Arts·Pandemic Diaries

Mental health and the pandemic: What do you do after the thing you fear most comes true?

Musician Carmen Elle paints a vulnerable picture of life at the intersection of chronic anxiety, OCD, and COVID-19.

Carmen Elle paints a vulnerable picture of life at the intersection of chronic anxiety, OCD, and COVID-19

Carmen Ellen at home. (Carmen Elle)

Pandemic Diaries is a series of personal essays by Canadian writers and artists reflecting on their experiences during COVID-19.

I've been living as if in a pandemic for over half my life. You'd think that would have prepared me better for COVID-19.

I was diagnosed with anxiety as a child roughly 20 years ago and discovered I had Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) about two months before the pandemic hit. It's hard to overstate the ways that my life has been lived in the shadow of fear. Here's what it looks like to be at the intersection of severe chronic anxiety and OCD:

On any given ordinary day, I wash my hands before I eat. Always and without exception. If I don't have access to soap and water, I skip the meal. Sometimes after washing my hands, if they still don't feel clean enough, I will go back for seconds — this time lathering and paying special attention to thumbs, nail beds, and wrists. Sometimes even then I go back and do it a third time. Usually, by the third time, my ears burn with humiliation because it feels embarrassing to be dominated by my own neuroses. The insult to injury is that the compulsion to be in control often puts me completely at the mercy of my own compulsive actions and therefore out of the control I so desperately seek. Parties and potlucks fill me with dread. I have a running list of polite excuses I turn to to avoid suspicion as I avoid eating from the communal chip bowls or turn down a slice of birthday cake. I wash my hands before sex because it's not even safe in my own home to live in the moment. I only eat at a handful of restaurants that I deem "safe." Before the pandemic, doing things like laundry, going to parties, taking transit, cooking meat, and having a love life were all potential triggers to my panic attacks and obsessive ruminations. I liken being triggered to having an emotional allergic reaction to something. It's shocking, destabilizing, and has a huge impact on my ability to function. My OCD has been a real barrier to doing all of the mundane things that an ordinary day consists of.

Carmen Elle at home. (Carmen Elle)

Since the virus spread across the globe, things have really shifted and not for the better. It feels as though nine weeks ago someone turned the volume knob all the way up on my fears, compulsions, shame, and rage. Behaviourally, things shifted in a predictable way. I began sanitizing my groceries as they entered the house; became conservative and borderline paranoid about when and where to go on walks and for how long; sanitized my cell phone, the light switches, and the fridge door handles. I kept an "outside" change of clothes for when I needed to leave the house, and upon coming home would always strip down at the door and make a beeline in my underwear for the bathroom to do a thorough hand wash...or two...or three. But I knew that was all going to happen. What I didn't anticipate was how much shame would come from this.

What remains invisible in this time are the emotional implications of living at the intersection of mental illness and the pandemic. It's abundantly clear that everyone is affected. We certainly are all in this together and each individual has personal challenges to overcome. But what happened to me during this pandemic is that my worst fears came true. From childhood until now I had built up a compulsive system of coping, often at the expense of my career and social life. And after years of living with a hyper-vigilant awareness of germs and sickness, I found myself in the most populous city in Canada at the onset of a pandemic with nowhere to go. After the shock wore off, I landed in a shame spiral that left me reactive, explosively angry, and prone to dissociation. Many people in my community reached out at first, knowing how triggered I must be, but unfortunately shame kept me in a cone of silence and it took me two full months to start to write back. By then, I was completely isolated in my fear and grief.

Looking forward to a time when the restrictions start to lift, I can see how slow my re-assimilation will be. It will take me a long time to feel comfortable going to Kensington Market on a Sunday. It will take me a long time to sit in a park with friends or even visit with one person indoors. The challenge will be in easing the judgments that I impose on myself — in not looking around at other people who can easily transition back to their work and social lives and feeling frustrated as I struggle to do the same. I will be doing a lot of work to not measure my progress against theirs, because I do know that mental health struggles are often not visible. I will try to remember to hold my head high, knowing that my most radical act will have been just simply existing in this time, through all my fears, obsessions, and panic.

Throughout this time, I have asked myself often what happens once your worst fear has been realized. What does one do after the thing they most feared comes true? I don't know the answer to that now while I'm still in the thick of it. But someday I will.

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at cbcarts@cbc.ca. See more of our COVID-related coverage here.

About the Author

Carmen Elle is a musician/songwriter from Toronto. She began writing music, playing shows and recording albums in her teens and for the past decade has played in several bands, most notably DIANA, Army Girls and Austra. As Carmen’s struggles with OCD and anxiety grew, she stopped touring and moved towards songwriting and production. Carmen now owns a studio in Toronto where she creates songs for commercial campaigns, film and television and provides affordable space for queer and non binary artists working in Toronto.

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