This contains triggering subject matter, including mentions of dissociation, PTSD symptoms, hallucinations, gaslighting, self-harm, and suicidal ideations. There is also art with visual depictions of these things, including non-realistic blood, and it may be disturbing for some to see. None of this is posted to be shocking, but as an honest reality that is not explored in popular media for the sake of mental health awareness. It is not my intent to defame or bring grief upon anyone, so names and locations have been left out for the sake of the privacy of everyone mentioned. Some things are intentionally left vague.
By the time 2020 came around, my mental health had been the best it had ever been. I was going out every day, drinking vanilla lattes at the café while writing on my laptop, attending a group with a close friend, and enjoying the company of my friends quite often. I was losing weight and felt healthy, and I was finally fixing the problematic teeth from when I’d broken my jaw at the age of thirteen.
My life was taking a turn after the hellish years between 2016 and early 2018, in which I’d been diagnosed again with GERD, lived through anorexia and didn’t eat for days at a time, had severe stomach and intestinal pain daily, and soldiered through acid reflux that didn’t let up for months, turning my throat raw as I wasted away in bed while no doctor could find anything wrong.
The beginning of 2020 was a continuation of the light of 2019. When I first heard about the new virus, COVID-19, in early January, it was thought to still be in Wuhan, China and wasn’t a threat here in the states yet. I had a bad cold in February I was nursing, and while I was concerned it might be COVID-19, I wasn’t worried because, well, I lived in America. Surely we’d get it under control and things would be fine. Thankfully, it truly wasn’t COVID.
Fast forward to March. People panic bought toilet paper, hand sanitizer, soaps, and cleaning supplies. Everyone glared at you if you coughed in public. No one was wearing masks yet, but we were still ignorant to the times to come. Despite being afraid, it felt like the equivalent of panic buying before a bad snow storm. It’d pass quickly in the night or a few days, and we’d be fine again.
Downtown grew empty. The last weekend before the stay at home orders were issued, a Pride event was quiet and scarce of people. More and more people were getting sick, and science was only beginning to grasp what exactly we were dealing with. The true numbers of the virus’ victims were stifled, and politicians gave mixed information, including the start of the second threat during the pandemic: misinformation and conspiracy theories.
We were quite confident. But yet, the virus reached us and spread throughout the world like wildfire, prompting many governors to issue stay-at-home orders, mask mandates, and some countries issued harsh lockdowns. People started working from home as more and more people died, and children were pulled from schools. We no longer saw a stranger’s expression beneath the mask as we passed them in the store, and those of us who took the news seriously began to feel dread. The hopeful days began to die by the end of May. It was no longer ‘just a few more months.’ It became an unknown. We settled in for a year at least.
Protests and violence broke out between warring sides. Police murdering innocent Black people became more wide spread, and hate crimes against Asian Americans grew in number. America was crumbling, and every dark fault was put on display. We were a broken system with a narcissistic leader who had dreams of being a dictator, and our national security was compromised. Transgender people and the LGBTQ+ community were erased from the White House website and further from discrimination protection. COVID-19 wasn’t our only enemy, and the world was literally on fire as forest fires raged.
America fell. The world was scrambling to survive and cope with demand for medical equipment. Frontline workers — nurses, doctors, and EMTs — were experiencing so many deaths in a day — in a weeks’ time — that they surely would be traumatized for years to come. Their job had become like a warzone. And more than a few lost their lives to suicide because it was too much to bear, and their leaders failed them.
All of this, as overwhelming as it is to relive in brief text again, weighed on those who took the pandemic seriously. Those who masked up every time they left their front door and had bleeding, raw hands from washing and sanitizing. Those of us who watched the partiers and deniers were slowly losing our sanity, and many of us broke down in tears because we just wanted to be safe. We wanted our friends and families to be safe. We were dealing not only with a fear of a deadly disease that was unforgiving — that didn’t care whether we believed in it or not — but also the weight of civil unrest and abuse from the White House on a daily basis.
I rarely left my home in 2020. I last saw a friend in March of that year, and was dedicated to staying safe to do the right thing. I live alone with my two cats, and I’m plural and have alters and spirit guides, so I felt I could make it through. I knew if we just stayed inside we’d make it. I had Twitter. I had Facebook Messenger and a phone. It would be okay.
As the months dragged on, I began to see sides of friends and family that broke my heart. Some became downright mean as they denied the pandemic at first, and others couldn’t understand why I refused to let them visit. I’d started to learn about online grocery delivery, and I’d set up a good system as I was finally given extra food stamps to compensate for the expensive cost of delivery fees. I had set up my own little hermit bubble of safety, only leaving to get top surgery in July of 2020. My mom was with me then, and it was the last time I’d see her for some time. Until recently.
