The Planet is On Fire and We’re Chilling Out — Mental Illness and the COVID-19 Crisis

Conor Bezane is a journalist who specializes in mental health and pop culture. He has written for MTV News, AOL, and VICE. His first book The Bipolar Addict: Drinks, Drugs, Delirium, & Why Sober Is the New Cool is out now on Amazon

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“It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”

— R.E.M.

Deaths are piling up exponentially throughout the globe. Most of the country is on lockdown. And many of us are experiencing extreme claustrophobia and high anxiety. But a cohort of mentally ill Americans are doin’ just fine.

“I find that many people with chronic anxiety or depression are faring pretty well during this pandemic,” says Dr. Eric Schieber, a psychiatrist and addiction specialist who sees patients in Chicago. “They have known mental suffering and have built a kind of resistance to it.”

My sentiments exactly. This is not a drill, but for those of us who struggle with bipolar disorder like myself, or depression, or anxiety, this is not our first rodeo. We’re surprisingly copacetic. We’ve had emotional distress time after time, so we are more resilient than the normies a.k.a. people without mental illness. In other words, we’ve been training for this our whole lives.

For many of us, it’s as if we have antibodies in our brains. We are immune to the mental distress that is flooding the nation and the world.

During my worst major depressive episode in 2008, I cried every day for a year, sometimes hysterically and sometimes sobbing. It was excruciating. My doctor prescribed every medication she could think of to alleviate my depression. After a year of trial and error, it was an oldie-but-goodie that hit the spot. We took a stab at Lithium, a drug that was the first one approved by the FDA to treat bipolar disorder in 1970. It worked.

That depressive episode was like a dress rehearsal for a time like today. I know how bad things can get, and I survived a serious depressive episode so it’s as if I am immune to this emergency.

I’ve been on lockdown exactly 20 days. I live in Chicago and our state’s “stay at home order” has been in effect since March 21.

I’m FaceTiming with my psychiatrist once a week. I get my groceries delivered. The only time I go outside is to go to the pharmacy or to take a quick walk around the block for a bit of exercise.

It’s important to interact with people face-to-face and not just on screens especially if you live alone like I do.

I started a regular coffee date with my neighbors. It’s something to look forward to every day. We both have balconies next to each other, but far enough to keep social distancing. We chat for half-an-hour or so every day.

I’ve been using Netflix Party — you can watch movies live with friends with a comment bar on the side. I did this the other night with the B-movie horror classic The Evil Dead. It was really fun. It gave me some comic relief. We’re gonna watch Tiger King together next.

I’m listening to a lot of music and making mixtapes on Spotify. And slowly but surely I’m watching The Mandalorian on Disney+. I don’t like to binge-watch, rather, I like to savor my shows. I’m also enjoying live-from-home concerts.

But I’m not panicking. I have no high anxiety about my health. My side-gig as a scooper at an ice cream parlor down the street is on hold. Maybe there are fears about money and job security. But I’m not letting anything spike my anxiety.

As I told bpHope magazine a.k.a. Bipolar Magazine a while back, I’ve always thought that we who are bipolar have a greater sense of empathy.

According to Dr. Schieber, that sense of empathy is a lifesaver.

“Those with a greater sense of empathy feel less alone in their grief,” Schieber says. “Most people walk around never thinking about mortality. They go through the world with denial as their primary defense mechanism. When suddenly confronted with a serious threat, their circuits overload.”

My circuits are not overloaded. My psyche is durable. And so are the souls of my comrades. It’s become a cliché, but it’s true: we are all in this together. Don’t be afraid to lean on us for comfort and calm.

How are you feeling? Are you coping OK with this pandemic? I would like to do another post taking the temperature of the mental health community. 

Is your mental illness helping to downplay the crisis? Or are you still anxious? It’s OK to be not OK. Tell me if you’re not doing fine as well.

Contact me at [email protected] Thanks, and stay safe.

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