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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.

news apps

News Apps

Someone needs to come over to my house and remove all the news apps from my phone. I am just scaring myself with them. No one has scarier maps than The New York Times. All that red pulsing out from city centers and swallowing the rest of America. 

There’s no good news right now but I keep checking to see how bad it’s gotten. Am I helping or hurting myself? I think if I check too often or spend too much time it can be harmful. That being said, this is no time to wallow in ignorant bliss. 

I have set myself a schedule of reading the news for an hour in the morning and another hour at night. 

Do I follow this schedule?

Not even close. But when I get in the weeds with charts and quotes from specialists, I remind myself of my limits, shut down the apps and try to focus on something else. 

But what? Thus far, I have two things I am doing.

One is playing solitaire with actual cards, which is fun. My mom taught my sister and I math facts and pattern recognition using a deck of standard playing cards. Solitaire, blackjack and poker were the usual games. Having a deck of cards in my hands makes me feel that much less alone. 

The other thing I’m doing is my very own low skill version of knitting. I am making a scarf because that is all I know how to do. The thing is going to be six feet long in honor of social distancing. It will probably look gnarly even when it’s brand new. 

No matter. The point is to putter around, staving off cabin fever as long as possible. I am hoping my anxiety will settle down and I can go back to reading books rather than newspaper articles but until then there is the tactile joy of just messing around with cards and yarn.

 

Introvert's Social Distancing Log 1

Introvert’s Social Distancing Log, Day 1

Introvert’s Social Distancing Log, Day 1, Saturday, March 14, 2020 (so many commas, probably too many)

Well, my good intentions of getting up early, showering and eating breakfast before 9AM were shot to hell when I snorted myself awake at 10:15.

In the evening, before I fall asleep, I think myself capable of all sorts of miraculous behavior. A healthy breakfast, an ecologically minded 5 minute shower, taking time to brush my hair and apply mascara and eyeliner.

Morning me is unshowered, a banana flavored kid yogurt eaten while driving (uncomfortably eaten with the only clean spoon in the house which is those dreadful serrated grapefruit spoons), ratty hair swept up in a lopsided bun and needless to say, no makeup.

Yet I was out of bed by 11AM and I ate a bagged salad for brunch so the day isn’t a complete loss. I’ve set myself the enviable (according to me and only me) task of rereading Deanna Raybourn’s Veronica Speedwell series with pencil in hand to note all the lovely odd words she uses so I can look them up in my OED. I have an OED. I might have that tattooed on my chest in the same font gang members have their affiliations tattooed on theirs. I am exceedingly proud of my OED. If my apartment catches fire I will probably die trying to save it.

Be advised: my possession of a twenty volume, woefully out of date dictionary makes me an idiot. I bought it for myself as a divorce present. My friend bought herself breast implants as a divorce present and she has a devoted boyfriend. I have an OED and I am as alone as a woman on a desert island.

Let that be a lesson to you newly divorced humans.

But that’s neither here nor there.

Where was I? Oh, that’s right. The majority of Americans are trying to live the life I have been training for. I have been a weirdo introvert most of my life. I love being left alone (no questions about why I am divorced? I didn’t think so). I love spending days on end in my apartment alone. I am on day one of social distancing and I cannot tell you how much I am looking forward to being left the fuck alone without people calling or texting to make sure I haven’t died and begun to decay.

On that note, that’s it for today. Take care of yourselves. I’ve starting to put together lists of movies and books and songs for you to listen to as you wait out this pandemic. It’s not that I don’t think you have your own taste in these things, you do. It’s just that while you’ve been living a highly social and productive life, I have been here like the bridge troll that I am, piling up things I want to read, watch and listen to.

Please try not to worry. It’s not a bad thing to go back to first principles. Try to be kind and gentle to the ones you love. And yourself.

Talk soon.

movie series social distancing

5 Movie Series to Watch While Social Distancing

Here are 5 movie series (and a couple of lists of movie series) to watch while practicing social distancing. Once this is over, I think we are all going to realize that we don’t hate each other as much as we thought we did. We might very well become lonely for each other. Who knows, stranger things have happened. After 8 years of drought here in Southern California, I don’t know anyone who complains when it rains. Before the drought, the entire region lost their minds when it rained and now everyone smiles and points at the sky and happily chirps, “It’s raining!”

