The Undiscussed Hell That Is Changing Prescription Depression Medications

I started a new anxiety and depression medication last month, and let me just say, there are reasons why most people, myself included, go out of their way to not change medications. It sucks, bad. But the thing was, I’d been on the same prescription for close to 10 years, and my anxiety was getting bad and my depression even worse. Add to that everything going on in 2020, and I had to make a change.

One afternoon, a couple days into the change, I got blindingly mad at Excel — and when I look back on that moment, getting that mad over Excel might be a new low. I mean, come on: Excel really shouldn’t dictate emotions. I was still working from home because of the pandemic, so I went downstairs to calm down, which led to me finding a bag of cooked bacon in the freezer. I ate it. All of it. I don’t know how much bacon it was, probably less than a pound, but far more than a serving. I don’t know if I’ve ever eaten frozen cooked bacon straight from the freezer before; perhaps this is a normal thing people do, but somehow I doubt it. In that moment, as I shoved strips of rock hard freezing cold bacon in my mouth, it just felt so right. It was probably the best bacon I’d ever eaten, and I totally forgot about my computer rage.

I suppose the ironic part was that this medication was supposed to help me, and yet I was acting a little more bonkers than usual. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t depressed. Honestly, how depressed can you be while eating bacon? I wasn’t anxious, either. I was sleepy and hungry — and did I mention I’m a vegetarian?

None of this made sense, and yet it all seemed so right, and I didn’t realize how odd I was acting until I was halfway through the last strip of frozen bacon that I realized my wife was sitting at the kitchen table and had been watching me the whole time. “Why are you eating frozen bacon?” she asked.

I paused.

“And why were you screaming at your computer?”

I turned around, my eyes a little foggy, and explained that this new medication was making me feel moody and hungry, and now all I wanted was to eat and sleep and be left alone. I explained how every time I change medications something like this happens until my body gets used to it, and every time it feels worse than the last time, and this time in particular felt like I was going through man-opause.

“Maybe you should call the doctor,” she said.

I shrugged as I finished off the last of the bacon and said, “Probably.”

Then I went upstairs and took a nap instead of going back to work.

I went through almost a month of days exactly like the above, unable to explain my emotions, trying desperately to keep them in check, but failing. Most of my actions didn’t make logical sense to anyone but me. I ate too much every day, and I ate food I normally don’t, and all of it tasted better than the food I usually eat. And I know, the bacon eating really shouldn’t be on the list of grievances, but like I said above, I’m a vegetarian, and well… bacon really shouldn’t be on the menu. But bacon is still really good. I want you to know that, but at the same time, I want you to realize that I wasn’t myself.

Changing medications is like a test of yourself. It’s a test of your ability to be nuttier than usual and still maintain enough of your faculties to not get fired, divorced, arrested, or something worse.

Anyway, most of that emotional, irritable, eating phase has passed. I’ll be living with the bacon weight for a while, I’m sure. But on the positive, I want you to realize that I just said “on the positive.” That’s a big deal for me. I mean, honestly… I had a depressive episode when Coke Zero changed their formula, so yeah… I’m easily triggered.

I’m feeling more optimistic. I’m not sitting around focusing on my failures. I’m not thinking about how it all isn’t working out, and I’m not nervous for the sake of being nervous.

So yes, the last month has not been good. Not at all. And if you are going through a medication change in the middle of a pandemic, I understand your struggle. I want you to know that everyone who has ever switched medication does. But I can also say, now that I’m on the other end of it, now that I’ve made it through the fire, that I’m smiling a little more.

I am by no means out of the woods, but with mental illness, you never really are. But I’m seeing a little more sunlight each day, and as someone who has spent years living with depression and anxiety, that’s pretty awesome.

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Is Your Lockdown Drinking Normal? How To Recognize A Dependency

After the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and before the public was officially told to stay at home as much as possible, people began panic shopping. Toilet paper disappeared off the shelves. Lysol wipes became all but impossible to find. We were all desperate for the groceries and supplies that would get us through two weeks of staying at home.

In the days before the lockdown was announced, before social distancing was a practice we had all begun, I sat beside a colleague and we discussed the supplies we were attempting to gather. She told me a story of a woman in line in front of her at the local Costco. While everyone else had boxes of snacks and pasta, this woman had eight bottles of wine. We both joked that this lady was doing it right.

Fast forward three months, and alcohol sales have skyrocketed by 243%. That lady in Costco, and almost everyone else I know, has dealt with pandemic stress by drinking more frequently—consuming more drinks and drinking earlier and earlier in the day.

Alcohol became a way to numb the unimaginably high stress we all felt when our normal routines were ripped away and the idea of tomorrow seemed impossibly hard to define. Alcohol became a part of pandemic life, as reflected in the number of memes being shared (my favorite was the one of the coffee mug handing the baton to the glass of red wine) and the number of virtual happy hours happening over Zoom.

But, if everyone’s drinking more, and everyone’s making it a joke, how does one recognize a dependence when lockdown drinking goes beyond the norm?

Scary Mommy spoke with Tim Ryan, a Recovery Advocate for Rehab.com, about how to recognize a dependence. His answer was stark and simple. If that drink becomes a compulsion or obsession, if that drink becomes the thing you plan your day around, then your funny lockdown habit has probably crossed the line into dependence. If you’re hiding the truth about that extra glass of wine or that bottle of vodka in the garage, your drinking has probably crossed the line. And if you’re forgetting to do the simple things—if your hygiene is slipping or you’re sleeping through your alarm too many days—because you’re constantly self-medicating, then your drinking has probably become a dependence.

