Last week I asked Times readers to describe how the coronavirus is affecting their mental health. More than 5,000 of you wrote in, and I’ve spent the last week overwhelmed by the bravery and vulnerability of your responses, some of which I quote in my latest column, “The Pandemic of Fear and Agony.” Everybody is suffering pervasive stress. But a lot of people are struggling with a misery that’s much worse.
We wanted to share more of your responses. A selection, edited for length and clarity, is below.
‘This pandemic has robbed me of my sense of control’
My life has suddenly started to feel like it is spiraling out of control. The fight or flight response has kicked in with a vengeance and full-fledged crisis mode is on. I used to rely on predictable outcomes and routine. The uncertainty of what’s ahead has become the most frightening thing, triggering fear and anxiety. The world has been brought to its knees by a tiny microorganism. This pandemic has robbed me of my sense of control.
My goal is to do what’s in my power to reduce the spread of the virus and to survive. I surrender what I can’t control to chance, fate or the mercy of God. — Tamar Schiller Hakimi, Riverdale, N.Y.
‘I go on vacation from my inner world’
My husband was diagnosed with advanced liver cancer in May 2019 and died at home in our bed in August. During that time, I discovered incredible resilience in myself and in him. After, I was slammed with grief. The coronavirus has landed on top of that loss. I still feel resilient, but I can’t say I’m focused. The days slip away. Sometimes I feel anxious, often I feel lonely. I miss my husband, physical connection with him and, now, with others.
Before the pandemic I would make sure I got together with friends. Now I do my best to feel and to recognize my feelings. I remind myself not to ask too much of myself. I go on vacation from my inner world, which can be quite insistent these days. Death is a strange companion, and during the pandemic I know it’s coming for some of us. I am careful. Still, denial exists for a reason. — Barbara J. Comstock, Ashland, Ore.
‘Feeling overwhelmed and weepy’
Our three grown children have all moved home. I am the glue that keeps everyone together, but I am feeling overwhelmed and weepy because I can’t boost everyone up from their fears, disappointments and anxieties. I’m feeling useless, and that is depressing to me, in addition to my own fears about getting sick. After 27 years of putting every family member’s needs in front of my own, I am sure I need to see a therapist. I feel like I’m finally cracking and I don’t even know why. — Lise Christensen Godvin, Rye, N.Y.
‘I am angry at a force I cannot see’
I am overwhelmed some days with a sense of loss, particularly because I have not seen my grandchildren (3 years old and 10 months). My husband and I were their primary babysitters when our daughter returned to work in January. We had them with us for 10 hours most days of the week. We got to see them grow and develop almost as intimately as their parents did. Then, in the span of a week, that was all taken away. Now we FaceTime two times a day, but I find myself sadder each time.
I miss their touch, their smell, their drool, their runny noses. We will miss Easter, my birthday and, in all likelihood, the baby’s first birthday in May. I am angry at a force I cannot see, but more than anything, I am sad and aching to squeeze them again, feel their soft skin next to mine. When this nightmare is over, I will hold them so long my arms will ache and the kids will fall to my feet and hug my ankles like they used to before we were all felled by the monster in our midst. — Rose DePoto, New Jersey
‘For days I couldn’t find a satisfying breath’
I’ve struggled with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder for much of my life, only recently putting some kind of a saddle on it. Until the pandemic, I was in a stable and healthy place. After the world shut down, the anxiety started sneaking back in. I convinced myself that a slight change in my breathing was the heralded “shortness of breath.” For days I couldn’t find a satisfying breath. No matter how many statistics I read or symptom reports I digested, nothing could assuage me otherwise. I followed all the rules, I don’t know anyone who has the disease, I’ve been out of the office for three weeks now. Nothing short of divine intervention could have exposed me. It didn’t matter. In my mind, this change in breathing meant I must have Covid-19.
I had the entire operation planned out: how I would get to the emergency room, which I’d go to to make sure getting back would be easy, who would drive me (I live alone), where I would sit in their car to minimize their risk, which chargers I would bring, what emails I’d have to send to reschedule what meetings, who would get my apartment key, what to tell the person I’d get to water my plants, how to tell my dad. I have drafted emails describing all of this, at least a dozen. Luckily, I haven’t had to send any of them. After a conversation with a doctor over telemedicine, it was clear that I didn’t have Covid-19, but that I was probably going through an anxiety attack. The combination of relief and utter disappointment in myself was a familiar cry I hadn’t seen in years. — Matthew Mohr, Columbus, Ohio
‘There is no playbook for how to survive this’
As a mother of three who has struggled with anxiety and depression before the coronavirus, this current situation has definitely magnified these issues and brought them to the surface. Having to help my children in distance learning and manage things around the house, all while worrying about my aging parents and my husband, who is working on the front line in a hospital, is horrible for me psychologically. It’s just too much. If it weren’t for frequent video chats with my therapist, I don’t think I’d be capable of taking care of my family at all.
How are mothers who are suffering from postpartum depression surviving being quarantined alone with their infants or young children? What if they don’t have access to a mental health professional? My children have seen me cry and heard me scream more in these past few weeks than they have in their whole lives. I just pray they are young enough to not remember.
I’ve had to shift my focus in order to preserve my sanity. I’m not comparing myself to how other parents are managing their homes and kids. There is no playbook for how to survive this, but I’m hoping that when it’s over my family will remember feeling safe and loved. — Blair Cornett, Orlando, Fla.
‘People with anxiety disorders are always expecting the worst, and now that has come to pass’
As a person with anxiety disorder I can only say that I am struggling to cope. Did I remove my gloves properly? Did I disinfect my groceries properly? Did I wash my hands well enough? I could go on indefinitely. People with anxiety disorders are always expecting the worst, and now that has come to pass. I am always terrified that I have slipped up somehow and will become ill and die. Running, gardening and playing with my cat are my most potent sanity activities. Conversing and commiserating with other humans is hit or miss. — Patricia Purdum, New Orleans
‘It’s difficult not to beat myself up’
The monotony of each day is what gets to me the most. I have a history of depression, anxiety and substance use disorder. I just celebrated three years of sobriety on April 1, so I was disappointed that I didn’t get to share it in person with my recovery community. I’m also a graduate student and I struggle to focus. It’s difficult not to beat myself up on days when I don’t get any work done, especially in a country that romanticizes working oneself to the bone.
Others are struggling much more than I am. I’m learning to value my relationships more. I’m in frequent contact with family and reaching out to friends I haven’t spoken to in a long time. I’m focusing more on spirituality and practicing mindfulness on a regular basis. I know there’s a lesson to be learned from this whole experience. I’m trying to find out what it is. — Scott Camp, Chestnut Hill, Mass.
‘Trying to focus on the positive, but not deny the existence of the negative’
The threat feels existential. I am young and healthy and therefore less concerned about my physical health than my mental health. Being isolated physically is more difficult than I would have expected. I am meditating every evening, which seems to help. I’m trying to focus on the positive, but not deny the existence of the negative. I remain hopeful that we will come out of this collective nightmare much stronger than we were before. Whether we choose to acknowledge it, we, as a world, are all in this together. — Peter Tuenge, Beaverton, Ore.
[If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.]
Special thanks go out to my colleagues Adam Rubenstein, Rachel Harris, Rubina Madan Fillion and Lisa Tarchak for their work in making this project happen.
David Brooks has been a columnist with The Times since 2003. He is the author of “The Road to Character” and, most recently, “The Second Mountain.” @nytdavidbrooks