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Taking Control of Her Mental Health in a Pandemic

Taking Control of Her Mental Health in a Pandemic

Something about the quarantine life unleashed a darkness in Helene Skantzikas. It insidiously snatched joy and plunged her into the depths of hopelessness. Nothing and everything has changed in her life in the last three months: she lives at home with her mother and her son. Same as before, but everything is different. 

Even though the days blend together, there is one sure marker of time: before and after quarantine. Before, Helene (pronounced simply as Helen) ferried from one social scene to another like a stage actor with ever-changing backdrops: playdates at a park and sleepovers at home. There were dinner parties and moms’ nights out, and at the center was Helene — surrounded by people — often over good homemade food or a large spread at a noisy restaurant. It was a fast-paced lifestyle that suited her need to feel accomplished and connected.

After the start of quarantine, when the backdrop stayed the same and time seemed to melt, Helene felt herself sinking. Anxiety wrapped its fingers around her and squeezed tight. She would feel it in the back of her head where her reptilian brain would take over. Scream, it hissed. Break something.

“It feels like I’m going in hyperdrive. It feels unstoppable,” said Helene, 45. “It’s there and it needs something to grab onto to live.”

In anxiety’s grip, a stubbed toe — painful, sure — could unleash a disproportionate torrent of anger and frustration. Then she lands in sadness, the kind that anchors her body to any soft surface with dark, self-loathing thoughts: I feel like I’m losing my mind. I’m going to be mentally ill. I’m going to let down my son.

And the tears come, so many tears.

She wonders to herself: is this feeling going to define her? Will it blind her to the beauty of her 9-year-old’s face lit up with delight while reading Calvin and Hobbes comics? In the theater production of her life, is this the part where she loses control?

Helene has shoulder-length brown hair and eyes amber like the sky after the sun has slipped away. She has been here before, so she decides, no, she will not be robbed of joy.

Then just like that, Helene changes the narrative of her story. She contacts her doctor: You know the last time we talked, you said to call you if it doesn’t get better? Well, I can’t function. I can’t be there for my son, she sobs.

Her doctor listens compassionately. You are not the only one. There is hope.

In the battle to slow the spread of COVID-19, much of the focus has been on bodily care. Protect your face with a mask. Protect essential workers with personal protective equipment, and let’s count the ventilators. The mental health effects of a pandemic have largely been overlooked. In normal times, over 40 million adults in the U.S. had an anxiety disorder. The psychological effects of a pandemic like COVID-19 will endure even after the return to normal life.

Stay-at-home orders help slow the spread of Coronavirus, but it can also amplify mental health issues. Fear of the unknown and disruption of routine can collide in isolation to create a soul-crushing weight.

For Helene, the seed of her current state of mind was planted years ago in Toulouse, France where she was born to Daniele Rimbault and Elias Skantzikas.

It was nurtured by loneliness.

Daniele worked in sales, which required a lot of travel. When Helene was an infant, Elias left the family to answer the call to military service in his home country of Greece. To work and support her family as a single mother, Daniele placed her baby daughter in a home-based overnight daycare, which were common at that time in France, said Helene. She lived in one from infancy to 10 years old.

In this house without her mom for days, Helene would lay in bed at night waiting for sleep to settle her body. The sound of the television would waft in, and she would think, “I’m just sleeping here. This is not my home. This is not my parent.”

Depression is murky and insidious because it can travel silently across generations and over borders. It can lay dormant and take over without warning.

“Depression was a companion all my life,” said Daniele, 80. “Even when I was a child. I did not know what it was. Now I know.”

It was planted in early childhood when Daniele herself was abandoned by her mother. What happens when a young child is separated from her mother? It can create a legacy of pain that seems doomed to repeat itself. For Daniele, the decision to place Helene in an overnight daycare was difficult and heartbreaking, especially considering her own history. But it was necessary.

“Was it a good decision? I don’t know,” said Daniele. “At the same time when I see this marvelous woman with all the gifts she has, I think also the price she paid.”

Today, amid the pandemic, Helene lives in a suburb of Los Angeles in a white house that peeks through a wall of white roses. The 3-bedroom house holds three generations between its walls: Helene, her mom, and her son Pablo, 9.

Taking Control of Her Mental Health in a Pandemic

‘This time, I feel we have a real, real family life,’ said Daniele Rimbault (right) about the quarantined life with her daughter, Helene, and grandson, Pablo. Photo credit Karilyn Owen

Pablo is vivacious with a deep gaze that belies his age. He calls his grandmother “Mamette” and interchanges easily between speaking English and French, especially during intense games of Monopoly.

