8 Women Share the Impact the Pandemic Has Had on Their Mental Health
‘I went from being the most organized person to someone who couldn’t make the simplest decisions.’
‘Everything feels like it takes so much energy, and I just have so little’
I moved to Toronto from Argentina in 2001, and it was an unbearably lonely time. There are the intensely confusing and destabilizing cultural differences, of course (ah, so you don’t kiss the dentist hello here in Canada), but the lack of touch and connection was just so desperately isolating. In the ensuing years, I started a career, got married and created a new community.
And then COVID-19 hit, and all of the loneliness I experienced as a new immigrant returned. I am having those horrible feelings again — the aching isolation, the confusion, the yearning.
It all feels like too much — like I am living in a pressure cooker. Everything feels like it takes so much energy, and I just have so little. I wake up sweating most nights. Thank god for my therapist, who I’ve been seeing for years. At a recent session, I said, “I just want to hide and cry.” And with a blanket over my head, and I let go, bawling in the darkness until I couldn’t breathe.
Here’s the other reason this pandemic is hitting me so hard: We have been trying for a few years for a baby. I’ve had a couple of pregnancies that didn’t hold, and finally my doctor discovered that I have uterine polyps that need to be removed. But my appointments keep getting cancelled and rescheduled because it’s considered an elective surgery. There’s also a requirement to quarantine for 15 days before the surgery — even from my husband, which just shows how elitist the system is. Who has that kind of space in their home? At 37, I feel like time is running out.
I am used to filling my cup with connections with people. I am an extrovert who recharges with contact with friends and family and little ones. A lot of my life and who I am is in relation to others: I am my mother’s daughter, my sister’s sister, my husband’s wife. I remember that when I have my darkest thoughts: This isn’t my life, not really. Some days I feel we won’t be able to recover from the damage of this. Part of me can’t help thinking, well, now people understand the intense isolation of the immigrant experience a little bit. Hopefully people will feel more empathy.
‘I don’t know how to throw a rope down a well to someone when I’m even farther down it’
Raising teenagers requires bringing your A game. Our 15-year-old is lovely and thoughtful and kind but also unbelievably depressed. Other families don’t seem to be in as tight of a lockdown as us, so she’s having to watch her peers hang out on social media, and she is just gutted. And the truth is, I don’t know how to throw a rope down a well to someone when I’m even farther down it. Trying to get her to leave the house every day or do some form of exercise or use her SAD lamp or do just one page of the cognitive behavioural therapy workbook I got her — these are all constant battles, and I just don’t have the energy to keep trying to convince her that she has to fight it. Some nights, we just lie on the couch and watch Grey’s Anatomy and eat ice cream and feel sad together. Maybe that’s okay? I worry about resilience with kids — they don’t necessarily know that it gets better.
I’ve suffered from anxiety and depression in the past. I’m a recovered agoraphobe. I’ve been through two pretty extreme bouts where I couldn’t leave the house for months. I pretty much crawled out of it, thanks to cognitive behavioural therapy. I feel remarkably healed from that, but the pandemic has been offering me the perfect opportunity to sink back into it. I’m not in a rush to socialize again, and I know that’s a red flag. We got a dog to get me out of the house, which came with another unexpected but huge bonus: Someone is always happy to see me. I don’t have much experience parenting teenagers outside a pandemic, but right now the joylessness is real.
Our 13-year-old who acts like a parody of a moody teenager, with the gloom, the darkness, the bristling rage. I know he’s as depressed as his sister and that it’s just manifesting differently, but while she reacts to my attempts to help with limp shrugs, he responds with fury and indignation. The advice books say you’re supposed to be like a grey rock — sturdy and totally uninteresting. Well, I’m perimenopausal, I’m barely sleeping and my skin is really thin right now, so most of our interactions are like a bristling porcupine standoff. The way he looks at me, like I’m the stupidest person on the planet…I don’t have the bandwidth to be criticized and spoken to like I’m an idiot or a villain, and I just feel too wounded to shrug it off the way I should.
Through all this, I’ve discovered bath sobbing and car screaming. Those are my outlets. I drive out of our neighbourhood and let rip all the things I want to say or yell but can’t. Not having access to any of my coping strategies, like hanging out with friends and spending time with my sisters and their kids, is destroying me. It’s scary to feel like you’ve reached a tipping point.
