This is The lost year, a series of stories about our 2020 experience told to Vox reviewer Emily VanDerWerff.
I spent most of 2020 in quarantine. I did not spend this quarantine alone. I spent it with my wife, Libby Hill. Libby and I have been married for 17 years, together for more than 20 years. (We met on the first day of college. Awwww.) At this point, I feel like I know her and she knows me as well as two people know each other.
But is that true? Our experiences with the quarantine were very different. I've mostly spent quarantine doing things, taking on new creative projects and challenges because at some level I am trying to escape my own feeling that the world is frozen. Libby, meanwhile, has struggled with major depression for as long as I've known it, and the quarantine has become a slow, grueling march through an experience that almost forced her into a depressive episode by keeping her inside and rarely going her place on the couch.
The cruel irony is that Libby, who works as the TV Awards Editor at Indiewire, had an experience this year that gave her the clarity and psychological freedom she'd hoped to have her entire adult life – and it did before long time February. Just a few weeks later, the pandemic forced us to lock down, and much of that clarity would go away. But your take on this pandemic is one so many have embraced: as long as you survive each day and make it to another, you have been incredibly successful. Libby articulates this beautifully.
Here is my wife's 2020 story as told to me.
I have struggled with major depression for most of my life. I was functional for the first few months of 2020, but I was very depressed. It was back when things were still normal. I wanted to award shows and sit in press rooms. I was productive, but inside I was dead. I wanted everything to stop. Not necessarily to die, but so that everything pauses like a coma, as if I could get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and go to a quiet place.
I told my therapist that this place in my head was a white room. It was quiet and nothing was expected of me. I could just rest. It was so tempting to me. It's what I needed, but it was so hard to explain to people. People heard, “I don't want to be here anymore. I don't want to live. I don't want to be part of this world anymore.” After talking about it for a few months, my therapist said, “You have been in this place for a while. We adjusted your medication. We talked about it. I worry that you are suffering. ”She suggested that they consider inpatient treatment.
When I was growing up in South Dakota there was this one government facility, mental hospital, and we didn't really talk about it. We'd just call it by the city name: Yankton. “Oh, she was sent to Yankton. They will send you to Yankton. “It was short for“ crazy. ”When my therapist suggested it, I said,“ You're sending me to Yankton. I am there now. "
But i am lucky. I am well insured. I have a flexible job. The more I thought about it, the more I thought, “I've tried everything else. Maybe it's time to try this.” I checked into a mental health facility in late February. I was there for about a week.
It was such a special time. In the general area there was a single television that was generally always on the news or in action films. The news would talk about the election. Super Tuesday was just around the corner. There were also a few headlines about the coronavirus, but I didn't notice. It was on the verge. When you are in a mental health facility, you don't have to worry about all of that. I didn't have my phone or laptop.
In retrospect, it was definitely a harbinger. I got out of there after a week. My wife (Emily) picked me up. We went home. I went back to work. I was so happy to be there with my colleagues. I want to say that staying in the hospital changed my life. Because it happened! I got out of there and felt better than ever. I had a new perspective on my place in life. I felt free from so much that had bothered me for decades. I had a balance that I had been looking for for so long.
And then, two weeks later, March 12th was my last day in the office. We packed up our things and went home. It's mid-December and I haven't been back yet.
I am lost. Little bit. A lot of. You are not in control of mental illness. You are always in a non-choreographed dance with your body. You move with the music. You think you get the rhythm and understand where it's going and then the music changes. You are not on the right track and do not know what is next or what steps are right.
That's what happened. It felt like I was okay with my depression from a gentle woman. We would find a way to work together and share the space that comes to mind. And then the entire globe was put into a functional situation depression. Nobody left their house or saw anyone. All isolated. People never took off their pajamas or took a shower. It was as if I had been physically pushed back into depression by a universe that would not allow me to escape. Obviously the pandemic wasn't broadcast because I was being treated, but in the real sense of my brain it felt that way.
I am introverted and depressed. I don't like going out of my home or attending large gatherings of people. I'm at home on my couch in my pajamas and stare at my computer 18 hours a day. That was my preferred resting state before this pandemic. But I knew how to do it. I knew what the movements were. I've never wanted to go to a grocery store so there was no way I wanted to go during a pandemic. So it was kind of a routine.
