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‘It’s Biting Pretty Hard’: Readers Open Up about Pandemic Mental Health

Despite the pain, you’re still finding ways to cope with isolation life.

Tara Campbell 16 Feb

Tara Campbell is home page editor for The Tyee.

A year in, the pandemic is still affecting our mental health. When we asked Tyee readers how they’re faring, we learned that it’s felt like a slow burn for many. “Isolation is a delayed-action emotion bomb,” as one reader wrote.

For some the pandemic has added yet another layer to existing mental health struggles, and disrupted the usual supports.

Almost half (49.76 per cent) of respondents to our recent poll said they’re finding it harder than ever to cope with the effects of the pandemic. Nearly 40 per cent said it seemed more or less the same, and about 10 per cent said it’s getting easier.

The remainder, just under three per cent, said they weren’t sure. We asked for those who were willing to share to tell us about it. (You can see the full results here.)

The responses were revealing, and our hearts go out to those who told their stories in all their forms.

Many spoke of feeling resilient to the challenges of the pandemic at its onset, but now are experiencing exhaustion and fatigue. Some wrote of the difficulty in voicing their feelings when they know others are worse off. “They are probably fighting their own battles. I find it difficult to ask for help,” one reader wrote.

The following responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Readers spoke of the pandemic’s duration and the mounting difficulty of managing a year in:

I think it’s this throbbing drone of the ambiguity of life from day-to-day. No plans, no future to really put one’s finger on. I have a grandson nearly 11-months-old I’ve never held. Or seen his mother, my daughter, in a year and a half. Many of my closest friendships have been disrupted, lives are in confusion and flux all over the place. Connections with many of the things that made me, me are fading. It’s biting pretty hard.

I found it easier to deal with new challenges when they were “emergency measures,” but now those things feel harder knowing they’ll remain for the foreseeable future. For me, much of the day-to-day fear has calmed, but the loneliness is ramping up, shifting my state from pressurized anxiety to flat depression.

Not insane yet, but really missing being able to be with the people I love most. It feels like a prison sentence without knowing how long it’s going to last. I keep myself quite busy, but I’m inclined to worry more than normal.

I did mentally okay until September. But [with] no end in sight, the isolation is killing me. Any excursion out of the home is supremely anxiety provoking.

The length of the restrictions is really starting to wear on me. Even the marginal benefits that I experience come with negatives... I’m exercising more but that’s because I have so much free time because I’m missing things that I love and that give me life. So saying more time to exercise is a benefit is like drafting someone into the army and then giving them a medal for their service... I didn’t want to be in the army in the first place but the medal is nice, I guess?

Others have found some positivity in their new reality:

Isolation is a word that implies I’m cut off. I see it as an introvert who may live a quieter life than some. This is a test of self-reliance: not a jail cell. It’s all in my perspective. This too shall pass.

I am a person who was, although patient, almost always seeking change. But starting last year and proceeding to now, conditions have forced me to slow down and more strongly appreciate what’s in my direct purview.

It is getting easier for me, but only because for the last five months I have been taking part in a couple of guided self-help mental health programs. Because of Bounce Back, a program offered by the Canadian Mental Health Association, I think I am going to get through this OK.

I have been able to work on projects that I wouldn’t have had time to do before being asked to stay home. I feel more rested and have time to take more walks.

I love solitude and being free from the stress of social obligations. The holidays were much more relaxing this year. Working from home is way better than commuting, and I have much more time to read and listen to music.

Some spoke about what they felt had been lost over the last year:

The accumulated deprivation of easy conversation face-to-face without masks, the pleasure of seeing a friend’s smile, simple social intercourse over a beer, the absence of participation in festival — wooden boat, wine, beer, blue-grass, jazz, Easter, Christmas, Thanksgiving, weddings, funerals, family gatherings welcoming a newborn, ordinary Sunday church, reunions of all sorts and sizes, sports events, picnics, barbecues and intimate indoor dinners with friends: I am emotionally emaciated.

Many readers commented on the difficulty of living alone:

I am 68 and live alone. A lot of stuff in the broader world is not working, and I have to force myself to get out of the house for my sanity. So I go on a lot of walks in nature areas and talk to the plants, animals and trees. It’s a lot of work to keep my spirits continually up after so many months. Eating alone, walking alone, everything alone.

The constant aloneness is getting very difficult to handle. Luckily, I have an adorable cat. I’m really lonely, and although that has been a constant in my life, I now feel so unattached, as if I’m drifting at sea. I’m really trying to look forward to the spring and praying things will improve. I’m lucky I have a place to live and food to eat and a job, so I really try to count my blessings.

As a widow living alone with no family in this country and wanting to return to the land of my birth to be with family, it seems that my goal is getting further and further away.

I live alone. There is no one around to comment on any changes in mood or behaviour that I am not aware of. I suspect I am becoming less tolerant of irritating traits in close friends that I have accepted in the past.

A few of you spoke of potential long-term impacts:

I am worried that something has already been lost forever, or at least a very long time.

I’m a bit toward the introvert side of the sociability scale, so it may be easier for me than for many — but on the other hand, some of the negative mental-health effects may be insidious and not easy to pick up on until later.

