I have had several very difficult, even traumatic, events during the pandemic. I have had to pull myself together and stop myself from falling off a cliff more than once.
To put it in context: I live in Canada and all of my family lives in Vermont. Our healthcare system is different and I became, quite suddenly, exiled from my family’s home 2.5 hours away.
On March 12, 2020 I was still recovering from a mysterious pneumonia with strange symptoms: no sense of taste or smell, gastro-intestinal problems (absolutely losing bowel control), coughing until I was seeing stars, and lying on the bathroom floor after vomiting from the cough itself. We were all sent home from school, leaving behind our belongings, plans, and materials, with no idea how long we would be gone. We were expected to teach from home magically on the 13th. All of this was rough, in and of itself.
Nobody but nobody suspected my pneumonia was Covid at that time. In fact, my doctor called me to say, “Your lungs are fine!” This was based on her analysis of an x-ray that showed a spot on my lung when I went to the ER: She did not see the spot herself. The cough and symptoms worsened after the initial visit and were still with me a month later: She did not seem to be worried at all. She refused to help me have a test to see if I had antibodies when it became available, saying it did not matter one way or the other! Right away, my doctor was not taking me seriously, and that was hard to take and upsetting, as I continued to cough until I literally shit in my own pants. I had never had a cough like that before in my life, even bronchitis was no rival.
To make matters even more stressful, I received a call on the 14th telling me my student, an 8-year-old girl who sat right in front of my desk and had a fever on the 10th of March, had tested positive for Covid 19. She was the 8th person in Quebec and the first child to test positive. Yet, nobody considered contact tracing at that time. I was told to call the hotline and went through a 9-hour process to get an appointment to be tested. They messed up and I had to call again, another 4 hours on the phone, to reschedule. I was told to quarantine and had to ask friends to bring us food … this was a new thing at the time, and I felt very awkward asking for help. My test was scheduled 14 days after exposure, but I am convinced I had had it before being exposed, so …
Two days before my test, my son of 18 years had a mental-health crisis, likely linked to the abrupt stopping of a biologic drug for his arthritis that we had to take him off of due to it lowering his immune system. He had a full manic episode and was hospitalized. We had no contact with him or his doctor for about 4 days. This was the worst thing I ever experienced, hands down, and still is. When the receptionist told us he had to be restrained, I fell to the floor literally and felt a heat in my chest that scared me to death. I could barely breathe. Full-on panic attack that felt like a heart attack, alone with my 14-year-old daughter. I LOST IT FOR A FEW HOURS, NOT ALMOST, BUT TOTALLY.
When I was waiting for my Covid test, I was so frightened at the hospital: People were squeezed together, coughing. We waited for 3 hours to register! I finally told a nurse I could not cope and they brought me to a sanitized room where a psychologist saw the state I was in. He reassured me, told me any mom would feel this way for their child being hospitalized and incommunicado (even if they’re ‘officially’ an adult, him being 18), not to mention the stress of the virus … he arranged for the doctor to come to me in that room and do the Covid test there. I told her about the panic attack. She insisted on prescribing me Ativan (5 pills total) to get through the next few days. I ALMOST LOST IT THAT DAY … MARCH 20, 2020.
Throughout this first part of the pandemic, I knew I was losing it. I would be awake until 2 am, wake up groggy with the phone ringing and not recognize the voice of loved ones calling. I was crying myself to sleep, I was teaching/planning/making smiley happy videos … 10 hours a day. I was also constantly terrified, helping my daughter go online at home, trying to reach doctors about my son, feeling like shit physically. I tried mental health crisis help lines and they literally told me either to help myself or go to the hospital … there was no in-between option. I was in dire need of help and it was simply nowhere to be found. I wasn’t ashamed or stigmatized: I knew trauma was causing my problems. I was, however, angry — no, enraged — that there was no help to be had. Eventually I was put on a waiting list: They called back 7 weeks later, give or take.
In addition, my boyfriend of 8 years had moved out in January, though we planned to stay together. He had been critical of my parenting and I felt I needed space to raise my kids without his input, which was not helpful. When my son had his crisis, my boyfriend’s true colours showed through, and he blamed me for not being vigilant and literally broke up with me over this event and never came to see me once during the first 2 months of the pandemic. I was on my own, misjudged and miserable. I ALMOST LOST IT AGAIN.
Eventually, my son came home. He healed with medication and therapy. I continued teaching and got into some kind of rhythm. I was obsessively watching the news, like many. Sometimes I was almost giddy that I could be at home with my kids so much, but mostly I was terrified because we did not know much about the virus then. The makeshift morgues, the death, the fear. Also, the disappointment of cancelling a long-awaited trip to Germany, as well as cancelling all of our plans to be in Vermont, was overwhelming. It was horrible. I managed by writing poetry with a little group that my friend set up online, by walking, and by listening to ‘meaningful’ music constantly.
My mental health was strangely slipping though, even during this relatively routine period. It manifested in making mistakes and forgetting things related to work. I sent an email to a parent that was meant for my union and nearly lost my job. I was in full crisis that day, crying and lying on the floor paralyzed with fear. Luckily, I was able to smooth the very ruffled feathers of my superiors. I ALMOST LOST IT THAT DAY. That was a day for one of those Ativans!
Then, in May, I found a lump in my breast. I ALMOST COMPLETELY LOST TOUCH WITH REALITY FOR A 2-WEEK PERIOD … A TOTAL BLUR. Within 3 weeks I was diagnosed with Stage 1 Breast Cancer, and I was in chemotherapy by the first week of June. Strangely, this helped my mental health, after the initial shock: I was awakened to how much I DID have here, on my own … my friends’ and family’s love was always with me, even if I was alone. My home had morphed into my own with few traces of my ex; I was exercising, cooking amazing meals and appreciating nature. I saw how much I had, how much I loved, how much I was loved, how much I did not want to die.
My ex actually reached out to me to be friends again two days before I found the lump. Once I was diagnosed, he offered, and I accepted, that he be my caregiver during the cancer treatments because, although we had fallen out, he was like family to me and me to him. It was a very confusing type of help, because we slipped into old routines, but were not a couple. We even shared a bed once a week when I had treatment and he would sleep over. All with the backdrop of Covid: no social life, no family, no trips to Vermont … a strange new normal set in. Also, I was able to get a psychologist because I had cancer! This was probably how cancer saved my life.
There have been many ups and downs, but I have not felt as close to the edge since I started chemo. Cancer is hard mentally and physically, but the real ‘almost lost it’ time was right at the beginning of the pandemic.
I still have a lot of processing and healing to do. I had to ask my ex to give me space and that did not go well. I am still isolated in many ways, but my cancer is ‘cured’ for now and I am getting stronger physically and mentally. I am pretty sure I have some PTSD and I don’t mean that in a figurative way. Yet, I know how strong I am now. I have learned how to cope, process, help myself, and reach out to others, even though most are not the people I would have imagined.
What I take away from all of this is the following: do not be ashamed to say you are not okay. Nobody is always okay and sometimes it is dangerous to hold back. People WILL judge you, misjudge you, think you’re crazy. Fuck them! I don’t think anyone who is struggling during the pandemic is crazy: We are dealing with real trauma! Anyone who is honest with themselves will know that, will help you, will believe you, will listen to you. The ones who kick you when you’re down or don’t understand are far fewer than the rest of us.