Last summer, after a lot of negotiation, careful planning and self-isolating for two weeks, I was able to go to our family cottage to be with my mom, my sister and all of our kids. It was insane, but it was absolutely magical. Thinking about being able to do that again next summer keeps me going right now.
But there’s also the intense guilt of feeling this way. I don’t use the term “lucky,” because I know we’re actively benefiting from privilege. We can self-isolate safely at home. We’re financially stable. Our kids are old enough to tackle online school on their own. So many people have it so much worse than I do. I find myself reverting to the hateful self-talk that plagued me in my agoraphobia days: Suck it up, you pathetic loser.
I saw a young woman in the drugstore the other day with a tiny baby strapped to her. I asked her how she was doing, and she started welling up. Her first instinct was to say, “We’re lucky, we’re okay…but it’s hard.” I told her that both things can exist together, and, of course, both things are true. I wish I could speak to myself with the same kindness, and I found myself feeling both super grateful that I’m not dealing with the exhaustion a newborn brings and deeply envious of the moments of joy she must be experiencing. I’m not getting any of those as a parent right now and, god, is it hard.
‘I went from being the most organized person in the world to someone who couldn’t make the simplest decisions’
Life in early March of last year was already super stressful. I was in charge of a massive account at work with client demands that never stopped. I am also a single mom by choice to six-year-old twins, so yeah — super stressful.
Then the pandemic hit.
In addition to my already crazy workload, I was put on a COVID-19 task force for a client. I worked 23 days straight without a break, and with the girls home from school, I quickly went from fun bristol-board-schedule mom to demented-and-raging mom.
By June, my days went like this: up at 6 a.m., when urgent texts started coming in, and going flat out until dinner time (I’d basically throw food at the girls in front of the TV) and keep working until midnight or later.
By August, I was vomiting blood from an ulcer, I hadn’t had a solid bowel movement in weeks thanks to a steady diet of coffee and panic attacks, and I was gobbling Advil to try to stem my constant headaches. I kept thinking I should be better able to handle it all. I was raging and crying all the time, and feeling like a failure as an employee and a mom. I had gone from being the most organized person in the world (you have to be when your kids outnumber you!) to someone who couldn’t make the simplest decisions.
My best friend convinced us to come to her cottage for a weekend, and that’s when I snapped. I was working the whole time, of course, and racing to the bathroom to vomit before calls. Panic attacks two nights in a row made me feel like I was dying and almost sent me to the ER. My friend finally said, “Yeah…you’re not going home like this,” and kept me at the cottage. On the Monday morning, I called my doctor. She wrote me a note, saying I was stopping work, effective immediately, due to stress leave.
I didn’t feel relief. I felt guilty that other people had to do my work, and I felt ashamed about not being able to manage it all. I had thoughts like, ‘Pull your shit together — everyone is going through this.’ The girls and I went home after a week. Instead of working, I cleaned the garage. But I started seeing a therapist, and I started taking an SSRI. Both have helped a lot.
I am now back at work, because I really can’t afford not to be — although I’ve been moved to a different account. I am eating better. My ulcer is better. My sleep is better. I feel more supported at work. I am trying to be okay with everything not being okay. But ever since my breakdown in August (or, as I like to say, when my cheese slid off the cracker), I fear it happening again. I am doing what I can — I’m establishing some guardrails with my therapist, and my best friend insists on FaceTime calls with me so she can get a read on my face as well as my voice. But I am so deeply aware that I am on my own when it comes to my kids, and it’s super overwhelming.
‘I walk 12 kilometres every day. It feels like my job now’
Anyone who knows me knows what an extrovert I am. I was a server for decades at some of Toronto’s busiest restaurants, and I loved the chaos of it all. I also hosted and took part in storytelling and stand-up comedy events all over the city. I absolutely loved it.
I miss so many things about pre-pandemic life. I miss sex — who am I going to have sex with now? Last year I met an incredible guy online who lives in the States. After weeks of chatting, he came up to meet me, and we had the sexiest first date possible — oysters and edibles and kissing and laughing. This all happened on March 10, and obviously we never saw each other again.
I miss walking to the TIFF Lightbox three times a week and watching films. I miss performing. Online shows are just awful, with their sterility and weird lack of feedback. I miss beers on patios. I miss watching live music and walking through my city, popping into bars and clubs.