My mental health started to decline. I knew it would be rough having depression and anxiety, but there was a quiet beast I’d never confronted in waiting at the dark corner of my mind. Many closed doors started to creak open again, and as I became more and more trapped in my own mind due to isolation, I delved down darker internet holes until I stumbled across a strong trigger. A dark genre of music I’d never heard before that normally wouldn’t bother me, but as the doors were creaking open in my mind, the buried trauma quivered at the dulcet and droning tones of the deathdream genre, and before I knew it, I was dissociating, experiencing intense fear, a floating sensation, and gaps in my memory.
At some point, I’d moved from my chair to the kitchen and stared into space, but I had no recollection of it. My vision dimmed at the edges, and the shadows that were always hidden finally came out to play.
I didn’t know what was happening to me. Dissociation was as far as my knowledge of my own symptoms went, but the shadows that had been creeping closer became clearer as I ventured into trauma art tags on Tumblr, and I related to many of the liminal space images found there. They were images encompassing past nostalgia, traumatic thoughts, and dreamlike images. They emitted the energy of isolation and loneliness I felt, and in my desperation to relate to something since I couldn’t see anyone, I became obsessed with what was familiar to me.
Depression. Suicidal thoughts. Trauma. They had been there and always would be, and I’d often found an odd comfort in my depressive states. It was like a warm, weighted blanket wrapped around me to welcome me home again while the rain poured outside. A comforting melancholy that made me want to lie in bed and daydream about strange worlds that I came across in dreams. And the dreams always became nightmares, but in isolation, they triggered panic attacks and became more real due to the outside world growing less and less real to me.
I began to see hallucinations. They were always shadows, and some of them had large eyes that watched me. I often felt as if a figure were standing behind me, watching my every move as they stared into the back of my head. I felt as if something was closing in on me. And the more I fell into my past trauma and my hyper-creative mind took over, the more I realized these shadows were not only physical manifestations of trauma, some of them were from another plane of existence — the realm of the dead — watching me closely because I was often suicidal.
As I analyzed these shadows and started to dissect, as I often do, why they existed and what or who they were, I delved far back into my history. I started a side blog where I explored darker theories and ideas about why I was so at home within the dark, and I realized that even at birth, I had just barely escaped Death’s grasp. It was deeply embedded in my psyche.
It was a prime time for these entities to seek me out again. Because there were days when I was most definitely ready to say goodbye. My own mind became a prison, and I was haunted by these visions and flashbacks, and nightmares, on a daily basis. I was paranoid, afraid, and trapped in a darkness I couldn’t escape. No friend could come and save me from them or bring me back around because no one was allowed in my safe bubble. I did not want to chance the suffering COVID-19 would bring.
My spirit guides did all they could. I started to come out of it. My heart was growing lighter and I was finding an interest in things I once loved again, and I felt as if I was finally turning the corner. The shadows started to fade with time as I looked for better distractions, and I finished writing a book that explored many of these things to cope with past trauma.
I hadn’t expected the events that followed. I’d carelessly mentioned not feeling important to a group of friends and was hurting since my birthday had been a lonely one, and I’d seen them celebrating theirs online. I quickly realized it was wrong of me, but the damage was done. I was infantilized, gaslit, retraumatized, and left a mumbling, catatonic mess after verbal abuse. They trapped me into a corner and made me believe I had turned into my abuser, and I stopped eating for two days.
The shadows came back, my mind kept blue-screening and erasing itself, and I fell into states of catatonia where I stared at the wall for minutes — sometimes an hour — at a time. I worried they were right. I worried I’d become the man who hit me, raped me, and abused me for years. When they called me an abuser, I believed them. I already had low self-esteem and hated the idea of hurting anyone, but it seemed I’d hurt them. They weren’t clear on everything I’d done, so I was also left reeling for answers.
I went back over my blog entries. I realized many vague things they could have assumed were for them as I explored my trauma on the blog I’d started a few months prior. It was my mistake. In trying to protect people’s privacy and identities while exploring and processing my trauma and feelings, it seemed they’d placed themselves in my entries where they were never meant to be. And my chance to show them that they were wrong was gone. They’d shut me out. Refused to let me explain. They’d already thought I was a monster.
Everyone struggled in 2020. It was a difficult time for many people, and a lot of us were trapped in our own heads with too many negative emotions from the constant overload of the world falling into chaos. And this, unfortunately, turned a lot of people into someone they weren’t before, me included.
I went through shock for days. I saw my abuser every time I looked in the mirror despite what all of my other friends and counselor told me. They said what happened to me and what was said was wrong. They told me I’d been gaslit and bullied. I didn’t believe them. I believed those who tore me down. I planned my suicide and had written a detailed letter with my passwords to my computer and online accounts. I planned where my cats should go, and explained I’d leave food down and some sinks full of water until I was found. I planned where I’d be, in my bed. I remembered sitting on the toilet and staring at my phone, blank. I wasn’t a person anymore.
