Mental Illness Makes A Pandemic That Much Harder

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
woman sitting in armchair holding legs
Scary Mommy and JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty

I have bipolar 2. I never know when my disorder will come creeping back: bipolar disorder is a master of unraveling brain chemistry, both biological and pharmaceutical. You cannot outthink it, outwit it, outrun it. A person with bipolar 2 never knows if their familiar medications will suddenly stop working. They never know if they will wake up to a world smeared with the haze of depression. Their familiar people can become enemies. Their comforting spaces can become cages. Routine drags to drudgery and life seeps swiftly into meaninglessness.

This can happen, and generally does, even to those with treated bipolar disorder. When I wasn’t adequately treated, it happened on a titanic scale: I became suicidal. I shattered mirrors. I sobbed for three days on end.

With proper management and monitoring, I am what I consider “fine.” “Fine” means that, in the real world, I hum along with life. I get sad sometimes. About once a month, barring the extraordinary (which can set me off), I might have a down day when I cry a bit and the kids’ voices become too shrill. I call my husband. He tells me it’ll be okay. I wait until he comes home from work. The kids watch TV and I chill on the couch with some coffee and my German Shepherd; when my husband appears, I sleep for several hours. I wake up a little shaky, eat some dinner, go back to bed, and wake up humming along the next day.

This cannot happen during a pandemic.

Which means that, with bipolar disorder, I cannot manage “fine” during a pandemic.

There’s Too Much Outside Stress For My Bipolar Disorder

Like many people, I avoid the news as much as possible. I shield myself from numbers, statistics, stories. Avoiding the latest press conference helps me tune out the terrible information from said press conference. But no matter how big I try to blow my bubble, it pops.

It pops because we have to, eventually, acknowledge that we are living in the middle of a global pandemic. That pandemic is killing people. COVID-19 is making people sick — perhaps, for example, those neighbors I see constantly disobeying every single rule of social distancing ever. The mailman touches their mailbox. He touches my mailbox. I become terrified that if I touch the mail, everyone could get sick. If the kids get sick, we couldn’t be with them, because they’d be in isolation. Bipolar disorder makes sure that spiral continues down, down, down; like Alice’s rabbit hole, but without the grace of a Wonderland beneath.

And in the midst of this pandemic dangerous enough that the CDC recommends covering your face in public, I have to go to the pet store to buy crickets so my son’s tree frogs do not die. I wear an N95 mask. I try to stay six feet away from people. People will not stay six feet away from me. Most of them do not wear masks. I demand the clerk with the masks. In the midst of our transaction, she coughs. It’s a dry cough, not the wet one that comes from pollen.

I do not want a receipt because I cannot sanitize the receipt. I do not want a bag because I cannot sanitize the bag. I am wearing gloves but I have to remove them. Then I must sanitize my credit cards, my purse, the cricket bag, and the car handle. I have to sanitize my hands, then the hand sanitizer itself, then my hands again and then steering wheel, I think. Did I touch something that touched something that touched my phone? I am chasing a white rabbit.

I cannot breathe for the rest of the day. My children’s voices ring shrill in my ears. I cannot write; I cannot read; I cannot get away from people. So I sit in my hammock and I stare at the birds and I cry.

The tree frogs live.

There is Too Much Stress Inside

Obviously, everyone’s under stress during a pandemic. My husband is stressed, by work and by home. The children don’t quite understand what’s happening, or perhaps they understand too much of what’s happening. Either way, they’re behaving the way children behave under stress, which is to say: not normally. They cry at odd times over odd things. My six-year-old wails that my husband will get COVID-19 if he steps outside the perimeter of our fence. The eight-year-old whines. The ten-year-old throws epic tantrums. They have lost all volume control and bedtime routine. Everyone squabbles constantly. No one can decide what to eat. No one can find their shoes. No one can let the dog out.

When your world has shrunken to the size of a small house, when it has dwindled to two adults and three children and some people you blather at over FacebookLive, a few little things swiftly become a big thing. A big thing short-circuits my bipolar disorder.

Normally I would remove myself and call my husband.

My husband is right there. He is often part of the problem, and there is nowhere to go. That soft short-circuit catches, spreads, burns. The world becomes too bright and loud. I sometimes clamp my hands over my ears. I begin to yell; I realize I am yelling; I degenerate into tearful apologies. I cannot read; I cannot write; I cannot parent. My bipolar disorder degenerates movement, sound, and thought into a heart-pounding staccato. No, I do not want to eat. No, I do not need more Gatorade. No, I do not want to sleep, because I could not sleep, because my teeth are clenched too hard. I suck a CBD pen like a rescue inhaler. I take some medication. I sit in my hammock, and I cry.

The electrical storm passes, as all storms do.

My neighbors think I cry a lot. They’re right, right now.

Bipolar Disorder in the Time of COVID-19

This is what passes for fine.

For most of the time I’m awake, my bipolar disorder allows me to remain functional enough to parent my children and write. Playing board games and teaching math mostly remains beyond me; however, I can read with my six-year-old and watch all of them play in the yard. I can dress them and get them ready in the morning; I can feed them if I need to. I am minimally adequate. Some days writing is quiet and does not speak back. Some days the blank screen screams.

This will pass when the pandemic passes. When we became able to visit to my mother’s house, the bad spells became easier. Driving in the car and singing very loudly sometimes stops the spiral. I make my own art therapy out of buttons and paint or yarn and popsicle sticks. This will end. My bipolar disorder will remain, but my previous coping mechanisms will return as my routine returns, when the stress subsides, when I do not live in fear. My psychiatrist assures me of this. I believe her.

I am okay. I wake up and tell myself this. I am okay.

I am okay.

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