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Illustration by Simon Prades

Living With Depression and Anxiety During a Global Pandemic

With mood disorders on the rise during the COVID-19 pandemic, people who’ve never experienced mental health issues are enduring some of the emotions I feel almost every day of my life. Maybe that’s why I can finally tell my story.

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The darkness comes at night, or in the morning, or sometimes the late afternoon, in that liminal time between daytime and nighttime. It doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care that I have work to finish or that I should wash the dishes stacked in the sink or that I need to check in on how my two boys’ distance-learning schoolwork is going. It doesn’t care that, after seven months of mostly staying at home, I have already been examining the uglier recesses of my psyche.

It comes fast and hard, and it’s nearly impossible to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced the weight of anxiety and depression. But I will try. If you imagine the excitement, anticipation, and joy of a forthcoming event—seeing a loved one, going to a concert, attending an awards ceremony, a day of skiing or snowboarding in powder—and then you invert that feeling, you will have some idea of what the experience is like, for me at least. Rather than butterflies in your stomach and a hit of dopamine or endorphins, it feels like a shroud has been dropped over your senses. Sometimes there’s a triggering event: a small conflict at home, a particularly challenging day at work, an unsettling segment on the evening news. Sometimes there’s not. Sometimes when I wake up, it’s just there. When it’s really bad, the colors in my field of vision dim.

I frequently notice this desaturation of the world when I’m driving to work, when we used to do that kind of thing. To get to my office in LoDo, I drive up Speer Boulevard from my neighborhood south of downtown, and it’s as though everything outside the windshield is dulled—the green trees that line Cherry Creek, the blue Colorado sky, the contrasting white clouds. They all run together in muted shades, as if a child blended the colors of his paints a little too carelessly. Nothing seems to cut through the gray. A favorite song, a funny podcast, a friend checking in to ask if I’m OK—none of it helps.

My mood disorder is such that I sometimes think of it as a predator waiting to attack. It is not always seen or felt, but it is always there lurking. I know when it comes for me it will hurt, and there is no remedy for the pain. So I wait. I wait for it to pass. And once it does, I wait until it comes along again.

Simon Prades Illustration
Illustration by Simon Prades

I was not an easy child. Or at least that’s the story I’ve told myself. My parents loved me unconditionally and always supported me, but I was a little surprised that when I reached out to them recently, my mom said I wasn’t a terribly challenging kid; she said I was a good student, sociable, and a rule-follower. Even so, I always thought I was moodier than most. Stubborn, too. As I reflect on my childhood, these traits were likely early signs of the mental health issues I’d come to face later—and maybe was already experiencing as an elementary and middle school student. I don’t recall feeling particularly unhappy when I was that age. At least, I don’t remember feeling sad without a reason that would make anyone feel sad, like the death of a grandparent or a beloved pet. But anxiousness was part of who I was, even before “anxiety” became a buzzword. I would become uneasy when my elementary school report card arrived, even though I always got A’s and B’s. I’d hyperventilate before class presentations. As a young teenager, I would freak out if my shirt was too wrinkly.

At the time, those meltdowns may have been easy to brush off as personality quirks. I was the firstborn in my family; maybe that was part of it. Or perhaps I was just a little bit neurotic. There was nothing to worry about—except there actually was. Anxiety can be a precursor to depression; it can also coexist with depression. When I was a junior in high school, a student I’d known and been friendly with since the sixth grade died by suicide. Later that year, in the throes of standardized college entrance testing and after a bad breakup with a girlfriend, I found myself standing in the kitchen late one night staring at the knives that sat on our counter. I had gotten out of bed and somehow arrived at that place. In retrospect, what scared me the most wasn’t the idea of going through with the act of hurting myself; what scared me was there didn’t seem to be any agency at all. It was almost as if I wasn’t myself, that I couldn’t control what I was doing or what would happen next.

