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  • Vanessa Bartlett

isolation & the aftermath - mental illness during the pandemic

Writer Vanessa Bartlett rehashes her time as a couch-surfing, mentally ill young adult trying to heal during the pandemic.

When I tell people my parents kicked me out, their eyes widen in concern. They wonder what degree of depravity I exhibited to deserve it. When I tell them it happened at the beginning of the pandemic, they wonder what kind of ignorant, cruel people my parents must be. The truth is somewhere in that weird middle ground, tangled in those infuriating bonds that make up a family.

The exact way it all went down is really the most mundane part of this. A neighbor puts a note in our cat’s collar. They ask if she is being taken care of. I sent a text to the phone number on the note, and assured our nosy neighbor that the cat was being fed.

A day or so later, I was in my room, taking a Zoom class. It was early May, and finals were breathing down my neck. My father came in and inquired about the note. I said I could get it to him later, but I was in class at the moment. He again asked me to find him the note. I said I would do it later. He reiterated that he needed the note immediately. I asked why the hell he needed it right away. I said he was acting crazy.

Crazy? Crazy. Get out of my house. If you’re going to talk about me like that, get out of my house. My father is a raging paranoiac, and my comment had threatened him. At first I couldn’t believe he would say that. I didn’t think he meant it. I asked my mother if I should really leave, and she said, “I don’t care.”

I wanted to vanish. So I packed what I needed. I sent my friends a photo of my belongings on the curb as I waited for someone to pick me up, and captioned it “homeless check!”

There had been whispers of my departure, willing or not, for a while in the house. My mother had secretly not wanted me to go to college, and I think I hurt her when I left for my freshman year.

When I got my scholarship, I ran to tell my mother the good news. Since elementary school, my parents had told me that if I didn’t get a full ride to college, there was nothing they could do to help me. They both have college educations themselves, so they know better than to believe in the American daydream of upward mobility. But when I told my mother that I was really going to be able to do it, she looked away and said that I should still look into the local community college. “Saves money,” she mumbled. This was her way of justifying herself to me: if she was going to ask me to stay, it would be for practicality’s sake.

My parents both found reasons not to attend my high school graduation. “I have a mortgage to pay”, my father said, bluntly. My mother demurred for a bit before she told me that my sister would be graduating on the same day, and she would be going to that instead. I snapped at her then. “Oh, by all means. Your third daughter only graduates from preschool once!” I don’t think either of them could rationalize the fact that I was succeeding. They dared me to do it on my own.

A slight digression, but I think my parents knew before I did that I wasn’t entirely straight. It did not sit well with my devoutly Catholic mother. They would see my friends pick me up sometimes - girls with buzzcuts, who wore binders and boxers. Guys who were too ‘flamboyant’, whatever that means. Androgynous friends, transgender friends. My mother would ask, hope in her voice, if I was dating any of the guys, and I would say no, not in a million years. I didn’t know how to deal with it, but I knew I couldn’t do it until I was out of the house. There is something to be said here about the homelessness epidemic amongst LGBTQ youth. I am not the only person whose identity might have caused a schism in their household. According to a study by the True Colors Fund, 1.6 million youths in America are homeless. Out of those, 40% identify as LGBTQ. Obviously, I think there are other factors behind these statistics, an important one being wealth, or lack thereof.

What I’m trying to say is that the writing was on the wall for a long time before it happened, and in some way, I think I must have wanted it to happen. When I explained this to my therapist, she shook her head. “Did you have to leave?” she asked. I couldn’t answer. I did have to. But I don’t think my parents would have forced me to leave.

I always thought I was an independent person. I always thought I needed to get away from my family, move out quickly and start being my own person the minute I had the opportunity. But now that they’d kicked me out, I didn’t have that drive. All I wanted was to go back. And it killed me.

That summer was terrible. I lived with a friend from high school - a friend of a friend, really, but her family liked me. I was always walking on eggshells, convinced that if I put a toe out of line they would remove me like an ingrown hair. I was right to feel that way, it turned out. My friend is gay, she has a girlfriend, and her mother hated it. I defended her, and was punished for it. The world iced me out. My friend blamed me for her worsened relationship with her parents, and her mother saw me as an ungrateful, callous leech who wanted to destroy her family.

My friend’s mother told me at the end of the summer that the only reason she let me stay was because she had gotten me a job working for one of her friends, and she didn’t want her friend to have to find someone else to do it. I liked that job. It was four days a week, sitting at the front desk of a chiropractor’s office, but the best part was that I would be alone for almost nine hours a day. I would sit there and torture myself, replaying what had happened to me over and over in my head. Filing paperwork, trying not to cry, eating lunch, checking in new patients. I could almost breathe.