The truth is, most people cannot recognize this dependence on their own. “Alcoholism is the only disease that will tell you you’re cured,” says Tim, who explains that someone dependent on alcohol will be able to rationalize away their actions. In Ryan’s experience, he very rarely gets a call from someone who needs help. Instead, “99% of the time it’s a loved one calling on behalf of a person afflicted,” he says. The one exception he’s found—the only time he’ll get a call from someone who needs help—is when that person has experienced enough pain: when they’ve gotten that DUI, when their significant other has walked out on them, when they’ve woken up in the middle of the afternoon to find the kids have torn the house apart.

Which is why checking in on your friends is so important right now, when the world is changing so fast. That friend might not admit how much they’re drinking, they might seem as if they’re just in on the pandemic alcohol joke with everyone else, but there are subtle signs and ways to read between the lines. First, trust your intuition. If something feels wrong, whether the person is slurring or not taking care of themselves as much as usual or simply making excuses that don’t quite fit, and your intuition begins to spark, trust that. Your friend might need help. And if your friend is avoiding you, returning calls with texts, or nothing at all, keep trying. There may be a cry for help there, too.

There are resources, even during a pandemic. Even during lockdown. Treatment centers are essential businesses, and they are open. Ryan recommends that the first step one should take when they notice a problem in their loved one is to check out rehab.com. There are 35,000 treatment centers in the country, and they are not one size fits all. Anyone can go to that site, fill out a questionnaire and receive at least three resources. There are even options available for families who have limited resources or who have lost health insurance and/or can’t afford COBRA payments.

We live in a culture in which, even before the pandemic, drinking alcohol was glamorized. It’s so glamorized that we often forget that alcohol can be dangerous. Not only because it impairs your judgment, but because when you’ve crossed that line into dependence, withdrawal without proper medical detox can cause seizures, and can kill you.

Chances are that we, as a society, will be living with residual pandemic stress for a while. The world is changing, both to reflect the realities of a virus and in ways that are long overdue, and we should all have mechanisms in place to deal with that stress, besides alcohol. Routines help—Ryan suggests getting back to your pre-COVID-19 routine as much as possible. He also encourages everyone to spend time outside or at least take a few minutes to be calm, to stop living on social media—one or two check-ins a day should keep you informed, but not captive—and to cut toxic people out of your life.

His final advice is this: ask for help. It’s the hardest thing to do, but it could make all the difference.

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Trauma Support Groups On Facebook Have Been My Saving Grace Right Now

Shame is a royally toxic emotion. Much like fear, it thrives in secrecy. It also grows more powerful with each moment you spend allowing it to take up space in your mind. And most of us have never been properly shown how to defeat it. I’ve learned all of this firsthand from growing up in an abusive home and feeling shame on the daily.

Until recently, I’ve kept the most authentic parts of myself hidden from everyone around me. I was conditioned from a very young age to avoid the violent and harsh reactions that came my way if I messed up. I spent years masking my grief with perfectionism, people-pleasing, and an obsessive need to seem like I’m always “fine.” I’ve tirelessly pretended to have it all together as I’ve proved just how expertly I can handle anything that gets thrown my way.

But here’s the truth that’s taken me a long-ass time to finally share. I am far from “fine.” I have been broken down more times than I care to remember. And there are some experiences in life that are just too devastating to easily handle. Which is why finding private support groups on social media has saved my life, especially during a time when our whole world is experiencing the collective trauma of a global pandemic.

You’d think the secrecy of these communities would diminish the healing visibility of feeling your shame out loud. But it’s had the opposite effect on me. On Facebook, I’ve found sacred spaces filled with thousands of women who have also survived lifelong abuse. We show up, we support each other, and we really fucking get it.

Two years ago, I was unexpectedly diagnosed with complex PTSD, depression, and anxiety from ongoing childhood trauma. The moment I discovered just how complicated my journey had become, I felt my foundation shake to its core. Since shame seems to melt away when someone finds the courage to reveal it to others, I started seeing my therapist more than once a week, entered a hospital when the suicidal thoughts became too much to bear, and began taking life-changing antidepressants. While all of these steps certainly helped, the biggest one that led to positive change was finally entrusting my loved ones to hold my secret pain.

As courageous victims and survivors join in solidarity and understanding, I find myself feeling so damn seen and heard by them. Not surprisingly, I also feel less alone and even hopeful in the moments when someone reaches out and I can empathize wholeheartedly with their struggle. The extraordinary women in my groups are a beautiful mix of backgrounds, ethnicities, conditions, sexual identities, and ages. We all may look and present ourselves differently, but we are linked together by our desire to heal. And honestly, this kind of unified inclusiveness is why I need these human beings in my life.

When COVID-19 began to ravage our world, I saw one particular post in one of my groups from someone who had just escaped an abusive home and was living with a chronic disability. Not knowing more than a few details about her, I didn’t hesitate to send over a direct message asking how I could help. We exchanged emails, I donated some money to help her find a place to stay and showered her with words of encouragement. This brave young woman was beyond moved to have received my kindness, and I was all too easily inspired to give it.

This is the great power of experiencing true belonging after years of feeling isolated and afraid. This is vulnerability in all of its gorgeous colors. And this is exactly what our society needs right now.

In my personal experience, I’ve realized that recovering from trauma often requires more than simply joining an online support group. But it sure is an amazing first step and has led a bunch of us to seek counseling, become open to medication, and create hefty boundaries between ourselves and those who have hurt us in our past. I’ve also shared and seen some awesome posts going around recently with folks assuring anyone who may be living in a toxic situation to share it safely with us and receive immediate help. I now look to these groups as the extra cushy safety net I didn’t know I really needed.

While I am currently light-years away from the abuse I experienced as a child, it’s comforting to know that my feelings are valid and my story will always be received with open, loving arms. Every time I go on Facebook, I’m embraced by women who take precious time out of their lives to be there for someone they’ve never met in person. And if I ever find myself doubting my reasons for existing in this world, I’ll have countless shoulders to lean on and help pull me back up. This is more than I ever could have asked for when I started piecing myself back together. This is more than I ever could have expected after feeling broken for far too long. And this is a part of my healing journey I will hold onto for as long as I can.

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2020 Has Been An Anxiety-Inducing Nightmare So Far

R.E.M. said that I would feel better at this particular juncture in my life. But it feels like the end of the world as we know it, and Michael Stipe, I most emphatically do not feel fine.

2020 has been an anxiety-inducing nightmare of paranoia, but Stipe did get some things right in his lyrics to “It’s The End of the World As We Know It.” (Look them up; the song even contains the word “trumped.”) The back end of the chorus — “time I had some time alone — is even fitting, as I AM IN HOME ISOLATION.

Fan theory: R.E.M. had a time machine to the anxiety-inducing nightmare that’s 2020, said, “Eff this,” and got the hell back to 1987.

The Beginning of COVID-19 Was Bad Enough

My husband was one of the people that did the math early — around March 7th (I remember because his birthday was the 5th, and we had planned to go on vacation for it). He’d seen the exponential growth of infection rates, took out a pen and paper, and said, basically, “We’re fucked.”

He went to Wal-Mart and spent over three hundred dollars. That’s a lot of money in Wal-Mart. Talk about the beginning of an anxiety-inducing nightmare. It may have started there, gazing at that three-hundred dollar receipt, and thinking We will need all these things when the pandemic comes. Because we didn’t know what was coming, exactly, so there was a certain sense of panicked preparation.

It may have started the next day, when my kids were reluctant to go to Target. I said to them, and I quote, “Get your fucking shoes on, because this’ll be the last chance we have to go to Target.”

It was.

When school let out, we knew it wasn’t starting back up again. I asked my mother to come live with us. She laughed at me. I told her, “Mom, listen. We don’t want you living alone until August.” Until August. We knew even then. We made plans to buy a trampoline and an above-ground pool for the summer. We knew it would last.

Then Came the Anxiety-Inducing Nightmare of Social Distancing

Six feet at all times. The CDC told us to wear masks in public. COVID-19 is Schrödinger’s virus: you have to presume that you’re an asymptomatic carrier at all times, except you’re not, and you have to take all precautions against being exposed to the virus. The trip to the drive-thru pharmacy became a fraught and terrifying affair. Opening the mail even seemed dangerous: we have Mail Protocols. I have been to the pet store and had a panic attack afterwards because people did not properly socially distance.

Sometimes I stare at my husband and say, “We have to stay home all the time because we are living in the middle of an unprecedented global pandemic.”

He just stares back.

Even Nature is Determined to Be An Anxiety-Producing Nightmare

Murder hornets? WTF, nature? Are we living through the goddamn end times? Is this written in the Book of Revelation? And lo, swarms of Murder Hornets were loosed upon the people. According to Science News, they’re huge, they sting people, and they eat honeybees, among other things. They kill 40-50 people per year in Japan. Don’t worry! As long as you’re stung fewer than 50 times, you have a good chance of survival. Phew.

And don’t forget the locust swarms Vox reminds us are devastating East Africa and India right now, where a “plague” of locusts could push an additional 130 million people to the brink of starvation. That’s in addition to the already 135 million people currently starving. If you’re into Christianity in the least, you’re living in this anxiety-producing nightmare that not only has you scared of murder hornets, locusts, and global starvation, but also Armageddon.

Then There Were The Rats?

As if Mother Nature hadn’t gone rogue enough, scientists — particularly rodentologists, because that’s a thing you can grow up to be in this world, warned of “starving, angry, and cannibalistic” rats “getting desperate amid the coronavirus pandemic” according to NBC. Um… what? What anxiety-producing nightmare is this shit? Evidently, because restaurants and grocery stores closed, they cut off the rats’ main food supply (GROSS!) and now the desperate rats roam the streets in “dire survival mode,” engaging in “cannibalism, rat battles, and infanticide.” People in cities are calling to complain about rats in increasing numbers.

But it’s cool. We’re not in like, any danger! No need to panic!

I’ll be panicking quietly in the corner over here.

The Death of George Floyd. Riots. Police Brutality. Finding Out Your Loved Ones Are Racist.

You want to talk about anxiety-inducing nightmares? George Floyd became one more black man tragically murdered by police.  People are pulling down Confederate monuments on their own. Police are targeting journalists. Police brutality is rampant. Our president had peaceful protesters at a prayer rally in front of a church tear-gassed so he could hold up a Bible.

