mental health, recovery, having your Moment, and losing your momentum
recovery has never been linear, but COVID-19 has brought whole new meaning to the idea.
content warning: mental illness, eating disorders, coronavirus
I’ve been thinking a lot about that exact moment when you feel like you’ve won the war versus your mental health. You did the work, you’re feeling better, and you get to do something you know you wouldn’t have been able to do before, and it’s a moment.
I’ve had lots of moments, as my mental health has been up and down for 10 years now, but most recently it was February 18, 2020. I was in the pit at a Jonas Brothers concert, which I probably wouldn’t have done for free six months earlier. I was in Montpellier, France, right on the Mediterranean coast. Joe Jonas was in front of me singing a song about [redacted because I just remembered where I intend to share this but you can read about it here]. There was confetti falling, and I was covered in 13 hours of travel sweat, and my suitcase and tech-filled backpack were in a coat check outside of the arena.
None of that mattered, when I was hearing the words that brought me to a concert in France eight hours out of my way, what brought me back to Europe at all.
Let’s start living dangerously.
As I hoarsely screamed them back at Joe it felt like a moment designed just to celebrate me.
(I was dehydrated when I arrived at the venue, okay? Thirteen hours of train travel on little sleep will do that to you.)
I’m not sure that anyone’s thriving under COVID-19’s social distancing and/or quarantine policies, but for people with various mental illnesses, this is a nightmare.
When you’re depressed, isolation is tempting but self-sabotaging.
When you’re anxious, isolation makes it easier to get stuck in your own head without the ability to fact-check.
When you have PTSD, specifically related to the home space, you’re stuck dealing with your own baggage 24/7, when you’re in eating disorder recovery your body’s needs are no longer supporting you because it doesn’t take much energy to sit at your desk all day.
Isolating is self-destructive. It is a behavior, just as much as restricting food or lashing out. And it’s something that I’m now mandated to do, by societal expectation and my own values for now, and likely by the state government pretty soon.
I’m feeling the consequences. My eating is … off track. My concentration and focus are nonexistent. It’s hard for me to do anything productive — for work or for personal projects like writing this essay — because I am constantly in distress which means I constantly want to use distress tolerance skills, one of which is distraction.
DBT isn’t really designed for living in an environment that constantly provokes distress indefinitely. At least, not in the way I know it. It makes me want to reach out to my case manager from my intensive outpatient program because I’m curious as to what they’re doing.
Because I know that I’ll probably have to go back there after this is all said and done.
I discharged from IOP the second time in November. This particular program has you choose three weekday evenings to come in from 5:30–8:30 p.m., which is exhausting on a full-time work schedule. It’s one of those things that helps you get better — I wouldn’t have gone back if it didn’t — but at a certain point, it starts getting in your way because you don’t have the evenings to cook or clean or rest.
So I discharged when I wasn’t quite ready, and not quite meal plan-compliant. Again. My case manager asked me what were my motivators to stay on track, and I told her I was planning to go to Europe in February 2020. I hadn’t exactly planned it out at that point, but I knew the focal point of my trip: VidCon London 2020.
I got back into YouTube almost six years after cutting it out of my life when Daniel Howell came out in June. His video became really important to me (in fact my first tattoo has an extremely subtle reference to it) and it indirectly led to my own coming out.
I wanted to go to a YouTube event. I wanted to meet some of the creators whose work kept me company in the dark days of the summer, and I wanted to meet some of the friends I had made on YouTube Twitter. VidCon London was better timed than Vidcon U.S., and many of my favorite creators are European anyway.
And the more I learned about the show, the more I realized that VidCon is not what I remembered it being from 2012. It’s not just about YouTube anymore — it’s full of content about podcasting and social media management and recruitment, all of which are parts of my job.
My executive director approved a request to use my professional development funds to attend as an industry member. But if I was going back to Europe, I needed to master what DBT calls “emotional regulation.”
The months between discharge and travel were hard. I was frustrated with my work, and with the process of negotiating accommodations with my job as my mental health continued to spiral. I was trying to find an outpatient therapist and a psychiatrist, and I wasn’t succeeding, even using the list of recommendations my case manager had provided me. I was so low on energy that I was having a hard time taking care of myself, never mind reaching out to maintain any of my friendships.
Traveling was the one thing I was looking forward to. I bought the VidCon ticket before I even discharged, and my London hotel followed in early December. From that point on, I would spend one Friday a month buying a few more things for the trip. Train tickets, Airbnbs, plane tickets.
But only a few days after I booked my hotel, the plans changed again as I made the second defining purchase of the trip. VIP tickets to see the Jonas Brothers in Montpellier, France.
I got into the Jonas Brothers accidentally. The only song of theirs that I knew and liked pre-breakup was S.O.S., and I spent years being a Certified Emo Kid™ that didn’t listen to much pop, and certainly not boy bands. I checked out “Happiness Begins” right after it came out, but ironically I didn’t like it was because it wasn’t all radio-friendly upbeat pop like its first two tracks.
