Image created by Agnes Cicle via Deviant Art. Used under the Creative Commons 3.0 License.

Disruption

In technology, disruption is generally viewed as a good thing: new forces enter the marketplace and cause businesses and individuals to change their processes and buying habits with a major outcome being the creation of new markets, products and services. The internet, mobile devices, cloud computing and artificial intelligence are all prime examples of disruptive forces.

But disruption in our daily personal lives is a different matter.

With Covid-19 turning our lives upside down and May being National Mental Health Month, it seemed the right time to share my insights into how mental health issues can manifest and steps you can take to manage those issues. My goal with this article is to help others having a difficult time processing this new world with guidance and tools to realistically do so.

TL;DR: This article is about the stressors and sudden related changes in our lives that can lead to mental health issues — and some guidance on coping from someone who has been in psychotherapy since 2008.

First, a disclaimer: I am not a licensed mental health expert. But I do know that recognizing you have a problem and need help is the first necessary step to mental health recovery and then maintaining a positive mental state.

Anyone finding themselves considering self-harm and suicidal ideation should seek help immediately:

  • The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1–800–273–8255.
  • If you’re employed, your company-sponsored health insurance policy may also have confidential counseling available — call your health insurance plan’s toll-free number and ask for the phone line to speak to a counselor.
  • There are many mental health resources available to you to find a qualified open ear that can help you navigate a difficult time in your life—please use them!

This novel coronavirus is not a big deal. Almost 60,000 people around the world die from flu annually.

That’s what I thought until the end of February: I wrapped up a trip to San Francisco for RSA Conference 2020 to present and work my employer’s booth. That was followed immediately by a trip to Hawaii for a company-sponsored “Achievers Club” trip, which is essentially a reward to those in sales who exceeded quotas and those, like me in marketing, who contributed to their success.

Hawaii was fantastic and I left on a personal high for being recognized for my contributions to the company’s success the prior year.

“Achievers Club” company trip with my wife in Oahu, Hawaii. The Covid-19 storm was brewing globally around us, but for a few short days we were in paradise.

The Covid-19 news had been building up and I did pay attention, but in my little microcosm all was still well. My wife has a compromised immune system though, so she insisted on wiping everything down in the plane around us and washing our hands whenever necessary.

We got home to Los Angeles March 1. After reading medical articles informed by the work of epidemiologists, I realized: there’s no vaccine for this and there won’t be for up to 12–18 months.

And then the stock market lost all the value built up over three years in just over a month. Americans watched retirement savings take a major hit. (I had hoped that the Great Recession would be the last near-catastrophic financial period of my lifetime, but that was not to be.)

And then came the announcements of “shelter in place,” “work from home” and “stay at home” mandated by municipalities, states and companies.

And then came the news of the Federal government taking action with unprecedented financial proposals to provide aid to 36+ million Americans laid off and prevent the economy from seizing up. And economists are saying the funding to date is still not enough. We risk going into a deep economic depression, one that will be difficult for our nation to claw its way out of.

The Virus Arrives at Our Doorstep

But what made the pandemic situation starkly real for me occurred near my own home: I found out Saturday March 14 that the first cases of Covid-19 in my community were confirmed right in my condo complex:

Two of my neighbors were the residents referenced in the email from our property management firm: the prior Wednesday, March 11, a couple above us were taken away in an ambulance when life was still “normal”: two gentlemen in their late 60s had been taken out of their unit by first responders in hazmat suits—something my wife and I never see in our daily life.

These guys are great neighbors, good people and they are in my thoughts.

The overall shock of what happened, along with all the other Covid-19 impacts on society, hit me hard that evening:

This is not the dystopian novel I want to live in.

No doubt, I’m not the only person on the planet to have the above thought. But circumstances were piling up and I couldn’t ignore the unfolding pandemic any longer.

My wife has a compromised immune system: if she contracts Covid-19, her immune system probably won’t be able to fight back (fact: there are 10+ million Americans with compromised immune systems).

And the lack of PPE medical gear, beds and ventilators has been well documented. All of this added to my anxiety. Unless the curve is flattened over the long term, our medical system will not be able to handle the influx of Covid-19 patients. L.A. County, where I live, has given up on containment and has moved to mitigation.

This is me on a good day doing one of the things I love: listening to music. Now here’s me on an awful day:
(photo by Mattia Ferrari)

Saturday night March 14, I sat alone in my living room staring at a blank television screen for about 30 minutes: all sorts of thoughts raced through my head that I couldn’t stop. I recognized that I was mentally spiraling down a black hole.

I was able to get myself to bed, but for the next few days I was operating on a lot on adrenaline and the days were starting to blur into each other (that’s one effect of being on self-quarantine and I know I’m not alone feeling disoriented from losing in-person interaction with the outside world or co-workers I would normally see in the office).

I know my family and I will come out stronger after all this has passed, though the societal impacts of this health crisis are still not all known.

In this moment, know that it’s normal to feel out of sorts and anxious, and perhaps even angry, that the world’s axis has shifted overnight.

Shelter-in-place mandates and social distancing are not a normal state of being for humans. Even introverts like me like to be around other people, even if we’re not interacting with them.

Trauma: a primary cause of mental health issues

It’s well established by mental health experts that traumatic events in our lives can lead to mental health issues. I can’t possibly cover all the different types of trauma we can go through in a single blog entry, but I can speak to examples from my own life.

I come from a dysfunctional family. Estrangement from parents and siblings and relatives? Yeah, I’ve got that in spades. My parents also fought constantly growing up because neither side’s parents wanted my mom and dad together. Their marriage was doomed from the beginning.

When I see food splattered against a wall or on the floor, I think back to being a kid and hearing my parents fight. My mom (justifiably usually) lost her shit and went into fits of rage regularly and threw pots against the wall. I cleaned many a meal off the wall as a kid.