We’re doing the hard-but-important task of facing (and changing) any of our own implicit racial biases, and realizing via social media that people we’ve previously loved, respected, looked up to, are actually racist AF.

Anxiety-inducing nightmare.

I want 2020 to end like, yesterday.

Oh, and Michael Stipe? That earthquake thing? We had a 5.5 in California not long ago.

Take me back to 1987 in your magical alt-rock time machine.

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Honest Complaining Is Better Than Fake Positivity

Normally I try to build up to a particular “moral of the story” when I’m writing a piece, but this time, I think I’m just going to get right to it: Honest complaining is preferable to false positivity. Make sense? I hope so, but if not, come along with me as I explain.

There is a particular mentality that exists out there in the world that we should all just walk around being positive all the time. This idea is that if you are positive, you will attract positivity to your life.

However, there are a few flaws with this logic: First, it assumes your positivity is genuine. Second, it assumes that you can’t complain and be grateful simultaneously, which is incorrect. In fact, being grateful is more fundamentally important than being positive, as gratitude will naturally make space for positivity. Lastly, if your positive attitude leads you to condemn others in their moments of negativity, there’s a good chance you’re doing the whole positivity thing all wrong. Meaning, if you’re grounded in gratitude, you can express empathy, rather than judgment, for others in their time of need.

I’m going to provide you with an example. Let’s say a mom has had a particularly rough day with her little ones. Let’s say she’s feeling a little isolated and alone, and so takes to her internet world to do a little venting. Her expectation, most likely, is that there will be another mom out there in her little community that will hear the venting and respond with, You’re right. Kids can be jerks. Tomorrow will be better.

Or perhaps, in this mom’s imagination, a fellow parent will respond with venting of their own, thus opening up a channel of free expression, each being each other’s mutual venting companion. She imagines that once they get their venting out of their systems, they will sigh with relief and go back to their kids, feeling lighter and better able to handle the challenges of parenthood.

Imagine, then, that rather than being cheered along, she is hit with responses like “Kids are such a blessing” and “Enjoy it while it lasts” and “They grow up too quickly” and “Some people just handle it better than others.” Imagine how these kinds of responses can turn one mom’s bad day into something she cries herself to sleep over that night. These types of responses are not genuine, not empathetic, and not positive, despite being delivered with an air of (passive-aggressive) positivity.

I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that most moms recognize that their kids are a blessing. Most moms go to sleep each night feeling grateful for their children. Most moms are naturally racked with guilt over the bad days and don’t require any exterior assistance when worrying over how they are screwing up their kids. Most moms are simply human. Responding to someone complaining that their two-year-old peed on them on purpose with “You’ll miss it when they’re gone” is kind of akin to telling someone who has had a miscarriage that “Everything happens for a reason.” Like… fuck off.

Essentially, all that is to say:

  1. You can be grateful and still need to vent once in a while.
  2. You can be generally positive and still have bad days. And you’re allowed to say it’s a bad day when it is a bad day. Call it what it is.
  3. Unless you’re my friend Wendy, who is genuinely positive (it is her actual, natural, all-the-time state—probably because she says fuck more than anyone I know), you are likely not a genuinely positive-all-the-time person. And it’s totally A-O.K. You are not calling any bad karma or mojo to yourself by being genuine. Sometimes, we all just have a need to complain. Don’t hide it. It’s better to be honest with yourself.
  4. You don’t always have to look on the bright side of life. In fact, sometimes it’s more useful to face the dark side.
  5. Complaining can help you let go of pent up emotions.
  6. You may get judged for complaining, but you’ll probably get judged no matter what you do, so you may as well go for it.
  7. Not having empathy for someone’s bad day makes you a jerk.
  8. Gratitude is everything — followed closely by authenticity. Don’t mistake either of these for positivity.

Now, I admit that some people are just negative all the time, and they can be a drag to be around. But there is a difference between complaining all day every day about everything from the temperature of your coffee to the brightness of the sun, and letting out some steam because you had a crap day. I think that most of us are able to recognize the difference.

Also, I believe that an honest bout of complaining is often followed by direct action, doing something useful to alleviate the issue that caused you to complain in the first place. All complaint/no action? That’s either someone with too much time on their hands, or someone who is really having a hard time with things. These are people who probably need our kind attention most.

So, moral of the story, don’t be a jerk. A little bit of honest complaining does not a negative person make, and that it’s better than being fake positive.

Live your life authentically. And be grateful every day.

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This Is What It Feels Like When Trauma Resurfaces

Trigger warning: child loss

When I was little, I wanted for something that could never be. That thing being, a summer birthday. Yeah, it was irrational, impossible, and never going to happen, but an Indiana girl with a January birthday could dream. Little did I know then, however, that it wasn’t a summer birthday that could somehow make my life feel more complete. Instead, it was growing up and becoming a mom to a summer baby. 

Our daughter was born at the beginning of summer in 2016, and this June, we should be celebrating her fourth birthday. I say “should be” because I’m not sure if babies who died here on earth as an infant ever truly age where they’re at now. But from where I’m sitting, we are weeks away from her special day. 

Like any bereaved mother, I want my daughter to be remembered for who she was while she was still with us. I don’t want her entire existence to become fixated on that one horrible day. I want to think of her and remember who she was for those four months and two days we were lucky enough to have her. And though I will always grieve, I don’t want that to stop me from truly living. At the same time, I feel like a hypocrite when I realize that these desires of my heart and my as-of-now thoughts don’t always match up. Because to me, it’s as if the trauma from her loss has bound itself to the everyday, ordinary things.  

