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  • Writer's pictureRuth Rotkowitz


Updated: Mar 4, 2021

If the Covid lockdown has been responsible for anything positive, it seems to be that it has led to an increased understanding of depression and anxiety. Months ago, Michelle Obama released a statement that she felt she was experiencing low-grade depression. Her honesty and forthrightness have always been refreshing, and this has made her a role model. Any time a famous and admired public figure admits to something, it gives that issue credibility. Mrs. Obama's statement was a welcome relief to many people experiencing the same thing these days. She did offer ideas on what was helping her -- exercise and a routine. These are useful suggestions, and I hope they have provided many people with techniques for how to combat their own depression during the lockdown.

Of course, there is a difference between low-grade depression and full-blown depression or anxiety which can lead to a breakdown. Developing a routine and participating in some exercise are helpful for severe depression as well, but that may not be enough in severe cases. I think it is important to recognize that there is not always a clear, external reason for depression and anxiety. Yes, the fear of Covid and the lockdown are external reasons. Any change in our lives, any traumatic experience, can trigger bouts of depression and anxiety. Most people understand that, and can sympathize with it.

However, depression and anxiety often arise without any specific reason. Many people simply suffer from these afflictions even though nothing terrible seems to have happened to them. This often provokes confusion, as in: Everything is going fine for him or her, so what's the problem? It also can provoke antagonism, as in:

You're so entitled, and you still think you can complain when you have it better than plenty of other people in the world! Are you just trying to get attention or sympathy?

The latter is reminiscent of some of the reactions to Michael Phelps, Olympic swimming champion, who has been outspoken about his struggles with mental illness and his belief in the importance of seeking help. His bravery in going public with his mental health struggles has been truly inspiring. Perhaps the days of sweeping that under the rug, covering it up and being embarrassed by it, pretending everything is just fine and wonderful -- are soon to be over. Can we hope that the honesty of people like Michelle Obama and Michael Phelps will put an end to that ignorant attitude?

Stars are people too, Michael Phelps has stated. In some cases, the pressure on them to continue presenting as models of masculinity or femininity or strength or grace is overwhelming. Knowing they are letting the public down only adds guilt to their problems. What Phelps realized, when he was at his lowest point, was that he needed professional help. Because of his experience receiving help and healing, he is now bravely speaking up to encourage others to seek help if needed.

One comment Phelps has made resonates with me. He has stated that he started having thoughts he should not have been having. We assume he is referring to suicidal thoughts. Intrusive thoughts, obsessions, panic attacks, and frightening impulses are often manifestations of anxiety. These are certain danger signs that help is needed.

In my novel ESCAPING THE WHALE, the protagonist, Marcia, clearly suffers from some form of anxiety. She goes to great lengths to conceal her problems and fears, and to deny them to herself. Intrusive thoughts of self-harm begin to haunt her, and she struggles to find some way of distracting herself. Readers watch her unravelling and understand that her situation cannot go on forever. Like a pot filled with water about to boil, her problems will eventually boil over and explode. The lid will simply blow off.

In 1980, when my novel takes place, mental illness was not openly addressed. A stigma was attached to it, and sufferers felt shame and guilt. Marcia, aware of what her parents went through as Holocaust survivors, feels she has no right to feel so horrible. Fortunately, there is more willingness today to address the issue. Therapists are now available to meet with patients online, and there is renewed attention to mental health. Books that share personal trials with loneliness and offer advice on combating it are proliferating. This is a good sign. A recent account in The New York Times reports that due to the widespread misery caused by the coronovirus in China, there is now more openness there regarding the need to seek help for depression and anxiety. Despite the stigma attached to mental disorders there in the past, the Chinese government is now introducing ways for people to seek help. Things are changing.

I had the pleasure of appearing on a podcast entitled "Flourishing with PTSD" several weeks ago. I wrote about that experience in an earlier blog. The founder and host of the podcast, a brave and honest and intelligent young woman who suffered from PTSD created this podcast in order to discuss trauma so others can learn and step forth to begin the journey of healing. Inherited trauma, which is the type of trauma that torments my protagonist, is another form of PTSD, as we discussed. Whether something external is the cause, or nothing specific or identifiable is at the root, depression and anxiety are painful, harmful, and ultimately dangerous if left unaddressed. It is, however, possible to heal.

Many moons ago, when I was teaching high school English, I always found students extremely receptive to the poem "Richard Cory" by Edwin Arlington Robinson. If you are not familiar with this poem, please look it up! It is the perfect picture of a rich and admired man who clearly harbors a concealed unhappiness that no one understands. Listening to the song "Richard Cory" by Paul Simon after reading the poem, the students immediately saw how Simon expands on the basic story, filling out the viewpoint of the narrator. Check out the song too!! It's wonderful!

High school kids are familiar with unwelcome thoughts and mood swings and bouts of depression and anxiety, and I think that is why this short poem and clear, direct song spoke to them. They got it. Having wealth and success is nothing if you are mentally suffering. In my novel, high schoolers face issues of suicide, cutting, and teen pregnancy. I strongly believe that teenagers (as well as adults, obviously) should not be made to feel that unwelcome feelings and thoughts must be suppressed. " Just get over it" or "Quit whining" do not work. Teenagers should be encouraged to speak their fears and seek help.

The Christmas season has always been a time of stress for many. At the high school, I saw how the expectations of Christmas and New Year's Eve weighed on the kids. Beautiful television specials and alluring ads only added to their tension. They were supposed to have loads of fun with their jolly families under the tree, exchanging meaningful (and expensive) gifts while drinking eggnogg and eating home-baked goodies. And forget the tension surrounding New Year's Eve! They were supposed to be at some wonderful party getting drunk or on an amazing date getting laid. I have just used the word "supposed" twice. It is one of my most hated words. In my novel, Marcia's ideas of what she is supposed to be doing and how she is supposed to be living and what she is supposed to be feeling crush her. The mother of one of her students asks her early in the novel if she knows what it is like to live "in a box." I think that is a fitting metaphor for healing from mental illness. Let us do what we have to to break out of the box and to banish the word "supposed" from our vocabulary.

Maybe this year, with expectations lowered, Christmas and New Year will take on a healthier meaning. Let us hope so. And let us continue to publicize the importance of getting professional help for depression, anxiety, and any form of debilitating thoughts that hamper our ability to live happy lives. Those who suffer need to know they are not alone, and that there is help out there.

Wishing you all a wonderful and healthy holiday season!


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