The most traumatic thing I experienced growing up was watching my mom have a nervous breakdown on a warm summer evening:

I was eight years old at the time. After one of the many fights my parents had, my mother started crying uncontrollably to the point of collapse in our front entry hallway. She bleated out once a minute like a dog in pain, not realizing what she was doing and unable to stop.

Being a warm summer day, we left both the front screen door and side kitchen sliding door open. Those screen doors were all that was between us and our neighbors, many of whom had now gathered in our front yard out of concern: my mother was screaming that loudly.

An ambulance arrived and took my mom to the mental patient wing of McKay-Dee Hospital in Ogden, Utah where I grew up.

Another traumatic event that I didn’t realize I was going through until I got through it: my wife was diagnosed Nov. 2017 with stage zero breast cancer. We’re lucky it was detected early and she had successful surgery to remove the cancerous growths that December. She now gets semi-annual checkups to monitor her health, but this was just another kick in the gut for both of us after her history of dealing with Ankylosing Spondylitis since 2009. AS is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation of the spinal joints and severe, chronic pain and discomfort.

My wife was already suffering for almost eight years with the pain caused by Ankylosing Spondylitis, an auto-immune disease. At the time, my wife’s cancer diagnosis felt like the universe’s way of targeting us and shoving us into a black hole where no one would ever find us.

I’ll never forget the day we showed up at UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica for her cancer surgery: her doctor had originally diagnosed only one breast as having growths needing removal.

The UCLA Outpatient Surgery and Oncology Center in Santa Monica, CA where my wife had cancerous growths removed in December 2017.

“You’re here and you might as well get a mammogram on the other side,” her cancer doctor said. “If we find more growths, we can remove them during the same procedure.”

Made sense, so she had the other side scanned. And thanks to scientific technology that performs a mammogram, more cancerous growths were found in her other breast.

I started having thoughts like:

“How will I raise my sons by myself if I loose her?”

“Why did this have to happen to her?”

I won’t tell you the rest of my family backstory in depth beyond these two situations because everyone has major life stressors and trauma: lost a job, lost loved ones, lost faith in a life partner or family member, etc.

I am not special in that regard:

Loss is part of life.

Disappointment can be abundant at times.

The only requirement to experience loss? Just exist. No one escapes personal loss.

No one.

If you go into a crowded room and ask each person, “What bad things have happened to you in life?” each one can provide an answer. But it’s not the bad stuff we go through in life that defines us — it’s how we respond to the awfulness that shapes us and our outlook on life.

We are now in a collective traumatic experience as we all deal with uncertainty and the loss of the normal aspects of life that existed pre-Covid-19.

That out of the way, this period of isolation will provide people (maybe even you dear reader) plenty of time to take stock of life: take the bad stuff you’ve gone through and are going through right now, look at what you’ve learned during those episodes and take constructive action to turn that loss into personal strength.

The bottom line is this: you should find what you can learn from and grow as an individual during this situation and come out stronger.

I have been in regular therapy since 2008 when a series of family incidents drove me to suicidal ideation. The licensed therapist I’ve been seeing for over a decade has helped me realize that in my case suicidal ideation is an escape hatch. My therapist has also provided me a framework and tools to know when my emotions have taken an irrational control over my mindset — and how to take back control.

Proactive Mental Health Guidance

  1. Exercise: a sound body leads to sound mind. I’ve been a runner since 2014 when I ran the L.A. Marathon. It helps me “run the crazies away.” You don’t have to run a distance event, but engage in physical activity to get the serotonin flowing.
  2. Practice proactive outreach to others: even during shelter-in-place orders, you can find ways to connect with your fellow human beings online or through video chats. Or just pick up the phone and call a friend you haven’t spoken to in a long time.
  3. Define goals and make plans to attain them—and then get to work to realize your goals: Maybe now’s the time to try that side hustle idea you’ve had for months. Or maybe write that long-gestating novel inside you. Or register for an online course to add to your skillset.
  4. Accentuate the positive: negativity is an easy way to think you’re “dealing” with a situation. All you’re doing is pushing your problems out of the way—temporarily. Realize the good things you have around you and focus on those. You family, your friends, the people who stick by you in thick and thin. Build those relationships.
  5. When all else fails, recognize that you need help—and get it: Knowing that suicidal ideation was not normal (but perhaps a valid outcome of the traumas I’ve been through) was the first step on a journey I’ve been making since 2008 to keep my mind in a good place. Or as my therapist reminds me from time to time:

Everything changes when you see everything as an opportunity for something good.

Coda: Find a Way Forward

As a cyber security marketer, I’ve learned that part of defending against attacks is to monitor the attack surface (that is, know the ways attackers can reach you) and understand the tactics, techniques and procedures adversaries can leverage to come at you. Doing so means having a plan in place to deal with various attack scenarios. Likewise, dealing with life’s challenges, setbacks and dark spots is no different:

  • Know the ways you can frame your thoughts so they are helpful, not inhibiting.
  • Find your trusted allies you can lean on when times get tough.
  • Take steps to fortify your mental state. Don’t engage in pointless self-sabotage.
  • Above all else, understand that in periods of darkness, you must be your own source of light. No one will do that for you — and it’s the necessary first step in knowing that to help yourself, you must reach out to others.

I’m going to end this entry with one of my favorite Martin Luther King Jr. quotes.

Just keep moving, even in the bad times. That’s how you move forward.

Postscript: while I composed this article, my wife informed me that one member of the couple in our condo complex that contracted Covid-19 has died. Thankfully the other person has recovered. It’d be easy to dwell on the negative, but instead I choose to remember my neighbor was a good, helpful person, always ready with a smile and helpful thing to say. He will not be forgotten.

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