It was probably the second time I got my period during the pandemic that I said, "Fuck". It was a very clear passage of time in a year in which all times ran together. One day I realized that lounging on the couch had changed. I didn't choose it. I felt capable of that. Suddenly I was no longer locked, I was depressed. It's a very different, very dangerous animal. And it's gotten worse because just a few weeks before we entered this state things were fine and clear.
At the beginning of the year I just wanted silence. Now in lockdown, I need 100 percent distraction. In the silence I find fear and restlessness. I need a TV show I love that is always on in the background. I have to play a video game and read Reddit. In my free time, I need 17 different things to grab my attention or I will drown.
Sometimes it was very difficult to live with my wife during this pandemic. Marriage is all about negotiation, insofar as we refer to it as "renegotiating contracts" on our anniversary. We decide whether to move forward for another year or to take early retirement to pursue something new. Being locked up together takes this to a new level. Everything that annoys you about someone, everything that annoys you about yourself, every tiny conflict – they are all blown up because you can't get away from each other.
It took a few months before I realized we were having fights and disagreements and resentments that just wouldn't happen if I went to my office eight hours a day and she could go to her office or meet friends for coffee . But that didn't mean that the conflicts we were having weren't real. They were real and revealed real cracks in our relationship that we had to look at, even if they weren't going to break the foundation.
My wife is an extrovert. At the beginning of the pandemic, it was much harder for her. I miss my friends, but she misses her friends very much. She is a social butterfly. She needs constant care and attention to an extent that I cannot provide. She needs 15 projects. Whether I'm locked out or not, I'm not like that. This was made worse by being trapped in the same apartment together. Our differences became so strong that you would ask yourself: "Is this tenable? Is it still the right decision?"
But then you realize that you are only questioning that because you are trapped in an apartment with this person. It's always a little miserable to spend so much time with someone, no matter how much you love them. We were always together. We were never alone. But we didn't spend a lot of time together. So it felt like we weren't really together, but still like we were never alone.
One of the symptoms of depression that you will see in people is not bothering about things and withdrawing. When I put all of my cards on the table, I notice that a lot of my routine is designed not to bother about it. I can't open the can of worms where my feelings are because they're so big and so scary. They are so sad and they are so crazy. It is a tightrope walk not to feel but to stay busy but not be vulnerable, which complicates things with my partner because connecting with my partner requires vulnerability and emotion.
Depression is like walking waist-deep in the water while everyone else is walking on the bank. You try harder and get a quarter of it until you get tired. Sleep doesn't really help. I am lucky. I have great mental health, medication, and therapists. And I'm still unhappy with the lockdown. Everyone, no matter where they are trapped in the world, is trapped in their own mind, and some people's minds are a little more haunted than others.
But I'm not dead. I figured out how to stay alive for nearly four decades. In a way, I have to attribute that to my depression. If anyone was prepared for what it would be like to live in lockdown, it was me. I have more pajama pants than regular pants. I was made for it. But if I hadn't been hospitalized immediately before the lockdown, I don't know how I would have survived. I've been in such a bad place. It scares me to think about it.
Every day is a series of challenges for me. Whether I can get up or not. Whether I can shower or not. Whether or not I can dress properly. Whether I can eat or not. Some days I can. Some days I can't. But so far, every day at the end of the day, I climb back to bed with a great achievement: I stayed alive. That's the one who matters. This is the only thing you have to accomplish every day. Your to-do list contains a different amount of things each day. But some days it only has one thing to do: stay alive. And if you can do that, it will be a successful day.
I don't want to go back to where I was right after leaving the hospital. I will be more than a year older. I want to be better than this place. I've lost a lot of time to depression. I can't afford to lose any more I have to grow from that. I want to learn something from this year. I need to fix things in my life that have been revealed to be broken.
This is not a silver lining. More than 300,000 people in our country are dead. That doesn't make the best of it. If we don't learn from this and change the way things work to make the world a better place, her death will be utterly in vain. This is not a world I can live in.
I'm not going to lie and say that I'll go out with new eyes and appreciate everything because there's a lot of annoying shit out there. But this is also an opportunity. It doesn't have to be like it was before. I hope it is not so. I hope we are friendlier to the staff. I hope we are more flexible for parents or people who have physical or mental health problems. I hope we learn lessons from this year. I don't want it to be a lost year. (Pause) You're going to use that as an ending, right?
Read the entire lost year Series here.
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