Looking After Your Mental Health in Tough Times

Jun 22, 2020

Are the lockdowns, pandemic, and economy affecting your mental health? If they are, you’re not alone and it’s okay to reach out for help. 

It’s a rare thing for me to get personal on this website. On occasion, I open up about “the feels” on my Medium feed, but not here. I want to talk a little about my mental health, though, because we’re in dark times and maybe my ramblings will strike a chord with someone.

I’m not in a good place right now. You know, given the state of the pandemic, collapsing economy, global shutdown, and other trivial matters. 2020, eh? What a gas. 

Today I woke up in a heavy state of melancholia. More than melancholia. Let’s call it depression. It’s been coming for a while; I’ve felt it for weeks like an electrical tingle before a storm. I know the signs.

This past week or two, I’ve been sinking and sinking, waiting for the tropical depression to kick my internal barometer out of whack. Things have not been good in my head for a while, and the black cloud has come and gone, gone and come. This time it feels like it’s here to stay.

Luckily, I’m very good at self-diagnosis. I’m great at stepping outside myself and seeing myself as a patient.

I can keep some cold, clinical detachment when I look at me from outside of myself, and realize I’m depressed, that it’s not me, it’s an illness. That’s huge because I know many people can’t see themselves from outside. They get consumed inside themselves, it eats them, and they see no way out. This can lead to bad things. So although my depression right now feels like it’s here to stay, I know it’s not.

A couple of years ago I wrote something about the death of Anthony Bourdain. In the piece, like the no-nothing amateur psychiatrist I pass myself off as, I pontificated on mental health and said that my “personality veers towards whatever the opposite of happy is.” I said I prefer “stoicism, realism, and gritty truth to unbounded, unfettered joy.”

I went to say – talking about myself here – that I’m normally neither happy nor sad, just in some kind of “neutral”, where both happiness and sadness are events.

So right now I’m going through a deep, heavy sadness event. I’m treating it as a phase.

I know I’m not the only one going through this phase. This pandemic and the lockdown is causing a lot anguish. I’m on my own, stressing about everything. Life, work, money, loneliness, my health, my family relationships, relationships, the mistakes I’ve made. I’m on the brink of tears 24/7. I’m on the brink, period. Just like so many other people in this nightmare we now find ourselves in.

The only thing that keeps me from going over the brink are my dogs and my work. And also the fact that I can, as I said, see out of myself and recognize I’m suffering from a chemical imbalance in my head called depression. That recognition is crucial to seeing my way out of this and not doing anything stupid. It makes me one of the lucky ones, because I know many people, especially men in their 40s like me, see no way out.

As a group, we’re killing ourselves in droves. I never forget that for a second, it stays with me all the time.

So what have I done about it?                                                                                                                                    

Well, the last couple of days were rough. Very rough. So I hit up a friend in England. Got on a Zoom meet with him today where we had a couple of beers and shot the shit together. He’s going through a hard time too, he said. He’s married, kids, nice house, good job, new puppy. But he’s struggling. We’re men in our 40s.

The key is to talk. And talk. And talk some more. Never be afraid to ask for help and never be ashamed of not being in a good place. It’s okay to not be okay, as the saying goes.

I’m lucky to have people to talk to.                                                                                                                              

I’m lonely, yes, but not alone. I have good friends, people who love me, and I need to remember that. That’s vital. My friend over in England saved my life today.

If you don’t have anyone to talk to, find someone. Please. There is help out there. Hit me up if you want, I’ll chat with you, I promise. I need it too.

You can also speak to a pro. If you’re here in Central America, there are resources. And there are also these guys, who specialize in expat depression.

Whether you talk to a friend, a pro, or even plain old dumb old me, speak to someone. Don’t be an island.

Another thing – and bear in mind, I’m talking about me here, not you – is to not dwell on the past.

Put it this way, I’ve had a terrible year, even before this pandemic. My 2019 was dreadful. I ruined my life in more ways than I can tell you about, and I’m living with the consequences of my actions now.

2020 should have been about making amends, sorting things out, moving on. Of course, COVID intervened. And so I find myself home alone, rewinding the clock, going through all my errors, my mistakes, my screw ups. Things I did that I shouldn’t have done. Things I didn’t do that I should have. I drive myself crazy.

I need to stop driving myself crazy.                                                                                                                              

And I need to quit the whole poor-me-feeling-sorry-for-myself thing. The past is the past. I need to focus on the now, not the then. It’s tough to do because I’m a reflective person, but I know I need to do it.

Focusing on the now is all-important. Exercise, time with my dogs, meditation. All these things help me focus on the now and keep my mind away from the then. What do you have? What is there in your life that keeps you from dwelling?

When I say don’t think about the past, I don’t mean forget about the past. Always try to learn from what’s happened, and if you need to make amends, then do it. Like an alcoholic doing his steps, you know? But don’t consume yourself with woulda-coulda-shouldas. In the words of the great Shaun Ryder, “Stinkin thinkin gets you nowhere.”

I also need to stop being so hard on myself.

Just now I said that over the past year or so I effed up my life in a lot of ways. Which is true. But it’s done and I need to deal with it. Not only should I not dwell, I should ease up on myself a little about things I can’t change. I need to be kinder to myself. Easier said than done, but doable.

Being kinder to myself includes not watching/listening to the news all the time. It means listening to more music, consuming more art, getting into more podcasts, cooking better food. Not sitting alone at home stressing out about the world and my shitty life. Getting my ass off social media will help.

So am I doing any of these things?

Apart from the hanging out with my dogs and talking to friends, I’m afraid not. I know I need to. Oh – I watched a movie last night, Saving Private Ryan, which, unbelievably, I’d never seen before. That brought me out of myself for a little while. And there’s a couple of podcasts I’m loving, too.

My saving grace is, I guess, that I know this is an illness and I know it’s fixable for me and that’s most of the battle. I can look at me from outside of myself. Some people aren’t so lucky.

Tomorrow is a new day, a new week. I’m going to try to make the best of it. Times are hard all over. We’re in the middle of a pandemic that has cut a massive swath through all our lives. If you’re affected by this, it’s okay. You’re not alone by any stretch of the imagination. Just don’t be an island and be kind. To yourself most of all.

Tips to stay safe during tough times:

1. Try to acknowledge your depression is an illness. It’s not you, it’s a chemical imbalance, a physical malady like high blood pressure or asthma. Acknowledging this takes away the stigma and gives you the power to own your depression rather than your depression owning you.

2. Talk to someone. Don’t be alone. Talk to a friend, talk to a stranger, talk to a pro. The one saving grace about this pandemic for me are my Zoom meets with friends back home. Without them, I don’t know where I’d be. In a terrible place, for sure.

3. Don’t dwell. Try to live in the now as much as possible. Practice mindfulness, enjoy your pets, get outside.

4. Be kind to yourself. Have you screwed up? Sure. But you’re not alone. Beating yourself up gets nowhere (this is my biggest failure, by the way).

5. Try to establish a routine. A good sleep routine, a work routine, an exercise routine, whatever. The more routine you put in your life, the more control you have over it. Which means less control for your depression.

I mentioned earlier that I’m a no-nothing amateur psychiatrist.

So don’t take what I’m saying as the advice of a mental health professional. I’m just someone who knows how it feels under that cloud, that’s all. And if you’re in the same boat, whether due to the current situation or not, please know you’re not alone. Maybe that’s all you need to know to heal. Stay safe.

For counseling and therapy services in Costa Rica, please click here. You’ll also find counseling and therapy services for the rest of Central America on this site. 

James Dyde is the editor of centralamerica.com. He lives in Escazu, Costa Rica.