In May, the JoBros did an episode of Hot Ones, a YouTube interview show where celebrity participants chat with an interviewer while eating progressively spicier chicken wings. I didn’t see it until November, because I’m not actually subscribed to the channel that produces Hot Ones, but I was interested enough to click because I generally like the show. And at this point, those first two tracks—“Sucker” and “Cool”—had earned coveted spots on my “from radio” playlist. I am generally pretty resistant to unfamiliar music, but this playlist is the home of 31 solid tracks that Spotify radio has introduced me to over the past two years.
Turns out Nick, Joe, and Kevin are funny. I was shook. I watched more interviews. They continued to be funny, and Nick kept talking about the “magic” of working with his brothers, and how their comeback was really about reconciling as a family after the nasty 2013 breakup and celebrating their now growing families (all three are married, Kevin has kids).
I’m a Sucker (hahaha) for an artist telling a story behind the music that resonates with me. It’s one of the things that takes an artist from someone I like to someone I’ll cross international borders to see.
I listened to “Happiness Begins” again. This time I gave it the attention it deserved, and I liked it a lot. I listened to the old stuff. Not all of it aged well, which is something they talk about openly, but a lot of it did. I was having a good time.
I was kicking myself because they visited Boston for the second time a week before I got into them.
In December, I started looking at tickets for the European leg of the tour, which overlapped with this planned Europe trip. I realized that they were playing Montpellier on my one free day, and I could get there if I was willing to take eight hours of trains the day of, starting at 6:20 am. VIP tickets through LaneOne were somehow only €150, and those tickets came with a high chance of barricade, and a guaranteed place at the front of the pit with no queueing.
I bought those tickets, I stopped watching the tour on YouTube, and I got ready for my first ever concert in an arena pit.
The day of the show was perhaps the most chaotic day of my life. Long story short, I missed a regional subway by 4 minutes leaving my friend’s house in Germany, and that ricocheted into five hours of delays. I was supposed to arrive in Montpellier at 2:30 pm, giving me time to check into my Airbnb, eat, get ready, and get to the venue at 4:30 for my VIP line up. Instead, I got to the venue coming straight from a different train station at 7:30.
It was stressful, to say the least. I missed four different trains, and my arrival time was pushed back later and later with each one. Neither my German nor my French is good enough to negotiate at a ticket counter. It was hard to keep up with eating when rushing from one train to the next, especially when distressed. I had scheduled the entire day before to ensure I could check-in exactly 24 hours ahead — to the point of sitting in a park staring at the second hand on my watch. It’s like Southwest Airlines where they line you up for entry based on your check-in time, and the people at the top of the line get barricade.
After all that, I was going to lose my spot because I wouldn’t be at the arena before the group entered the pit.
Each time something went wrong, I said to myself, “This is living dangerously.”
“Cake by the Ocean” isn’t even a Jonas Brothers song. It came from DNCE, the band Joe Jonas fronted while the Jonas Brothers were broken up. But regardless, that one line had become something of a mantra. Partially because “Cake” was the kind of song I’d never admit I liked when it came out, but it’s fun and danceable and I was learning to let myself like the things I like, instead of trying to carefully curate a reputation of being edgy. Partially because Joe — pretty universally known as the chaotic, class clown, carefree Jonas — is actually a pretty emotionally sensitive dude who chooses to be all those things anyway. Partially because I just really love that guitar intro, and it’s a good alarm on the days that you have to get up early for a special event or something.
For me “Cake by the Ocean” became a song about choosing to live your best life even if it feels risky.
(That’s … not what this song is about, at least to our knowledge as the audience, but I’m known for creating my own meaning for songs.)
So when I stood in that arena, with confetti streaming down on me, it felt like a congratulation. I had lived dangerously, and I was being rewarded for it.
And honestly, my brain had supported me better than ever. I didn’t get emotionally overwhelmed or cry, even when the SNCF agent told me that I’d get to Montpellier an hour after general doors. I didn’t break down, and I didn’t have a panic attack, and I didn’t freeze. I lived dangerously, and I won, and the prize was getting to stand five feet in front of Nick and Joe Jonas as they sang the words that kept me going with 10,000 other people chanting them just as loud.
I spent another week in Europe after the show, attending VidCon as a professional and a fan and hanging out in Manchester to take a breather before heading back to Boston for PAX East. But “Cake by the Ocean” was my moment.
I lost my debit card within 30 minutes of arriving in London and only realized when the hotel asked me to put a card on file. I was 90 minutes and £20 from the airport and it costs money to submit a request to the lost and found, so I gave up on the card. Bank of America got me connected with Visa so I could pick up emergency cash at a Western Union location. Sure, I was a little anxious at first, but it was fine.
Visa gave me incorrect information about picking up my cash so I had to live on the £35 I had from the airport for two days, and it was fine.
