Keeping time: breaking down my mental health during a summer of lockdown

A personal virtual diary, made public

By Rebecca Rocco

March 13, 2020: the stretcher

I got up at 6:00 am, got ready, jumped on the streetcar, and went to campus. It all happened very quickly, and I don’t remember the specifics. I do recall that coming to campus used to fill me with an incredible amount of anxiety, like I always had to be walking somewhere — even if there was nowhere in mind, I had to go. In terms of my mental health, it was okay. I had acclimated to the university in some ways and had become accustomed to the strain of the workload. I wasn’t doing well, per se — I was doing okay.

I arrived at Northrop Frye Hall for my first class at 9:30 am, found my usual seat, and sat there until my course began at 10:00 am. The lecture was on viruses, and the professor related almost everything to COVID-19 and its reproduction. No one wore a mask. He let us go on a 10-minute break, and then, I looked at my phone to see the email.

“Cancellation of classes and delivery of teaching through other means…”

One of the students told my professor about it, and the lecture concluded at 12:00 pm. I walked out and made my way to my next class. After that day, there would be no more in-person courses, but I wanted to finish the day in person. I made my way to Convocation Hall and began to study, but then I couldn’t move.

I had been dealing with extreme pain in my abdomen for a few days to keep up with my studies, and it became too much only 10 minutes prior to the start of my next class. After 15 minutes, I called my partner in tears, and then I was at Mount Sinai Hospital. It wasn’t appendicitis — I got a prescription for naproxen and I walked home.

$The pandemic has been a paradoxical time for many. Rebecca Rocco/The Varsity

April 13, 2020: new skates

It is definitely strange coming upon a holiday when you feel like you haven’t been doing anything for weeks. Easter Monday is a day I always used for studying during my finals, but instead I spent it looking at the news. Since in-person courses were cancelled for the entire semester, everything felt slow, and I felt empty.

There was definitely an established preconception about how everyone would feel if the university cancelled in-person courses. We thought it would be positive, analogous to a child waking up to see heavy snow and cancelled bus notifications. The burden of assessments seemed to fade away, and I felt that way too.

There’s a general apathy regarding our end-of-term assessments now. As somebody with social anxiety, it felt incredible just to stop everything and exist for once. I hoped that online schooling would allow me to regain some identity and control in my life. Now, I had time. I bought roller skates. My mental health was doing really well — I felt full of energy; I felt like I could do anything. More people were wearing masks in my neighbourhood.

$Finding comfort in mimicking the structure of life before the virus. Rebecca Rocco/The Varsity

May 13, 2020: last phone call

If the question is, “Do you let things get out of hand during the pandemic?” my answer is yes and no. When it came to academics, the answer was no — I dedicated the majority of my time to studies. When it came to my mental health, the answer was yes, sometimes, or maybe. I decided to take on two courses at the beginning of summer: a histology and a neurobiology course. I love science, and it was a good distraction.

If any advice can come out of this pandemic, let it be this: try to mimic structure. My structure took a while to build, but I definitely relied on it heavily. I always woke up at the same time, took a shower, got new clothes on, and sat at my desk. Both courses were primarily asynchronously delivered, with a synchronous laboratory component for the histology course. It took me a long time to get through asynchronous lectures. I tended to get stuck on words or phrases, and I could not seem to move on to the next portion.

If the question is, “Do you let your mental fixation on certain deterrents get out of hand?” my answer is no. I pressed on, and I pressed play. I moved through the hour-long lecture in two to three hours, and then I reflected. My mental health was definitely in decline. I started losing count of the days; I kept forgetting to take my medication on time. I definitely felt like I was slipping. I spent the night talking with an old friend. Six months later, we do not talk anymore.

$When energy is low, rest and reflection are key. Rebecca Rocco/The Varsity

June 13, 2020: energy efficient light bulbs

I was definitely tired at this point. I wrote for a scientific literature review, and it got published — it was a class publication, and I was so proud of myself. I really worked hard on the literature review in addition to all the course assignments. But this month, I was tired. I was studying so much that I wasn’t taking care of my mental health. I just kept pushing and pushing. I get like that. I get too stubborn sometimes, and at a certain point, I cannot keep it up. I have less energy, and all I can do was lay in bed.

After finishing both my courses, all I wanted to do was continue studying — for the Medical College Admission Test and for my courses coming up in the fall. In addition to structure, I found I needed a distraction from everything in the world. At this point, everyone was wearing masks. I felt afraid to go outside and engage with people. At the same time, I began missing those transient connections you have with others. The people you see on the bus, the person you sit with in class, and the students in your study group who you only see once a week.

If some connections are meant to last a lifetime, it is the impermanent connections that sustain you in the meantime. I never thought I would feel this way in my life before the pandemic. I spent many of those days just trying to think my way out of this mindset. Isolation is no light thing, especially when you deal with mental illness.

$Time outdoors has been an integral part of surviving lockdown for many. Rebecca Rocco/The Varsity

July 13, 2020: the city

I was watching _Legally Blonde, _and I was thinking about my surgery that would happen the next day. I do not recall this time well. After my courses, I spent July only saving money and sewing masks. It was nice not having to remember what day it was out of stress — it was a feeling I had not experienced since I was a child.

My mental health was improving — I was anxious for the surgery, but I was feeling better. I had been spending more time doing things that fulfilled me, and while I couldn’t engage with the outside world like I used to, I took long walks every three days.

Post-surgery, I had a hard time adjusting. I cried a lot for no reason. I had to take painkillers, and they made me tired and sad. I missed my registration time for courses because of the post-surgery medication, but luckily, I got all the courses I wanted. The rest of July was filled with crying and thinking. My sister took me out of my apartment at the end of the month for a small hike. The view was incredible. You could see Toronto for all it was: a cluster of buildings haphazardly thrown together and settled still. It rained later that day.

$In times of uncertainty, friends hold each other together.Rebecca Rocco/The Varsity

August 13, 2020: friendship bracelets

I sewed over 100 cotton reusable masks, and I donated them to my former high school. I also decided to start making matching bracelets — the idea was to donate them to SickKids, but they weren’t accepting crafted donations, so I just started making them for my loved ones and selling matching sets for $2 each.

My partner and I went to High Park for the first time and saw a lot of dogs. I needed that — the days felt pointless at times. I visited my mom and I got to see my cat. Everything moved very quickly. I was taking my medication and I was feeling better. The school year was coming up, and I felt anxious for what it would hold. I spent a lot of my time keeping myself busy. I didn’t really understand what a full year of online schooling would entail. I was stressed about assessments, and how I was supposed to gain experience for graduate school.

The month was filled with highs and lows. I kept making bracelets.