In Linda Rand’s latest Pandemic Diaries entry “Nervous Breakdown,” she reviews the current state of affairs, navigating these times, and managing stress.
What does it take to have a nervous breakdown? I ask myself while driving, thankful that I finally found my car. It’s a hot day. We had just gotten through some anthropogenic climate change in Portland, topping off at 116 degrees. It was the earliest 100-degree heatwave in PDX ever on record. Plants were burned regardless of how much they were watered while an oven-hot current shook tree branches, bits of nest and dried pine needles drifted down from high in the sky. They reminded me of last year’s ashes from the fires and I shivered despite the heat. I watched poppies bloom, only to shrivel. Hosta leaves bleached white and curled. It felt unearthly—like Mars. No birds sang.
According to the Oregon State Medical Examiner, the human death toll was 116 people ranging in age from 37 – 97 from heat-related illness. It is common to not have air conditioning because 20 years ago it was laughable to think you’d need it here, the land of rain and moss. Except rain and moss are rarer than they used to be. The MAX light rail and Portland Streetcar had to suspend service for days because of a melted cable. The unnatural heat killed an estimated one billion sea creatures off the PNW coast, cooked to death; mussel and clam shells still clinging to rocks, agape in futile supplication.
After camping out in the basement, thankful for the cool cement floor, I was invited to Seattle to celebrate my birthday. Bars were reopened to late hours, vaccinated people were welcome to mingle maskless. We sat at the bar by an open door, fans blowing through the windows. The bartender was charming and engaged, gifted kamikaze shots he drank with us. We traded Portland stories for Seattle stories, drank elderflower liquor mixed with vodka, then became distracted by the huge TV screen turning a lurid red with a large script describing the Delta variant, how it can evade the immune system and is twice as transmissible. It is currently the most troubling out of the six new variants that are of concern.
We had just been talking about climate change refugees and my friend said, “That’s convenient. We’ll have fewer places to live and now a virus is reducing the global population.”
“Do you think there’s a connection?” I asked, intrigued by the idea and enjoying the looseness of my body leaning on the wooden bar, relaxed for the first time in who knew how long, a lovely breeze lingering on our skin.
“Yes, and I think we’re out of resources. If there’s another surge, I don’t think there’ll be another lockdown. They’ll just let it burn through.”
“Really?” I exclaim as I finish the pulpy deliciousness of another shot our bartender friend has brought over.
Business owners are struggling, and our country is in the throes of late-stage capitalism. Some people would rather have COVID take its course than shut down again. Plus, people have Pandemic Fatigue. Maybe it’s End Times Fatigue. The West Coast has been on fire alert. The Bootleg Fire, which is in Oregon’s Fremont-Winema National Forest, caused by lightning, has been raging since June 6th. Fireworks in the summer seem ludicrous—suicidal and archaic, really. Governor Kate Brown banned them this year, but explosions happened all night long on the 4th anyway … because America.
Being out of town for the first time was a respite but driving back was grueling. We took turns letting the other drowse, stop-and-go traffic wore us down, and my ex kept sending stressful texts. Commissions were waiting and bills too, with no lover’s arms waiting for me, no whispered words in my ear telling me, “I got you.” Such is life and these are common predicaments at that. But once I returned to town, I couldn’t sleep. Four days went by and I wasn’t eating either, unable to connect to a feeling of being nurtured. I would make myself eat two bites of something because I still wanted coffee in the morning and maybe a cocktail at night and I didn’t want to burn away my stomach lining. I knew this wasn’t sustainable. I was over-stimulated, over-stressed, and without an emotional oasis; and now here I was, in a neighborhood I wasn’t used to, dropping off an art commission in NW.
When I hurriedly left the car, beeping the fob to make sure it was locked, I knew I could find it again on the GPS of my phone after my appointment. Except, on the way back, my phone died as I was turning onto Thurman, too preoccupied to realize it was in the red, layers of freeway overpass above me, closed businesses, flaming cataract of sun, and encampments of people without houses. There were no sidewalks visible anymore. Human life was spilling forth as far as I could see. I walked in the narrow path left in the middle of the road, careful not to step on any belongings of the people busy in various states of living. I strained to see my car at the numerous crossroads, sometimes hitting the alarm button to see if I could hear its wail from a distance, but nothing. Nothing. I walked over an hour, remembering that life used to be this way. You could be small, adrift, lost forever, no GPS, no way for anyone to find you.
I walked over an hour, remembering that life used to be this way. You could be small, adrift, lost forever, no GPS, no way for anyone to find you.
So many people around me, busy with their tents, organizing their belongings, passed out, fighting with each other. A luxury SUV turned onto the street and pulled close behind me; within it was a bespectacled guy looking irritated that he had to drive slow for a block before turning onto a different street, zero compassion on his face. He didn’t seem to get why I had to walk in the middle of HIS street which was for cars of course. I didn’t have enough energy to feel indignant or engage with him in any way. I just hoped to get through this, felt like I matched the energy around me, felt invisible and blended in, as not one other person registered my presence.
