By Christopher Harress
Reckon Staff Writer
I always thought I was mostly unflappable. I’d served in the British Royal Navy for four years back when I was just a young lad of only 19. I took part in mid-Atlantic drug busts and humanitarian missions in West Africa, all while living inside the inhospitable belly of a warship for 18 months. I thought catching coronavirus and quarantining for two weeks would be fine.
It wasn’t fine.
I started feeling mild symptoms around June 23rd, but assumed it was the effects of fatigue and a recent bout with anxiety.
“Surely coronavirus would be more serious,” I thought to myself.
Like so many, I didn’t have the serious cold and flu-like symptoms that have been widely reported and certainly wasn’t so sick that I considered going to hospital. My immediate concern was the consequences of extreme fatigue and loss of appetite. I lost 15 pounds in 10 days. The good news: a lot of my clothes fit again.
But my brush with coronavirus went beyond just the physical. Even among those who haven’t gotten sick, there have been reports of increased and widespread anxiety and depression. After all, the entire world is being forced to contend with the economic, political and cultural fallout of the pandemic as well as trauma associated with the recent crisis around racism and social justice.
And because of those anxieties, which started a month before I got sick, I started talking to a therapist about how to best deal with the new uncertainties in my life. It was refreshing and deeply helpful.
However, I wasn’t prepared for how the psychological effects of contracting coronavirus would not only undo my therapy, but that I’d also see my mental health utterly deteriorate.
One day after testing positive on June 30, the symptoms hit hard, a wave of extreme and paralyzing anxiety overwhelmed me. I felt hopeless, unmotivated and worthless, and as if I wouldn’t be able to properly function again. I couldn’t focus on basic tasks and had feelings of doom.
I obsessed over money, love, work, family, my health, death and what would happen to my cat if I died. I also began to ruminate and obsess over things I had little control over, like poverty, homelessness and other sad inequities of life. The list went on and on. I described it to a friend as like feeling trapped in a spiral of despair.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t be around friends or family to help me through it. Nor did distracting myself with movies or by continuously scrolling through bad news and seemingly endless political arguments on social media, which I later discovered is known as doomscrolling.
At my lowest points, I trembled as obsessive thoughts whirled around my head. The feelings of dread were seemingly inescapable.
I even wondered if the virus had stripped me of my happy chemicals: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins. To some extent, it was true, according to my obsessive online research. Being sick and apart from those who care about you most will see the presence of those chemicals plummet and can lead to all kinds of temporary mental health issues.
However, I slowly realized that trying to escape or hide anxiety is a bit like using a Band-Aid to fix a broken leg.
Through continued therapy and self-help podcasts, I learned that it’s okay to feel fearful and anxious about the earth shifting beneath our feet. It’s a normal reaction and not something we should fight or be ashamed of.
The subsequent isolation and rest from work offered me time I didn’t think I wanted but later discovered I desperately needed. In some ways, the lonely downtime became a valuable opportunity to reflect on my life and refocus on parts of it I had neglected.
And I wasn’t alone.
I reached out to sick and non-sick friends in the U.S., the Middle East, New Zealand, Australia and all over Europe who experienced the very same feelings as me. It was reassuring. I also contacted family who I hadn’t spoken to in years.
The benefits of that loving communication were astounding for my mental health.
Friends here in Mobile, Ala., also did their part. As most of my days tend to begin, I started July 7th alone with my cat, Meejp. He’s been my constant companion throughout this ordeal and my only physical interaction during the weeks I was sick.
But this was an important day. It was my birthday. At around 4 p.m., friends started dropping off gifts, including food, alcohol, books, and other thoughtful offerings. Someone sent a cake all the way from New York and one friend even paid for a UNICEF community water pump in my name.
I had no idea what was happening, but later was told that someone had set up a Facebook drive-by birthday party for me.
I also realized that while distractions have their place, they should not become an emotional crutch or a way to sidestep issues in your life. There comes a time when you have to quit pretending the Band-Aid is going to help and acknowledge and confront anxiety in order to control it. That may come in the form of therapy, medication or simply recognizing you have a mental health issue. For me, it felt like the first big step forward.
One of the other biggest learning moments was realizing that fear wasn’t something that should hold me back, but rather a tool to help me move forward.
I know it doesn’t often feel like that in the moment, but fear is there to help and protect us. I wouldn’t say it’s a case of facing fear, as people often say, but more like acknowledging and shaking hands with it. That did a lot to help me unpack what my fears really were and, in some cases, if they were even worth worrying about.
For example, I can’t control the awful economic and social fallout from the pandemic. Will I lose my job? It’s possible. Will I then have to leave my home of eight years and return to Scotland? Again, it’s possible.
I can, however, control how I react to that. Will I live in constant fear about what might happen or will I just get on with my life?
As my former therapist often said to me: “Let go of outcomes. Whatever happens in your life, you will deal with it as you always have.”
Unfortunately, letting go of anxious and negative thoughts isn’t something that happens just because you’ve recognized it. It takes time and conscious effort. While I’m sure there are plenty of ways to help people do this, my first step was to practice exchanging negativity with gratitude.
But it’s not just about gratitude for others, it’s also gratitude for yourself. Rather than obsessing over failures, think more about how far you’ve come in life and the great things you’ve achieved. Meditating and exercising have helped me think more clearly and rationally, while also creating the valuable headspace to be more positive.
I know this sounds like a lot for what was only about 14 days of being sick, but anxiety is something I’ve been going through in some capacity for many years. At the same time, years will go by before a serious bout pops up again. I suppose deadly pandemics have a way of reminding you of such things.
Living with coronavirus hasn’t been a pleasant experience, but I now understand that sometimes these periods of distress and misery are what help us identify what’s really important in our lives.
And for that I’m grateful.