Since her childhood, there have been peaks and valleys in Helene’s emotional landscape, but the lowest of the lows seemed to disappear when Pablo was born. Even through divorce and an untimely death of a close friend, Helene kept it together for Pablo, the little boy with the musical laugh.

That’s what moms do.

In quarantine, there has been so much cooking in the white house. Sourdough bread and pork butter fly out of the kitchen, because if they have to stay at home, at least they can eat well.

All the togetherness has also created friction and remembrance of things past. Before quarantine, Helene and Daniele shared the same space, but in passing in a modern, fast-paced life — a hug or a few hasty words before rushing to the next appointment.

Now in a slower paced life, mother and daughter — like so many —are learning how to be together.

“This time, I feel we have a real, real family life,” said Daniele.

It’s not to say that Helene’s sadness and anxiety is all because of one thing or another from her past or her quarantined present. Who knows what caused it. Who knows what triggered the darkness. The important part is Helene took control and changed her narrative.

Helene’s doctor prescribed Lexapro, which works by helping to restore the balance of serotonin in the brain. After a few weeks of taking it, she feels like she can function again. She is also going to bed earlier and working out regularly. All these things have helped.

“Once in a while, I will feel anxiety, but it doesn’t overtake me. It’s like a passing thought. I can actually see it pass as opposed to being crushed by it,” she said.

For generations, people suffered with depression in silence. Helene wants to have an open dialogue with her son about mental health. She told him about her state of mind and the steps she has taken to help herself feel better.

“I share with him so he does not internalize this or somehow think this is his doing.”

Little moments of joy sprout from the cracks of an isolated life. Long bikes rides with Pablo in the Southern California sun often lead to adventures and laughter. In the fall, Pablo will not be returning to the school he left abruptly in March. They have started the unschooling process, which Helene describes as a home learning experience that is child-led.

The sequestered life unleashed a darkness in Helene, but it has also proven to be a blessing. It has allowed for reflection and insight.

“It has shown me what I have missed out on when I’m on non-stop mode,” she said.

All a sudden there’s time to observe and see what is actually happening within us, with the people around us.

“It’s not to say I am out of the woods, but if you could take a step and then another step. It just gets a little easier.”

The voices of moms parenting through the COVID-19 outbreak lives here. This series, “Parenting in a Pandemic” features stories and people from the home front — the leaders of the families who are balancing the world from their living rooms. Should you or someone you know be featured here? Send details to llgrigsby@gmail.com.

faith in a pandemic

Faith in a Pandemic

On the second week of March, Tara Hurley and her family did something that now seems strange to our sequestered world: she walked into a restaurant, sat down, and ordered food to celebrate her birthday.

The restaurant was The Cheesecake Factory, a natural choice for a family with little kids. The chain restaurant is heavy with options — “Glamburgers” live alongside a kid’s grilled salmon in a spiral notebook-like menu. 

Tara turned 34 on the last day in the free world before her suburban Los Angeles neighborhood shut down to slow the spread of COVID-19. The Pasta Da Vinci arrived, but the birthday girl’s attention floated past her family to the quiet restaurant and the edgy waitstaff. Uncertainty clung to the air in the days before city officials issued stay-at-home orders, but on that day there was cake and a bowl of pasta swimming in wine sauce.

“That would probably taste so good right now,” said Tara, pronounced Tar-ah, like her Irish parents, Emer and Niall O’Mahony, do.

It’s been almost two months now of staying at home, right? Who can keep track? The days blur into each other like an endless ballad on repeat.

Tara is tall, slender, with light cerulean eyes. She is the kind of mom who dresses up all four of her kids — Mary, 8; Rose, 6; Finn, 3; and Cora, 1 — in their finest clothes for an Easter celebration at home to keep some sense of normalcy in a world turned upside down by the Coronavirus outbreak. They made prime rib and had an egg hunt — just Tara, her husband, Patrick, and their kids. 

faith in a pandemic

Tara watches Mass in her living room with her children. Quarantine has brought on introspection about her faith.

For Tara, this time of sheltering-in-place has brought on introspection about her faith. She is a practicing Catholic, who has always leaned into her religion for inspiration and comfort. In her childhood bedroom in Point Pleasant, New Jersey, she painted a wall with a portrait of Jesus.

Her faith shapes her kindness. Or is it the other way around? Once when Tara was about 9 years old, their family hosted a yard sale to purge the house of accumulated stuff. Tara sold some of her toys and stuffed animals for $7, which she then put in her church’s Sunday collection. 