In that trancelike state, I remembered the boy who’d died and the shock and sorrow I’d felt upon learning about his death and how it’d happened. Instead of feeling drawn to the knives, I felt repelled by them. I walked back to my room, got in bed, and eventually fell asleep. I didn’t tell anyone about my late-night brush with self-harm, but I didn’t have to. Within days, my parents asked me if I was OK. They knew, and their question gave me permission to be honest. And so, not long after that, at the age of 17, I had my first experience with psychotherapy. That was almost three decades ago.

For those who haven’t experienced clinical depression before, 2020 and its laundry list of awfulness seem almost flawlessly designed to make someone feel depressed and anxious. Psychological trauma is considered a leading cause of depression, and this year has delivered its share of collective traumas, from COVID-19 to widespread social unrest to wildfires burning throughout the western United States to hurricanes hammering American coastlines. I’ve been reminded of this repeatedly since mid-March, when normally upbeat friends say, “Eh, OK,” when I ask how they’re doing or when other friends who haven’t been diagnosed with depression say that, in fact, they feel depressed. A May Washington Post article citing Census Bureau data indicated that one-third of all Americans are experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety. In August, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study that found searches for terms related to acute anxiety between mid-March and mid-May were the highest they’d ever been, compared with 16 years of Google search data. A United Nations policy memo suggested, this past spring, that “a long-term upsurge in the number and severity of mental health problems is likely” as a result of the pandemic, and a September Wired article reported that experts fear the difficulties surrounding COVID-19 “will add up to a ‘second pandemic’ of mental illness.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, then, that the results of a survey released by the Colorado Health Foundation in September found that a majority—53 percent—of respondents in the Centennial State have felt “increased mental health strain,” such as anxiety, stress, and loneliness, during the pandemic. It also probably shouldn’t come as a shock that many of us have turned to a particular and widely accepted coping mechanism: alcohol. Not long after Denver Mayor Michael Hancock announced that liquor stores would close to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, lines formed outside the shops so people could stock up on one of society’s greatest numbing agents. They wanted to replenish their fridges and bars with a substance that is wonderfully effective at alleviating anxiety and pushing away, if only temporarily, the pain of depression.

I didn’t need to get in line. My bar cart was stocked, and my basement beer fridge was full. They usually are. For years, along with my daily dose of 50 milligrams of Zoloft, I’ve used alcohol as an anxiolytic, as a way to ease my discomfort with certain social situations and to dull the stress that comes with everyday living. It seems as though many Denverites became more reliant on the anxiety-mitigating properties of booze during the pandemic—anecdotally, at least, given the run on liquor stores in March and from conversations with friends. Indeed, a survey by alcohol.org found that 38 percent of Coloradans admitted to drinking while working from home during the pandemic.

My relationship with booze was already fraught—something I’ve discussed with three different therapists over the years—and the stay-at-home orders only served to exacerbate a long-simmering problem. Freed from the responsibility of having to drive my boys to school at 7 a.m. most mornings, I rationalized that there was no issue with having a few extra drinks on a weeknight. If I felt a little fuzzy in the morning, I’d flip open my laptop by 9:30 and no one would even know. Besides, I told myself, if there were ever an acceptable reason to cut myself some slack, it was a global pandemic.

Turns out I gave myself a little too much latitude. I’d drink because I was depressed about the pandemic and the tragedies resulting from it and because I was anxious about work and any number of other things. The following morning, I’d have a headache and have to face the shame of having lost control with alcohol, yet again. By early afternoon, my mind would clear and the regret would subside, but that simply made head space for the depression and anxiety that can manifest when one tries to make it through even the best days. It also left room for the voice, the voice that tells me the reason my company is struggling is because I suck at my job; that the reason I’ve put on 10 pounds is because I’m lazy and drink too much; that the reason my kids are bored is because I’m a crappy dad. After listening to the voice berate me for a few hours, 5 o’clock would once again bring relief. I’d crack a beer or mix a margarita. Lather, rinse, repeat.