Then, in one of the numerous empty cement block buildings, a little neon light shined “open” in lowercase rainbow letters through a small high window. I picked up my pace, thought, Oh my god, please have a charger.
Up the steps, then I swung the door open, shocked it wasn’t locked, and a rush of cool air met me. Three tall guys grinned broadly at me. I realized it was a shoe store for size 14 and up. There were signed basketball star footprints on the walls, and they expressed genuine interest in me and my situation. They had been talking about moving their store’s location before I walked in.
I said, “You guys saved my life.”
They said, “We’re just normal guys.”
I said, “Normal people save lives all the time.”
Laughter, jokes, commiseration, and in ten minutes I was in my car. Five minutes of charging the phone and five minutes of purposeful walking, the route clearly defined.
Sitting in my car, waiting for the light to change, I think about the times I had milder “nervous breakdowns” in the past. When I was 17, I had a bout of agoraphobia. I think I was overwhelmed about life after high school. Probably other things too. Definitely other things too.
I couldn’t seem to leave the house, turned a couch upside down, and started wanting to be in there like a cave, hated the sun. I read The Decameron, of sex and telling stories while avoiding the plague, and afterward The Magic Mountain, set in a sanitorium for tuberculosis with its occult feel. Maybe something about my current situation brought me back to this time. Maybe leaving high school was something like leaving lockdown. Maybe the worlds within the worlds in those books and the subcultures developed, like our pandemic pods, resonated.
Back then, trying not to leave the room, I peed in a vase, smoked a bunch of cigarettes, and drank black coffee from the percolator in my room. I had a huge window with a magnolia tree outside, so the room was aired out and fresh despite me always being there. My best friend at the time would visit me, but soon grew bored and insisted I had to meet her at “The Bridge,” which was a place halfway between our homes. That brought the phase to an end despite my protests. I’m thankful for that. Humans need to connect or we risk spinning out into our “innerverse.”
We then mostly hung out in our version of nature. There was a place we called the Satanic Gardens with beautiful sections of sculptures, stretches of lawn, fountains. We would set up flaming candelabra, have wine. I’ve since looked up this place and have discovered it was called the Noguchi Gardens. It was on Anton Street, possibly inspired by LaVey. We often hung out by a gleaming marble pyramid and I’d gaze up at the stars feeling a sense of vast potential despite my fears.
We often danced in gothy dance clubs with smoke machines and an anachronistic atmosphere. I couldn’t go where there were fluorescent lights without anxiety attacks, but I just avoided the mall and supermarkets and convenience stores and gas stations, and over time I grew desensitized. CBT has worked well for me and I’ve performed that sort of self-talk on myself numerous times to great effect. I think it can work well if you’re linguistically inclined. Of course, everyone is different, and I have used other modes of therapy as well like EMDR which I think helps greatly with trauma and PTSD.
What I notice about this is that there were “workarounds” and places to rest before the next level. Like, I left my room with someone safe and stayed away from the fluorescent lights and how they triggered me until I was strong enough. I think of nurseries for babies, plants, and fish before they are released into the bigger world.
Then, there was post-partum and its extreme sleep deprivation. People started to look like all kinds of animals. I would notice everyone’s ears in an exaggerated way, their twitching noses and little bony hands like mice. Some people had ponderous movements, flat back-ends of pachyderms swaying; others craned and cocked their heads, eyes bright like birds. I found it strange that people thought humans so far removed from animals, more special or sentient. From lack of sleep, my world was surreal and could morph easily into an uncomfortable place. It seemed like anything could happen, like a dream.
Now, if people start looking that way again to me I know I need to rest more. It always starts with our naked mouse-like ears, the curvy cartilage base exposed tenderly from our skull, fanning out into the little flesh shell, supple cups filling with secrets, straining to hear the beat of our heart drum, the siren song of desire, the mad rush to be busy, to evade the constrictions of our impermanence.
The traffic light turns green as these thoughts slip into losses. My best friend who passed away two and a half years ago from brain cancer and whom I still think about every day. A delightful lover, and the person I was closest to during the pandemic, who became more emotionally remote as his body grew more concave, disappearing before my eyes. Then, further back, another best friend, a visionary artist, who developed schizophrenia, desperately digging holes in the lawn at night, because kittens were meowing for help. My dad, who died when I was twenty. It all seemed like practice to accept this uncertain moment. Everything we’ve known is slipping, even the earth, but there’s beauty if you witness. To witness is perhaps a form of love.
I wonder, What would it take to have a nervous breakdown? Then, I see through my windshield fluttering autumn leaves, twirling amber in the middle of summer.