BELGRADE LAKES, Maine — Two things you can say about spring in Maine. One, that May comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. And also that June showers bring July flowers.
It’s always a long winter here, but this year it has been longer than ever, and not only because on April 10 we got nearly a foot of snow. This year, along with most others in America, we have been shut inside, feeling the weight of winter — as well as the weight of many other things as well.
One of the members of our sheltering family has felt that burden more heavily than the others. This family member gave me permission to write about their struggle, but only if I kept some of the identifying details vague.
My loved one opened their eyes that day and felt what they often feel now: a sense of impending dread, a sense of hopelessness, the fear that they are trapped.
And some days are like May 1, when the battle seemed like it was not worth fighting anymore.
They imagined how much easier things would be if they were not here. They imagined what it would be like not to feel, endlessly, as if the world was crushing them. Instead, they imagined getting into their car and crashing it into a tree.
That’s when they started weeping and hyperventilating and spiraling. That’s when something inside them snapped like a dry branch. That’s when we realized that our loved one was now in very deep trouble.
We picked up the phone and called the state crisis line. We were offered an evaluation by phone four hours later.
What was going on at our house that day has been going on in other houses since these terrible days began. Nearly half of Americans report that the coronavirus crisis is affecting their mental health. A federal disaster-distress hotline for people in crisis received about 20,000 texts in April compared with 1,790 during the same time last year.
“People are really afraid,” Oren Frank, head of an online therapy company, Talkspace, told The Washington Post. “What’s shocking to me is how little leaders are talking about this. There are no White House briefings about it. There is no plan.”
To be clear: Every day the coronavirus is kills hundreds — sometimes over a thousand — Americans. But there’s another, less visible pandemic as well, a crisis of mental health.
My loved one has battled anxiety many times before. But this is the first time they ever felt as if there was no way out.
When the evaluation was over, the doctors here told us it might be best for our loved one to be placed for a few days in a “crisis bed” — a kind of station halfway between home and full hospitalization. After talking this over, we all agreed that this was a good solution for now.
Except that because of the Covid-19 crisis, all the beds were full.
We were counseled to in the meantime hide all the sharp items in our house and to secure all the medications, which we did.
The next day, we got an alert that there was a black bear loose in our neighborhood. We don’t see many bears in our small Maine village during the year, but they’ve been known to prowl around in spring, overturning trash cans, emptying the bird feeders. A friend sent us a photograph from a wildlife camera just up the street from our house. The picture was taken in the dark night. The bear’s eyes glowed like searchlights.
“Did you see this?” I said to my wife. “Now we have to worry about bears!”
From the next room I heard the sound of someone breathing hard, and I feared that my loved one was spiraling again.
But no: This time, they were laughing.
The more we talked about the crisis bed situation, the more restless we all became about it. Because yes, it would be a good thing to get treatment. But at the same time, that is a situation where social distancing would be harder to maintain. Am I going to be safe there? my loved one wondered. We were assured that the crisis bed would be safe. But some variation on this question is now the one we’re all asking ourselves.
Are we safe anywhere? What does it mean to be safe?
On Saturday afternoon, May 2, after more consultation with doctors and counselors, our loved one’s medication was changed. This, along with the knowledge that there was a plan of action for making things better, helped them find the calm that had eluded them. The ongoing condition has not been cured — the definition of what a “cure” would mean is not even all that clear.
But the storm had passed. The crisis center advised that it made more sense for them to stay at home for now. There weren’t any more bear sightings, either.
That night I made deep-dish pizza in a springform pan — I call my variation on it Dank Dish. We watched “The Two Towers” on TV. If you didn’t know better, you’d think the five of us didn’t have a care in the world.
But we knew better.
I asked my loved one what message they’d like to give people at this time. “Everyone is struggling,” they said. “People should know they don’t have to do this alone and that what they’re feeling will not last forever. Many other people are feeling what you’re feeling. This is not your fault.”
The sun came out at the end of the day on Saturday, and some of the leaves on the trees seemed poised to finally open.
It is always hard to believe, at the end of a long Maine winter, that brighter days are really here. It’s typical for Mainers to look at the sky, even in May, and say, well, we might get one more storm, you never know.
I’m pretty sure there are more storms ahead — for my loved one and for all of us living through these hard, strange times. If and when the storms return to our family, we will deal with them as best we can, together.
The coronavirus pandemic has changed all of our lives in one way or another. For some of us, our pets have become our co-workers and daily confidants. Jennifer Finney Boylan will be going live on Instagram on Thursday at 3 p.m. Eastern with @nytopinion, where she’ll discuss her new book, “Good Boy,” as well as what dogs can help us learn about ourselves during the pandemic.
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