As a 60-year-old lifelong sufferer of mental illness, I was surprised to notice midway through California’s covid-19 lockdowns how much my symptoms had improved. I suddenly felt better, happier, lighter even. I was more centered. I was sleeping better. I hadn’t felt this good in years.
What had changed? I no longer had the worries of my corporate Hollywood marketing job — the pandemic shut down my company. While not having a job entailed its own kind of anxiety, the stress of a daily commute to and from work has ended. My days are no longer spent in an office building, interacting with competitive co-workers, or in stressful business travel.
The demands of friends and family have lessened, too. During the pandemic, I’ve spent months with Robert, my life partner, in our cozy two-bedroom home in our quiet Glendale neighborhood. I’m living the way I’ve always wished: peacefully, with a steady, soothing routine.
In 2017, an estimated 17.3 million adults in the United States had at least one major depressive episode, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. This number represented 7.1 percent of all U.S. adults and was higher in females (8.7 percent) as compared to males (5.3 percent). We won’t know if or how covid-19 changed these numbers until more time has passed.
But, as my Alcoholic Anonymous sponsors told me, I am not unique.
Samantha Greene, a social worker in Plano, Tex., confirmed this: “People who were managing their disorders pre-covid found relief when everything shut down. There were fewer stressors as far as places to go, the ‘to-do’ list was different. Plus, the whole world was experiencing the same level of anxiety that’s probably your baseline.”
She was right. Without my 60-hour-a-week job, I spend more quality time with Robert, a Spanish-language interpreter. I have time to eat better. We plan our weekly menus, minimize shopping excursions and allow only one takeout meal a week. We cook together and dine with one another (not separately, as we used to during preclosure times). With less stress, we communicate better.
I find myself spending less money. We know our fixed monthly costs and stick to a budget. With more home time, our automotive costs are much lower. (In Los Angeles, this is important.) Awareness of where my dollars go has lessened my need for nonessential goods such as restaurant meals, books to add to my already large bedside stack (I use the library more), more clothes and the latest music. It turns out I can live with a whole lot less.
Because of quarantine restrictions, I stick to a daily routine. The simplicity of unchanging and repeated actions is soothing to me as a sufferer of emotional upheavals. I have time to stay in consistent touch with loved ones. I speak with my best friend in New York more often. I hold frequent Zoom sessions with L.A.-based acquaintances, who are also quarantining. And I please my mother by staying in closer contact with her — these actions constitute another boon to my mental health.
All of this helps me feel more humane. Before the lockdowns, it was too easy to be in a rush to accomplish what I perceived as necessary. With my slower, more conscious existence, I acknowledge (and thank) the cashiers at the grocery store, and the customer service representative when I call my bank. This kinder, gentler way has improved my overall mood and emotional state.
“Before the pandemic, having a busy life was a status symbol,” Greene said. “If you were running up against deadlines, but you wanted to take some me-time, it was frowned upon. People who may not have been comfortable saying, ‘I’m turning my phone off,’ or ‘I’m taking an extra-long lunch,’ feel okay doing so now.”
For some people, said Gerardo Paron, a therapist in Glendale, Calif., “the change of pace has meant a chance to stabilize ourselves in our primary relationships, revisit intimacy and commitment, and reacquaint ourselves with who we love and why we love them.”
Several analysts have predicted that more businesses will continue to have employees work from home even after the pandemic ends. For depression sufferers, this could offer immense help managing our disorders.
Despite my current improvements, I still understand how devastating the virus is for many people — those who have lost their homes, their jobs, who fell ill, who struggle day-to-day to survive. We know several people who became infected and were deeply saddened when friends and relatives succumbed to the virus. I went through moments of worry about my future income, and whether I would be able to return to work. I didn’t want to lose everything I had worked so hard to have.
None of us is immune to becoming infected, which is frightening.
Still, the pandemic has helped my mental health because everything slowed to a crawl. I felt relief from all the triggers abetting my state of mind. Now, I need to become more mindful day-to-day and to take steps to hold on to this quiet space. I need to find a way to make this last, even after our routines resume.
To help me remember, I created a gratitude list and taped it on my refrigerator and placed it on my phone’s home screen: an endeavor to continue to live in those more emotionally healthy ways. Each morning while pouring coffee, I glance at my list. It reminds me to stay focused on the positives.
If I do go back to work outside the house, I’ll endeavor to find ways to remain more mindful and to manage those old stressors with the tools I acquired during the shutdowns. I will take it all slower. I’ll take a full lunch hour. I’ll leave work on time. I won’t work weekends. I’ll make it a point to stop, to look, to listen and to breathe.
I’ll try to remember what’s really important — and what’s not.
Charles G. Thompson is working on a novel about family loyalty and identity politics.