March 13, 2020, was a great day. A “normal” day — it was my birthday. I was in Atlantic City, NJ, celebrating 36 years of light and life. And I was doing so, as others were, maskless.
I sang karaoke and played slot machines with reckless abandon. The booze flowed freely, as did the shots, and my friend and I danced through the corridors of the Tropicana resort and casino. We smiled. We laughed. We locked arms and swayed.
But things were already shifting. By morning, we received word the city was shutting down. Clubs were required to close. Bars were told that it was last call.
Of course, we all know the reason. In March of 2020, COVID-19 began severely affecting the northeastern United States, and people were getting sick. Soon, people began to die, and many areas responded similarly. Schools closed. Non-essential businesses shuttered.
Life was “locked down.”
Here’s my story.
My initial reaction was cool, calm, and collected. “We can get through this,” I thought. “Everyone just needs to stay home and do their part.”
It soon became clear that we would be living in this state for some time, and this realization affected my emotional and physical health.
It got to the point that I had a breakdown in September 2020. I collapsed, literally and figuratively — I genuinely wanted to die.
The reason for my breakdown was varied and complex. I have lived for many years with anxiety disorder and bipolar disorder. I was diagnosed with the former as a teenager and the latter in my late 20s, and both conditions are highly affected by external forces.
Just before lockdown, I told my husband I was bisexual. “I think I’m gay,” I said. And in June, my mother died suddenly and traumatically. I lost my job soon after.
The weight of these changes in the midst of the pandemic became overwhelming. I stopped eating and began oversleeping. I dropped nearly 10 pounds (4.5 kg) in 2 weeks.
I began texting my psychiatrist regularly. I was unable to cope with small things — or anything. I was living on a spectrum. In other words, I was morose or manic. Everything was black or white.
I stopped my meds suddenly, without my doctor’s oversight or approval. I felt I was done with the pain and suffering. “This could help me,” I thought. Or, at the very least, it couldn’t hurt.
Plus, with so much beyond my control, I was desperate to feel in control. The pandemic was making me feel like a caged animal. I wanted — and needed — to break free.
Unfortunately, being free meant flailing, then failing. Within a week of coming off my meds, the negative voices in my head became louder. The suicidal thoughts became too much to bear. In September, in the middle of this pandemic, my mental health shattered.
I nearly took my life.
Of course, I’m not alone. Over the past year, the prevalence of mental health-related conditions has increased dramatically.
According to a 2021 report from Mental Health America (MHA) — an advocacy group that promotes mental health services — the number of people looking for help with anxiety and depression has skyrocketed.
From January to September 2020, MHA screened 315,220 people for anxiety — a 93% increase over the 2019 total — and 534,784 people for depression — a 62% increase over the 2019 total.
Furthermore, more people than ever recorded are reporting frequent thoughts of suicide and self-harm.
It’s common to feel trapped or stuck. Pandemic life can be lonely, bleak, and harrowing. From reigniting past traumas to causing entirely new ones, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the mental, physical, and emotional health of many people worldwide.
The good news is that I fought. Through grief, sadness, and suicidal thoughts, I fought. Because of COVID-19, I was able to find a new therapist, one who works in a portion of New York City that I would find difficult to access were it not for phone sessions and virtual appointments.
Because of COVID-19, I’ve been able to be open and honest with my psychiatrist. Living in a constant state of crisis has caused me to pull back the curtain on my emotional life.
COVID-19 has heightened my emotional response, but as a stoic and proud “non-crier,” this is a good thing. I’m learning to feel those things I’ve long since repressed.
Plus, the pandemic and my subsequent breakdown taught me how to ask for help. I’ve learned that I don’t have to do everything alone.
Are things great? No. I’m still struggling. Coming to terms with this “new normal” sucks.
I want to see my friends and family. I long to sit in my psychiatrist’s office and just talk. I also miss the little things that kept me sane, like belting out a solid Gwen Stefani ballad. I miss coffee shops and long walks and running half marathons with both strangers and friends.
But — and this is a big but — while the past year has been tough, I wouldn’t wish to change it. Why? Because, having overcome a mental health crisis and confronted massive personal changes, I’m a stronger person than I was 1 year ago.
Kimberly Zapata is a mother, writer, and mental health advocate. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, HuffPost, Oprah, Vice, Parents, Health, Healthline, SheKnows, Parade, and Scary Mommy, to name a few.
When her nose isn’t buried in work (or a good book), Kimberly spends her free time running Greater Than: Illness, a nonprofit organization that aims to empower children and young adults struggling with mental health conditions. Follow Kimberly on Facebook or Twitter.