Being Mentally Ill During “Shelter in Place”

Q: How many people struggling with clinical depression does it take to change a light bulb?

A: None. They’re in a dark night of the soul and oblivious to any other dark.

Forgive the ‘dark’ humor, but using humor, dark or light, is how some of us with a mental illness deal with trouble. Someone diagnosed with clinical depression will probably identify with that attempt at humor and nod. “Yep, that’s about right.”

People who know me even a little know I’m a goofball. People who know me well know I’m also mentally ill. Then there are the people who know me so well, they’ve sat with me in the emergency room as I wait to be admitted to The Ward. A locked ward.

I use humor to deal with my struggles, no matter what they are. It keeps me sane (so to speak). And even in the emergency room, I make cracks about why I’m there and what it will be like during my stay. A behavioral health unit is a lonely place to be even when the unit is at capacity. I never look forward to being there. I’m not there because I want to be, I’m there because I need to be.

Now here we all are, in varied states of lock down. I’m hearing myself as I talk to myself use humor to get through the coronavirus crisis.

Being cooped up is hard for us all. Having a mental illness, I can multiply that difficulty exponentially because depression, mania, generalized anxiety, paranoia, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and other mental illnesses thrive on stress. I think we can all agree that being sheltered in place is stressful.

Years ago, I decided I could share the fact that I’m mentally ill with a chosen few people I knew wouldn’t judge me, try to change me, tell me why I was acting out, or any of the other “crazy” things people do and say to someone who has a mental illness. I made that decision for several reasons. Some of the remarks made or advice given offended me (which put me in a defensive mode). I felt shame. I was frustrated. I got sad. And when some of those people left me—I mean left me—in the wake of their ignorance, I felt isolated and betrayed.

I knew I couldn’t change those people and it would have to be me who did. So, I decided if anything could change, it was how I talked about mental illness, especially my own. Now I tell people and leave their reactions up to them. If the opportunity is there, I educate people as much as they seem willing to bear it. I don’t go around revealing my illness to the person in line behind me at the store. There should be a good reason to tell and a good reason not to tell.

I think this is a good time to tell: I’m manic-depressive, an illness that since the late eighties is called bipolar disorder. I use the old name because it describes the nature of the illness. I get manic and I get depressed. Sometimes simultaneously, but that’s another topic for another time. I also suffer with generalized anxiety and a mild level of OCD. When I’m very, very ill, I become paranoid, psychotic, and delusional. I know; it’s not pretty.

So, there’s my personal admission about my illnesses and you can do whatever you want with it. Here’s what’s happening in my world and might be happening for someone else who’s mentally ill.

I don’t minimize the way anyone is affected by being cooped up; it can crush your spirit. Isolation makes you sad, angry, frustrated, scared, and empty. We were created to be in community with each other. “It is not good for man to be alone,” is what God said when he created us. We’re social creatures.

Several months ago, after I’d been mood-cycling for a while (manic/depressed over and over), I hit bottom and the deep depression took over. I was like that for a couple weeks. Then mania came back, and euphoria became mixed in every single day, all day long. When I begin to feel the mood swings, I get to a point where I don’t go out in public. Sometimes I can’t even tell why I do it, but I hole up like an outlaw.

The ‘craziness’ got ramped up when I had to stay home for the sake of my (and your) health and the need to protect us from a deadly disease. Even if I don’t like going out much when I’m ill, I try to take care of myself by getting into the sunshine and practicing my social skills. This shelter-in-place thing changes that.

I miss going to church. I miss meeting weekly with my mentor. I serve at the Salvation Army soup kitchen and the population has dwindled there. I miss seeing “my people.” I can’t pay my bills to the apartment manager, pick up the recycling from the office, or just sit and chat with her. She’s become a friend and I miss her too. And you know what? My psychiatrist asks me about these activities when I see him because he knows they help me stay somewhat normal.

People who know me well know I’m a Christian and have strong faith in the God I believe in. People who know the facts know that we who have a mental illness and are also Christians aren’t necessarily ‘delivered’ from the symptoms completely. We do the best we can, then accept that it’s a chronic illness that happens to be a mental one. It’s in our brain, for crying out loud, and the most educated, smart, and compassionate experts admit the brain is the last frontier of the human body. Ironically, our brains haven’t completely figured out our brains. Go figure.

I’m trying to not be completely idle. But I can only rearrange the food in the pantry so many times and then it’s ridiculous. And right now, I need my pet more than ever. Scout the Rabbit isn’t technically an emotional support animal. He does, however, provide emotional support. (He’s putting in overtime right now, but don’t tell him. He’s not getting extra lettuce in his paycheck.) When I’m having super-crazy anxiety, holding him brings my heart rate down. Sometimes it makes me cry, but it’s a good kind of crying. He gives me someone to talk to. Out loud.

Right now, I think of my friends who are mentally ill and it breaks my heart knowing some of them are struggling like me. I believe we’re doing what we can, but some of us are having a hard time doing it in isolation. I’m by nature an introvert, but enough is enough. Having said that, I respect the shelter in place orders because I don’t like being sick. I may be mentally ill, but I’m not stupid. And, while I’m not afraid to die, I hope to have a few more years of life.

Anyone who has a chronic illness knows that stress exacerbates it and symptoms may flare up. I’m thinking of you guys too. Take your meds, get your rest, follow your doctor’s orders. I mean it.

If you don’t have a chronic illness, being restricted in your social life means you too must take care of yourself, especially your mental health. Just because you’re not mentally ill doesn’t mean you have to be stupid. (hahahahaha-more humor.)

I’ve said my piece now, so excuse me. I’m going out to the living room to work on my stand-up routine.

Be a blessing to someone today.

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