I met AmazingPhil, whose content I’ve been watching on-and-off for 10 years, after a podcast recording that was only open to Industry/Creator track. Industry track means I was working, taking detailed notes for my students that produce a podcast when school is not cancelled, so I didn’t really take the time to prepare myself for meeting a celebrity/influencer that I actually know and like. I was horrifically awkward and botched the selfie he gently coaxed me to take because I was too nervous to ask. It’s hilariously blurry, and I went searching for the disappointment or irritation at myself, but it was fine.
I nearly missed my flight out of Manchester because I was talking to my Airbnb host about politics, and it was all fine.
It felt like I was a new person.
And then COVID-19 happened.
I fell down. Of course, I did. Honestly, my eating got a little off track while I was traveling just because of how busy I was, and then I went to PAX East as soon as I went back, which made it hard to regulate. I was just righting the ship in early March when coronavirus blew up, and I hard relapsed on Day 0 of my remote work, eating for the first time at 6 pm after doing three hours of community service work with my coworkers in a professional kitchen.
I went down to one meal a day that weekend and then on Monday I got up, and I made a full breakfast and a cup of matcha, and I checked into online work early, and I got back to it.
(I didn’t manage that again all week.)
I told my coworkers I was doing yoga in the morning now.
(I’ve done it once.)
I told myself I was eating three meals and three snacks a day now.
(I’m probably eating two meals and one snack on average.)
I told myself I just try I will come out of this better than I ever was.
(I can try and try, but the way eating disorders work is that you’re trying but your body is working against you, especially when you have a comorbid somatic symptom disorder, and so I’m trying, of course, I’m trying, but there’s only so much I can do and I would really be better off if I focus on harm reduction and radical acceptance, knowing that it’s okay if I have to go back to IOP post-quarantine instead of setting impossible goals and constantly failing.)
All that said, I am a lot better off than a lot of other people. I’ve been assured that I’m going to keep my salary even if we get to a point where there are less than 40 hours of work to do each week. I’m living in a home where I am safe.
I got to have my moment in an arena in France, and I cling to that. Because when you fall down the mountain, you saw the top. You know you can get there because you were there. So there is something tangible to fuel the blind hope you’re expected to have as someone who has been working on your mental health for a long time.
A lot of people got their moment cancelled due to coronavirus. I wasn’t thinking about this much until I sat down with my roommates, right as the universities were starting to go remote but before my job did.
My roommate Julia had moments planned and then lost them to corona.
I’ve always known her as a performer and a traveler and a person who was a lot more confident than I was —in liking the things she liked, in doing the things she wanted to do, and being comfortable being who she was. But she’s also someone who has worked for that over years.
(And also someone who has feelings and struggles sometimes. But I was in constant crisis when we got to know each other, so I kind of put everyone around me on a pedestal in a way that was probably not in anyone’s best interest.)
She’s patiently explained—to us in person, and to her greater network via Facebook—why losing those moments makes this whole thing a lot harder.
Honestly, I don’t know where I’d be if this had gotten bad two weeks earlier than it did and my trip got cancelled. Not strategizing the best way to take exams and get set up for the rest of the term.
(Hope the exams go well. You’re incredibly strong and an inspiration as always.)
Whether you’re in crisis, or your mental health is just a long-term project in your life, these events, these experiences, these moments are quite literally something to live for. When we talk about how COVID-19 will further a mental health crisis, it’s often from the angle that isolation is fundamentally bad for you over the long-term, but there’s this other side as well. For many of us, it’s hard to look forward to anything, because we don’t know when life will “go back to normal.”
I know that my grad school application process will be disrupted, as I was going to visit schools in the UK in May, but how disrupted? I know that I’m not in the mental state right now to study for the LSAT, but if I don’t test this summer I am essentially committing to attending school abroad, though I haven’t visited any schools.
So much of my life (meaning all of it) has been looking forward to the next thing. Reminding myself that a current difficult situation is temporary. Counting down the days until I get to experience the thing I’ve been working for.
Yes, quarantine is temporary. But there’s no date. There’s no moment to look forward to. There’s no knowing that there’s something on the other side of this that’ll make it all worth it. There’s no “quarantine ends in this many days, and then I’ll get to have this incredible experience that will be worth it if I just get there.”
It’s scary. It’s really really scary.
Please love on the people around you. Whether they’re at risk or not, whether they know someone with corona or not, whether they’re still working or not, whether they have a mental illness or not, whether their financially in good shape or not, whether they seem to be coping well on social media or not.
The mental health ramifications of this pandemic will be disastrous no matter what, but really the only thing we can do is try to look out for each other.
Ask and engage.
And honestly, if you can’t engage, don’t ask.
Because when you ask people how they’re doing, and someone like me says, “Honestly, I’m scared I’m going to relapse,” and you say, “Hmm yeah, these are tough times,” and then move on you make that person feel more alone.
We cannot afford that right now.
Love on the people around you. Listen to them. Make sure people are heard.
Yeah, we’re all going to take hits, and they’re going to be tough ones. But I believe we can get through this, if and only if, we try to take care of each other in a really genuine way.
I will leave you with this thought from Jamie Tworkowski of To Write Love on Her Arms, as they are one of my all-time favorite mental health nonprofits, and also because these words are incredibly true: