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I sat in that examination room, tears streaming down my face, feeling so guilty that my brain was broken, so bad that I was one of those people. My doctor, who was this kind older man who wore bowties, looked at me and said, “This is not your fault. Your neurotransmitters aren’t working. Who knows, maybe one day you can be a voice for people who have mental illness.” I don’t know why he said that. Maybe he told every young mom sitting in his office that she could do something positive with a diagnosis like depression. His words stuck with me and despite the shame and secrecy of mental illness that our world casts on us, I’ve been sharing my story ever since. That was 11 years ago.

I’m writing this for two kinds of people: My brothers and sisters who also struggle with mental illness and their friends and families who simply (and thankfully) do not understand what it feels like.

It dawned on me one day, as I watched the COVID-19 cases rise in Minnesota, Christmas and New Years only weeks away, just how anxious I feel.

I’m a high functioning person with depression. I have my “depression tool box” and thanks to a bad 2020 spring, I have a counselor whom I virtually see every other week. If I’m honest, I’ve been slowly spiraling out of mental control for a few weeks now.

I was talking with my husband about something probably ridiculous sounding, I can’t remember to be honest, call it depression brain fog. He said, “I don’t know what’s going on. Help me understand if this is you talking or is it your depression. You are so terrified of this (COVID-19). What is happening?” His words made me pause. What was happening?

I’ve had a pretty good handle on my depression and the anxiety that a global pandemic brings since May of this year when I started virtual counseling. The pandemic, while it never left my community, really kind of felt like a distant thing that happened last spring. June, July and August gave way to beautiful weather where we could be outside, socializing and I remembered only a few times a day how drastically different life was. The school year started and a whole new “normal” started – masks worn all day every day, a middle schooler on a hybrid schedule (one day in school and one at home). The weather was still great so while life was still different and challenging, things kind of felt normal. Then a classmate came down with COVID-19 in one of my daughter’s classes. The entire class was quarantined for 14 days. Even if a person had been tested and with a negative result, the 14 day quarantine from school still remained. Later that month, I was exposed to someone who tested positive. Waiting for my test results felt like an eternity and I obsessively checked my email. Through all of that, the ups and down, one thing remained the same: I’m the mom. I have to be the one who’s strong and collected but everything inside of me wants to lock my family up and never leave our home.

Woman standing with mask on at testing site. Mental illness and a pandemic

This is me standing outside of one of the Minnesota testing sites after I was exposed to Covid.

That day I was telling you about earlier, when I was trying to figure a way through my cloudy, muddled depression-laced thoughts with my husband, I got news that someone I cared about very much had tested positive. She put her health at risk during the lockdown last spring because I desperately needed someone to help pull me out of my own dark thoughts. She has a condition that can put her at risk. I couldn’t stop thinking about her willingness to come into my home six months ago because I was so far-gone in my own dark thoughts and now….my brain couldn’t handle the stress.

I can’t think clearly when my depression starts to amp itself up. I feel like have I all of these feelings just building inside of my brain but I can’t let them out. I don’t know or understand what they are, why they’re there or what’s the trigger. Depression clouds my ability to think clearly but during a moment of clarity, my feelings all came tumbling out, word-vomiting all over my dear, gentle husband. Maybe this will help you if you’re struggling for the words to explain how you feel:

I’m not a normal, functioning person you can just reason with right now. Telling me to calm down and get a grip? It doesn’t work. It won’t ever work and that’s okay. It’s my responsibility be self-aware and tell you when I’m doing well and when I’m not. Right now, I have a little bit of time left to get myself centered before I lose myself again in my own thoughts. I’m not trying to be strong by ignoring how I feel, I am strong because I see how I’m thinking and I’m telling you that something is wrong. I need you to be gentle with me, do not think of my thinking as logical or even reasonable. Right now, I’m stressed more than I ever have been. My children are doing full-time distance learning and while the teachers have done a phenomenal job, it adds stress. Social pressures surrounding the holidays have started and this year we get to add a pandemic to that mix. That just adds more stress. There is something wrong with the neurotransmitters in my brain so I’m just living in a state of constant anxiety and feeling hopeless. 

If I need to cry, just let me cry. If I need to get away to be by myself so I can think without that beautiful little human interrupting, just let me leave. Life isn’t normal right now and I’m barely living through this brain fog of jumbled negative thoughts. Living during a pandemic brings on all sorts of mental health issues that some of us may not have even know we had. That is okay. You are not a failure if you’re struggling with everything 2020 has brought us. You’re not failing if you can’t be happy every single day. You are not a failure if you’re the mom and you feel broken and unsure. Hear me on this: Getting help from a licensed therapist or doctor, confiding in a friend or family member, it is not a sign of weakness. Oh no, my friend, it is a sign of strength. You, my fellow warrior, are brave and right now that’s all we can ask.