Coronavirus as Depression

An article came out recently exploring the idea that some people, during the coronavirus, especially those consistently and chronically afflicted with anxiety and depression, have had their illness lift during the crisis. The author explored several theories as to why, including the concept that the worst has already happened, so what else is there to be anxious about?

I have a different theory. I am one of those who felt, in those initial weeks, my depression release its hold. It was an odd sensation, as if I were welcoming all of you into my own little world. “This is how it feels like here,” I imagine myself saying. “Come on in and stay a while! Make yourself a nice nest and I’ll show you around!”

In some ways, it’s a kind of schadenfreude, at everyone else finally being forced to experience what it’s like inside my head.

How is coronavirus like depression?

Sleeplessness, combined with an inability to get out of bed. Difficulty convincing yourself to get dressed, or get dressed nicely, or engage in self-care, or go outdoors, or exercise. Social anxiety. A profound sensation of overwhelm, especially with parenting and educational tasks. Inability to keep a clean house. Lack of motivation for eating anything except peanut butter toast. Lack of motivation to work. A starvation for human touch. Day drinking. Constantly feeling like breaking down in sobs. Hopelessness lingers, like nothing you do really matters. Spending vast quantities of time watching television. Envy of ’ other people’s: balconies, gardens, Peloton bikes, jobs, sourdough, functional governments. This feeling that the whole world is held apart from you by a pane of bulletproof glass, that everyone—in our case, people in South Korea, and people in both the past and the future—get to do things you can’t: go to dances and benefits and art galleries. Go to clubs and cafes and hip restaurants. Go to museums and boutiques and hip restaurants. Of course, all those things are possible for the person who is merely depressed; and also impossible.

As the weeks have gone by, my initial sensation of euphoria dissipated. Sure, all of you live where I do now, but eventually you get to leave. Now I feel resentment: you are the prisoner with the six-month sentence, I’m the lifer with no possibility for parole. In a year or so, probably less, depending on good behavior, you’ll get to go out in the world again and be free, and I’ll be left here, all alone, except it will be worse, because I’ll know how it feels to have companionship here, to have the commiseration of the entire world. In the after, everyone will say: isn’t it great to have the whole world back? Let’s go to conferences and readings and farmers’ markets! Let’s walk holding hands with other people in the sunlight! You’ll know how it feels; you’ll remember. But you will not understand why I choose to stay here. Why would anyone choose to stay?

And it feels like that, to me as well as to you: like a choice. Although I know there is brain science behind it, that it is a disease, I also know that a sad person’s brain looks exactly the same as a depressed person’s on an MRI. That all of the paths through depression, even the brave choice to take drugs that risk making things worse, require choice. Spending time outdoors, daily twenty-minute walks, a structured sleep schedule: all of these are choices that I am not making.

Maybe that is why I feel the veil beginning to shift, to settle again around my shoulders. Already all of you are working through your grief, and coming out on the other side: hosting Zoom parties, setting up indoor greenhouses, making homemade pizza. You adjust. Human beings adjust, it’s what our millions of years of evolution have trained us to do. Already I feel myself left behind.

Melissa Jenks (@marzipanj) was raised as the child of missionaries in Bangkok and Manila. She now lives near Cape Cod where she farmsteads, writes, and believes we’re all going to die from climate change.

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