It could be a smell, a calendar day, a nonspecific location, a nightmare, or even just a song that plays on the radio. Honestly, I don’t always know what might trip me up or what tomorrow’s emotions will bring. Because that’s the thing about those of us who are living after trauma — every single day holds so much uncertainty. 

Oftentimes, we want to put our own feelings on hold. We long to “just be done with it,” because living it over and over again doesn’t feel like it’s doing anybody any good. It’s tedious, relentless, and at times, it feels so far beyond the reach of our control. 

Just when we think that we’ve finally got a handle on the flashbacks or that dull ache in our throat, it seems there is always another obstacle lurking around the corner, one with the ability to breathe life into traumatic memories that once laid dormant. 

To understand it more clearly, picture a huge piece of valuable glass shattering all over a ceramic floor. If you witnessed the crash, you’d initially find yourself in shock and overwhelmed by the great big mess. You might stand back to assess the damage, all of those teeny-tiny pieces of glass laying where they fell, before asking yourself plainly, “Did that really just happen?”

It’s instinctive that you would already know to protect yourself from the glass by putting shoes on. Even after gathering up as much of the wreckage as possible, you would still stand on guard and walk on your tip-toes. But even being hyper-aware of your situation and surroundings wouldn’t be much help. Sooner or later, there would come a day that the shards of glass still managed to impale your foot.

It could be months or years later, you could have cleaned your house a million times and completely gone back to resuming your normal way of living, but those pieces would never leave you — they would have been there this whole time. Yet, the cuts they leave would be fresh and still hurt. 

That’s what trauma does — it sticks with a person. Through no fault of those who have been subjected to its hold, it hides from us for our own good. It nestles itself in, dissociates us from the reality of our current situation, and breaks off into a million teeny-tiny pieces until it’s stepped on and brought back up. 

In the immediate days following trauma, there is a great lump sum of our emotions (the many shards of glass on the floor) which are plainly visible at first. But just as big pieces of glass can scatter, so do our emotions stemming from trauma. In the same way that we wear shoes to protect ourselves in the event that a vase falls to bits all over the floor, our body instinctively works to protect us by repressing past memories, feelings, and thoughts that are associated with our trauma. 

We don’t want to be reminded of horrible events because of something as simple as the smell of freshly mowed summer grass or a song on the radio, but we don’t get to choose what does or does not bring up a traumatic episode. 

For those of us who have lived through trauma and are still reliving it today, it’s not that we have an inability to look towards the future. We don’t carry a victim mentality, and we don’t need or want to be on the receiving end of an outsider’s pity. 

We have simply stepped on old, broken glass. 

 

The post This Is What It Feels Like When Trauma Resurfaces appeared first on Scary Mommy.

If ‘COVID Clutter’ Is Getting To You Too, There’s An Actual Reason

A family member and I used to exchange seductive pictures of newly cleaned and organized surfaces, cabinets, bookshelves, and children’s play areas. His photos of clear and clutter-free counters tagged #kitchenporn reduced anxiety and increased joy for both of us. He would drool over the pictures I sent of open floor space and folded blankets neatly stacked on the back of the couch. We sighed collectively and even in the best of times knew the order wouldn’t last long.

We are now on day 7,349 of being at home with kids and all of their shit. There are so many messes and so much clutter. I spend my time walking around angry and muttering that we have too much stuff in the house while wondering if early settlers were always pissed at their kids for leaving their wooden dolls and whittled toys all over the fucking cabin.

I can’t remember the last time I was able to take a photo of a truly satisfying and organized space. Instead I send photos of rooms that look like the inside explosions of my brain and long for my pre-pandemic living/work space. In the Before Times I would kick the kids out of the house for school or camp, take 20 minutes to clean up the clutter from the morning rush, then settle into my work for the day. I couldn’t focus until I did. Now there is no settling or focus, only the stabby feelings of COVID-clutter. If you are also ready to light a match or rent a dumpster and backhoe to “clean” the house, you are not alone — and have solidarity in science.

If Covid Clutter Is Getting To You Too, It’s Science
Courtesy of Amber Leventry

A messy house, office, or work space chemically alters our brains and makes us more anxious, overwhelmed, and distracted. Some people can work in absolute chaos. I am not one of them. Background noise is fine; visual stimulation that draws my attention away from what I am trying to focus on is what exhausts me. I am a planner and a to-do list checker. I need order. Psychotherapist and professional organizer Cindy Glovinsky says, “Order feels good, in part, because it’s easier for our brains to deal with and not have to work so hard.”

My brain is working so hard. The pandemic has created a sense of grasping or scrambling for solid footing and my need for order and certainty has manifested in increased panic and anxiety. Clutter triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol and when we have prolonged elevated levels of cortisol, we experience increased heart rates, blood pressure, blood sugar, and fats in the blood. Perpetual clutter keeps us in a state of fight-or-flight which is shitty for our mental and physical health. This is why our brains shut down or cope by avoiding it all through sleeping, eating, or binge-watching shows for hours at a time.

