Before all of this, I was already struggling. In early March, when many of us weren’t taking the coronavirus seriously, my partner staged an intervention. “You have not seemed happy in so long,” he said. “You cry all the time. I’m worried about you.”
I was feeling depressed, anxious, and isolated. A year ago, after living in big cities for three decades, we moved to Taos, New Mexico, a small town in the high desert, population 6,000. It was a choice made out of necessity because it was affordable, and it was also a challenge to myself, as a journalist and as a person, to push myself to grow. We moved into a small adobe-style house, 30 minutes north of town, situated in a rolling expanse of sage. The gray-green brush stretches on for so long, and grows so tall, that it sometimes feels like we’re living waist deep in an ocean.
Ever since we’d moved to Taos, I had felt as if I were coming face-to-face with every trauma I’d spent my life trying to avoid. Locals warned me about this—that the snow-capped, imposing Taos Mountain shows a person whatever they need to learn about themselves. “Come here and get the big medicine, if you can handle it,” they said. “The mountain will either accept or reject you.” It seemed to me that I was in the latter category. Though Taos had offered me plenty of lessons, it had also cleaved me in two. I understood that I was deeply struggling here, and needed to be closer to friends and family to keep crippling anxiety and depression at bay. Then, the coronavirus hit.
The pandemic has been variously described as a mass trauma, a collective grief, and a feeling like it’s the end of the world. In a recent poll, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that nearly half of Americans have seen their mental health impacted by the coronavirus. But while the pandemic is grief-inducing for many, it can be especially difficult for people who were already depressed. The signs of depression look a lot like life in lockdown: social withdrawal, a feeling of hopelessness, trouble concentrating, a lack of exercise or the activities you once enjoyed, sleeping too much or not at all. It’s also confusing to experience depression or anxiety when it feels like others are dealing with so much more. And when everyone is broadcasting sadness or fear—even here in Taos, away from the major outbreaks—it can be overwhelming and harder than ever to cope.
I’ve dealt with depression for as long as I can remember. As a kid I was mostly buoyant, but sometimes I had sudden bouts of deep sadness. When people asked me about them, I often said my grandfather had just died, even though his death had happened years before. I didn’t have a better explanation. The anxiety came later, as the traumas of life stacked up. Even before the virus, every day involved finding the armor to keep myself protected enough to live, work, and love.
Since depression and anxiety can happen at the same time, it is sometimes hard to disentangle the two. But they are different. The old story of depression is that it can make you feel so sad, so drained of hope, that you do not want to get out of bed. Meanwhile, anxiety swarms the body—you sweat, you tremble, you cannot breathe—and also interferes with daily life. The pandemic is heightening both responses. We are mourning what has already happened and we are fearful of what is to come. We are profoundly isolated and we are sick with worry. Some of us are feeling this intensity for the first time and some of us have felt this way all our lives.
I tried to stick with therapy even after stay-at-home orders went into place. I switched to Zooming with my therapist, as many around the country have, even though she lives just down the road. The coronavirus had worsened my mental health, but I felt foolish telling her so, given the life-or-death scenarios that others are dealing with. I have work, I have a home, and I am (mostly) physically healthy. Who am I to complain about the war taking place in my head? And yet I knew it was a fallacy that just because one person has it worse, another person is not allowed to be sad. Pain is pain.
Since the coronavirus arrived, I’ve found it harder than ever to get out of bed in the morning—to feel that this life is worth getting up for. My anxiety has multiplied as the virus has become personal. Three family members have reported symptoms of COVID-19; my sister, a doctor, is exposing herself day after day; my grandmothers, both in assisted living, keep asking me with a wavering voice over the phone if and when we might be able to visit again. In the desert, I worry that I am far away and powerless to help. My therapist demonstrates grounding exercises for me on Zoom, but after our sessions I am always too distracted by the news to do them.
On our most recent call, my therapist started out the session by telling me how her neighbors had gotten violent, and how unsafe she felt in her home. She thought she might have to move. “Sorry, I feel like you’re doing therapy on me,” she said. But we all need therapy now. A dear friend in New York texted me that her boyfriend was repeatedly calling different doctors fearing he had COVID-19, but they all told him it was anxiety that was making it hard for him to breathe. A previously sunny friend who lives in an impossibly sunny place told me he cried himself to sleep.
One month into quarantine, that same friend and I got into the worst fight I’ve ever had with a friend, provoked by the anxiety of the virus. Afterwards, I felt a tearing stomach pain. At the ER, the doctor told me that I was likely suffering from a bad ulcer, brought on by psychological distress. The doctor put me on fentanyl and I drifted home in the clouds, forgetting about the pandemic for the first time.
But it is impossible to forget about the virus for long, even here in New Mexico, where with the exception of the hard-hit Navajo Nation we seem to be largely containing it. Taos County so far has only had 20 confirmed cases. The pandemic is present in the plastic shield at the post-office counter where I pick up my mail, separating me from the clerks risking their lives to deliver it. It is apparent in the uncertainty of whether to hold a door for my neighbor, who just last month I hugged goodnight after sharing a meal by a fire. It is unmistakable in the dire headlines now broadcast over local radio, in hours previously filled by silly jams from the ’80s. As nearby states such as Texas and Colorado begin to reopen, a hum of unease rises in Taos—a fear that out-of-state residents will bring the virus here. I have long known what personal anxiety feels like, but I have never before felt it blanket a town.
All we can do right now, no matter how we are struggling, is try to get through it. Here is what is helping me: Working with my hands in any way that I can, allowing my brain to momentarily forget. Growing vegetables—signs of new life. Participating in local mutual aid, to remember we aren’t powerless after all. Reading poetry also helps: Pablo Neruda on keeping still, Shakespeare on isolation, Theodore Roethke on how, “in a dark time, the eye begins to see.” And sending friends letters, and receiving mail in return, is a tangible reminder that connection continues despite physical distance.
Still, there are very rough days—and I know that I am not the only one. There are few things more isolating than being depressed, and there is little that can ramp up depression more than being in isolation. Yet we are muddling our way through. Those of us who are depressed are still struggling to live, even if we’re not fighting death from the virus. I know that hopelessness can attach itself to a person for years, and intensify just when you need hope the most. But I also know that, just as the news zigzags from optimism to despair, every day is different.
Nearly every morning in Taos I go on a walk or a run on the mesa. Sometimes it is lonely, but often it helps me clear my head. On a walk last week I noticed that, here in the supposedly inhospitable desert, all along the path wildflowers have begun to bloom.