I don’t like to say that I have a mental illness. I like to say I’m an anxious person. A mad person. I take pride in these deliberate and self-affirming constructions. As a scholar I talk about “experiences of madness” instead of symptoms of mental illness, because from my point of view, I may be mad, but I’m not ill. Aren’t we all of us a little mad, now and then? Now, in particular?
In the age of pandemic, how can we avoid flirting with madness? When a friend asked me in March how I was holding up, as cities across the country began to shut down to slow the spread of COVID-19, I said that as an anxious person, it almost felt like I had prepared for this all my life.
For the first time I feel like I’m part of the majority. People are feeling what I’m feeling. Being a worrier is no longer the exception to the rule – we are all anxious people now. So welcome to life with anxiety, my friends. Let me show you around.
Do you lately find yourself suddenly and inexplicably exhausted? Having nervous sweats? Feeling your heart beat in your chest in moments of calm? Do you notice with unusual frequency that you have clenched your fists? Tightened your jaw? Have you felt like gasping for air? Are your thoughts racing and easily prone to catastrophe?
I’ve lived here for about twenty years now, not because I am deficient or ill or broken, but because I am particularly sensitive to ethical problems. Before the pandemic nearly shuttered our civilization, I struggled frequently with the fear that humanity was already facing multiple existential threats, and heading towards catastrophe. Climate change. Nuclear weapons. Poverty. Hunger. Inequality. None of these crises have gone away just because our attention is almost entirely consumed by this novel coronavirus.
Worrying about the consequences of a pandemic is new to me, but many of the same lessons I have learned from persevering under the weight of chronic existential angst still apply. You may not think that you are experiencing anxiety, because that is something that only happens when people have some kind of chemical imbalance.
The truth is that the biological model of mental illness only adequately describes a relatively small proportion of cases, and there is an increasing recognition that mental health is caused not just by abnormalities in the brain and body, but by trauma caused by social and environmental circumstances. In other words, the world we live in is making many of us sick. What often gets diagnosed as mild-to-moderate anxiety or depression may actually be the beginning of a difficult ethical dilemma that requires serious and often collective efforts to address.
Western consumer culture has developed a popular aversion to uncomfortable mental states, and championed positivity as the goal of any healthy and sane individual. But when we encounter moral problems, we should feel uncomfortable, disturbed, even anxious and depressed, and it is these feelings that are signalling to us that something important requires our attention, and perhaps our intervention. If anxiety and depression and other symptoms of mental illness served absolutely no functions in a natural and healthy mental life, we would never have evolved to experience these states of mind.
For me, the diagnosis of a mental disorder as a child was actually counterproductive to my recovery, because it placed the blame for my mental states on my biology, and completely ignored the influence of my environment. One of the greatest sources of relief that I have found over the years has been the acceptance that these mental states are not my fault, that sometimes they are actually healthy responses to a very unhealthy situation.
If you are feeling anxious right now, rest assured that you are not broken, inadequate, or sick. In fact, your moral compass appears to be working! Would it not be strange to feel perfectly fine and unmoved by a global pandemic? The coronavirus has made it more obvious than ever that common mental illnesses are only poorly understood at best when we think of them in purely biological terms, and that we need to expand both our understanding of mental health, and the tools we employ to help people.
Even if you haven’t been directly touched by the devastating impacts of the pandemic, even if you still have your job, you and your family are healthy, and your community is generally well off, living in an age of pandemic just is scary. To not be deeply saddened by the suffering that has been caused by the pandemic and our collective failures in responding to it would suggest, not a healthy mind, but an inability to empathize with others.
So if you are feeling anxious, depressed, angry – if your emotions seem volatile, if you are at the mercy of your own moods most days, if you feel powerless and still hopelessly determined that something must change for your suffering to end – well rest assured that these feelings are entirely normal. Despite the fact that we live in a society that glamorizes positivity and pathologizes despair, how else are we supposed to feel when we discover ourselves to be trapped in an immoral society?
Over time, I’ve discovered that what was diagnosed as a clinical problem inside my brain is actually more of a social and political problem. Sure my brain chemistry, my physical health, and family history all play a part. But for me, understanding my route to recovery isn’t just about understanding my brain biology, it’s about understanding my ethical relationship with the broader social, political, environmental and other contexts that make up my world.
I’ve learned that one important way I can treat my anxiety is by identifying the moral wrongs in the world that cause me to worry, and finding ways, however small and seemingly insignificant, to address those issues. Sometimes that’s as simple as learning about them, understanding the nuances of a problem, and sharing that knowledge with others. Sometimes it’s as complex as rearranging my entire life to answer the need for a better way to organize society.
I think that I can remember the first time I experienced the sensation of what has become this ever-present weight of existential dread. I must have been about ten years old. Something in the news or at school had made me curious about war. Until that point, I had thought of war as a relic of a less enlightened era. I had learned in school that Canada employed peace keepers, not soldiers. I had attended assemblies and read articles about the two Great Wars, and I had wholeheartedly endorsed the intended take-away message: never again.
So when I heard that war was a present-day reality, I did what frightened children normally do. I went to my mother for reassurance. She told me that yes, war is still happening in the world today, but I shouldn’t worry, because Canada is a nation of peace, and other nations would never have cause to declare war on us or attempt to invade our borders.
As much as this did put me at ease, it was in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attack a couple of years later, as I watched George W. Bush declare war on terror, and saw the pressure mount on Canada to join the offensive, that I realized I did not live in a world of peace. Even at twelve years old, it was obvious to me that a “war on terror” was hollow rhetoric to support a war of political, ideological, and economic dominance over less powerful and wealthy nations.
It was shortly after this that I began to feel miserable most of the time, experienced repeated crying fits before school, and was eventually diagnosed with childhood depression. I don’t believe that the family doctor who wrote me my very first prescription ever asked how I felt about school, or about the state of the world. She certainly didn’t ask me how I felt about the threat of international warfare, and it didn’t seem relevant or appropriate for me to bring it up, despite it being front and centre in my mind.
Today it is obvious to me that peace activism, the fight for better wages, for a universal basic income, for universal public healthcare, the fight to eradicate homelessness, to abolish nuclear weapons, to save our ecological diversity and reverse the harms of climate change – all of these things are part of the struggle for mental health, because all of these things address existential moral ills in our society that, by their very existence, cause despair, fear, hopelessness, and anger.
I don’t like to say that I have a mental illness. If anything, I would call it a moral wound, inflicted in childhood and allowed to fester in a world where injustices and their subsequent moral harms are regarded as normal and unavoidable. For me, diagnosis, medication, and attributing blame to my allegedly broken brain, all made things infinitely worse. It wasn’t until I allowed myself to feel my emotions and accept them as valid responses to a suffering world that I was able to make room for forgiveness, for compassion, for self-love, and for healing.
It is a reflection of an empathetic and rational mind to feel despair in the face of others’ suffering, to feel fear in the face of existential threat and future uncertainty, and to feel debilitating rage in the face of violence, injustice, and the erosion of civil liberties. In the age of pandemic, as we lean into the uncomfortable, disturbing states of mind that naturally arise in response to a sick world, we should remember that fighting for justice, for a more ethical world, and for an equitable future, is a necessary part of our collective recovery.