Ever since the pandemic began, I’ve felt an unusual amount of pressure to keep it together. Not surprising…health care workers of all kinds are overloaded, so it makes sense that as a concerned person I’d want to avoid making them work harder.
Non-emergency mental health appointments are very difficult to get. My health care system dropped my video visits to once every six weeks, then none. I either cope on my own or, if I feel as if I’m going to harm myself, I am supposed to go to the packed, overwhelmed ER. There’s nothing in between.
I am all right, relatively speaking, so far. But I continue to be worried about others who need more care to manage their conditions—and when my symptoms rise, I’m afraid for myself too.
The conversation about needing help is harder to have these days, especially when extreme political turmoil is added to pandemic stress:
Person With Mental Health Issues: I’m not sleeping.
World: Duh. Nobody’s sleeping right now.
PWMHI: I’m…feeling really depressed.
PWMHI: I’m anxious all the time. I can’t sit still. I really have the urge to use drugs.
World: Join the crowd.
PWMHI: …. (Struggles to find words to convey that their symptoms are more than just feelings, that they’re in danger from them. Gropes for words that might get them some understanding without making them look like a selfish person who just wants attention.)
World: Are we done here?
I’m not working in the counseling field right now. I may never be able to work in it again; I don’t know. But my experience from both sides of the relationship makes me acutely aware of both sides of the mental health crisis which is a secondary effect of the pandemic.
In the last six months, the therapist my health plan allows me to see (a sad once a month) has been replaced three times. There are no longer any therapists there qualified to run certain groups, the only type of help available more often. Counselors all over are quitting many jobs like rats leaving a ship because their client overload and working conditions become too much to handle.
The people who need ongoing therapy for their conditions need it more than ever. People who didn’t need help before now need some. And it’s getting worse as those who marshaled all their strength and white-knuckled it through the last six months feel their grip begin to slip.
Counselors have always faced a high risk of burnout. They must fight to protect their psyche against “vicarious trauma” that builds up when engaging with a client’s trauma. Well, I’ve heard it said that we are all experiencing low-level trauma right now. That means that the stress on the counselors now is not just a matter of time and energy. It’s a matter of extra injury to their minds and souls.
I can’t stop thinking about people from my past. Wondering if they’re okay, what they are doing, how they are dealing with the pandemic. Whether they live alone or with others, whether they’re working. Do they have enough money, how is their health, how are they coping spiritually?
I can reach out to some, if I get up the nerve. “Hey, it’s me, I know we drifted apart decades ago, but how’s it going?” People would understand even if they think it’s weird. These are weird times, after all.
But in a few cases, I can’t for fear of harming the person by bringing up memories that might disrupt their current life. The most painful case is an ex-partner from my mid-twenties. There’s a lot I would like to say to him and a lot I’d like to apologize for, but I’ve never tried because I don’t want to risk negative consequences for him. But I miss him, almost three decades later.
Thoughts of him normally come and go, but they’re so strong now. I don’t know whether he’s married or has kids, if he has a job, if he is struggling to care for an elderly parent…I know nothing. He could be sick. He could be dead.
Over the years, I’ve often pushed away the thought of hiring a PI or paying a website to get just a few pieces of information without him knowing. Just enough for me to know whether he’s within reach of OK. But it feels unethical.
I know I’m probably not alone. I hope other people are braver than me, and free from reasons to hold back.
You are loud today, world.
This is not a week when I can even try to defy you, blot you out or forget you.
There is no muffling the parts of your voice that shriek at me not to write. That tell me it won’t matter, that any story I tell is unimportant. That thinking about the projects I cherish is shallow and self-absorbed.
You are here in the room with me, humming and babbling and singing.
So get comfortable.
I have found extra chairs.
Sit here, pandemic.
Read over my shoulder, climate change.
Correct my spelling, cruelty. Play with my paper clips, ignorance. Have a mint, fear.
Let us write together.