BY MINDY GREILING
Many people are seeking mental health support during the sheltering-in-place COVID-19 siege. Social media is fraught with posts about the anxiety and depression it can cause, and the National Institute of Mental Health is researching how stressors related to the virus affect mental health.
Our son Jim, who has a mental illness, is staying with us during the quarantine. Otherwise he would be alone in his apartment, his mind free to paint monsters on the wall. He says, in truth, he doesn’t see much difference in his life now than before. Due to his mental illness, his world had already shrunk. In normal times, people like me are buoyed by new people, places and experiences, things Jim rarely gets to do.
Before the virus, Jim was dividing his time between our house and his apartment, since he had ended a long-term relationship with his girlfriend six months before. “I need to be around people,” he pleaded the day they split up. We were sitting in a coffee house in mid-November. “Can I come stay with you and Dad for awhile?”
After the virus hit, he cocooned only with us. At first, we parents were cozy and peaceful with our son, as if we were in the middle of a Minnesota blizzard. We talked leisurely, played cards, walked on wooded trails and watched a lot of TV. Roger caught up on newspapers, and I read book after book. I was distressed to see that Jim couldn’t concentrate on reading. Before he developed schizo-affective disorder, he had devoured books.
I knew my son’s life was hard, but having him close at home for a longer stretch opened my eyes wider. I saw his struggles. Jim slept more hours than he was awake. When he was awake, he was lethargic. He dutifully did the household tasks I assigned as a condition of his staying with us, but he didn’t initiate a thing except to turn on the TV. Except for small smiles that quickly vanished, I rarely saw a happy grin light up his face. Despite being on three strong antipsychotics, he still heard voices that sounded just like his parents. They were mean.
“Did you just say I was a loser?”
“No, Jim,” I assured him. “You know I wouldn’t say that.”
“It’s horrible not to be able to trust my own perceptions about people.” His brow was deeply furrowed. “Last week I heard Dad talking trash about me, Mom. He said, ‘I’m sick of Jim being here. I want him out. Ick!’” Jim paused to shift his weight, making the futon we were sitting on creak. “I was positive it was him because it sounded just like him talking to someone in the basement, but right then I heard the garage door opening. It was Dad coming home.” He laughed mirthlessly.
I joined Jim’s laughter briefly, but my heart bled. Jim was right. Not being able to rely on your own parents was horrible. He also suffers from feelings he can’t describe, except to say he’d rather die than have them. These symptoms severely diminish his ability to interact with most people. He usually sits on the periphery of conversations with so-called normal people, aching to join in, but says he can’t think of things to say. He’s relieved if someone turns to ask him a question, but few people do. He’s more relaxed with his friends, who all have a mental illness of some kind. They understand.
Everyone craves human interaction. People with serious mental illness are no different, but they are often the most isolated people in the world. Before the pandemic, Jim worked a few hours per week entering data and met with his mental health workers at his apartment. Now his work is suspended and he meets with his psychiatrist, therapist, and case managers virtually. He likes his therapist, but their online sessions started ending early when conversation dwindled and then they went to every other week. Screen time isn’t the same. Before the quarantine, Jim occasionally saw one friend at a time, just as he does now, social distancing on our deck. What is a big change for most people is the status quo for him. I worry about the people with mental illness who are more isolated than Jim. People who don’t have involved families and friends as he does. People whose main source of human contact is the mental health system that is now operating remotely.
When sheltering-in-place ends, people who are experiencing anxiety and depression because of the virus will find relief, but Jim’s life won’t change much. People will be cavorting at parks and lakes, and Roger and I will be busier again. Jim may be even lonelier in comparison. His favorite seasons are fall and winter, the darker months, and his favorite days are the rainy, gloomy ones, when people are more apt to be inside. Like him.
Mindy Greiling is author of Fix What You Can: Schizophrenia and a Lawmaker’s Fight for Her Son, forthcoming in October. Greiling was a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives for twenty years. She helped found the nation’s first state mental health caucus, which successfully lobbied for a significant increase in Minnesota’s mental health funding. She has served on state and national boards of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and is on the University of Minnesota Psychiatry Community Advisory Council.