Well, I’ve stress shopped and stocked my house. I did not overbuy toilet paper but I do have 3 dozen eggs. We all have our weaknesses. Six is out of school for three weeks and I am trying to get Older Son to come home but thus far to no avail. I do want Older Son home but what I really want is his dog, Barbara. Barbara will let me cuddle and coo and fuss and fidget over him whereas my kids won’t.

In lieu of Barbara the Dog, I have turned to TV, movies and books. And it occurred to me that there are people who have been living full, productive lives and might not have a list of books, TV and movies they want to watch. So I thought I’d make some lists and share them. Let’s start with movies in a series.

Harry Potter- Did the last book need to be split into two movies, especially considering so much of it was magical camping? Decide for yourself. Also, you’ll never get the theme song out of your head. Don’t forget the prequels. I liked the first Fantastic Beasts movie but the second one was downright confusing. And if you’re feeling it, reread all the books!

Hunger Games- Okay, so dystopian fiction might not be the best thing for your mental health right now, so think carefully before indulging. These are solid movies with solid performances and I couldn’t leave them out. Not up to watching the story? Maybe think about reading or rereading the books? There’s a new one coming out in May so might be time to brush up.

 

Star Wars- Good lord, where to begin? I have no idea. I watched the three prequels and I still can’t figure out why but that is entirely up to you. There are so many movies and TV shows and LEGO video games (which I highly recommend) that I will link to a webpage where people who know more about this than me make suggestions on how to consume all of this.

Pirates of the Caribbean-There are more of these movies than I realized. I think I stopped at the third one? Who knows. These movies are some slickly produced mind candy and that is what we are after here. The first movie is still a delight to watch.

                            

Marvel Universe- Where to begin? I have no idea. So I asked the internet and there were as many opinions as there are movies so here is the one that seemed the least hysterical about the idea of watching them in the wrong order. Does this universe include the Xmen? Is that how you write Xmen? Does is matter? DeadPool is horribly, horribly violent. Is that in this series? I’m obviously lost.

Best Movie Series- If none of those caught your fancy for movie series to watch while social distancing, IMDb has a list as does Ranker  and here is just a list of every Disney movie ever made. 

Good luck and let me know what you decided on.

 

Alone on Thanksgiving

Alone on Thanksgiving

I am divorced. Sort of. I am in divorce limbo. Part of my new divorce limbo life is being alone on days of the year when it used to be guaranteed I would be with my spouse as well as my kids. My birthday. Easter. Thanksgiving. This year, I will be alone on Thanksgiving. Read more

What the Hell are We Doing Here

What the hell are we doing here?

What the hell are we doing here? Well, a little history wouldn’t be amiss… Read more

Tend Early Adopter Program

Tend Early Adopter Program

It’s been three weeks since Tend made its debut on the App Store and Google Play, and it has been an absolute dream to see women using the app in the way we envisioned. What’s even more exciting is to get feedback on new and different ways women are using the app and the incredible ideas they have to make it even better! Read more

TEND

It’s Here! Tend is Finally Here!

It’s been just over two years since Aileen and I sat in the cafe at the Getty Villa and fleshed out our concept for a mobile app that helps women to give value to the work they do each day for their loved ones. Today we are thrilled to announce that the first version of Tend: Task Manager and Journal is finally available for download on the App Store and Google Play. Read more

Tending the Home Fires Facebook Group

Tending the Home Fires Facebook Group

Taking care of people is hard. It can be deeply rewarding, but let’s face it, it’s also really, really hard. Whether it’s children, elderly parents, sick spouses, special needs family members, or even ourselves, taking care of human beings requires a tremendous amount of energy. And yet for mothers and other caregivers, we do it every, single day, often with little recognition or appreciation. Read more

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Pineapple Upside Down Cake

My dad passed away last Thursday so this is as far as I got in making this week’s recipe, pineapple upside down cake.