That summer, I became convinced that I was a despicable person, someone who was only to be put up with, not enjoyed. I destroyed a friendship. I broke up with my then-boyfriend. Relationships were like minefields. I was spinning out. Too much was happening.

I don’t recognize the person I was then. I was in survival mode. I didn’t think it would end. There are a few reasons why it did end, why I was able to recover, and why I’m able to talk about it now.

First, my current boyfriend. We started dating that summer, and in the beginning I was convinced that he would leave me. I know, it sounds SO healthy! But in all seriousness, he saved me. We had known each other for a year, and before we started dating (after I got kicked out), he had been checking in on me daily. He was worried about me, he cared about my well-being. I couldn’t understand why. He would drive to me, four hours round-trip, and bring me to his place on the weekends because I told him how bad it made me feel to live with my friend’s family. At some point, I realized that I was being loved. It blew my mind. It made me so scared. When I went back to school, I nearly ruined it about a thousand times. It sounds so Blink-182, but I honestly was the manic, depressed girlfriend who needed constant reassurance that things were okay.

Our relationship started working after I started going to therapy. It took a few months, but I’m glad we both stuck it out. I don’t know where I would be without him, or without my therapist.

I had to fight my university to get them to pay for my health insurance. I didn’t have the money for it, but the threat of an ongoing pandemic was the exact kind of legitimate reasoning I needed in order to get it paid for. I got a grant. Frequently I wonder what would have happened to me if I didn’t have access to the resources that I do. I’m grateful. Not many people in my position are so lucky.

Therapy and mental health treatments are priced as luxuries, even though they are necessary for almost everyone. Without insurance, my therapy sessions would cost upwards of $200 a pop. This is especially problematic during the COVID-19 pandemic: according to research conducted by the Boston University School of Public Health, rates of depression have worsened significantly since 2020. Now, 1 in 3 Americans suffers from depression, up from just 8.5% prior to the pandemic. Insurance and benefits that would cover therapy typically come with the privilege of employment, and during the worst of the pandemic, unemployment rates peaked at 14.7%. Essentially, the number of people in need of mental health treatment skyrocketed, but simultaneously, the number of people who would feasibly be able to access that treatment plummeted.

About 14% of Americans live below the poverty line, and mental health treatment often takes the backseat to paying the bills, as I know from personal experience, and from watching my parents. My father was a victim of abuse throughout his childhood. He grew up in a neighborhood steeped in gang violence, drugs and trauma. In his 20’s he suffered from psychosis and PTSD symptoms. The fact that he was able to get his GED, learn a trade, get married, start a family, and keep a steady job is in itself a miracle. My mother left Japan and moved to the U.S. by herself at sixteen years old because of her fraught relationship with her own parents. She is a professional opera singer and piano tuner who now works as a janitor at a Catholic school. I believe she is sometimes severely depressed.

None of this was helped by the fact that we have always been very poor. Would money have solved everything? Of course not. But it might have been easier for my parents to get treatment. But bills had to be paid, cars would break down, unexpected medical expenses would crop up. Food had to be put on the table. Personal problems would never be as important as keeping a roof over your head. As long as mental health is not a priority for our society, as long as help remains out of reach for those who cannot afford access, generational trauma will continue compounding.

My story is honestly not that special or unique. It is a part of a broader narrative, one that spans the racial, socio-economic, and inter-generational issues which are the hallmark of our times. All of these factors play into whether a person will be able to get the help they need. And if people don’t get help, they run the risk of getting worse, destroying relationships and alienating the people who care about them. Hurt people can sometimes hurt people. Cycles of pain will continue until someone or something intervenes.

I have slowly been reopening lines of communication with my family. I talk to my siblings on Discord, where they send me their drawings, complain about their teachers and try to get me to play Among Us with them. I have visited home twice: once after Christmas in 2020, and once last summer. I call my mother whenever my siblings have a birthday, and we catch each other up on our lives in a superficial way. My parents have not apologized, and I do not expect them to.

When I visited over the summer, my sister Vivian tried to give my boyfriend one of her favorite toys, a plush lizard. She pulled on my shirt and made me kneel down so I could look her in the eye. She’s only in first grade, and I don’t know if anyone really told her what happened, why I had to go. She said “You can come back, if you want.” She thinks that I want to be away from her. I picked her up, hugged her, and whispered, “You don’t need to worry about me.”

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