What I’ve Learned About Managing Eternity

Alec Soth/Magnum

Enforced isolation isn’t good for me. It’s probably not good for anyone, but in my case it’s particularly nerve-racking, even dangerous. It means that I’m living alone in my head, and my head is a very cacophonous place. I have severe bipolar disorder, and I fight for sanity every single day.

When the lockdown was announced in California back in March, I didn’t panic right away. You want me to binge-watch Netflix? Done. Order in pizza as a staple? Snap. Live like a desert hermit? No problem. I was used to doing these things during an acute depressive episode, only nobody had ever given me permission before. Instead of being infused with shame, I felt proud of my hard-won experience.

The first few weeks I figured, What an opportunity! I’ll rest and catch up on my reading, maybe watch some of the amazing TV shows my friends keep telling me about. I’ll dig out that sketchbook and easel I bought during an especially ambitious manic episode. Or maybe I’ll do nothing at all, just let myself drift and see if I come up with some inspired ideas for a new story. I never have enough time to daydream, something all good writers need.

A month into the pandemic, I’d finished all the books on my iPad, binge-watched until I was thoroughly over it, and ripped up my self-portrait in a fit of frustrated pique. Worse yet, I could hear the mood goblins whispering—so seductive, so alluring. Come back down to us, they beckoned; you know the way. And they were right: I knew it all too well. I easily stumble into that black crevasse of depression when I’m bored and have nothing to do. Time has no meaning there. An hour is endless. Nothing stops me from falling forever.

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That “forever” is by far the worst part of depression. I’ve been dealing with my bipolar disorder for many years now, and I’ve been careful to surround myself with a strong support system—people I trust, who can assure me that the world I see when I’m down and out is not the world that truly exists. But no matter what they tell me, when I’m depressed I’m convinced the depression will never end. I know I’m damned, and I know it’s forever, and that’s too much for any heart to bear.

I called my therapist. “I think it’s coming back,” I said. He knew what I meant.

“It’s not just you, Terri,” he said. “Everybody’s having a hard time with the pandemic. I hear it all day long.”

“But why can’t I shake this feeling that I’m doomed?”

Every once in a while, my therapist belies his kooky Hawaiian shirts and comes up with something that hits me right between the eyes. “It’s the uncertainty of it all,” he said. “Human beings can stand anything so long as it’s time-limited.”

He was right. I had that terrifying “forever” sensation because no end date is in sight with COVID-19. Maybe a vaccine will finally do the trick, maybe a new therapeutic, but when? Eventually. Until that eventually rolls around, time is just a floating island, completely unmoored.

So I did something that shocked the hell out of me. I grabbed a blank piece of paper, sketched a rough list of hours and activities, and taped it to my refrigerator. 7 a.m.: Get up, have coffee, check emails, watch the news. 8 a.m.: Make breakfast, return messages. 9 a.m.: Call Mom, pay bills. And so forth.

My initiative shocked me, because I’d developed an allergy to scheduling. Years ago, when I was still a practicing entertainment lawyer, I was hospitalized after a suicide attempt. The very first therapy session every morning was called “Organizing Your Life.” A therapist would hand me a sheet of blank graph paper and tell me to fill in what I had planned for the day, the next day, the week, the month. I hated it with a passion, as did many of my fellow patients, and we used to sneak out to the cafeteria for coffee and bagels until the session was over. The exercise reminded me all too vividly of the dreaded billable hour, which was one of the reasons I’d tried to kill myself in the first place. To me—a writer struggling to get out of a lawyer’s body—structure meant the death of serendipity. It was a ball and chain, a lock with no key, and I felt imprisoned enough already by my life, my illness, and my hospital stay.

But “Structure is essential to mental health” was the message I kept hearing, and I guess I heard it often enough, from enough doctors I respected, that it began to resonate with me. I stepped back from the refrigerator and surveyed my handiwork. I could almost hear the snickers of my former compatriots at the hospital.

“You’re scheduling!” they’d say.

“Damn right, and you should be too,” I’d reply. “Who are we, of all people, to invite chaos into our minds?”

An unplanned life may sound rebellious and free-spirited, and I suppose for some it is. But I realize now—during these uncertain times—that I need a map with clearly marked boundaries that don’t fall off the edges into “Here be dragons” land. I need to see where I’m going, and how I’ll get there. Of course, I know I don’t have to adhere to the schedule. If I want, I can tear it into tiny bits and watch Downton Abbey until I’m thoroughly stupefied. But when the mood goblins come to call and I have to fight them, I find comfort in knowing that I’m not faced with forever—that I can take eternity one hour at a time. It’s a much fairer fight that way.

Parts of this essay were drawn from the author’s book Modern Madness: An Owner’s Manual.