Living with a mental illness can be a challenge during the best of times. How is this quarantine period affecting those who have a mental illness, those who work to manage it every day? There are so many variables at play right now that are affecting our mental health and for someone with a diagnosis, these factors can be intensified.
I am diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder. Both of these disorders have impacts on my mood. With bipolar disorder, my mood lives on either end of the spectrum, existing mostly in extremes. These extremes are tempered by the medication, but the oscillation from one end to the other still exists. With borderline personality disorder, after an incident causing an intense emotional response it takes me much longer than the average brain to cool back down to baseline. This can make my mood volatile and make it so that some things that would be an annoyance or cause mild anxiety to most are painful for me.
Here are some ways in which the pandemic is affecting the already existing symptoms of my illnesses. If you are struggling right now, you are not alone.
1. Medication compliance:
Being home every day with no event markers to note which day of the week it is, and feeling like life is blurring by can make it difficult to stay on top of medication. The normal routine is thrown upside down and it can be hard to remember things we used to do on the daily. What usually happens when I forget my meds is I forget a day or two, then purposefully stop taking them, feeling like I’m fine without them. Alternatively I feel like I deserve to feel emotional pain. Once I’ve forgotten them for a number of days it becomes the new routine to simply not take them. During this quarantine time, I’ve made it a point to write daily checklists and meds and vitamins is always at the top of the list. I’m a sucker for checking things off a list and taking a few pills is an easy way to do that.
2. Therapist appointments:
Now that most services requiring human contact have been suspended, it’s impossible to have in person sessions with a therapist. Though video calls have been available to me, it’s not the same as being in person and in a dedicated room that feels neutral and safe. I’m making the most of what I can get, choosing to use this time to set concrete goals and receive tangible homework from my therapist. This keeps me accountable and keeps me actively working towards my therapy goals.
I’m a very anxious person ordinarily. Now that I’m confined to my home with minimal distractions, I’m left to my own thoughts. This can greatly exacerbate my anxiety. I have more time to ruminate, to tell myself stories about things being my fault, about my lack of worth as a human, about things that could go wrong. I’m also feeling extremely restless which plays into my anxiety and just sends me into feeling this sense of doom or despair without truly knowing why I’m feeling that way. I find that meditation has been helping, as well as my anxiety medication when needed. Working out as best I can most days helps alleviate my anxiety as well and makes me more tired, which eases the restlessness. Lastly, I have to try to use the coping mechanisms that I know work for me when I need to soothe myself or manage my emotions. For me that can be drawing, painting or writing. Walking with the dog also helps and a great conversation with a good friend can be beneficial as well.
4. Depression & mood management:
When my mood hits a low point, it can be hard to climb out of that hole. In the past, before I was medicated, my depression was dangerous. It was lethal. Now that it is managed better, I do not fall to such extremes but it is still difficult. Usually forcing myself to get out, to go to a jiu jitsu class, to go bouldering, even just to run errands will shake things up a bit and remind me that I’m a competent human. This helps with the depression. Now that little stops me from crawling back into bed, the motivation to actively do something about my depression is often lacking. Again I focus on the tools that work for me, and I find that setting goals for the future and figuring out what steps I can take towards them right now help ease the feeling that life is pointless and things will always be painful.
Everything I’ve described so far is emotionally exhausting. It makes me tired, on edge, less apt to use my tools and coping mechanisms. It makes me more sensitive and raw to emotions and affects my reactions to them. It sometimes makes it hard to manage interpersonal issues and to communicate effectively. I find I often shut down. I cannot figure out what I’m feeling I just know it hurts and it’s unpleasant. Being unable to communicate my feelings clearly definitely affect the way I relate to people, especially those closest to me. At the same time, I can sometimes shy away from social contact and cancel calls and meetings because I’m afraid I don’t have the emotional bandwidth. The truth is that social contact is probably one of the things I need most right now.
Everyone will be affected by this situation. It will feel different for everyone. What I want you to know is that you’re not alone if this time is even more difficult because of symptoms you already face every day. Be gentle with yourself but also keep yourself responsible for the management of those symptoms. It’s a balance between self-compassion and accountability.