I walk 12 kilometres every day. I get out of bed, put on my shoes and walk. It’s what I did before, but before, I was always walking to places. Now I just walk. I think it’s what is keeping me alive. It feels like my job now.
Then I usually visit my granddaughter, and as soon as I’m home, I say to myself, Okay, I’ve done all I have to do — and reach for my weed. I used to look at weed as a fun distraction, used to love getting a little bit high. Now I seek total annihilation. I buy weed with the highest possible THC content, and I smoke it all evening, something I never would have done before. It helps me forget about what life used to be like — full of energy and possibility.
(Related: How Are Canadian Caregivers Handling COVID?)
Illustration by Rachel Wada
‘It was a very lonely time.’
I moved to Canada on my own three years ago, first to Vancouver and then to Montreal. Then in December 2019, I had a panic attack, followed by several more. They were triggered by a sexual assault that made me feel isolated — I was extremely afraid of closeness, of other people’s touch. I went to a walk-in clinic and was given antidepressants. I didn’t have a family doctor to get a note to stop working for a few weeks while I adjusted to the medicine. My employer was not supportive, so I quit my job. I went back home to Morocco for a month and slept 14 hours a day.
I came back to Canada that February, and told myself to take it slow. I took a job at a neighbourhood coffee shop, went in for the first shift on a Thursday, and by Sunday, everything was closed. Thanks to that five-hour shift, I got CERB, which saved my life. I couldn’t have gone back home even if I wanted to — Morocco closed its borders, even for citizens.
When it was announced that the lockdown would be six weeks, I thought, this is the time I’ve always wanted, to do things like write. Those first few weeks were really productive. And in a weird way, lockdown made me feel less alone. Before the pandemic, my fear of touch made me feel ashamed and different. Now everyone was experiencing the same loneliness, lack of physical touch and even fear of closeness I felt after I was assaulted.
Then April came, and I thought, I still have one full month of this. It was downhill from there. I lost my routine. I would wake up, turn on my laptop and watch some show. And then I would sit on my couch all day, maybe order food and then go to bed. I had insomnia and started taking sleeping pills. When I did sleep, I had vivid nightmares — I would wake up in a panic, my heart beating fast, feeling dizzy, having almost all the symptoms of a panic attack.
Ramadan started at the end of April, and I did that alone. I have trouble fasting for long periods because I have low blood pressure, so I couldn’t go out during the day. And I felt scared to go out at night. By the time I ate at sunset, my family in Morocco were already asleep. It was a very lonely time. But for Eid, my friends in Montreal, who are not Muslim, planned a dinner over WhatsApp. That was really nice because I hadn’t been planning anything.
The coffee shop opened again the second week of July. It was good to get out of the house.
In the fall, I didn’t get a job I really wanted, and after that I was just sad. I was also paying a lot in rent and weighing my options. Meanwhile, Morocco reopened its borders, and I’m home now. Here I’m in a house, not an apartment. I have a small garden. I have my family, people to talk to. Honestly, it’s the best decision I made in 2020.
‘Working from home, it’s hard to separate the ‘mom’ from the other person I am.’
When the lockdown hit, I had just come back to Winnipeg from the U.K. and went to work that whole week. I was trying to figure out if I should be in isolation, but by the time I decided to quarantine, the museum I worked at was closed.
My husband does Internet repair for a telecom company, so he was still very much in contact with people. We just couldn’t imagine taking care of our kids if we both got sick — our daughter is eight and our son is two. We decided the best way to keep our family safe was for me and the kids to move in with my parents. Looking back, I’m not sure how we survived that.
I first took the kids to our cottage for a two-week isolation period. It was exhausting to figure out how the kids would manage school and maintain their connection with their dad. And how I would navigate my work, which was not any less busy. The kids would sometimes just freak out. So we would go driving, and I would take a call in the car so they could have a change of scenery. At my parents’ house, it was helpful to have their support, but my kids still wanted me more. We did that for six more weeks. I would never do that again. I felt like all of the parenting was on my shoulders, and it was probably emotionally harder on my husband because he was alone. It’s hard to remember now why we were separated, because the numbers were low at that time.
By the summer, everything felt hard. I usually have nonstop energy — if I don’t have anything planned for an evening, I’ll bake cookies or something. I just wasn’t doing that. The weather was glorious, and instead of going for a run after putting the kids to bed, I’d just put on Netflix. That raised warning flags for me — I felt like I wasn’t going to get through this without some help.