If Covid Clutter Is Getting To You Too, It’s Science
Courtesy of Amber Leventry

Heart problems and diabetes aside, let’s get back to visual stimuli. According to a very heteronormative study done by UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives of Families (CELF), 32 middle-class families with two working parents and 2-3 kids ages 7-12, the women reported higher levels of stress based on her family’s accumulation of stuff than the men in the home. It’s not that men don’t see the mess — it’s that they don’t think it applies to them. This is from ingrained gender stereotypes that it’s a woman’s job to keep the house clean. Studies have found that men don’t think it’s their responsibility to maintain a tidy house. This is bullshit, of course, and we need to keep moving the broom forward and into more cisgender men’s hands.

No matter what your gender, if clutter makes you anxious, it’s taking away from your ability to physically and mentally relax. I can’t sit down to work with a sink full of dishes, a desk full of paper piles, or a table stacked with toys or art work. Ignoring the mess creates guilt or a sense of “should.” I can’t get into any kind of flow state for work when all I can think about are the nagging to-dos around the house and how much worse the mess will get if not taken care of immediately. So, instead of taking the time I need to be productive and creative and allowing my brain to brainstorm, I get caught in loops of being overwhelmed, anxious, and distracted. I become hyper focused on anything but my work assignments.

If Covid Clutter Is Getting To You Too, It’s Science
Courtesy of Amber Leventry

And it’s not just the piles or litter of toys on the floor that increase our cortisol levels; we can feel the negative impact of digital clutter too. Zoom meetings, emails, online learning, and notifications on our phones also compete for space and attention in our brains. There is only so much our systems can take, and many of us are overextended.

In a nutshell, we have the stress of the pandemic on top of the stress of trying to work on top of the stress of not being able to focus on work because we are so fucking stressed by all of the clutter all over the goddamn house.

Ideally, we should develop habits to declutter our spaces regularly so that the mess doesn’t become overwhelming. However, there is only so much we can do right now. Our homes are now also offices, schools, and play spaces. We and our stuff are on top of each other all of the damn time. My family member and I mourn the fact that we don’t live with other humans who value clutter-free spaces as much as we do. We are also jealous of, and baffled by, their ability to be so unbothered by the messes they make.

Because this pandemic seems to be lasting as long as a tricky case of herpes, I am going to do my best to not feel guilty about the messes I walk thorough to get to my tidy bedroom where I sit on my made bed to work for a few hours at a time. I will also continue to sigh (scream) loudly into the void and shamelessly scroll through photos of #kitchenporn on Instagram.

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CBD Is Saving My Mid-Pandemic Sanity

I was thrilled: this weekend, my bottle of CBD vape liquid arrived in the mail: 500mg of CBD vape juice in Blue Raspberry flavor. Before that, I’d been back and forth between gummis (not my thing), or disposable vape pens I bought from my local vape shop — which isn’t really where you want to find yourself in the middle of a goddamn pandemic. Since I’ve been stuck in isolation, my CBD pens are saving my mental healthand those disposable pens were getting pricey. CBD calms my nerves, and my nerves definitely need calming; I have, among other things, a severe anxiety disorder, and my mental health doesn’t play well with the concept of a global pandemic.

It works like this: I start to get a little worried. I displace my anxiety. I’m really freaking out because it’s the end of the world as we know it and I most emphatically do not feel fine, but I think I’m losing my mind over a stupid email. So I pick up my pen and take a few hits. About three minutes later, as long as it’s not a massive freak-out, I’m okay again.

I’ve found that, even better, I can use CBD as a preventative measure. So rather than wait to freak out, I just hit my vape pen at odd intervals, and it seems to stave off the panic and keeps me more even-keeled. I’m hitting it as I write. The CBD helps me to be sane, grounded, and pleasant, rather than a roiling ball of anxiety and misery.

No, It’s Not a Marijuana Derivative — Not Really?

The Harvard Health blog says that CBD, or cannabidiol, is “the second most prevalent of the active ingredients of cannabis.” Sound confusing? Marijuana is a kind of cannabis plant that’s bred to have high concentrations of THC, the psychoactive ingredient that makes you high, the London Botantists explain. CBD comes from the close cousin of marijuana: another kind of cannabis plant, hemp.

So basically, CBD is in all cannabis plants. You can get it from both hemp and marijuana. Project CBD explains that the 2018 Farm Bill made the growth of hemp with a less than 0.3% THC content legal. So while you can extract CBD from pot, CBD is not psychoactive. I’m not typing stoned, nor do I walk around the house in a perpetual pot-induced haze.

Because it won’t give you “reefer madness,” it’s legal to grow, and it has varying legality throughout the country. It happens to be legal in both my state and municipality (CBD is only fully illegal in Iowa, Idaho, and South Dakota), so I gave it a try. When it worked at calming me down quickly, I started using it — first as a kind of rescue remedy, then regularly. And as Project CBD assures those of you out there who still think I’m succumbing to something dangerously habit-forming, CBD is non-addictive — and Addiction Resource agrees.

I’m Not Alone Here

According to Quartz, 85% of Americans have heard of CBD, and one in five of those people have tried it. Most of those who have tried it have used it for the same reason I do: relaxation (55%), stress and anxiety relief (50%), and better sleep (45%).  Unfortunately, Quartz says, because of the complications of various studies, it’s not clear whether or not it’s effective (though I think it is). There’s a little bit of evidence it works on anxiety in humans, but more testing is needed. Hello, pharmaceutical companies! I volunteer as tribute.

It seems that CBD helps to reduce “stress, anxiety, and pain,” says Quartz; therefore, it could help you relax. It definitely helps me relax. And another 55% of people who use it seem to agree.

