Depression in the Time of COVID-19 and a Lifetime Before

I’m afraid of my bed. When I landed in a major depressive episode at the end of last October, bed wasn’t exactly a choice. My legs suddenly grew heavy. Bed called as if I were being suctioned toward it. Although there was nowhere in particular I wanted to be, just anywhere else, I felt scared there. Bed was a place my chronically depressed father had always favored. Because I didn’t want to be majorly, chronically depressed like him, bed became a Rubicon. And I crossed it.

From bed, I listened to the sounds of life being lived out of bed, beyond my room. Cars, the early morning train at six, runners, kids parading to and from school buses, and sometimes the cacophony my household made while I couldn’t connect with it during those weeks. The autumn air grew thinner and the leaves fell and were swept away. Far outside earshot, I understood people were busy. They were getting book contracts, getting new jobs, going to classes, going to work. I wasn’t. I could barely crawl out of bed. I struggled to leave the house.

Despite being shaped and haunted by my father’s chronic depression, it was after he died two years ago that I realized I’d attempted to dodge depression nearly my entire life. This exercise proved as futile as racing from an oncoming, blue-black storm cloud. With a storm, the sky opens to release its bruising fervor. I was, inevitably, beneath it, as I had been all along. At the end of October, I got drenched. To make a new relationship with this weather suddenly became all I could do.

My “power through” setting to avoid depression’s looming cloud officially failed. Finally, I began, slowly and doggedly to work my way through some issues that had become impossible to ignore. Amid constant tears and logging so much time in bed, I began to do therapy like it was my job. Therapy kind of did become a job. I felt guilty I could abandon so much else to care for myself and grateful to receive a lot of help. I was determined. During this time, I grew very quiet. I withdrew. I did try, and am trying, to put my best face forward, except when numb or sad or crying. 

By February, I’d begun to feel somewhat better, although not anything like good. As I worked on my mental health, I hoped I’d eventually figure out how to emerge to reintegrate more of what felt like normal life: writing (not only in a journal), community work, a different share of the parenting load, and things like seeing friends, going to events, and awaiting the New England spring. I waffled about how much I could really do, and I struggled with having set everything aside to do this emotional work. I didn’t know what or how to return, slowly, to my “real life,” or what “real life” with the understanding of living with mental illness would be like.

These days, it’s quieter outside my window and it’s louder inside my house. I have not been awake when everyone else is sleeping or elsewhere in over forty days. This stresses me as a person reckoning with mental illness clawing back and as a writer who relied upon snatches of aloneness, the page in front of me. Every single one of us was in the middle of something before this abrupt halt button got pushed by COVID-19.

Everyone is peering up at these same clouds. For each of us, the view from home looks the same and completely different. 

When everything suddenly changed, my October crash emotions reappeared: I felt consumed by sadness and anger. I wasn’t sleeping well, nothing tasted good. It felt hard to be around my family. I felt isolated from everyone. I believed everyone else was doing life better than me, and I was unable to face people; I didn’t want to talk to anyone. Unable to focus on anything, I experienced daily tasks as drudgery. The speed at which life as I knew it slipped away was jarring.  I was free-falling to some bottom I worried I couldn’t reach, let alone climb away from once I’d reached it. As someone who’d barely recouped after accepting the truth of re-envisioning life with mental illness, the days have been an endless blur. 

During the fall and winter, I felt marooned. Now, nearly everyone is. Instead of going to therapy while my daughter’s at school, my son’s at class, and my husband’s at his office, I bring my phone into the bathroom to talk to the therapist. At home during a pandemic, I feel stuck in a foreign place. I’m not digging deep nor digging out. I am trying to avoid sliding into another major depression.

It’s taken a lot of willpower and resolve to get up and act as if I need to be out of bed. I do, because my daughter needs to be near her mom and there are all the dishes (like in everyone’s house, now) and bed can’t help with any of that. So far, willpower is (barely) enough.

Even the slow, cool spring, my favorite yellows and pinks in bloom and holding steady, fails to feel like enough when the thoughts I’m having are about suffering on a scale I cannot fathom. So many hospitals functioning like war zone M*A*S*H units, so many people without the things they need. I see my mental health as insignificant in contrast, but I cannot override my illness simply because I want to. With fewer tools at my disposal, I am slowly understanding that the only option I have is to go small. After weeks of writing in my notebook Week’s Intention and leaving it blank — but holding the words there, in hopes of returning to them, this week — I wrote something down. My intentions were to read, stretch, work on an essay. I put them on my bulletin board, too. Tiny steps, to hope for any relief, however subtle. To hope, period.

In the mornings, not long after I wake up, read the news, spend a little time writing in my journal and checking email, I change into my workout clothes, make the bed, and take an exercise class. If I put off getting out of the bed, getting up becomes harder.

Every morning I try to push through all inertia, even when I’m tired, because I’m worried about stopping. I won’t go under the covers again until bedtime. I try not to even sit on the bed until evening. When I do, I become mightily tempted to slide between the covers. 

But I don’t slide back into bed. Because I know if I do, it’s possible I’ll stay there.

This virus is a storm. Everyone is peering up at these same clouds. For each of us, the view from home looks the same and completely different. After having been isolated at home pre-pandemic while the world hummed along, it’s weird that everyone is isolated all at once. We’re isolated together, but we’re also isolated apart. 

Tell Us in the Comments

What do you think?

9 Responses

  1. Rob Smitley

    Strength and healthy thoughts to Ms Buttenwieser, I appreciated this piece on multiple levels and send her my gratitude.

  2. Elizabeth Mosier

    So much love and respect for you, old friend! Xoxo

  3. Courtney L Fappiano

    I have the same relationship with bed, its safe and scary. Thank you for sharing <3

  4. Rebecca S Bainum

    Sarah – Steph passed this on to me. This is really powerful and insightful. I can appreciate how hard it must have been to write and publish. But thank you for doing that.

  5. Lisa

    You should be so proud of the work you have put into yourself, genuinely proud. Thank you for being so brave and sharing

  6. Deborah Gorlin

    This article was brave and true and I believe ultimately healing. This is how you do it. I, too, suffered a major clinical depression years ago, when my son was born in l990. I am just starting to write honestly about it now. I had to do some hard work digging deep into issues, feelings, a constricted self image that were all somehow bound up with denial and family pathology. The healing process took awhile but I am the better for it. It transformed me. I won’t say that the pain of depression isn’t real, but if you can see the illness as a way to become more whole and sane, an opportunity for growth, as devastating as that might feel, you will come out on the other side. You are beginning to do that. Aside from some medication and a good therapist, I was saved by stories. If you ever want to hear mine, or need another ear to tell yours, I would be willing both to listen and to talk. With admiration and faith in your recovery, Deb

  7. Amy Cotler

    Thank you for writing this Sarah. I have been mostly in the closet about my mental illness since I was a teen. I cried my way through this. I’m doing better now, though I dread the darkness, which reappears now and then, and always has. But the fabulous thing about getting older is that I know, I remember, that I’ll be OK again. And I always have been. This was a brave thing to write. Thanks, again. I’m sending virtual hugs.

  8. Patricia Stacey

    Being exposed to someone else’s insides can be healing. The authenticity itself is healing. Thank you for showing what you are going through. It meant a lot to me to read it.

  9. Laura Culver

    Excellent article Sarah. Came at the right time in my life. I suffered from a major postpartum depression after my first child was born in 1983. Have been in therapy and on meds ever since. “Woke” up in July of this year to discover I have been in a major depression since April and have been receiving ECT since June as I apparently was talking about life not worth living. So thankful my husband, children and therapists realized I needed help. Thank you very much!


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