It is Christmas morning in 2019. As the kids rush to open their gifts, I know I should be taking pictures, but I can’t seem to move off the couch. In fact, I can barely look at them at all. Their joy is effortless and full and mine is somehow gone. In the frenzy of squealing over Beanie Boos and packs of new lip balm, I feel myself go limp. It’s as if someone has filled my body with sand and my mind with fog. My husband glances at me every few minutes, but I just look away. I don’t want to see the disappointment on his face when I can’t answer simple questions like “Where are the scissors?” and “Do you want any toast?” I don’t know where the scissors are. I don’t know anything at all.
Later, I realize I am lucky. This time the fog will only last a few days. The previous time it was a few weeks. That’s how my particular depression works. Like a bad houseguest, it visits me randomly and unannounced. One minute I am wrapping presents, humming Christmas carols, the next I am lying flat out on the shower floor. There is no warning of its arrival and I never know when it will be gone.
In the poem The Guest House, the ever observant Rumi writes that we should welcome difficult feelings like an unexpected visitor. “Even if they are a crowd of sorrows / who violently sweep your house,” he writes, “welcome and entertain them.” But what do we do if we are in quarantine during a global pandemic? What if there is no room for such a guest? What if we are home, indefinitely, with our kids?
It is easy to dismiss our pain in the face of more tragic circumstances. When I was visited by my unwelcome houseguest a few weeks ago, I did everything to hide it. After all, I was safe and otherwise healthy in my home with my children. Who was I to complain about my sadness while a virus was taking lives and livelihoods every minute? What right did I have to weep on the couch?
Therapist Hillary McBride talks about this kind of comparative suffering to her followers. She believes that we take on the “they have it worse” mentality to help ourselves feel like what we are going through is tolerable. If someone else can go through that, we can get through this.
Dr. Brené Brown warns against this mindset on her podcast, claiming that if we do not allow ourselves to feel pain, we lose the ability to empathize with others. In fact, when we feel shame about our struggles, our inward focus overrides our ability to think about other people at all and we become unable to offer support. Put simply, we need to focus inward before we can begin to look outside ourselves.
More plainly: who benefits when we ration our love?
It’s Mother’s Day in 2020 and I cannot stop crying. Briefly I wonder if I have a brain tumor. Why else would I feel so tired and dogged down?
The children bring me their homemade cards, but all I feel is a vague throb of grief. Nothing feels right in my brain, and when I look to place myself back into the world — nothing is right there either.
Why today? I ask my unwelcome guest. Isn’t all of this enough?
I am only met with silence.
A few days ago I posted on Instagram that I was writing about depression and motherhood during quarantine and requested input. I asked two questions: What is making your depression worse and what is bringing you relief?
The response was overwhelming. In less than an hour, I had 15 pages of notes. By the next morning, my inbox was so full I had to take the post down.
Some attributed their more frequent bouts of depression to inequality in the home. Lorinne P. wrote, “Nothing has changed for my husband and everything has changed for me. Not only am I responsible for maintaining a full time job, but now I have full-time homeschooling responsibilities for both of our children.”
For others, it is the lack of community. “I have worked so hard over the past few years to build relationships with other women,” Marcia C. lamented. “It’s a sort of village situation. And now I feel completely alone.”
In less than an hour, I had 15 pages of notes. By the next morning, my inbox was so full I had to take the post down.
Many said it is the many unknowns, the lack of control, that is bringing them to their knees. “I feel like quarantine is like the postpartum days in so many ways,” one mother wrote. “Except then you could always say at least. At least one day I’ll sleep. At least I’ll eventually wean him. At least he’ll walk and talk and not be a lump. But now, what do we have to cling to?”
Another wrote, “There’s no end in sight, so not only are you flying blind but you don’t know where or when the destination will be. Do I have enough fuel? Truly, do I have enough fuel to keep this going?”
One thing is for certain, it isn’t just me. Across our country and the globe, there are mothers who fear for their already fragile mental states. As Mary S. from Newcastle, Australia, put it, “I have always dealt with depression, but this is a whole new territory.”
Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported that nearly half of Americans say that the coronavirus crisis is affecting their mental health. A federal crisis hotline received over 20,000 texts in April compared with 1,790 during the same time last year.
Things that are helping? “Video therapy once a week,” says Melanie C. “Reading books and poetry by powerful raw women. Phone calls with my sisters and best friends.”
Others suggested long walks, sunshine, cooking, strength training, stronger medication, meditation, prayer.
Some even reported that they are feeling better in some ways. Kara wrote, “I feel really, really good right now for the first time in a long time. I think part of it is not feeling bad for feeling bad. Because everyone else also feels bad, I don’t feel so different or broken.”
Where we find Rumi, we also find his students. Mary Oliver wrote, “We shake with joy, we shake with grief / What a time they have, these two / housed as they are in the same body.”
Since I began writing this piece, my unwelcome houseguest has come and gone, but I have also had other visitors — joy and laughter, passion and surprise. I know the unwelcome guest will come again, but for now I hold onto what is certain: no feeling is forever and I am not alone.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.