How CBD Works

You’ve got this thing in your body called the endocannabinoid system. According to UCLA Health, its main function is to “maintain homeostasis.” It’s present in all vertebrates, and looks to have evolved over 500 million years ago. Endocannabinoid receptors are found throughout your body — from your skin to your organs to your fat to your muscles — and the endocannabinoid system is involved in “pain, memory, mood, appetite, stress, sleep, metabolism, immune function, and reproductive function.”

Whoa.

We make little endocannabinoids in our body. When we imbibe CDB, scientists hypothesize, the cannabinoids stimulates the same receptors. There’s some evidence, UCLA Health says, based on animal and limited human trials, that they can have “antioxidant, neuroprotective, anti-inflammatory, anti-pain, anti-tumor, anti-psychotic, anti-anxiety, and sleep modulating effects.”

This is why I’m hitting a vape pen like a shady teenager. And this is why it’s actually calming my anxiety-prone ass in the middle of a global pandemic, when the world’s tumbling down over my head and I don’t even know if we’ll manage trick-or-treating this year.

This Is Me on CBD

I have a cute little blue vape pen. I hit it at random intervals throughout the day, or when I feel anxiety brewing. In a few minutes, it’s faded into the background, and I can function (mostly) normally. Because it’s blue raspberry flavored, the smoke tastes good; it doesn’t leave me with bad breath (as long as I keep drinking water). I don’t blow vape smoke in my kids’ faces. But I don’t freak out about second-hand smoke the way I would if I were smoking cigarettes, and I certainly don’t worry about third-hand smoke. I do mostly confine my vaping to the outside or the bedroom.

It’s not going to get you stoned. It’s also not going to replace your hardcore anti-anxiety meds (believe me, I still take all of mine). But it stops me from taking that emergency klonopin dose mid-afternoon that I’m allowed. CBD has simply become another part of my pharmaceutical regime. It works well. It helps me. It gets me through.

And during this time in world history, if it gets us through, that’s all that matters.

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I Can’t Plan, And That May Be The Hardest Part of COVID-19

My husband’s parents want us to come visit them when his school finishes. I’m too terrified to make the drive up the coast, because pandemic. So it’s not going to happen, and they’re going to be very upset when it doesn’t. But what about the beach this summer — Nags Head has reopened, and won’t it probably be all right to go, especially if we don’t stop at rest stops? Beyond that, what about school next year: will my husband be teaching in a brick-and-mortar building? Every day? Part-time? Will they mandate that his students wear masks? This is the hardest part of COVID-19 for me. I can’t plan anything. I don’t know what will be happening next month, next season, or even next year.

I Can’t Plan Our Vacation

I want to tell my kids, yes, we’re going to the state parks this summer. But I can’t plan for that. I don’t know if people will be practicing proper social distancing in my area (they don’t seem to be). I don’t know if the parks themselves will be too crowded, and we don’t want to meet unmasked people huffing and puffing their way off mountains. I can’t plan a simple visit to the park across town to drop our kayaks in the lake for fear of unmasked jackasses at the boat landing — forget planning a trip across the state.

I can’t plan for our beach vacation. We always take a trip to the beach in the summer, and so far, the house looks like it’s open. My in-laws have stayed completely isolated, and so has the rest of the extended family, so we’d be safe to come together. But can I trust that everyone would observe proper protocols while driving: don’t touch gas station handles, don’t use restrooms? I can’t plan for everyone else’s safety protocols, and the idea that everyone might or might not observe them makes my head explode. COVID-19 tends to be more concentrated in restroom areas, says a study published in Nature, and therefore I can’t be comfortable going into roadside restrooms ever. 

I don’t know that people will agree with me, no matter how much science I show them. So I can’t plan that we’ll go to the beach. I’m not spending months in isolation only to contract COVID-19 because we just had to go to the goddamn beach. 

I Can’t Answer Simple Questions

My son asks when he’ll be able to see his friends again, and I have to stop myself from laughing in his face. I can’t plan for that. “One day,” is the best answer I can give him. Because we homeschool, I can decide when they’ll interact with other kids again. And at this point … I can’t plan for it. I don’t know if it’ll happen around August. I don’t know if it’ll happen in September. I don’t know if they’ll be allowed to see other children while they wear a mask, or if they’ll be permitted at all to play with other kids until a vaccine is in place (because kids aren’t known for their adherence to the rules). Hell, I don’t know if we’ll go to Target until a vaccine is available.

I can’t plan goddamn Halloween costumes, because I don’t know if my Halloween-obsessed children will be able to go trick-or-treating. What are people going to do in terms of social distancing — toss candy from across the lawn? Do Halloween masks count as “real” masks? Maybe I could plan to dress them all as medical personnel.

I can’t plan for any contingencies or eventualities. I don’t know where we’ll spend Christmas — and my in-laws still have Christmas presents for us from last year. I don’t know when I’ll be able to visit my grandfather, whom I haven’t seen in a year and a half. He’s a in nursing home. I can’t plan, honestly, that I’ll ever be able to see my grandfather again. I can’t believe I’m writing that, but it’s true: I can’t plan a time that his nursing home will ever open up again, not until there’s a vaccine, and we have no idea when that will happen.

