During the Pandemic, a Retired Psychiatrist Finds a New Challenge; His Own Mental Health
Listen to Editor in Chief Gabriel Nathan read this story:
“a lack of care”
“apathy, boredom, sloth, laziness.”
Before COVID, I was leading a satisfied life as a retired psychiatrist. My dreams told me that I still missed work. For instance, I was about to see a patient but could not find his/her file; kind of like the actor’s nightmare where he appears before a crowd (usually naked) to star in a play he has not rehearsed, I knew I missed the satisfaction of working and seeing patients improve in fifty years of practice. And so I did what retired people do; I volunteered, took courses, and attended yoga sessions. Most of my time was spent engaged in music. I re-started bassoon lessons after a sixty year hiatus, joined two orchestras and continued in the University wind ensemble. I was taking courses in music, photography, and historical fiction. I enjoyed weekly religious services with my wife.
I started delivering Meals on Wheels and helping two elderly friends with their shopping and transportation. I was looking forward to a trip to Poland and the Baltic countries. I enjoyed visits and phone calls from my children and grandchildren. I was about to visit my grandchildren in March 2020, when I got an anxious warning from my children and their spouses that the COVID epidemic was particularly bad in their Philadelphia suburb.
All of my musical activities stopped. Courses went online. I had difficulty finding the motivation to get out of bed. I had no ambition. I felt worthless. I awakened from dreams of suffocation and was hyperventilating for the first time in sixty years. I had recurring dreams of one of the most frightening events in my life. I was lost, and couldn’t find my hotel or my son or where I had rented the scooter I was driving.
I tested positive for COVID-19 In February. Although I was asymptomatic, I was suspended from delivering Meals on Wheels. My COVID status resulted from a routine test before minor surgery to relieve testicular pain. After the surgery my pain was worse and I felt the surgery was ineffective. The pain and swelling around the surgical site was worse than the pain it was supposed to relieve. I found myself in need of two naps a day. Twice a day I felt I was falling asleep and was felt unable to move. I had difficulty getting out of bed in the morning. On awakening I didn’t know where I was and felt there was no reason to get up because I had no reason to get up. I felt bereft value. I put off tasks I had been interested in before. I was going to transfer old video tapes to my computer and my wife and children got me a converter which remained in its box for over a year. I felt that the country was doomed by a President who would successfully misuse the post office or the military to be reelected. Because of my age and previous illnesses I was sure that I would die or be disabled. I felt I had wasted money buying my annual ski pass and ordering new skis.
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My wife was working harder than ever. Her energy and productivity made me feel even less deserving. She did her work by Zoom and also took care of me. I avoided all physically painful activities, including driving and stair climbing. I resisted my wife’s acquisition of an additional dog. We became less tolerant of each other’s personality quirks. I indicated that I didn’t want to share the bedroom with the dogs we already had. She chose the dogs. I missed her but I had only myself to blame. I told her that she could come back to our bed but it was too late. I had further reduced what contact and support remained in our marriage. I felt crushed over valid criticisms of my blundering attempts to do the laundry or repeated objections to my sharing the latest statistics on the virus.
I combatted the hyperventilation attacks by taking slow deep breaths. When I shared some of this story with my son-in-law, OC87 Recovery Diaries Editor in Chief Gabriel Nathan, he encouraged me to write it out. At first I felt that my story would not be of interest because I wasn’t suicidal or coping with a serious disability. I felt I was being self-indulgent when others were dying or suffering long term COVID side effects or loss of income and housing. Then I thought these things shouldn’t be happening to me because I was a psychiatrist. I should know how to overcome my symptoms or should seek professional help. I was corresponding with a former girlfriend, a psychologist, who wrote that many people were feeling having similar symptoms and that there was a name for it: “acedia.” I recognized that the symptoms were similar to depression, but entirely situational.
About six weeks after the surgery, I got my first COVID vaccination. I became hopeful that I would not die of COVID. I started to experience less surgical pain, three weeks after my second vaccination, I was able to resume delivering Meals on Wheels and to walk the dogs and practice bassoon again in hopes of giving a post COVID concert at a nursing home. My wife and I had dinner with another couple, our first night with others in over a year. As we discussed music, politics, and family memories, I started to feel alive again.
Why write about my experiences? Perhaps it will help others to know that they are not alone and that even those of us who do not suffer from major mental illness are experiencing anxiety, irritability, and despondency. We grow irritable with those with whom we are secluded. We all suffer and we will get better.
*Old joke. A middle aged M.D. checks in to the hospital with chest pain. After his tests come back, a somber hospital doctor tells him, “You’ve had a heart attack.”
“Thank god!” exclaims the patient, “I thought my panic attacks were coming back.”