Pandemic Diary: April 19th, 2020 (Please Do Not Worry About Me)

This morning, I am reading a story from the Minneapolis/St. Paul Star Tribune newspaper, about an Ironman triathlete in his thirties (clearly healthy by any standard, and fitter than most people) who very nearly died from COVID-19.

Coronavirus survivor Ben O’Donnell (source)

If this is not a warning that the young and healthy are not immune to COVID-19, I don’t know what is. And, as someone who is not-so-young and definitely-not-so-healthy, it is worrisome. I cannot get this virus. I will not get this virus, even if I have to self-isolate in my apartment until there is a vaccine (which is estimated to take 12 to 18 months, if things move at hyperspeed).

Many of you who are reading this blog have reached out to me to express your concern. I want to assure everybody that I am coping as best I can under the circumstances. Yes, it means that some days I will not lie and say that everything is fine, because frankly, some days are rough.

But I will continue to do the best I can to take care of myself, and reach out for help when appropriate. I check in with my psychiatrist who prescribes my anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications biweekly, and I have now entered into a second counselling relationship with a friend of a trusted friend, who has experience with peer counselling in a healthcare setting and has worked as a volunteer at a crisis hotline.

If things get bad (and by “bad”, I mean that my chronic clinical depression makes a serious and long-lasting resurgence), then I will do what needs to be done, go back on sick leave from work, and focus on getting better again. I know the drill; I’ve had it happen to me before and I will get through this. The last time I went on sick leave for depression, I was away for two-and-a-half years, but I fought my way back (with the help of virtual reality, which I firmly believe got my neurons firing properly again) and I have every intention of fighting just as hard if the blackness and bleakness descends upon me again.

Back then, I wrote:

I’ve been under a doctor’s treatment for depression since my mid-twenties, and I probably would have benefitted from seeking treatment even sooner than that. At times, my episodes of depression have been so severe that I have had to go on extended sick leaves from work. I’ve even been hospitalized twice when I was at my very worst. I have had to work very hard to crawl back from the edge of the black pit of despair, more than once in my life.

I first got my Oculus Rift headset back in January 2017, when I was on sick leave for depression from my job, and my life was feeling pretty bleak. Shortly afterwards, I also got the Oculus Touch hand controllers to be able to handle objects in VR.

I have no scientific proof, but I do believe that using that VR headset regularly—creating art using TiltBrush and Oculus Medium, using apps like Guided Meditation VR and Nature Treks VR, and interacting with other avatars and exploring new experiences in High Fidelity and the then-closed Sansar beta—was indeed a beneficial factor in my most recent recovery from depression. The best way I can describe it was that VR got my neurons firing again!

Some would no doubt argue that too much use of a VR headset is isolating, which I can understand if you are only playing solo games, or spending innumerable hours immersed in VR. However, in many games, and especially in most social VR spaces, you are often interacting with other people, which would counteract the isolation aspect somewhat. I also strongly recommend taking the time to build up your tolerance to VR, starting from sessions as short as 10-15 minutes, and building up slowly from that. I am a little concerned when I hear about people who boast logging 5, 6, 7, 8, or even more hours at one stretch in VR. Everything in moderation is the key here.

And when you’re too depressed to set foot outside your front door, it can sometimes be easier to slip on a VR headset to visit people and places! No need to get dressed up, or to put on your “happy face” to face the world. There have often been times in the past when I have felt extremely anxious, and I was able to load up the Nature Treks VR app in my Oculus Rift and relax on a calm, sandy beach lined with swaying palm trees, listening to the pounding surf, or just put myself within a mountain-ringed meadow of wildflowers, watching birds and butterflies. Much cheaper than an actual flight to a vacation spot! And you can revisit any time you like, with very little fuss.

I do find it ironic that the empty space I cleared in my bedroom to use my wireless Oculus Quest VR headset is now piled with canned goods and other pandemic preps! However, I still have my trusty original Oculus Rift VR headset, which I still use almost daily. In fact, I even brought home the Oculus Rift and Touch from my work computer (purchased for my suspended research project), sitting in its original box in the middle of my messy living room, and I can honestly say that I have an emergency back-up unit in case any part of my current Oculus Rift/Touch setup fails on me! (The cable attaching the Rift to my high-end gaming computer seems to be the thing that gives out first, according to various user reports.)

When I went to pick up my upholstered office chair last week to soothe my raggedy ass (link is quite safe for work), I also took home my work PC’s ergonomic keyboard and wireless mouse, in case either of those on my personal computer goes kaput on me while in self-isolation, Yes, I have worn through a couple of keyboards and mice in my day. At the moment, I have literally rubbed off the letters on some of the keys on my Microsoft ergonomic keyboard! Good thing I am (almost) a touch typist.

