Mixed States

another meditation on the 2020-ness of it all

[Sara Shakeel]

It’s interesting to examine your own mental state in a crisis and think how it clicks or clashes with the outside world. Around February of this year, a whole chunk of my problems melted away: I regained much of my health. I am not all clear yet—I am still “chronically ill” and maybe at times even you could say “disabled,” but the debilitating aspects of those two conditions no longer defines my life. My roommate and I often joke about how an astrologer I consulted desperately told me to hang in there and by February 2020 I would be well. And like clockwork there it was. I so banked on this that around my birthday in mid January I planned on a trip to Europe, something I never do—all my traveling in recent years was book stuff, someone else’s bill— but flights were cheaper than to my native LA. By the time I boarded the plane to London in the first few days of March, I felt truly like I had in my youth—unencumbered by anxiety about my body, something that had defined much of my 20s, 30s, and even early 40s.

This alone has bought me happiness. This alone has made me let it go when people act harmfully, when some inevitable disappointment comes my way, when some new problem arises. At least I have my health, I think. Gone are entire days of unbearable physical pain: the head swelling sensation making me feel like I was going to explode from the high pressure building up inside me, the burning headaches that literally felt like my brain was on fire, the inability to move my limbs, the horrific stabbing stomach pain I would wake up with every morning, the racing heart that would pour right into panic disorder, the constant feeling of lightheadedness and the thick layer of brain fog always clouding anything resembling normal cognition. For years, even when doing relatively okay, I would have to use wheelchair assistance in airports because my brain would often short-circuit there, so overwhelmed by sensory overload; for years, I carried a cane, because I never knew when my legs would give out or my sense of balance would suddenly make walking on my feet like walking on my hands. All the many ways breathing and swallowing and sleeping, all the basics of life, had been so hard for so long. . . suddenly normalized.

So as much as things have been concretely terrible, when people ask how I have been doing, well, I personally have been improving. Much of the COVID horror and anxiety I see in many is what I suffered from in years before, but without a socially acceptable and well-known communal cause. It’s like I had my own personal pandemic, all within my body, constant crisis every day without end.

When it became obvious Queens was going to be the hardest hit area in New York and New York would be the hardest hit area in the United States and the United States would be the hardest hit area in the world, I thought just my luck. But then I would look at my supplements cabinet and all the many possibilities of medicines to boost immunity, to relieve pain, to even act as lowkey antivirals, and I would think I could do this, whatever it was. I was high-risk maybe but given how often I had lived through high-risk wasn’t I actually well-prepared for whatever could come? Not like you to look at the glass half-full, my friend texted me when I told him this. I thought that’s just accepting the half-empty, I wrote back.

My roommate and I got our COVID nasal rest and antibody test back this week, after two weeks of waiting on the CityMD labs, and they were all negatives for us. This was of course that unique combo of relieving (I don’t have it!) and disappointing (I don’t have the antibodies meaning I never had it and can’t fight it!) that seems to define everything in lockdown.

Let us celebrate the opening of New York, our politicians tell us, We made it! But it’s so hard for me to feel the celebration. Over 32K died in New York, over 22K died in NYC. 145K died in America. In my native Iran, where things looked beyond impossible, the deaths are at 15K, still unreasonably high compared to South Korea and Hong Kong but far better than ours. And I know these numbers will all be so outdated the moment I hit send on this. But so how can we celebrate this? When we know it could have been prevented? How do we know—we know from other countries all around the world, all the countries who never dare say they are the greatest country in the world. Our government let us die, it let our most vulnerable go because they were a drain to them anyway probably, and now they want to call it a triumph. A country with zero plan for health care, I guess the upside is no one thought we’d do that much better anyway.

Here we are working from our homes (good), here we are working from our homes (bad). Every day is a sick day whether you are sick or not. My building had a sign that said “just one household per cab” for the elevator but now it say “four people per cab.” Slowly we are getting emails that invite us to cafes, to stores, so many deals, come celebrate that you are among the survivors that can enjoy this return to living.

Next week I will go to Manhattan for the first time since February: a hair appointment. Two days ago I saw my dear friends a neighborhood down in Queens and we went to the beach. But it all feels like tiptoeing. There is no way to know what the right thing is here, just that it all feels wrong.

I think often of my old 9/11 journal, how we had made it down the 26th floor of our high-rise apartment in lower Manhattan within the hour of the last tower collapse. Downstairs already men in suits all caked in white debris were running frantically. I could see people staring at their cell phones which no longer worked, all lines busy. Sirens, screaming. I also saw smiling and laughter and hugs, like the ones you get when you cross a marathon line. But this time they were for and from the survivors, those who were literally wearing parts of the buildings on their body. They were in grief—the atrocity—but they were also in joy—they survived.

