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.
John Dickerson: Spare a moment for sorrow
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.