One final note. And I am going to put this is boldface type to make it extra clear:

I use this blog to vent.

In other words, this is an outlet for me. If I am having a bad day, you will most certainly hear about it. This does not mean that I am in any imminent danger of self-harm. It just means that I am complaining about things that are going wrong and how I am feeling, just the same as I would complain to my best friend or my Mom or my shrink about having a bad day.

Some people (in those oh-so-far-away pre-pandemic days) would go to the gym or to the bar and complain to their workout friends or their drinking buddies. I complain to my internet community: to my Discord server, to other Discord servers I belong to (and believe me, I keep bumping up against that 100-Discord-community limit all the time!), to the Second Life community forums (everybody knows Vanity Fair is Ryan Schultz, honey!), to my social networks like Twitter and Reddit…you name it. I have outlets, and I know how to use them. I’m sure you do too, if you think about it.

If what I share here on this blog concerns and worries you, and if you choose to reach out to me to check that I’m doing okay, God bless you for your thoughtfulness and kindness. But please, be assured that I know what I have to do to take care of myself. It’s been learned through 56 years of trial and error, sometimes the hard way, but I have learned.

So please don’t worry overmuch about me if I do vent here. It’s just steam and a whistle from a kettle, and the water has been boiling at quite a pace this past month.

Photo by John-Mark Smith on Unsplash

Stay safe and stay healthy!

Pandemic Diary: April 18th, 2020

So I snapped a selfie on my way to the nearest garbage bin at my apartment complex this morning:

I am wearing one of the cloth masks that my Mom made for me (she also knitted the scarf I am wearing in this picture). I really miss going to my Mom’s for Sunday dinner.

It has now been a full month since I started self-isolation in my apartment, having received permission from my employer, the University of Manitoba Libraries, to work from home since Monday, March 16th.

How am I doing? Well, not well. But not badly, either. I’m still slipping back and forth between a few uncomfortable emotional states: anxiety, depression, anger. I am taking Lorzepam for the anxiety, but I know that I can’t keep relying on it when my nerves are bad, because I could become dependent upon it, and my psychiatrist tells me that I could suffer rebound anxiety as a result of using it too often. So I reserve the Lorazepam for when I feel especially anxious, which has happened a few times this week.

As for my depression, I can usually judge how bad things are by how many unwashed dishes I leave on my kitchen counter. At the moment, I have a week’s worth of dirty dishes piled up on the counter. It’s a sign that I am not doing so well, when I start to put off chores like that. So I need to pull my socks up.

I know that I am not the only person who is struggling. This week I read an article from SELF magazine, titled 17 Totally Normal Things to Feel Right Now, According to Therapists, and I could relate to a whole lot of them. Here’s the list, along with some quotes from that article:

  • I feel burned out. “Think about it: Every aspect of adjusting to a “new normal” demands energy from you, whether that’s the bandwidth you’re expending keeping up on the news or the weird learning curve of doing your job remotely. Meanwhile, so many of the ways we typically recharge are off the table right now: seeing friends, hitting up happy hour, going to the gym, or whatever self-care activity of yours that the pandemic has derailed. ‘There are so many more things draining us than things fortifying us right now…That’s a recipe for burnout right there.’”
  • I feel angry. “You probably don’t need me to tell you that there are a lot of things to be angry about right now, whether you’re frustrated at people who aren’t taking this seriously enough or have a lot of feelings about how the pandemic is being handled on a structural level.”
  • I am spiraling about what might happen: “The uncertainty of the pandemic—and the long-term impact it will have on both a personal level and a larger scale—is one of the most common themes the therapists I talked to have come across in their work. That should come as no surprise to anyone going through a ton of anxiety right now; there is just so much we can’t predict…’Anxiety rises due to the fear of the unknown, and right now, many things are not known…I have been hearing people worrying about running out of food or supplies. People are afraid that they will lose their homes or cars due to being out of work.’ The list goes on. The important part to remember is that most people are grappling with uncertainty right now, and it’s normal to feel terrified.”
  • I am struggling with working from home. “Transitioning from a typical work setup to working from home has caused a lot of stress, angst, and frustration for a ton of people.”
  • I am mourning canceled events. I miss my monthly arts and entertainment group meeting (although we are scheduling a Zoom meetup on Sunday). I miss the older gay men’s dining out group. I miss being at work and being around my coworkers and the students and faculty at my university.
  • I want a hug. As someone who is self-isolating alone in my apartment, I can’t even remember the last time someone touched me.
  • I feel guilty about my relative safety, security, and privilege. I was much more physically and logistically prepared for this pandemic than most people I know. I have a couple of months of food on hand, and 3 months’ worth of all my prescription medications. I don’t need to leave my home for anything except absolutely essential trips or emergencies. But I do feel guilty that other people, who wouldn’t, couldn’t, or didn’t prepare, are struggling, perhaps even suffering. Hell, there are people on this planet who are facing this pandemic without access to clean, running water.
  • I am grieving. “While it’s true some people undoubtedly are dealing with the loss of loved ones to COVID-19, therapists are noticing grief in other ways too. Most people are grappling with some kind of loss…whether that’s the loss of a job, your freedom, your feeling of safety, or your vision of how your life should be going. All of that can trigger a deep sense of grief, though many people don’t recognize it for what it is.”
  • I am feeling inadequate about my productivity. “‘One issue that I’m seeing is people feeling guilt about not being productive enough while at home in isolation..From day one after lockdown orders, many clients felt that they were wasting time and failing miserably at the transition to working from home. There is also pressure to learn languages, take courses, master finances, and do all the things. Productivity porn is very loud right now.’ That noise can be difficult to drown out, so don’t feel bad if this is something you’re struggling with. ‘We live in a nation in which many of us are accustomed to engaging in activities centered around thriving…Unfortunately, much of that focus must be shifted to surviving right now. Be kind to yourself as we shift and refuse to be guilty for not being productive.’
  • And sometimes, I just feel numb. “With everything going on, it might alarm you to wake up one day and realize you feel…nothing at all. That’s to be expected too. Even in the most chaotic of times, it’s impossible to be on emotional high alert 24/7. ‘I think of it in terms of adrenaline…You can only have adrenaline coursing through your veins for so long until the body has to reset and simmer down.’ Same goes for emotions, especially the longer this goes on.”

