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Michael Leonberger is a writer and teacher living in Falls Church.

Mental health is a lot like Jenga. In the game, players slide pieces of a tower out from its foundation and place them on top, until the increasingly unstable tower crashes down. Jenga!

In life, foundational truths are needed to build the rest of our towers. Every subsequent layer is less essential. If one of the foundational pieces is plucked out, though, the tower starts to rock.

I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, a chemical imbalance I was born with. You could say my tower is a special edition. When the wrong piece is pulled in my life, horrible, panicky, isolating anxiety might follow.

One of my earliest memories of OCD, and one of the root pieces in my personal Jenga tower, had to do with germs. In third grade, I cleared my throat in class one day, and I became terrified that whatever came out might travel through the air, land inside my teacher’s mug and kill her. I mustered all my courage, and I told my teacher she must throw out her coffee.

I remember her laugh. It was the kind of laugh some of us with anxiety yearn for, the sort of laugh that says, “Well, you’re just a nut!” Truth is, I’d rather be a nut than live in a world where a simple cough could, without warning, transmit a deadly virus to another person.

Reporter Nicole Ellis speaks with a mental health expert about ways to cope with anxiety, stress and adjusting to how covid-19 is changing our lives. (Video: The Washington Post)

Eventually, I went to battle with OCD, armed with therapy, coping strategies, and supportive family and friends. I’ve learned to be grateful for some of my anxiety. I work with children who have disorders on the autism spectrum, and I think OCD makes me better at my job. I appreciate the kids’ rituals and anxieties.

But the novel coronavirus breakout was an unexpected test of my tower.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

The pandemic’s first move? Pulling out that bottom piece about germs.

Here’s the way I interpret the warnings about how coronavirus is spread: Actually, coughing a little can and will send a deadly virus into the air. And it can kill someone without you even knowing it. And it’ll be all your fault.


Next piece it pulls: You should be washing your hands until they bleed. If you don’t, someone will die and that will be all your fault.

The tower sways. Did I do that?

Your move, the monster in my head beckons.

Okay. My move.

But first I want to take a moment.

I know that I’m lucky. I can self-isolate, and technology connects me with my students, family and friends. My wife also has OCD, and I figure our combined tower is stronger than our separate towers would be.

There are other things, but the OCD ghoul in my brain tells me I shouldn’t type them, for the same reason I hate stepping on cracks, so I won’t.

The pandemic has imposed unusual stress and chaos on all, but those of us with anxiety disorders might feel a particular strain. I don’t take any of my pieces for granted, and I’ve learned to live with a wobbly tower. A wobbly tower is kind of my thing.

And my tower is not coming down. Not even during a global pandemic.


My move is writing this. I’m hoping, with enough time and reflection, that this can calcify into a regulation-size piece that I can use to reinforce my tower. Because sometimes when you’re playing Jenga with the covid-19 threat, you’ve got to be creative.

Writing was the right move, and it’s reminding me of other truths I’ve learned along the way. Some of these lessons have been replicated many, many times throughout my life, so even if my mental tower takes a hit, there are other pieces ready to hold up the structure. Those truths go something like this:

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

Wounds heal, and scars are beautiful.

Every winter becomes spring, and every night becomes day.

Life is a gift, and life’s randomness is not your fault.

So long as the sun’s up, it is ours to enjoy.

So here’s to the strength of our towers, to the hits that make them stronger, and to the family and friends who support us when we need shoring up.

If any of our towers do come down, we’ll pick up the pieces and reassemble — together.

Because that’s how this works. That’s how this has always worked.

And I plan on playing for a long time.

Your move.

The Opinions section is looking for more stories like this one. Write to us with how the virus has affected you.

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