I had seen a therapist in my twenties for depression. That felt more traumatic, while this felt more like an insidious thing, that I would wake up in six months and be in a real health crisis if I didn’t do anything about it. I started seeing someone every few weeks — it was good to reset and find strategies to get out of it. When I first saw my therapist, I might not have thought I was in crisis mode, but I probably was. She suggested medication would be helpful, and I’m still considering it.
I found a groove and stopped therapy in the fall. But I just made another appointment. I broke my foot, and the recovery is very slow. I use exercise as an activity to stabilize myself — getting outdoors, taking a walk at lunch — and I haven’t been able to do that. It was the time I had for myself; working from home, it’s hard to separate the mom from the other person I am.
‘I was on autopilot’
Last March, when school stopped being in-person, it was difficult. We were all in that beginning stage of shock, and class didn’t feel like class anymore. I was just staring at my screen and not really paying attention. School was also a really social thing for me and instead, I was on autopilot. I started feeling burnt out, and when I get burnt out, I tend to be dismissive when I don’t mean to be. I didn’t like having that negative energy.
The summer was the worst. I couldn’t figure out how to motivate myself. My anxiety got really bad and sometimes I wouldn’t leave my room. I always had something to occupy my whole summer, but this time I quite literally had nothing. And my mom, who I live with, was working, so I felt lonely.
I shared that I was having problems with some close friends and family members, which helped me confront my feelings. My partner’s family doesn’t live in Canada, so he makes an active effort to stay connected, and inspired me to do the same. I had a sort of epiphany, where I was thought, I don’t want to do this anymore. I miss my family. I want to see my family. I hadn’t seen them in so long, especially my grandma. That’s what got me of my slumber.
Towards the end of the summer, I got myself really hyped up about going back to school. I was feeling better. I also started to have self-reflection periods when I would write three things that I was grateful for every day. And it was really basic stuff — I have a partner who listens to me; My mom is really supportive. The weather outside was nice today. Little things like that.
And as soon as I got back to school, I had a really good disposition. I did a lot of talking about mental health, and really advocating for it.
‘I wasn’t sleeping properly. I was snappish with everybody.’
When the pandemic hit, I fortunately could work from home. But my kids were transitioning online at the same time — my son is 16 and my daughter is 10. My daughter in particular needed a lot more one-on-one time, and my husband works outside the home, so he wasn’t able to help during the day. It was just chaotic every single day.
Everybody at work is super supportive about work-life balance. But at the same time, it’s a regulatory environment, where there are actual due dates. I can’t be like, “Sorry, I missed that government filing because I was helping the 10-year-old with her math test.” There were many nights I worked well past nine o’clock.
It was not a healthy space. Although I was preparing lunch for the kids, I wasn’t eating properly because I was focused on them. Then I’d rush to get more work done because I just took time to make somebody’s lunch. I used to use that time to exercise and, you know, have a real balanced life. And I’m grateful I don’t live alone, but I used to have more social interaction — in my office, at networking events, meeting up with friends — all things I haven’t been able to do. And it takes a toll.
By May, I felt like, this has to stop. I was burnt out. I wasn’t sleeping properly. I was snappish with everybody. My stress showed physically: I started to have hair loss, and my eyes were consistently red, with bags underneath them. I don’t think I was ever so happy to see June.
Having the kids out of school was great. It eased the pressure because I no longer had to worry about balancing their school with my work. But the summer held new challenges. Normally, they’d be doing summer camp, which wasn’t an option this year. My daughter is very outdoorsy — she always wanted to go out, and I had to repeatedly explain to her why we couldn’t go to the park. We usually take vacation at the end of the summer, but we didn’t this year, and I didn’t even take the time off.
The kids returned to school online in September. That’s when I was able to emerge from the dark space I had been in, because when we had a better system in place to support online learning. Those first few months back helped me put some structure in place: Everyone is set up with Google Home (to ask questions before asking me) and has set lunches, and we’ve introduced some boundaries. For instance, my daughter saves any questions she has until the end of her school day at 3:30 p.m. — that is when my office hours are open for her.
Forcing myself to set new boundaries between work and home has been helpful. Now I’m trying to figure out how to work in things I used to enjoy, like a workout. I’m feeling less overwhelmed — we’ve learned how to make this work temporarily.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
Next, read about how pandemic life has affected relationships