During the darkest days of 2020, I honestly didn’t know how I’d make it through. I was parenting two kids under five during a pandemic that didn’t seem to let up while my husband hustled day and night in a relentless job that was far from an ideal work-from-home gig. There were no extra hours I could realistically dedicate to my freelance work, as I had become the 24/7 go-to parent. My family, like so many others, was stuck at home in an endless COVID-19 Groundhog Day loop that left my kids restless and me worn down in ways I’d never fully known before.
My children and I spent our hours taking countless socially distanced laps around the block, making an infinite amount of fairy houses in the shared backyard of our duplex, watching all the fucking cartoons, and molding so much Play-Doh into odd shapes that we could have opened a modern art museum. But after a month or so, the shininess of extended home life wore off and I became very, very tired. I chopped off my hair, stopped wearing a bra or shaving, and kept my nice clothes tucked away in my closet waiting for me to take them out for some special occasion.
Let’s just say, that occasion has not shown up yet.
As I struggled to stay afloat, depression crept in like an unfortunately familiar guest in my house, sharing the space with my complex PTSD and anxiety. I felt powerless as I tried to control a reality that could not be predicted, overwhelmed with being an around-the-clock mom getting zero breaks, and hopeless as I considered making the damn near impossible choice of walking away from work that I’ve been dreaming of doing for years now simply because I had no room left over to do it. I was lucky if I made my way into a shower once a week, my teeth and hair went unbrushed for days on end, and I wore the same pair of sweatpants like it was the only job I could remember how to do. I had lost the energy and motivation to do anything other than roll out of bed and show up for the predictable chaos — and even doing that felt like a demanding chore on the most discouraging of mornings.
While I’m not quite out of the woods just yet, I’m also not anywhere near where I was in March. If I could go back in time and say anything to have helped myself hang in there, it would be that the last thing I should ever be worrying about during a global pandemic is having it all together. In fact, worrying about having it all together during any point in life is overrated.
But that’s the thing about mental health struggles. They take up so much space inside of you that the most ordinary of tasks can feel downright exhausting. We also live in a society that demands productivity and perfection at any cost, which makes it even harder to exist as someone who can barely function when tasked with the mere basics of life.
At first glance, I may have looked like a lazy, careless person as I stumbled my way through each indoor day with my kids, but my inner life was on hyper drive. I’d go online just to zone out and end up seeing Instagram-perfect posts of at-home learning that was going swell, family art projects being poured over with care, and tips on how to keep your children from becoming TV zombies. And all of it frankly made me feel like a giant piece of shit for barely being able to operate at my “no thank you” capacity.
That is, until I realized that the pressure I was piling onto myself to appear like I wasn’t actually drowning in pandemic blues was destroying my mental health almost more than my external circumstances were. And since the symptoms of depression, anxiety, and complex PTSD wait for no one, it wasn’t long before I sent my ass to the emergency room to get the psychiatric help I needed. A behavioral health technician assured me that my body and mind were releasing trauma at terminal velocity during this especially triggering time and that I wasn’t alone in this experience. As I sat in that hospital bed across from her, I realized that this was the first time in a while I had allowed a stranger to see me as more than the usual “hot mess express.” This person was witnessing me completely unraveled, lost in the dark waters of some of my lowest days on Earth, and far from the aesthetic ideal I’d been forcing myself into for two decades of my life.
To most people, my outer world may have seemed to be screeching to a pitiful halt, but that was because my inner world was mimicking that bus Keanu Reeves was trying to stop in Speed. Not everyone was going to get this, and it wasn’t my job to explain it to them. My job — my only job — was to keep showing up however and whenever and at whatever pace I could. And I was no less lovable in this particular state, no less worthy of healing, and no less valuable to society than any of those times when I wore the right thing, accomplished all the goals, and presented a culturally acceptable image of having it all together.
After this most welcome lightbulb went off in my head, I asked myself why I was always so damn busy measuring my success by work completed or to-do lists tackled. Why was I all of a sudden an epic failure simply because I chose to say “fuck it” when the the dry shampoo ran out and there were no more clean clothes? Waking up and choosing to stick around has always been reason enough to celebrate, especially when you struggle with your mental health. I knew that the only way to move through my depression was to lower every single standard, seriously adjust my expectations, and treat every single thing along the way as a victory. It made no sense to most folks around me, especially those who love me the most when I’m taking care of everyone and everything and doing it in clean clothes. But I didn’t give a shit anymore. I needed this for me.
We have got to stop shaming people for going through periods of feeling stuck, needing to rest, carving out time for recovery, and not being able to — or wanting to — participate in the societal rat race. We need to collectively recognize that everyone goes through shit we don’t always know about and appearances often give us little insight into how a person is actually doing. The freedom I found in setting the bar low enough to get by for a while helped me start to feel better, and I deserved that relief. It was as if I could finally breathe fully again — and breathing was more than enough for now. It always will be. Because breathing means I’m still here, even if I’m doing it while wearing these dirty sweatpants.