For people suffering through the despondency spurred by the pandemic or social unrest or the election or natural disasters, the pain is real. If it’s anything like my first encounter with depression, it’s also probably wildly confusing and terribly frightening. For those who are familiar with melancholia, though, 2020 has delivered a unique blow. In a May 2020 article in the Atlantic, Andrew Solomon, author of National Book Award–winning The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, is quoted addressing what some of us who have mood disorders have been experiencing this year. “[People already diagnosed with a major depressive disorder] develop what some clinicians call ‘double depression,’ in which the under-lying disorder coexists with a new layer of fear and sorrow.”

Depression is bad. Double depression is really awful. This is what it has looked like for me: Over the past half year, I’ve been pushed into profound misery for roughly 48 to 72 hours at least once a week. I don’t smile. I don’t laugh. I have difficulty feeling love. I contemplate different ways of hurting myself. I want to sleep so I don’t have to think about anything anymore. Sometimes I’ll work the better part of the day and then crawl into bed at 4:30 in the afternoon and sleep for two hours. Then, of course, I can’t fall asleep at night. My mood darkens. My mind whirs. The voice returns.

Simon Prades Illustration
Illustration by Simon Prades

One of the most sobering things I’ve learned during my time in therapy is that I will be dealing with this disease—or rather, the combined diseases of anxiety and depression—for the rest of my life. It’s not like the appendicitis I had in my early 30s, or like a sinus infection that will go away with a round of antibiotics. It’s not even like COVID-19. It’s more akin to a bad back or diabetes or high blood pressure. For me, it’s something to be managed and addressed consistently. It is not something to be trifled with.

Conventional wisdom might suggest that as you age and mellow and your kids become more independent and you have more professional success and earn more money, your tendency for feeling down or anxious might subside. That’s not how things have gone for me. It was also not the case for William Styron, whose book Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness has been my lodestar since I discovered it last year. Styron had a nearly catastrophic deep depression at the age of 60, when he was already an accomplished novelist. At 46, I’ve never experienced a lasting major depression like the one he faced, but some of the particulars of his disease mirror my own. “[A]fter I had returned to health and was able to reflect on the past in the light of my ordeal,” Styron writes, “I began to see clearly how depression had clung close to the outer edges of my life for many years.”

I once did an exercise with my therapist called a trauma timeline. Everybody experiences trauma differently—no matter how minor or major it might seem to others—and the trauma timeline is designed to identify how and when the client experiences it. In doing this assignment, I learned depression, or something approaching depression, had been near to me, as it was for Styron, for years. I believe it was there when, after each semester in college ended, I would fall into a funk. I believe it was there when my girlfriend—now my wife—and I split up for a few months after we’d both finished graduate school in our late 20s and I thought my life was over. I believe it was there when, in my 30s, I discovered what Styron calls the “daily mood bath” of alcohol and embarked on my ongoing struggle with that drug.

These kinds of things are not at all rare—for anyone. They are not disastrous traumas or life-destroying events, and for people without mood disorders, they would be treated as such. For someone who struggles with depression and anxiety, however, they take on an outsize importance, both in real time and in that person’s history.

I have actually lived a very fortunate life, but I have experienced events that one might consider classic depression-inducers, things that could send almost anyone into a period of sustained melancholy. Strangely, these things did not do that for me. My dad has beaten cancer—twice—and survived a random drive-by shooting. My mom has long endured painful osteoarthritic issues for which she’s had numerous surgeries. My eldest son was born via an emergency C-section after my wife suffered a potentially catastrophic placental abruption during labor. Perhaps most significantly, though, my younger brother was diagnosed with a rare and potentially deadly form of leukemia when he was 26. The brutal treatment protocol that ultimately saved his life lasted the better part of two years.