PTSD symptoms had resurfaced in a frightening way, and I saw vivid images of my abuser as he walked around the corner of the hallway and smiled at me. I heard his voice clearly as if he’d been standing before me as a real person. I had repeated dreams of him and the friends who called me horrible things. I was convinced I was a monster and I needed to destroy myself to save everyone from me. If I couldn’t figure out what I’d done over time that was so bad, I must have not been conscious of it.
I broke my clean streak from self-harm. My spirit guide Byleth stopped me by taking control of my hand and making me drop the knife into the bathroom sink. Zagan Lestan came up behind me, hugging me while in tears. As Byleth forced my arm under the cold water, the red wouldn’t stop.
We wrapped my arm and I sat on the couch. I hid every single picture of my face from Instagram, changed my image on all social media, and refused to look at my face in any way. I was talked about on Facebook as a friend called me an abuser on their profile, and a mutual friend called me to console me and tell me he didn’t understand when he saw it. That in all the years he and others have known me, he’d never thought that of me. Everyone close to me tried to tell me I was a good person, but none of it was working.
I’d been trapped in my own head for too long. The isolation had gotten to me, and I’d spent too many days spiraling down an unstable void of madness. I’d lost my sanity, and the gaslighting sent me so far over the edge that I no longer trusted myself, my memories, or my sense of self. I was no longer a human being.
I was afraid to say or write anything. I had been accused of using everything for contents’ sake and attention, so I felt as if I had no right to say anything at all. If I vented or expressed suicidal thoughts, I deleted them again quickly due to paranoia. I felt I was pathetic and an attention-seeker. My mission to be an advocate for mental health awareness didn’t matter anymore. I couldn’t trust my own mind or what it produced.
Those who gaslit me made it into my nightmares. They took the form of PTSD dreams alongside my abuser, and I started marking my symptoms on my calendar because I could no longer trust my memory or keep track of days. At this point, the outside world no longer existed. I had slipped into another reality, one that mirrored our own but lurked within shadows that wouldn’t let me sleep. Closing my eyes brought them to my bedside, and I lied awake for hours scoping my room to be sure nothing was really there.
I still, to this day, cannot get a proper nights’ sleep. Closing my eyes sends my pulse racing, and my mind conjures many things that I know, logically, aren’t there. I am afraid to dream. I’m afraid of the shadows. I’m frightened when night falls because the shadows are harder to avoid.
I finally got both of my Pfizer vaccine injections as of April 21st, 2021. I also found out that I am autistic, and that alone began to help me find a sense of self again, and to realize why I struggled with proper communication and expression. I finally started to listen to my friends and family and their positive opinions of me, and although the shadows are still here, even today, and my mind hasn’t recovered and I find myself in that dark space regularly, I am starting to see some kind of respite.
Today, for the first time in a year, a friend visited me. And although I dissociated and had to check out at least once or twice due to vivid visions and PTSD symptoms, I knew that this was the start of getting a grip on my mental health again. Yesterday, I got a hair cut as well, and it was all so surreal. It’s been very strange. We aren’t out of the woods yet, though.
I haven’t seen much in the news or anywhere at all about the effect of the pandemic and isolation on those with mental illness. Especially those with PTSD. Being trapped in your own head, which becomes a dark prison, can exacerbate anything that comes along. If I hadn’t been isolated for a year and having a resurgence of symptoms — symptoms I’d never had so intensely before — I wouldn’t have reacted so badly to what happened going into 2021. I truly don’t feel I would have.
I worry 2020 rewired my brain. When I spoke in person with one of my closest and oldest friends, I didn’t feel like the same person anymore. I felt completely different from the last time we met, and I was thankful he’d already known of my darkness and remained. Agoraphobia and anxiety have taken the wheel again, and my vision is always blurry. I’ve developed a chronic fatigue syndrome flare up for the first time in years that is robbing me of my ability to function. My poor memory has me losing things and taking actions I don’t remember later.
Many others dealt with worse fates due to COVID-19. And many continue to deal with the crushing reality of it because it isn’t over yet. I acknowledge that and at times, I feel guilty talking about my own struggles with isolation.
There are many who suffered in silence, some with fewer resources than me. We lived in shadows and trauma and fear. We were locked in a prison of our own minds, and as time passed with nothing but these four walls and a history full of trauma, it became our new reality. The outside distractions were gone. It was time to reckon with the dark that we pushed aside to survive for so many years.
In isolation for a whole year, living alone, your mind is all you have. And when that mind is a ticking time bomb of things you’ve pushed aside to be able to experience and enjoy life, when you remove the distractions — the reasons you had to shower and clean and be presentable for people you couldn’t see anymore — the shadows resurface. You overthink. You fall into nights of deep introspection. You click off of social media because it’s too much. 45 was too much of a trigger for trauma victims as he gaslit and verbally abused an entire nation for four years.
And you lie there at night with only your mind to entertain you. You haven’t seen another face in person for months. You forget what time it is, what day it is. And you realize just how much even an introvert requires of human interaction to stay sane.
©2021 Shane Blackheart
All artwork, writing, and videos are my own.