It seems that I’ve been talking about mental health for so long, it no longer requires prelude or preamble. Whenever I write anything I have an inner need to make the opening feel like an epic poem. Something you would find in Homer or Sophocles. But I’ve talked about my mental health journey, battling suicidal thoughts and depression, handling anxiety as a new dad, and everything in between, what more is there to say? Honestly, I do get to a point sometimes where I feel that I have explored every aspect of it so much and so often, that my mind has no more surprises left.
Then Covid came, and the lockdown started. And what may be the toughest year of my life began.
Like anything, it started as a lull. Not even an issue. Yes, the health crisis that shut everything down and locked us all inside was scary. Especially how sudden it seemed to occur.
For those in the loop, you may have seen this coming, but for the full-time working father of a rambunctious, fast learning one year old, it’s hard to stay looped in on any current events for too long. So, for me, it was a little out of nowhere. One day I heard about a new virus in China. The next day I had to be weary of those traveling internationally. And, finally then, we are all shut in.
Honestly, the first month was like a new vacation. Not since the first month of my child’s life had I been at home with my family ne’er a distraction in sight. The months of working and seeing my daughter grow only part-time, had me believing that the first month of total dad-mode was never returning.
But with every pandemic, there is a silver lining. I got what I wanted. I got to be with my wife, daughter, and poodle all day long, play more video games, watch more tv, and fall deeper in love with my sweet baby girl.
Then like everything in this life, money ruined everything. Bills came and, since I had not been working, it was tough for a spell until unemployment, my tax refund, and the stimulus money all kicked in. For a second it was all back on track. Only, I was too distracted to see the broken tracks up ahead.
Then, as the summer came in and I began working online, the veneer of this peaceful bubble I had lived in started to wear away. After some months, I started working in person again and the heat turned up.
My daughter was getting smarter, stronger, taller, and more prone to tantrums. The terrible twos had come early, and just in time for my wife’s sleep and anxiety issues to start becoming a noticeable problem. But I was weathering the storm well, so like Superman I put the shield of hope on my chest and tied the cape on. Super-Dad/Husband was here to save the day for everyone.
Now, we would later find out (much later in fact) that my wife was suffering from sleep apnea. Not the type that I have, but a different one where the brain wakes up mid-sleep and thus the sleep the body needs is deprived. She was waking up every morning with headaches. She constantly complained about not feeling herself and NEEDED a large coffee with extra caffeine just to, in her words, “feel human”. And no, that is not an exaggeration.
Beside all this, the lack of sleep led to a string of mild depressive episodes and panic attacks when our daughter was having a tantrum and seemingly inconsolable. I stepped in to help, of course, taking the first shift, always getting up with our daughter in the morning, no matter how early.
After a few months or so of this, it began to wear on me. Because I had a CPAP machine, I was getting restful sleep every night, but even that did not prevent the constant morning wake ups, day after day, from making me feel like I was stuck in a perpetual state of a drowsy purgatory. Add to that, whenever my wife was having a tough day, which sometimes seemed like every day, I would take a majority of the time watching our daughter – especially if she was not napping and in a constant ebb and flow of crankiness.
After a few months of this, my Superman armor had some holes in it and was starting to feel heavy, but I pressed on.
As if this was not enough, Fall had come and the election loomed like the Sword of Damocles. My gut said we were in for trouble and the fear spiked my already rising anxiety. The pressures of being a full-time dad, therapist, and husband caring for my growing and complex child, relieving my overstressed wife, and handling the stress of an upcoming election was cracking my once refined and reinforced armor.
“I’m fine”, I said. Every time, I put on the mask and said, “I’m fine.”
But of course, I wasn’t. I was having more and more panic and anxiety attacks. I would have larger chunks of days mired in my depression. I once had a full breakdown and panic attack twenty minutes before I was supposed to leave for work. I called in sick but it took the full day and some of the weekend to recover.
It was Christmas Eve and we are in for one long day. We were spending the night at my parent’s place. Everyone had been careful and we had a bubble going that we were all comfortable with. We had the morning and afternoon with my parents as well as my brother and his family, and then in the evening we raced back to San Jose to spend it with Kim’s mom, brother, grandma, and sister-in-law.
But for me the day ended early. Around lunchtime, for no apparent reason, I had to be excused to the bedroom. I was having a full-blown panic attack and I had no reason why. My heart was beating out of my chest, I was sweating, and I felt light-headed, my brain swirling with too much thought like a hurricane crashing down on land. I was able to recover enough to go back out, but it was obvious something was wrong.
My brother’s girlfriend came up to me as everyone opened presents and asked me if I was okay. I told her and she gave me an encouraging smile and some kind words that aided me greatly. But I was mired in anxiety for the entire day, and now all my memories of that Christmas are of how my daughter had a dad who was falling apart at every seam. I could not shake it off all day, and to some extent I still haven’t.
This was definitely a low point but by no means the last. My birthday had a similar feeling, as did random days here and there, but the Christmas experience truly speaks to the trouble of living through Covid in the shoes of someone battling mental illness.
During this Covid age, therapy and people seeking therapy has gone up. Being sheltered in place for so long without the vestiges of normalcy has worn on everyone. It’s only natural. Those of us who previously had troubles getting through life, now had an extra weight pulling us down, sometimes to the point to feeling like you could never get up, because there was no definite end in sight. This was life now, and there was no changing it.
But if one thing this year has taught me, it is that we persevere. All of us, both the mentally ill and those ill of the moment have made it. Through anxiety and depression, lost hope and lost lives, we are still here. The ‘why’ does not matter, only the ‘what now?’ One day we might fall to our ills, our mortal limbs finally proving too weak to bear the burden of a life lived. And perhaps when it comes there will be no lesson to learn, not hope to pass on after us.
But that it is not now. That is not today. Today we have lived, and today we have proven our worth, just by enduring.
It is painful to life a mortal life. This is why the heroes of Greek Myth that truly still speak to us are not the gods immortal, but the weak and frail human heroes who often showed even the mighty Olympians themselves, what real strength and dignity is. It is enduring even the most painful of wounds. But wounds heal, and the scars are reminders that we lived and still live. As long as we are still here, we have another shot to change things.