And I can’t plan that if any of our older relatives pass, we’ll attend the funeral. My husband and I both have one grandfather. Both are very ill. We live knowing that we have likely seen them for the last time, and that if they pass, we will not attend the funeral.

Even Everyday, Practical Things Elude Me

I can’t plan on a time to get the puppy spayed. It has to happen; we know it has to happen; we have to call the vet and make an enormous deal of it, and we’re subject to their whims. I can’t call and make a convenient appointment — especially when I can’t get them on the goddamn phone, because they’re never in the office. I have to call and wait days for them to return my message.

I can’t plan on regular doctor’s appointments. My kids’ physician will write ADHD scripts and do telehealth; my primary care physician insisted I would show my face in his office, in the middle of a pandemic, when they were not requiring masks of patients — though they offer telehealth for “high risk” patients. “Well, you’re exposed to the same thing when you go to the gas station or Bi-Lo, and I can assure you we sterilize a lot better than Bi-Lo does,” the appointment desk snarked at me. I hung up and promptly degenerated into a massive panic attack.

My date book is empty, empty, empty. What would normally be full of playdates and vacations and notes about school starting dates is blank. It will remain blank for the foreseeable future, with no end date in sight and no inkling of when any of our usual activities will feel safe or  okay. And this is the hardest part of COVID-19. I don’t mind being isolated, truly. I don’t mind being at home with my kids. But I can’t plan anything. I don’t know what I’ll be doing when.

Like Tom Petty says, the waiting is the hardest part.

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‘Deaths Of Despair’ Are Projected To Spike As A Result Of COVID-19

I don’t want to speak for everyone with mental health concerns, but personally, the coronavirus pandemic has taken a toll on me. A huge one. When my world changed a few weeks ago, I spent most of the time just trying to get my balance. I had to figure out what I should and shouldn’t believe online. Then I assessed the danger. The reality of it all. Then I figured out how to teach my children while working from home. All of it hit me like a wave. It’s only been in the past several weeks that I’ve had a moment to feel.

I’ve lived with pretty nasty anxiety and depression for as long as I can remember, so I suppose I should have the resources and medication to make this all a little more manageable. But like so many people with mental illness in the middle of a pandemic, I’m struggling. And sure, most people are feeling anxiety right now. That’s normal considering the situation. But if you are like me and already have a pre-existing anxiety and depression, this pandemic has only compounded something that’s difficult to live with even under normal circumstances.

So I can’t say I found it particularly shocking when I read a report jointly published last week by the Well Being Trust and the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care that estimates “deaths from despair” (in this case, drug use, alcohol use, and suicide) could increase by 75,000 as a result of COVID-19. Naturally, the report emphasizes that time is of the essence.

The staggering number of deaths was mostly based on data pulled from alcohol and drug misuse and suicide rates after previous natural disasters, such as earthquakes and hurricanes, that often happen in the months after the immediate physical dangers of the disaster have passed. But what is most concerning with COVID-19 is that it isn’t as geographically isolated as an earthquake or a hurricane, but rather a worldwide issue.

The report urges political leaders to begin taking steps now to curve this eventual emotional fallout. But considering the way things are going in the political realm, it is unlikely that steps will be taken — and as someone struggling with my own mental health, I couldn’t help but wonder what steps I should be taking now not only for myself, but also for my loved ones.

Of course, during a lockdown, the usual avenues of help aren’t exactly there, but that doesn’t mean that help isn’t available. NPR recently published a very handy list of suggestions for managing your mental health that can be utilized right now, and I personally have been using many of them to keep my head straight.

Connect Online

See friends and family by Zoom or phone. Feeling understood and sharing feelings of pain can help alleviate your personal struggle. And I must admit, I have been calling more friends and family than ever, and it just feels good to talk to someone over the phone.

Adjust Your Medications If Necessary And Seek Out Teletherapy

Many psychotherapists and health plans are offering telehealth visits during this time. I’ve been meeting with my therapist this way. I have an online appointment with my psychologist soon to reassess my medications. If you have never met with your therapist online, I will say it takes some getting used to. It can also be difficult to find a place in your house where you can speak candidly with your therapist — especially right now, when every single member of your household is always home. I’m not a huge fan of trying to talk about my fears and anxieties with my family listening, so I try not to meet with him at the kitchen table. But with enough planning, it’s doable. However, be sure to check with your insurance provider to see if they have any hang-ups about covering online meetings.

Make A Safety Plan

This suggestion is one I haven’t tried, but should. This is where you sit down with family members or friends, preferably someone you live with, and draw out a plan for when you are in crisis. This includes locking up any guns or other objects that can be used for self-harm. Now listen, I know this can be a dark conversation, but with all the uncertainty going on right now, it’s one that really ought to happen before there is a tragedy. There are even a number of wonderful online templates that can be used to draw up a safety plan, adding a level of formality to what could be an emotional conversation.

Seek Financial Help

This might be the most important, considering that so much of what we will all be struggling with in the coming months, or even years, is a financial burden that can lead to increased depression. Here is a really handy overview from NPR that lists out all the ways people struggling financially due to COVID-19 can find help.

Listen, 75,000 people dying because of despair is not cool, okay? I’ll just say it. If you are struggling with anxiety or depression right now, I hope it comforts you to know that I, along with a lot of others, are right there with you. Please realize that there is still help around you, even if the method of obtaining it looks a little different than usual due to our current circumstances. And if you know someone else who struggles on a regular day, check in on them. They need you now more than ever.

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