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Illustration by Rachel Wada

I know I should be strong. To tough it out. Tomorrow will be a new day and things will be better. And sometimes they are, but today isn’t one of them. Today is one of those days I thought would be so much better than yesterday. However, I woke up at 4 a.m. with a thought needling my mind.

What the thought was doesn’t matter. It can be as inconsequential as forgetting to set aside the cable bills the night before as a reminder to pay them. Sometimes the inconsequential is the worst, because you beat yourself up for worrying about something so small.

When I get trapped in this mindset, I tell myself things aren’t so bad. Others have it much worse. As if other people’s more substantial sorrows and pain should make me happier. I’ve got a loving wife and two exceptional children. As a university professor, I have a salary and job security most would dream of. And as long as I have a computer and somewhere to sit, I’m still able to work during this pandemic.

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After lying in bed staring at the inside of my eyelids, I tell myself I should write this down. Writing is one of my great pleasures and it may be cathartic. But as the keys move in and out of focus through watering eyes, this may be the hardest piece I’ve written.

The beginning comes easy. I’d written the first few paragraphs in my head. But I have no idea where it will end. It could be a perfect stream of consciousness or the ramblings of a sleep-deprived self-absorbed middle-aged man.

Right now the critical side of my brain is fighting with my creative side, debating whether to write this in one sitting or reread it several times, editing it until it’s perfect. To do so feels like I’d be cheating my feelings.

I also wonder if I have the courage to continue to expose myself in such a naked way. Is courage even the right word, or is it self-serving selfishness? I’m not thinking of the reader I’ve never met, but about my family, friends and colleagues. How will they feel when they read this? Will they feel guilty or mad I haven’t shared my feelings with them? Will they think I’m weak? I don’t want them to feel any of this.

There’s a lot of mental-health stories written after the fact. When someone’s standing at the top, looking down at the abyss they crawled out of. I find this helpful and inspiring. There’s far less written about being in that abyss. What it’s like to be in darkness. To be surrounded by people, yet feel alone. Perhaps it’s because it’s so painful bringing that emotion to the front. It’s easier to keep it inside and let it simmer. Or maybe I just haven’t bothered to look.

Studying health sciences, I know all the right things to say to people in mental distress. I even write a blog that touches on some of the issues. But it’s always easier to give advice than take it. And it’s hard to know what’s really happening inside your head, when your thoughts are all screwed up. It’s not like I have a terminal illness or a visible affliction. It could just be a bad day.

I don’t think these feelings of self-doubt are unique to mental-health issues. I’ve worked with enough people with chronic diseases and disabilities to know that if it isn’t visible, people think you’re fine. Those with debilitating arthritis or chronic fatigue syndrome have lost jobs and their families. Not only from the disease but it’s invisibility. They look fine, so everyone thinks there’s nothing wrong.

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I should take a day off. Step back and take time for my own mental well-being. Recharge. But what do I tell people? I’m not feeling well, I have a headache or that I’m sinking in mental quicksand? Taking time off means others will suffer. Meetings will get cancelled. Someone will have to do my work or worse, can’t do theirs because I can’t do mine.

I tell myself it’s nothing. It’ll pass. I’m not unique. Everyone has these challenges. Especially right now, during this pandemic. We’re all in this together. We need to band together. Or so we’ve been told many times. I’ve been guilty of repeating this mantra many times.

When it gets really dark, my thoughts go to self-harm. I’ve never tried it, and to be honest, I’m chicken. There’s a reason pain hurts. I’m often able to dig myself out of it by focusing on my wonderful family and friends. But I flirt with the idea if I was physically hurt it would stop the anguish. Nothing catastrophic. Just enough to slow things down a bit. A few days. A week. Then it’ll be fine. I know that’s not the case, but I can’t help but think it.

By now you may be wondering why I don’t get help. I have. And it’s not that counselling isn’t helpful. But it becomes another burden, at a time when I want to be unburdened. Try talking to your family, you ask? Even though we see each other so much more now we’re housebound, my family is talking to each other less than ever. They have their own challenges. And friends aren’t readily accessible right now. A Zoom call just doesn’t help as much as personal interaction.

I’d like to blame it on the pandemic. But I’ve felt this way before, and worse. I really wish I could blame it on something. Then at least I might be able to come up with a solution. That makes it just as hard as anything else. Not knowing why you feel this way. Is it a lack of sleep, an argument with your spouse or something you’re not even aware of?

It’s been three hours since I woke up. I’ve asked a lot of questions and I have very few answers. But I do know, after sharing this, even if it’s between the computer and me, today is looking better than it did before.

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Scott Lear lives in Vancouver.

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

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