Some who were already struggling with mental health issues shared their stories:

My anxiety is so high. My depressions are so low. My ADHD is a constant challenge for me and those around me. I can’t get things done. My sons are unemployed. It’s been financially and mentally devastating. It’s ripped family apart. And it’s surreal because on the surface, we are doing OK. Keeping on keeping on. Waving to the neighbours.

I have a serious and extreme form of panic disorder. For nearly a decade, I’ve relied on counselling, rehab, and to a much lesser extent, psychiatry. Various community-based supports have also been crucial to me. None of these have been available this past year, except as “over-the-phone” services — which are of relatively small value. I cannot describe the torment using words.

I have pre-existing chronic mental health conditions. The first wave I had a good handle on it all, as I had some great coping skills from years of therapy. However, the sustained external pressure plus a return to work have made the fall and winter increasingly hard. Focusing is pretty much impossible, and I’m mentally and physically exhausted. I’m working very hard to avoid reaching a breaking point, but the exacerbated injustices of a pandemic have made me even more cynical and bitter about the inequalities in our society.

The pandemic effect on my mental health has been a rollercoaster ride from hell. Pre-pandemic I was able to manage a life with chronic depression and anxiety with a mix of medication and core-coping practices. Since the pandemic, I’ve had to deal with PTSD symptoms on top of the usual challenges and my coping capacity has tanked. It has been gruelling.

Many spoke of the toll of distance between loved ones:

I’m unable to travel easily to help my 88-year-old mum in Nova Scotia, to help her so she can remain in her own place. My husband also has underlying issues. As does my older sister in Ontario. I just spend a lot of time with my jaw clenched, waiting.

Having a spouse in the U.S. and the unending border closure is exerting a very heavy toll.

I am finding it so much harder to live with no physical contact. I am an older single individual so don’t get hugs from a partner or kids. I have hugged one of my adult sons exactly one time since March.

The pandemic caused me to be unable to see my husband in long-term care from March to July. Then I was permitted to see him [for] one hour, twice a week and was shocked at how much he had declined. He passed away in December. I am finding the isolation depressing and miss the interaction of people. The prospect of months to go yet and dreary weather is daunting.

My grandfather with dementia just spent a month isolated in a COVID ward and denied all external visitation, which was very hard on him and on my family. His mental health was completely neglected — I understand the need for infection control precautions, but not being allowed an advocate to help supervise his care felt like a gamble with his life, health and mental well-being. I’m worried for those who are unable to advocate for themselves.

Some responded in jest, offering some (much-needed) comic relief. And a least one person mentioned the benefit of not having to get together with the in-laws:

I find myself “lashing out” at the weather this winter. Yes, yes, I know winter occurs faithfully every year, but this one has me a little flummoxed!

Many reflected on the mental tax of additional labour:

It’s winter, I normally battle depression a bit seasonally. I am mom to an adult disabled woman, and we are sheltering because of her health. It has meant using an abundance of caution. I used to go to the grocery store, my big outing :) but now I do not even do that because the numbers are rising. I know there are many caregivers in the province dealing with similar issues.

I work in an elementary school as a custodian. I would say nobody in education receives the appreciation that they merit. I make sure that everyone can come to work or school in a safe and clean environment. A lot of new responsibilities for not ever being mentioned as a great help in our schools.

I’m an essential worker. I started having panic attacks in April, when I asked my employer to give me a new role that didn’t involve dealing with the public. Happily, they obliged, but once again I feel that anxiety spike the second I walk into the building. My temper is short and my ability to deal with nonsense or stupidity is zero. There are rifts growing in my family as some people don’t take public health guidelines seriously. I’m just so very, very tired of it all. Exhausted.

I’m a home-share provider and the person I support relies on her community and friends for entertainment. Unfortunately, we are unable to access 90 per cent of these things that helped keep us both happy. It’s very difficult to help her understand why we can’t do the things she was used to doing. It has all worn me out.

My work is destroying me. Post-secondary students complain about learning online, and it is challenging, but teaching full time online is so much harder. I’m teaching for courses at a B.C. college with zero assistance. We are recreating the wheel here. I’m exhausted. Of course, I have nowhere near the stress of those working on the frontline in health care.

Some reflected on their experience relative to others:

I find myself not picking up the phone to call a friend because there’s just not much to say anymore. I know I am lucky, and I try to rationalize and think about the horror many people are in. That defence mechanism has worked for me in the past but it’s wearing thin. My anger ebbs and flows depending on the day.

And some shared threads of optimism for the future through the stasis:

Just living life carefully in a holding pattern. Enjoying reading, music and long walks/hikes with the dogs. Looking forward to the completion of vaccinations and then being able to see our daughter and granddaughter, hopefully by summer.

Isolation is boring, but the end is in sight. Then we will dance in the street. Naked.

Tyee polls are intended as a quick and engaging non-scientific snapshot of our readers’ opinions on various topics that fit with The Tyee’s very broad editorial mandate. They are not intended to be seen as a representative sampling of B.C. opinion. See more polls here.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Coronavirus

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