There was a summer of 2006 when I experienced what my psychiatrist called “mixed states.” I was diagnosed with agitated depression and hypomania—and as much as we all thought it was a possibility, I fell short of a bipolar diagnosis which I wanted because I had so many bipolar friends and I believed in their medication. But “mixed states” sounded like “wintry mix” to me and my psychiatrist explained it was my depression and mania presenting together to create its own condition—the anxiety, the despair, the exhaustion, the suicidal ideation, the racing thoughts, the grandiosity, the irritability, the insomnia. It felt like every time I faced I was depressed I would experience some inappropriate high that would blindside me. Was I not depressed enough? But my any high never felt like the old high. It felt active and grasping and hoping and flailing. It was what kept me up at night, my mind running in circles. It was also what would rather quickly burn out into a thick fog of hopelessness. “It feels like everything is coated in mucous,” I would say a lot in therapy. “Things used to be clear and crisp but I can’t seem to clean it off now.” Of course, this led to me being diagnosed with OCD that came out of PTSD, which were my most helpful diagnoses. But I know that summer when everything was too much, nothing was more disorienting than the feeling of the ups and downs at once. No motion was safe.

I think about mixed states a lot these days. No emotion feels appropriate. I am mad at the introverts, just like I am mad at the extroverts. I am upset all I have is writing to offer, and yet I am grateful I have this at least. I feel full of hope and excitement for the future and I also feel like perhaps mine is the last generation with a future, if we even get that.

The other day our power went out for hours, on the hottest day of the year. The grid blew out on our line. The entire 20 story building was fine but our column. My roommate and I sat with my dog, with just iPhone flashlights and told each other stories and shot the shit until around 3am it came on. “It’s our privilege that makes things like that happen,” I told her, meaning the tenants had overused their ACs and all that. I laughed about my big worry: ice cream going bad in the freezer. I realized I had nothing to worry about because I didn’t have to go to bed at a certain hour because I had no work. And even if we had no power then, we knew we’d have power eventually. In a way the dark felt fine, almost good, especially as I knew I’d see the other side. The security I have become so accustomed to living with made me seem almost like someone who could handle an emergency.

A few years ago, the last time I lost power, I was in Glendale, CA, in the spare room of my parent’s small condo, where I have spent many sick months and occasionally years. The power went out on an afternoon when the air was hazardous and the temperature was in the triple digits. I had a big AC unit I need on always, as I often felt feverish. And I had just bought a huge air purifier, the best on the market. And I had also months before bough a portable oxygen concentrator which was strapped to my back and helped me when my oxygen levels took those dramatic dips quite unpredictably. When the power went out, I had no back-up for the purifier and air conditioner and my concentrator was nearly out of charge. I took to the phone and begged the electric company for an estimate, worrying that without those things, on yet another day of bad air in our Valley, I could die or at least end up in another ER room (I was constantly in ER that summer). That summer I had constant nightmares about losing power, my big fear. As I waited for the power to turn on, I kept thinking to myself how I was the unluckiest person in the world: all my nightmares came true.

And then the power came on, and suddenly I was the luckiest again.

I watch Kanye West on Twitter, another rant, another set of deleted tweets. For the longest time Kanye was my favorite living artist. Kanye of recent years was hard to stand by but I always felt he knew what he was doing, even if I didn’t like it. But now there’s Kanye running for president, no Kanye just releasing an album that makes it seem like he is running for president, Kanye who loves Trump, Kanye who just made you think he loved Trump, Kanye who treasures his wife, Kanye who wants to divorce Kim and is accusing her of adultery, Kanye who might be running again, Kanye in Calabasas, Kanye in Wyoming. The image of Kanye bursting into tears, while wearing a bulletproof vest, at his own rally, recalling the possibility of his oldest daughter being aborted—that image against all the other images I have of Kanye shining, sometimes at other people’s expenses of course, that feels like a perfect expression of this strange year to me.

And yet the architecture of life has never not been chaotic for any living being. I see my dog’s fears and annoyances and preferences and loves and I think he would understand what I am saying too. I wonder if he imagines any context outside of this one, if he is capable of that complex thought. I wonder if his mind tips to magical thinking like mine, the way these days every time something doesn’t work out, I think my ancestors didn’t want that for me, and every time something does, I thank the ancestors for guiding me along. How odd to not know what we are doing ever really and yet in the doing we lose sight of the question so much that we accept the execution.

I hope no matter where you are, you are not necessarily happy or sad, because I barely trust those emotions anymore—I hope you are coping and I hope you can cope on. Something tells me nothing is gonna be whatever we thought normal used to be again.

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