Monday, August 2, 2021

Column: My personal mental health journey during the pandemic

March 11, 2021
<p>Design by Daena Faustino.</p>

Design by Daena Faustino.

I was sitting at my desk at work in the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology building planning my weekends in Paris and Rome for my upcoming study abroad over the summer when Michigan State sent the email informing students and staff that they were shutting down campus due to the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

COVID was still a distant worry and I still held out hope — a very naïve hope in retrospect — that it wouldn’t impact me or MSU. 

When the email hit my inbox, I sat at my desk in disbelief. I watched students begin to scramble around the first floor of the building trying to figure out whether they should keep studying for their physics exam or leave as they were instructed. 

I sat and stared at the email for 10 minutes while the building descended into chaos around me. 

I knew it was inevitable because of the shutdowns from other universities across the country, but the weight of the situation did not hit my shoulders until I saw the worry on the faces of students in the BMB building as we all reacted to MSU’s email simultaneously. 

As I walked from work to Landon Hall, I thought of what was going to happen next, how bad was COVID going to get, and what my life was going to look like because of it. Even in my most negative thoughts from that day, I still could not predict the severity of the pandemic as we know it today and how my life has changed in the past year. 

The pandemic has left an indelible mark on society in that time, claiming the lives of over half a million Americans, and millions worldwide. COVID-19 is still having that same impact to this day, despite what some state governments and some of my fellow students may believe. 

I am thankful that I have been lucky enough not to have experienced loss from the pandemic like so many others. My family was lucky enough to be able to work from home and avoid the disease, and did not lose their jobs like millions of others during the pandemic. 

To say that COVID did not affect me would be wrong though. My life flipped upside down, both personally and professionally, during the last year, and the pandemic has been the fuel for those changes. 

I have always been a person that has based my personal worth on the amount of work I am able to do. I was never a person that was content with doing the bare minimum. I also sought to avoid being alone because I was never happy by myself if I was unproductive and inactive. That changed in an instant. 

I lost my job, lost my home away from home and my study abroad trip within an hour of Michigan State shutting down. I was relegated back to my bedroom in my parent’s house in Mason, Michigan, with hours of nothing to do but dream of being able to leave once again, reliving the lonely nights of my high school years. 

The days in my childhood bedroom in late March and April were some of the lowest moments in my life. I sat through a blur of Zoom calls, going through the motions of school with my mind focused inward on my own shortcomings.

I did not have to focus on feeling happy alone if I had enough work on my plate. I didn’t have to focus on forging meaningful relationships with the people around me if I was happy with my life academically and professionally. The pandemic took away the avenues to cope with the ongoing battle in my head, and I was back to square one, alone with feelings of personal disappointment and regret. 

The thoughts of self-doubt and anxiety crept in more frequently, and I began to distance myself from everyone. I did not leave my room and interact with my family, and I talked to my friends less frequently. I trapped myself with my own thoughts and let them eat at me for months as the pandemic toppled everything in its path in the outside world. 

I reached a boiling point in early June while on a walk with my dog. I couldn’t suppress my feelings anymore, so I sat and wept for almost an hour in the closed jungle gym in Rayner Park in Mason as my dog chased a butterfly in the background. 

I sat and contemplated my own future through the stream of tears, thinking of what could have been and what I could do next to avoid this feeling. I knew I couldn’t keep living in a state of constant fear and anxiety. It was eating me alive and that feeling in the park is something that I will never forget. I knew I needed help escaping my personal torture chamber. 

That day, I went home and wrote for hours about what I was feeling. That personal therapy session was life-changing and made me realize that I need to share what I was feeling in some capacity. Unloading my personal feelings in some way helped me cope, leading to me starting a blog as well as talking to my friends about what I was going through.

We started playing video games together nightly, bonding through the virtual world as we were trapped in the confinements of our parents' homes or our apartments in East Lansing. 

These nightly conversations on PlayStation became the therapy I desperately needed since COVID started. Playing Call of Duty until four in the morning and talking about the absurdities of life was the life support I was seeking for so long during the pandemic. 

The nights on the PlayStation, or “the toy” as we call it, brought back the sense of joy that I had been missing since the pandemic. It reaffirmed my hope in the world and became the reason I wanted to wake up the next morning. 

I truly do not believe that I would be in the spot I am right now working for The State News if I lacked that support group to help power me through the lingering thoughts of self-doubt and angst. 

Things quickly began to turn for me once I began to open up through my blog and with my friends. I started to talk to my family more, focused on expressing my feelings in my blog and picked up more hobbies to fill my free time like becoming a chess addict and reading a book a day.

I started to learn that the pandemic was not ending soon, and the conversations with my friends and family made me realize that I need to do more to support myself during the extra moments of the day. I realized I needed to grow as an individual to become someone that could enjoy time alone, rather than focusing on what I wasn’t doing in those moments. 

I am not going to wrap this story up by saying that my mental health journey is over and that videogames, books and chess saved me, that would do my ongoing journey a disservice. I am still that person in Rayner Park crying about my future as much as I am the person that looks forward to a chess game alone in my room when that used to be my biggest fear.

I do not think I will ever be able to shake those feelings of loneliness and self-doubt fully because that is who I am. My expectations for myself are always going to be much higher than expectations that I have for anyone else. 

But that is fine. I have learned to deal with those thoughts and expectations in a healthier way and have been able to channel that stress into healthy outlets. I learned that I am not strong enough to deal with my emotions on my own and have begun actual therapy to supplement the support systems that I found through the pandemic.

I recognize that I was extremely fortunate to have the friends and family that I have because I would not be writing this article without them. This has made me realize that the connections that we have on a personal level need to be prioritized, and that we need to be diligent in checking up with one another, especially now. 

During the pandemic, 41% of adults have reported feelings of anxiety or depression, up from 11% in January 2019, according to a report from kff.org. Now more than ever, people need support from people in their personal lives as we all struggle with the challenges of the pandemic.

Check in on those who you love and listen to them. You could be the beacon of hope that they need in their personal struggle, just like my friends and family were for me. The pandemic has been a low point for so many people in their lives, and we need to recognize that as a society and support one another through personal challenges to recover from it fully. 

This column is part of our Women's History Month print edition. Read the full issue here.

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