The Outbreak | Managing COVID-19 and mental health

The Outbreak is a new blog describing the different ways the coronavirus pandemic has affected our lives.

By Megan Williams, Digital Manager

I wrote a blog post about dealing with obsessive-compulsive disorder during the pandemic about 10 months ago. At the very end, I said “I am learning how to exist in this world.” Now, almost a year from our first quarantine, my worst fear came true — I tested positive for COVID-19.

It started with a debilitating headache. Over the next few days, a myriad of classic symptoms manifested — cough, sore throat, fever, stuffy nose and muscle aches. My results were confirmed last Thursday. That afternoon, I bit into a pretzel and realized my senses of taste and smell were gone too.

COVID-19 is bad for anyone. Though deadliest for elderly and immunocompromised people, the rumor of asymptomatic or mild cases exclusively for young adults simply isn’t true. My physical symptoms wear me out constantly, but I’ve found that my mental health, in particular, is deteriorating. More than it already was.

How do I exist in this world with OCD? From the start of the pandemic, everyone’s told me I’m the most cautious person they know. I haven’t hung out with a friend in months. I don’t go into stores. I don’t have roommates. The only people I see — my family – are necessities. I wash my hands excessively, I carry hand sanitizer with me at all times and I practically sleep in a mask.

I still got COVID-19.

I’m about a week into my quarantine now. By that I mean, another week until I can retest, get a negative result and then see my family. The entire time I’ve felt my OCD screaming. All alone in my apartment, I’m helpless to do anything. As I said in that first blog, when I was still scared of COVID-19 but truly believed my obsessive compulsions would protect me — “All I can do is tread water and bear it.”

My OCD is about being safe. How do I keep safe from something already inside me? Several new compulsions have tried to solve this problem — drinking so much water that my stomach cramps, peeling the dry skin off my face and cracking my neck three times an hour to keep the headaches away. Logically, these behaviors make no sense. They have no medical backbone — and yet I bow to them.

From a depression standpoint, I feel lonelier than I have in years. Something about being sick makes me yearn for other people. Too many times this week I’ve put a hand to my face and pretended it was someone else’s. Even Zoom classes feel pointless. I sleep most of the day, or overshare on Twitter in a spastic attempt to connect.

In fear of contracting COVID-19 — and, in truth, even before the pandemic because of mental illness — I’ve pushed many people away. At the very least, I’m the kind of friend who cares deeply about you but is constantly on the verge of crying. And that gets annoying. It’s strange to get sick and realize there’s not many people who care. No one is offering to run to the store and get me soup, and a lot of that is my fault.

There’s something dark and ugly inside me that enjoys feeling so awful, though. In a little over a week, I’ve lost 11 pounds. Though I don’t have an eating disorder, diet culture and I don’t really get along. I hate how happy I am about that weight loss.

My therapist says when I feel like this I should push myself to get up and do something. Therein lies the problem, though — in quarantine, you can’t go anywhere. I wouldn’t want to, anyway. I was so good at following guidelines — my OCD even invented new ones! – and I still got sick.

A small voice at the back of my head is just repeating “Not fair! Not fair! Not fair!” over and over again. The last year of my life has been quiet and sad. I moved into an apartment alone, I’ve done both of my jobs alone, I endured grad school rejections and dealt with my mental health alone. To be safe, I told myself, again and again. I still got COVID-19 after all that suffering.

I’m not advocating for everyone to stop following COVID-19 guidelines — that’s silly. My physical symptoms as a healthy 21-year-old are miserable, and the effects on my mental health even harder to manage. I just wish the world were different, and I wish my brain was different too.

Though I’m not a model of mental and physical wellness at the moment, if you test positive for COVID-19 I can give some pointers. Only take Tylenol to manage pain, as other over-the-counter medicines can worsen nausea. Take Mucinex to help with sinus headaches and stay hydrated. Eat something — even if you aren’t hungry! My weight loss has left me feeling floaty and exhausted. If you also deal with mental health problems, resist the urge to burrow into bed. Sit on your porch or in your backyard if you can do so safely to get some sweet, sweet sunlight.

On my 21st birthday last year, I celebrated alone in my childhood home, most of its contents boxed up. I stuck a candle in a scoop of melting vanilla ice cream and made my wish — to never get coronavirus. I blew out the candle and cracked my neck once after every bite of ice cream.

Now, as I stare down another week with COVID-19, I wonder whether I’ll be vaccinated in time for my next birthday. I hope that wish is spent on something happier. I hope it comes true this time.

Megan writes primarily about mental illness, literature and queer culture. Write to her at [email protected].