asha international mental health

We Give Hope

I’ve lost track of how many weeks it has been in this quarantine. I’ve lost track of the day and date more than a few times. I have been isolated in my house, with my dog, 24/7.

We are in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Oregon did not get hit the hardest, thanks to early physical distancing. But our confirmed cases and the death toll are still rising. Society is being tested to the extreme. How are we going to survive collectively? What will life look like after the pandemic?

Before we can answer those questions, there’s a more pressing one: how are we going to survive together, individually?

In order to give that question some thought, I want to share my mental health journey when I was challenged by USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) almost exactly a year ago, as I’m noticing many parallels between the two experiences.  I was facing the danger of deportation. During that time, my mind was in a constant fight-or-flight state. I was hypervigilant, anxious, scared, and traumatized. I constantly felt alone, isolated, disconnected, and unseen. Even my closest people could not understand my pain. I was screaming inside, silently, and no one could hear me. But I avoided talking about it. I felt ashamed and exhausted. However, I was fortunate enough to find mental health professionals to help with my anxiety and PTSD.

Does that sound familiar? In quarantine, how many of us constantly feel not only physically, but also spiritually or mentally isolated from other people, even people who are close to us? How many of us have tried to hide from partners or/and children in our own house? How many of us have been checking the news every hour, even if it leaves us feeling worse? How many of us have not been eating regularly? How many of us have finished a bottle of wine on our own? How many of us, when venturing outside to get groceries or medications, think others are staring at us and wondering if we are sick and different? How many of us feel the anxiety crushing us and loosening our grip on life?

Isolation is a scary and heavy word. When I wasn’t sure if I would get deported no matter how hard I tried, I felt incredibly isolated. I am an introvert and it was already hard for me to talk about myself. I tried to describe the fear and anxiety to a couple of people I was close to. I tried to tell them how disastrous it would be if I were to be kicked out of the country I called home for many years. I tried to tell them how scared and traumatized I was about losing everything.

One thing we need to acknowledge is that, no matter how much we try to make others understand, no one will actually, truly understand your struggles. Isolation is a lonely journey. We need to accept that. Although I was surrounded by people who loved and supported me, they could never feel my pain the same way I did. It is not a fault. It is an unfortunate event. It is the nature of isolation.

The silver lining in our current quarantine situation is that the isolation is not just in our brains — it’s our literal situation. We are all isolated from other households. We all share some understanding of what it feels like to be physically disconnected and alone. Fear and anxiety are guaranteed during the quarantine. Very few people, even the most introverted ones, would feel OK not having contact with the outside world. It is brutal and inhumane because we are social animals. Most of us need to interact with other people in order to have a healthy life.

But here’s the rub: we are all isolated and alone, in our own homes. In a way, we are all together. I know it sounds very counter-intuitive and strange. But if there is one big hope in our collective isolation, it is that we are in this together.

To this day, I have people email and ask me immigration questions. Every time I see those emails, I have flashbacks and I try my best to answer their questions because I remember too well how overwhelming and lonely those three months were.

Isolation is terrible. It messes with our brain. It makes us feel that we are alone. It certainly made me feel that way. It makes us feel that we are on our own and the future is bleak because no one sees us. What am I going to do if no one understands what I am saying? Feels like Black Mirror in real life, doesn’t it? However, because everyone is isolated, there is at least some mutual understanding: quarantine is lonely, quarantine is scary, the virus is threatening our lives, and if we want to live, we have to stay in. With that mutual understanding, hopefully, we feel a little less lonely.

So what do you do when you feel helpless and voiceless in your own home? If you are alone at home, without any family members, reach out: text, call, FaceTime, email, or write a letter. I know it can be hard and intimidating to reach out because no one wants to bother others or show vulnerability. But I believe many people actually want to be bothered right now. Because when you reach out, the other party gets to be heard too. It creates a connection that makes this journey a little more tolerable.

If you are quarantined with your family, in addition to reaching out, make sure you have space for yourself. “Mama needs a drink” is not a joke. Family can be too much. If you and your partner both work from home, who gets to use the office? How are you setting up your conference calls so that you don’t talk at the same time? Who is tutoring the kids today? Who is walking the dog? Who is cooking? And if you and/or your partner lost jobs recently, the stress will be even higher. How are you going to pay bills? You will want to hide from your family. There is no shame about it. You need space. You need to let those tears out.

The bottom line is, as hard as isolation is right now, we are in this together. Maybe we can’t see each other in person, maybe we can’t hug each other, maybe we can’t have a sit down dinner at our favorite restaurant, but it will all be OK if we follow the instructions and stay quarantined for as long as needed. Isolation is a monster. But when we are all doing this, isolation doesn’t seem to be as powerful as it would like to be. Plus, isolation earns the health professionals time to save more lives.

Hang in there. We will get through this together as a community.

If you are at risk of hurting yourself in isolation, please reach out to people you trust immediately, and/or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 and/or the Portland Suicide Lifeline at 503-972-3456.  

Disclaimer: The author is NOT a mental health professional. She has learned a lot about mental health through her own journey and is happy to support folks who need it. If able, please seek professional mental health help in times of crisis.

More resources for folks to choose during isolation/quarantine:

  • Donate to organizations you support, if you are able — every penny counts
  • Spread the word for organizations, small businesses, and folks in need
  • Tip our local service industry workers
  • Join online support groups
  • Online group games such as tv
  • Puzzles: time to take out that 1,000 pieces
  • Books or audio books
  • Yoga and meditate if you are into them, there are many online programs now
  • Podcasts, not the political ones, the ones that are funny and/or about mental wellbeing
  • Food that comforts you and makes you recall some nice memories
  • Cook a meal for friends who lost jobs
  • Sleep tea before bed
  • Gardening, the community garden has been deserted for a while
  • A long walk on a nice day in your neighborhood. It is spring, everything is blooming
  • Creative activities such as writing, drawing, pottering, knitting, or tending those house plants
  • It doesn’t hurt to have some wine, especially if it is from a local shop. Stay moderate though

– Written by Ruth Lesser. Ruth is passionate about diversity, equity, and inclusion. She is also an advocate for immigrants and mental health.

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