On top of everything else, I feel exhausted, and I have been struggling with insomnia. Once again, a night of restless sleep detached and inactivated one of my expensive LibreLink blood sugar sensors, so I have had to replace it before it was due to expire in 14 days. This is the second time this has happened since I started using this system, and it is frustrating.

Even just writing this blogpost seems to have brought me down, by making me realize just how much I am trying to cope with. Small wonder I am struggling. It would be overwhelming to anybody.

So I am just going to keep on keeping on, using this blog as my pandemic diary. I know that I have supports in place (anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication, talk therapy, my social network) to keep me safe, grounded, and sane. We don’t know how long this public health emergency will take to pass. We don’t know when the restrictions that have been placed on all our lives will start to be lifted.

But we do know that this will not be forever. I have to hold on tight to that belief, putting my faith in all the doctors and scientists who are working to create a vaccine to end this nightmare.

Stay safe, and stay healthy!

Editorial: Three Different Community Responses to a Coronavirus Pandemic

Panic Shopping: Australian shoppers fighting over rolls of toilet paper (source)

My distress, anxiety, depression, and anger over the coronavirus pandemic have not subsided since I received permission from my employer to work from home. My initial sense of relief proved to be very short-lived. I now worry that I might be tipping over into full-blown agoraphobia—afraid to leave the house for anything.

Even though we only have 4 confirmed cases of COVID-19 here in Winnipeg, I have postponed, then cancelled, my regular Friday night supper with my long-suffering, unflappable best friend John, and I have also cancelled my Sunday evening dinner with my mother and stepfather. In all cases, they understand and are sympathetic. As John said on the phone to me today, “You’re just Ryan.”—almost exactly what my supervisor at work told me earlier this week. (To steal a line from Games of Thrones: It is known.)

I do have a rather lamentable tendency to panic, overreact, and infect other people with my anxiety and depression. (I apologized to two coworkers yesterday for stepping out of bounds in my eagerness to warn people about the risks.) The problem is, of course, that we as a society have never faced such an unprecedented global public health situation like this before, so everybody is guessing at what the normal response should be. We are going to see a lot of people stressing out (and acting out) over this, I am afraid. Here is my constantly-updated list of mental health resources during a coronavirus pandemic.

Microbiologist Dr. Siouxsie Wiles (whom I am following on Twitter) has released a series of helpful animated GIFs which illustrate important concepts that the public need to grasp about this COVID-19 pandemic. I shared one of her GIFs in this March 10th blogpost, and below is a second, new one:

Basically, this picture shows three different community responses to a pandemic:

  • No collective response, which leads to a spike of cases that quickly overwhelms healthcare systems (as we saw in Hubei province in China, and now in Italy, where they are making life-and-death triage decisions for intensive care beds and ventilators);
  • A strong collective response, which “flattens the curve” to keep the total number of cases at any one time to within hospital capacities (this is the ideal response);
  • A strong, but only short-term, collective response, which only postpones the deadly spike of cases over time.