“That shamed me into donating the $300 we made at the yard sale into the collection also,” said Emer, her mother.

As a mother herself now, Tara always reserved Sundays before the pandemic for church. It was never easy to get four little kids ready and quiet for service. Often, it bordered on chaos, but the Hurley family always made it to a pew. 

Now her church doors, which were always open to welcome the weary, were locked. No large physical gatherings meant no sacrament of the Eucharist. No squirming Hurley kids to hug and cajole in their pew.

Their church was empty, and it unsettled Tara emotionally in many ways.

“Making sure I am able to feed my children spiritually is so scary to me,” she said. “How can I give them this on top of everything else?”

Los Angeles’ lockdown came amid Lent. For Catholics, it is a time of waiting and penitence as a solemn observation of the death and resurrection of Jesus at Easter. So for Tara, it seemed appropriate to ask her family to cancel any plans that would take them outside of their home. The way she saw it, they were being called upon to make sacrifices. But when Easter came, joy was tempered with a new reality: lockdown orders were still in place. The churches were still closed.

“It was really hard,” said Tara. “I am struggling with that every day, but not letting that drag me down.”

That Easter Sunday, the rain fell steadily. The Hurley family watched Mass online. Their oldest daughter, Mary, had a classmate with a birthday, so as with the fashion in a pandemic, a celebratory drive-by parade was planned. The parade is a new, tenuous tradition that has a razor’s edge rate of success. Often it teeters on awkward, especially when it rains and the birthday girl stands in her driveway dressed in her best, unsure of what to do.

Especially when the Hurley kids made signs to flutter out the windows of their car to bring light to this little girl’s life, only to find out halfway to their destination that the signs were left at home.

Tara is only human.

“I’m like ‘Are you kidding me? It’s the one thing that we could do!’”

So they found some American flags inside the car. Okay, just stick them out the window, she told them. It will be fine. And it was, for the most part. But it made Tara again think about her faith and her resolve, beyond anything else, to make this time a positive experience for the kids.

“I feel I am being stripped down and I can’t control what I used to be able to control. How do I operate now? The lesson is to be present. It’s here and it’s now. I can’t control more than just right now.”

faith in a pandemic

All six members of the Hurley family are sheltered in place in a snug suburban home with a muddy front yard paradise.

The Hurley’s “right now” looks, well, a little cramped. All six people are sheltering in place in a two-bedroom house, about 800 square feet. It was supposed to be a 2-year house, but then 7 years yawned by. And on any given day, a walk down their street will stop any pedestrian in front of their yellow house to drink in the energy of love pouring through the windows. And the laughter. There is so much laughter.

Patrick, an audio supervisor and technician in the television industry, is an even-keeled California boy, according to Tara. He’s like the doldrums of the ocean with no wind or waves. Pandemic? Meh. No problem. Nearby, Tara storms, her waves of emotion crash on top of each other.

Recently, the Hurleys have welcomed bedtime with a reading of “On The Banks of Plum Creek,” one in a series of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s children’s novels about a pioneering family putting down roots in a new world. In the story, a storm of locust decimate the family’s crop, but the father carries on in the face of adversity. He just finds a way to be a steady, protective force for his family. For Tara, there are many parallels between the book and real life in a pandemic.

Bedtime reading of “On The Banks of Plum Creek.” For Tara, there are many parallels between the book and real life in a pandemic.

“As parents we have an added responsibility to shape the memory of this for our kids in a way that is not all negative and scary,” she said with optimism seemingly unrattled by all the uncertainty.

It’s a quality born into their daughter, said Emer. One Halloween, little Tara wanted to dress as a smiley face in hope that her yellow outfit with the smile painted on the back would be contagious.

It’s probably the only thing the world needs to catch right now.

In the snug Hurley house, all the togetherness and time has grown something unexpected in Tara — patience to listen to all sides of conflict between the kids and truly empathize. She is letting their feelings air out, unfettered by time or her own emotions. It’s something she hopes she can hold onto when the world returns to normal.

“All of this time to spend with the kids is such a cool unique gift to be given right now,” she said. “How can we make it a good memory and not think back and say, ‘Man, that was awful?’”

Just as Tara says that, Mary opens her bedroom window facing the back patio and giggles at her mother.

“Go to bed! I will be in in a minute to kiss you,” Tara calls out to her.

“Oh boy. Hooligans,” Tara laughs before disappearing into the night for snuggles and goodnight kisses.

 

Should you or someone you know be featured in “Parenting in a Pandemic”? Send details to llgrigsby@gmail.com

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