To this day, I’m not sure why those ordeals didn’t drive me into abject sadness. I didn’t feel the shroud of depression lower itself over my senses. I never felt worthless. I never felt hopeless. The voice that so often tells me that I’m not good enough, that I’m a failure, that I don’t fit in, that I create, rather than solve, problems, that I am a fucking idiot never appeared. This disease doesn’t lend itself to easy answers, but I have wondered if each occasion involved a component of “good” stress that allowed me to be proactive and productive.

Therapists, medical professionals, and myriad studies explain that some varieties of stress are deleterious; however, it is well known too that a certain amount of stress can lead to adaptation. Maybe that’s as good an explanation as any? Maybe I never felt despondent because, whether it was true or not, I felt like I could do something—even the smallest thing—to help someone I was close to and loved deeply?

On the other hand, a global pandemic, a national reckoning on systemic racism, raging wildfires resulting, in part, from the effects of climate change—each of these issues feels overwhelming, scary, impossible to fix. Each thing on its own is so all-encompassing, so massive, and so disorienting it’s difficult to find even the smallest way to engage in a meaningful, helpful, substantive way. I haven’t known what to do. It doesn’t seem like anyone really knows what to do. It’s all totally, completely paralyzing.

“Depression is the flaw in love.” This is the opening line in Solomon’s The Noonday Demon and is perhaps the most succinct, accurate description of the disease I’ve ever read. “To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair.” What we have all lost over the past nine months is immeasurable. What we have each lost is singular, difficult, and real. We are all struggling. We are all suffering.

Depression has afflicted human beings for millennia, and yet, for so long it was only discussed in whispers and only existed in the shadows. Recently, though, things have begun to change. In the past couple of years, people have started talking about it more openly, actively working to lessen the stigma around mental health issues. Celebrities, including Bruce Springsteen, Lady Gaga, Jon Hamm, Kristen Bell, and, just this past summer, Dak Prescott, have told vulnerable, cathartic, and very public stories about their battles with the demons of the mind. One of the most compelling pieces of storytelling about mental health I’ve read recently is by NBA alum Ben Gordon, who published Where Is My Mind this past February in the Players’ Tribune. “Part of the problem was that I didn’t even know that what I was experiencing had a name,” Gordon, who was subsequently diagnosed with bipolar disorder, writes. “I didn’t know I was having episodes. Something would trigger me—usually I’d be reading about religion or spirituality [or] conspiracy theories—and then I’d get stuck. I would have this kind of childlike curiosity about the unexplainable. The metaphysical. The spiritual. The mystical. And then I’d be on a loop.”

I started writing this piece in May, for myself, with no intention of publishing it. I was in a bad spot mentally, and as so many professional and amateur writers know, writing can be therapeutic. Writing is also an act of discovery, and I have discovered much over the past few months as I’ve wrestled with my mood disorder and with the words on the page. Maybe my greatest revelation has been waking up to the fact that I do want to live, that my thoughts of hurting myself are fleeting, that I have the ability to quiet the voice when it arrives—sometimes through talk therapy; sometimes, yes, with the help of alcohol; and sometimes through the simple passage of time. I’ve learned I want to get up each morning, no matter how difficult the coming day might be, no matter how much my mind tells me it would be easier to just stay in bed.

I have also discovered that, although the idea of telling my story makes me nervous, there is a relief in making my history with depression known. Many of my closest friends don’t know about the extent of my illness, and there is, in the jargon of therapy, a sense of control and peace that comes from publicly “naming” my mental health issues. Of course, there is also the hope that, just as I have taken solace in reading about others whose struggles are comparable to mine, this confession will make someone feel less isolated—now, during what is arguably one of the most tumultuous, uncertain, and depression-inducing times in history, or later, when the pain of depression might come for no reason at all. Beyond that, what I know for sure is that I have much more to endure. In the meantime, I will continue to push forward, even as I wait for the darkness to come again.

Getting Help: If you are—or a loved one is—experiencing an acute mental health crisis, Colorado Crisis Services has a hotline where trained professionals can talk you through an emergency. Call 1-844-493-8255 or text TALK to 38255.

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