The situation in Italy is currently grim, and it should as a stern warning for other countries; we are not immune to a sharp spike in cases happening here, especially if there is community resistance to quarantines and the imposition of social distancing policies.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has just announced the border restrictions that among the toughest in the world, in a country that so far only has seen only six confirmed cases of COVID-19:

Countries around the world continued Saturday to enact strict measures such as border closures and flight cancellations to combat the spread of the novel COVID-19 coronavirus.

That includes New Zealand, whose Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced Saturday the government will implement a policy under which all travelers, even New Zealanders, must self-isolate upon their arrival in the country for 14 days starting Sunday at midnight.

Ardern said New Zealand, along with Israel and several Pacific Island nations, “will have the widest ranging and toughest border restrictions of any country in the world,” adding that she’s not making any apologies in this “unprecedented time.” All cruise ships will be banned from coming to New Zealand until June 30, as well. There are only six confirmed cases and no deaths attributed to COVID-19 in New Zealand so far.

Contrast this timely, science-based approach with the actions of the Donald Trump administration, which apparently tried to overrule Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations that seniors avoid airline flights and that they should remain at home as much as possible.

Donald Trump’s rambling, pompous, error-filled, and shambolic public pronouncements about the coronavirus crisis have done no favours to the U.S. populace. It’s very clear that Trump cares more about protecting industries such as cruiselines, airlines, and hotels, than he does about the U.S. citizens he was elected to protect.

The longer that the U.S. practices such poor risk communication to the public, the worse the overall reaction will be. Notice the levels of panic shopping now taking place all across the world? That’s a direct result of people being lulled into a false sense of security, suddenly triggered into panic mode. The “it’s just the flu” bros are waking up en masse, and ransacking grocery stores and pharmacies.

Like I said, welcome to the new normal.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

P.S. Please don’t worry about me; I am still seeing my psychiatrist regularly, and I am practicing good self-care at home, including taking breaks from the relentless news media coverage. To quote Gloria Gaynor: I will survive!

Editorial: Welcome to the New Normal

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

I don’t know about you, but things have been happening so fast that it’s making my head spin.

Today, both the provinces of Alberta and Quebec announced the essential shut down of all their post-secondary educational institutions, with a wholesale move away from in-person classes and exams to online equivalents. Originally, my employer, the University of Manitoba, was going to try and keep classrooms open to students, but late this afternoon the university president sent out an email:

Yesterday I communicated our commitment to taking measures to protect the health and safety of our campuses and our wider community. Our top priority is doing our part to help contain the transmission of COVID-19.

In that same spirit, today I am announcing that there will be no classes on Monday, March 16 and Tuesday, March 17. The University campuses will remain open on those days, but there will no classes.

This two-day pause allows the University to prepare to move classes to alternative modes of instruction.

To be clear, as of Wednesday, March 18 there will NO IN-PERSON CLASSES, with rare exceptions that will be communicated directly to those affected. All in-person undergraduate and research-stream Master’s and Doctoral instruction will end March 13. Instruction will be provided by other means that may include existing online platforms. This will continue through the end of the term on April 7.

Our staff are working hard to keep as much of the University operational as possible. The University remains open and we are continuing to provide students with as many essential services as possible under the circumstances. Please keep referring to umanitoba.ca for information and updates.

Among those essential services are the university libraries, which will try to remain in operation as long as possible.

Effective Monday, March 16th, I (along with other Libraries staff who are at a higher risk of having a severe case of COVID-19 if they become infected with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus) will be working from home.

I am so truly grateful that my employer has given me the option to stay home. My stress levels have just been going through the roof, and this week I was rapidly heading off into loose-cannon territory, with both my anxiety and depression spiraling out of control. I was on the verge of getting a sick note from my psychiatrist, and taking sick time.

Hopefully, now that I know I can essentially barricade myself in my apartment, surrounded with all my pandemic preps, I can finally breathe a sigh of relief, and try to relax and heal a bit.

My heart goes out to all my coworkers whom I am leaving behind, who are going to try and cover as best they can, and keep the libraries open for as long as they can. Today we were all busy shutting down every second workstation and study carrel in our libraries, putting up signs and removing chairs in order to enforce social distancing. (No sitting next to each other anymore!) We’ve also shut down several “high-touch” automated services, such as our 24/7 reserve kiosks and our iPad-based self-checkout terminals. We’re going back to the old ways of doing things!

In addition, the province of Manitoba has now followed Ontario and many other jurisdictions in announcing that, effective Monday March 23rd, all K-12 schools in Manitoba will be closed for 3 weeks as a proactive measure. This will obviously pull even more University of Manitoba Libraries workers away from their jobs as they are forced to stay home and care for their children.

We are in unprecedented times, and venturing into uncharted territory. Like I said, everything is happening so fast that it makes me dizzy. I’m sure most of you are feeling the same way.