I’ve been feeling overwhelmed and hopeless in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. My life has changed so dramatically, it’s been hard to see a way out. Are we ever going to get back to the way things used to be? If so, when? Will things change forever? If so, what will this new world look like? Will it be better or worse than before? Sometimes, the idea that society could ever get back to normal seems like a pipe dream.
I have bipolar disorder. Even before the coronavirus, I struggled with negative, intrusive thoughts and all-or-nothing thinking. I’ve been a victim of my own black and white view of the world. The words “always” and “never” have been firmly cemented in my vocabulary for a long time.
Those can be dangerous concepts. Just a few years ago, I experienced a severe mixed episode—a combination of mania and depression. I felt empty despair coupled with a ton of energy I had nowhere to direct. And the little voice in my head kept saying “You will always feel this way. Things will never get better.” Because I believed the voice (even though I knew it was my bipolar talking, and it represented my own distorted thinking) I tried to die by suicide. It was precisely the belief that things would never change that led me to do the unthinkable. And guess what? I survived, thank goodness. I got help. I soon felt better. My depression lifted. It really was temporary.
That’s exactly why people say “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”
I’ve learned since then to question myself when I think in terms of extremes and permanence. Always and never are rarely true. Things change. Everything is temporary. And that can be a good thing.
When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in my twenties, I was terrified I was broken, convinced there was no hope for repair. I was bombarded with persistent internal messages like, ‘I’ll never find medication that works’ and ‘I’ll always be sick.” I was wrong. But at the time, those were my thoughts, so naturally I believed them. Now I know that kind of distorted thinking was untrustworthy, incorrect, and downright dangerous.
I recently wrote an article about managing my mental health during this pandemic. One of the most helpful coping mechanisms I’ve found for weathering this crisis has been reminding myself that this is temporary. Some days I must constantly repeat the mantra, “this will pass,” even when it feels like it will go on forever. This coping strategy has brought my stress levels way down. I refuse to believe everything I think, especially right now.
Because I have bipllar disorder, my brain is wired to see the world in terms of absolutes. In my manic episodes, I become a fortune teller, confident that I know exactly what the future holds. It’s always bright, perfect, and exactly as I want it to look. I’ve had severe depressive episodes which, at the time, felt endless. I’ve almost drowned in thoughts like ‘I’ll always feel this way.’ Dangerous thoughts can lead to dangerous actions, so I’ve trained myself to remember that just because I think something, doesn’t mean it’s true. By learning to challenge the messages in my head, I can prevent the snowball effect of negativity and rumination that can lead to catastrophe.
In 2019, when the Marie Kondo craze hit Netflix, I gobbled up every episode in a few binge-watching sessions. I was mesmerized by the idea that I could achieve a sense of calm serenity in my life simply by getting rid of material possessions I no longer needed. I promptly emptied out my kitchen cabinets, my dresser drawers, and my bathroom sink, throwing away anything and everything I just knew in my gut that I’d never need again. A little voice in my head kept saying, ‘You will NEVER use this again, so why keep it?’ I thought could predict the future, and it would never change. I was manic.
Looking around my newly sparse surroundings, I felt an immediate sense of relief. A few days after my purge though, I panicked. I realized I’d tossed a bunch of things I actually did need. I’d thrown out one of two frying pans I owned because I figured one was enough. Then I found myself floundering while cooking. I’d donated a formal dress I swore I’d never wear again, until I got an invitation to a friend’s wedding. I realized too late that my bipolar mind had tricked me, and I fell for it.
In the early 2000s, I worked at a computer company. My job, although stable, was monotonous. I finished my weekly tasks by Tuesday afternoons each week. I craved mental challenges, of which I had few. I sat at my desk every day trying to think of projects to assuage my boredom. I convinced my supervisor to let me take some career advancement courses, but I still couldn’t shake the gnawing feeling that every day would be the same as the one before, and the one after. It was strange, because although I normally saw the world in absolutes, as all or nothing, never and always, thinking in terms of permanence when it came to this job was too much to handle. I couldn’t stand it, and after six years, I left.
I changed professions. I knew I’d never be truly happy unless I could be creative every day. I went back to school, got another degree (this time in fine arts) and became a graphic designer. I got a job on a movie set only a year after leaving my corporate grind, and I’ve been happily employed in the film industry for over fifteen years. Aside from my cherished freedom to be creative, one of the best things about my career is being a freelancer. Each job is different. I have new bosses and coworkers on each show. I design unique graphics for every set. No two days are the same. Part of why I’m so happy in this role is precisely because much of my day-to-day at work is temporary.
My best friend and I have been close since 1986. My boyfriend and I have known each other for twenty-two years, and we’ve been happily living together for six. I need stability and consistency in my life when it comes to personal things like close relationships, and routine at home. Jobs, on the other hand, aren’t always wonderful. I’ve encountered my fair share of stressful movie sets. I’ve even found myself in a couple of toxic work environments. But I can handle almost anything—no matter how bad it is—when I can see light at the end of the tunnel.
With this pandemic, I’ve pictured myself stuck inside my house for years, or worse. I’ve imagined perpetually empty grocery store shelves, permanently closed businesses, and never-ending Zoom chats with friends and family because I don’t know when it will be truly safe to go out again. But those visions in my head aren’t reality.
Yes, things are tough at the moment, for everyone. But now that I know my mind plays tricks on me, I can tell myself (over and over again if necessary) that my thoughts are just that: thoughts. They’re not absolute truths, and they’re not future predictions. I do not have a crystal ball just because it sometimes feels like I do.
Just like the weather, the stock market, even allergies can change, this all will too. There is a bright light at the end of the tunnel. Life may go back to the way it was before. Or things could end up better. More people are seeing the class inequality around us, which is the first step towards positive change and social justice. Because the current health care system’s flaws have been exposed, government officials are addressing it in a new way, and it can be fixed. Now that we can measure exactly how driving our cars less has helped the environment, we know we can prevent climate change.
Because I know this is temporary, I can sleep at night, and I can face another day.