The news of 1 in 5 people being diagnosed with a mental disorder after testing positive for COVID-19 really shouldn’t be shocking. Disease itself is a traumatic event for anyone. Broken legs and flus are easily stored memories by your mind so that you may try to avoid them in the future. But having a precise event that caused your mental health condition is a blessing compared to those of us who have been unraveling mysterious old demons for years. Hopefully many will never see COVID in their lives but we are all living the effects of it whether we have it or not. Lockdowns, masks, avoidance, fear of others, it is all adding up day-to-day and I fear many will reach a breaking point as I did.
The first feeling I remember back in February to March was basically denial. I sensed that things could get out of control but my logical self reasoned that our highly advanced country would contain any spread. I remember weeks of coverage around Ebola, a really seriously infectious deadly disease, and how everyone thought it was overblown in the media. My mind comforted itself in past experience. How I was wrong.
Once it was clear a lockdown was going to happen and the shelves started emptying, my reactions went on autopilot. Every time I walked into a grocery store, I felt fight or flight kick in with goosebumps and sweating. Everything and everyone was deadly. It was a serious disease we wanted to stop and I accepted this situation. I didn’t realize how this fear of everything was quietly reactivating along a deeper anxiety.
Certainly when we’re children we learn to overcome fear and find assurance from our parents. My childhood was different, marked by alcoholism and family politics. Weekly reminders of chaos in the seeming normalcy of suburban life. With the COVID lockdown, suddenly chaos was every day, morning and night. I laid awake at night listening to pop music from the 90s, not realizing my soul was reminding me of the last time I experienced turmoil.
The feedback cycle intensified as the months went on. I was gripped in a cycle of fear and loathing of the situation. Even though from the outside all I was doing was living comfortably in a large apartment with access to any take-out cuisine in a foodie city, I was reeling inside. My constant checking of social media was hurtful and harmful and yet I continued to do so believing I needed the information to protect myself. My emergency-only Ativan pills became merely bandages to the next day.
I basically mapped my dysfunctional childhood into my adult life without realizing it.
The panic attacks started on a steady drum. First monthly, I blew them off. Then weekly, I thought I could handle it by buying anxiety workbooks and scheduling more calls with a therapist. Before I knew it, it was daily. Hypochondria was my usual go-to and so I thought this was actually a heart condition. Frantic messages to my Doctor came back with reassurances that all was fine. My therapist offered that I had the power to control the situation with CBT techniques.
During this time, I engaged my friends on a near daily basis. Zoom calls were terribly stressful sessions recounting our woes. They helped and yet offered no hope. Everyone was in the same boat, but only I had the power to change my situation. I wasn’t able to get real help or intervention from anyone.
Come June, lockdown lifted. I thought I had the situation under control even though literally a day wouldn’t go by without my body automatically flying off the handle. I gave myself a vacation week for July 4th weekend. But instead of proceeding to rent a car and drive out to the beach on the first day, I had my biggest panic attack of all during a supposedly relaxing run. I felt some pain and thought I was about to die on the sidewalk from a heart attack. Nearby a construction crew looked on oddly.
For the remaining “vacation” I was reeling between reality and unreality. I Googled everything under the sun to find a cause for the pain. Finally on a quiet Sunday night where I had essentially trained my body to prepare for anything, and feeling the claustrophobia of my four walls as night set in, I had a rolling panic attack that resulted in calling 911.
At a bit after midnight, in hospital ready clothes, I was sitting on the cold floor of my apartment lobby with the phone to my head (the waiting room furniture had been removed for COVID). Thankfully, the triage nurse on the other line knew what was up and instead of sending an ambulance, kept me on for a bit, asking a rotating group of questions of whether I was “in pain now” or how I felt. It talked me down and with a reassuring voice that touched me deep down she said “you sound fine.” It broke the spell. I went for a long walk outside after I felt like I had just sobered up from a true reality break.
The next day I reached out to a neurofeedback specialist I had been talking to before COVID set in. The nurse on the phone opened a window of clarity for me and allowed me to realize what had been going on. I knew I needed to take drastic action or I would relapse again and end up in a psych ward.
I’m grateful the story of a broken, lost me ends there for now. You can read more about my journey through EMDR and neurofeedback on this blog. For me, COVID was the catalyst that blew things up but also forced me to immediately confront everything and get the right help. I encourage everyone to find your path to healing. You’ll never know when the world changes on a dime.