of a pandemic! I like to believe that more than thirty years of therapy has freed me from the burden of abusive self-talk and self-judging based on the expectations of others. However, this experience has made it clear to me that that nice story I tell myself is BS. I wasn’t free of that burden before. I have come to realize that because of all the stress and change we are going through, I am a lot freer now. Hopefully, if you aren’t an essential worker or living in precarious poverty (and yes, in societies with a good safety net, a degree of non-precarious poverty is possible), maybe you can feel a bit of that freedom underneath the fear, anxiety, horror, anger, and sadness which are very natural responses to these circumstances. Facing a new day is more than achievement enough.

If you are an essential worker, or facing poverty, or, god forbid, both, seriously I am tearing up thinking about people in your circumstances (grocery clerks and personal support workers come especially to mind). My heart goes out to you. Which takes me to the third thing.

Emotions are okay now

In Canada, our public health star is Doctor Bonnie Henry. Thanks in no small part to her leadership the Canadian province of British Columbia has managed to #FlattenTheCurve. Dr. Henry got dragged over the coals for getting teary at a press conference early on in our pandemic journey. But the fact is, it’s her ability to be open, authentic and emotional that has helped her to be effective.

I’ve felt resentment towards common beliefs about what it means to be professional (and a man, for that matter) for as long as I can remember. Beliefs governing expression of emotion (which tend, also, to be gendered, sexist, and sometimes misogynistic) make me angry. Emotions exist for good reasons and I don’t know about you but I have learned that much of what is messed up in my life involves not being able to constructively identify, feel or express them. It may not seem like a great silver lining but as the world goes to hell in a handbasket, those expectations feel like they are slipping away. Showing feelings is okay. And that is really liberating. Can you feel it?

On a related aside, as I mentioned, I cry several times a day now. Pretty much any random tweet about someone’s relative or friend dying from COVID-19 is gonna make me cry for at least a minute. Dunno what it’s like for you? This is healthy and normal and speaks to the grief that we are all going to have to face together in the months ahead. However, it’s also pretty clear that I’m bottling up the emotions around the situation with my father (MATL – really these are tags to flag what I might write about in future entries). Hey, my bipolar brain may have settled down but I still have issues.

Behaviours associated with mental illness are now everyone’s normal

Staying home and avoiding people are behaviours commonly associated with mental ill-health. They are seen as warning signs for serious mental illness even. Now, they can be frustrating if you are an extrovert, but they are also life-saving [in]actions (and introverts now have the social edge — sorry, couldn’t resist that little jab).

More and more of us are realizing that remembering what day of the week it is can be an achievement. More and more of us are beginning to understand the challenges of getting out of bed before noon or getting out of bed at all. Changing out of whatever you slept in, having a daily shower. Whether we do these things can offer signs of how our mental health is doing. But my guess is even if you’ve never gone crazy, never suffered from depression, or thought of yourself as having mental health challenges many of you can now relate to at least one of these behaviours. Those of us who have learned to celebrate cleaning our teeth as our day’s greatest achievement are here to reassure you. You will make it through this. #WeKnowTheWay.

I am not saying these things are not signs of significant life disruption. But one insight most of us with mental health challenges reach in coping is that if we can accept rather than pathologize things, we can better support ourselves and one another. I feel relief in this broad sharing of experiences that psychiatry often sees as indicative of pathology. I’ve made my peace with those times when depression keeps me in bed for weeks on end. I’d like to share that it’s possible to survive those places. You are not a failed human being if you find yourself in them now. 

Mental health truly is everyone’s concern now

My take on this may be unfamiliar if you don’t have extensive experience with psychiatry. This is definitely a point in history where mad folks have a significant role to play. We really, really need to push back against the medicalizing and pathologizing of widespread grief and trauma. This is a big MATL which I will leave for another post. I am inspired and heartened when I see other folks naming this issue. Psychiatry has a role to play in supporting us, but it is much smaller than some imagine. This is a very, very important time for mad folks to be assertive in pointing out the dangers of pathologizing and medicating human experience. Enough said for now.

The world was always falling apart; finally, people are paying attention. That is cause for hope

This is the thing that I suspect is most responsible for my feeling okay despite all the awfulness. I now feel a subdued but clear and rational feeling of hope. That’s been really rare for me for decades now. Climate change and income inequality have been screaming bloody murder in my head and playing havoc with my psyche for years. Yes, those of us with mental health challenges and psychiatric diagnoses have brains that are different and can twist our responses to things, often unhelpfully. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t actual facts that our brains then get creative with. I don’t know about you but up until now, it’s been maddeningly obvious to me that many of our societies are fundamentally flawed. These flaws have been getting deeper and more pronounced but up until now, it’s been hard to believe that anything was going to change. That was a key reason for the depression that’s cast a consistent shadow over much of my life since I stopped working in social work in my early 30’s (MATL).

Now, finally, $h!t is changing

While the next few months and maybe years are going to be brutal. And while there is no guarantee that we will emerge out of this having evolved socially and politically, finally it’s obvious that big shifts are happening. From time to time I tweet the hashtag #WhatWillWeBecome (MATL). It’s really important to think about that and how we want to be a part of what our future looks like. Big changes are coming; awful as things are right now, we also have some new opportunities here.

So that’s my conclusion as to why my brain seems, bizarrely, to be doing well so far in these times. There are lots of superficial ways in which life for others now comes closer to a life that I’m quite familiar with from my past experiences with depression. There is a strange comfort in that. Also, our horrible current circumstances hold a small silver lining of slight but significant hope. And while getting unstuck from our old normal is terrifying, it’s also hopefully an opportunity to fix some serious problems that have long cast a pall over my mood. Can you relate? Do these ideas help at all?

I believe that while what is happening is horrific, and will become much worse before it gets better, finally, we have an opportunity to address some fundamental social faults like income inequality and inaction on climate change. And we all can play a part in that. I hope that you will. We owe it to the millions who will not live to see those changes to do our best to make them real and positive.

These are ideas that have helped me so far. They are coping strategies in terms of ways of thinking, rather than doing. Actions, like getting exercise if you can obviously help too. Please stay as safe and healthy as you can. And cry as much as you need to at the loss all around us. I’ve learned that that is a hard but healthy thing to do. Many, many of us are crying with you.

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