Trigger warning. This blog post contains heavy topics regarding mental health.
I’m tired. We are all tired. It’s been 18 months since the pandemic was first declared, and it’s been 18 months since I last wrote about battling anxiety at the start of the pandemic. In that time, there have been millions of lives lost around the world, lives completely uprooted and changed, and families who continue to be separated. Did I think 18 months ago that I would be here writing this post? No, but here we are. This pandemic is actually just one of many reasons why I have always hated the question, “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”
On social media, it seems like I am thriving. It seems like I have found a way to live with this new indefinite normal and that I am doing okay with it. While I wish that were true, it’s one big fat lie. May I remind you all again that social media, particularly Instagram, is not real life. My feed is curated to evoke a sense of wanderlust, femininity, and dreams. I like to think of my feed as an editorial spread, with a focus on the professional and less on the personal. Its goal is to evoke emotion. My feed is my job. But behind the scenes, it’s not all dreamlike.
I’m not okay. I haven’t been okay for some time, and as usual it’s taken me a minute to accept the fact that it’s okay not to be okay. I’ve struggled with being able to do my job (which has become almost impossible thanks to Hong Kong’s extreme restrictions on travel). I’ve struggled with being separated from my family and my sweet fur babies back in CA. I’ve struggled with feeling worthy (although to be fair, I’ve been struggling with that since my divorce as so many people made it perfectly clear to me I was now no one without my ex-husband). I’ve struggled, period. And I know I am not the only one.
I decided to spend more time in Hong Kong in November 2019, since my beau was not only raised here but lives and works here. His entire career is here, and he’s in a pretty senior position with his job. At the beginning of our relationship I thought it would be a fun adventure to spend more time with him in a new city on a new continent (he’s not some stranger, I’ve actually known him for over a decade). Hey, I was 29 and ready for something new, especially since I do not like to sit still and consider myself nomadic. Despite all that, it still wasn’t an easy decision to make as I’d be sacrificing a lot in relocating 8000 miles away from everyone I knew and loved. The plan was for me to be in the US a couple of months out of the year snuggling my fur babies, working with my amazing management team in the US, and hanging out with my family. Then COVID-19 showed up uninvited two months later and put everyone’s plans around the world right into the furnace. Hong Kong closed its borders (and they still remain closed 18 months later) and invoked the strictest quarantine requirements more than anywhere else in the world, making returning to see my family impossible for a moment. At the end of 2020, we honestly thought the pandemic was heading towards the end, especially with the distribution of the long-awaited vaccines, so this temporary pause was begrudgingly tolerated.
My beau and I became engaged last year (no plans for a wedding anytime soon though thanks to the pandemic and both of our families being spread out across different countries around the world). It’s become clear that the pandemic is far from over, and that this position we are in will be the way of life for a while longer. That notion in itself has been the cause for several of my anxiety-induced breakdowns. Since he needs to remain in Hong Kong for his job, we have no choice but to stay where we are. I’ve already been separated from my family indefinitely for a couple of years, so I refuse to be separated from my beau as well, especially since the government is extremely unpredictable in making changes regarding the pandemic.
Back in October 2020, I was finally able to return to LA for a quick 10-day visit to hold my cats close and share a bottle of wine with my dad for a couple of hours while 6 feet apart on my terrace. Upon my return to Hong Kong, I had to undergo a 14-night hotel quarantine in a tiny room on my dime, which was not only a pretty intense punch to my wallet but also to my mental health (I spent more time in that hotel room than I did being in the US). I’m so grateful for that quick visit, because now I’ve had to cancel my trip next month that would have had me reunited not only with my cats after 1 year apart, but with the other family members (including all of my grandparents) that I have not seen in over 2.5 years. Hotel quarantine in Hong Kong has now been increased to 21 days upon arrival (if you can get in), and my mental health is way too fragile to endure that willingly.
As many of you have noticed, I’ve taken many breaks on social media in 2021 so far. For the sake of my mental health, I had to. Sometimes it is not helpful or healthy to be on social media so much, which has been a fact since way before the pandemic was declared. At the beginning of the pandemic, social media was a kind of safe haven and became even more of an expressive outlet while we all faced lockdowns and uncertainty. It was a pleasant distraction from the inevitable fear we all faced during a time in our lives none of us saw coming. But as the pandemic wore on, and as half of the world began to reopen while the other half remained locked away, social media suddenly started to feel more like an enemy than a friend.
*TRIGGER WARNING* My social media breaks occurred especially around the times I was having complete breakdowns and what I like to call “episodes.” I’m talking about moments that were beyond panic attacks. I’m talking about my anxiety being taken to a level that I’ve never endured for this long before. There were moments where I was uncontrollably screaming bloody murder on my floor, days refusing to eat, days refusing to leave my home (agoraphobia), suffering from severe insomnia that made me unable to sleep for 48 straight hours, and engaging in self-harming that has resulted in permanent scars. I felt like I was living in a permanently dark cloud, consumed by anger, fear, sadness, and isolation, and nothing and no one could seem to break the clouds away.
It’s no secret that I suffer from a panic disorder and that I have battled anxiety and depression for years. I had finally gotten a good grip on my mental health for a short while, but then all that progress completely went out the window during my divorce and now during this pandemic. What I haven’t shared before is that on top of suffering from anxiety and depression, I also have been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. I found out about this diagnosis around the time of my divorce, so working through this part of my mental health is still relatively new. Add a global pandemic, and well, you’ve got yourself where I’m currently at.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with borderline personality disorder, or BPD as we commonly refer to it, it is a mental illness involving emotions and self-image. From the National Alliance on Mental Illness, it is defined as “a condition characterized by difficulties regulating emotion. This means that people who experience BPD feel emotions intensely and for extended periods of time, and it is harder for them to return to a stable baseline after an emotionally triggering event.” It is also characterized by unstable self-image (usually negative), sharp mood swings, depression and anxiety, fear of abandonment and thus an inability to sustain relationships, persistent feelings of loneliness and emptiness, and impulsive behavior such as self-harming. Even when there wasn’t a pandemic, all of these “symptoms” defined who I was and my behavior for the last 10 years – even before I was crowned Miss USA. Add COVID-19 into the mix, and you’ve got a bit of an unsteady disarray in me. My diagnosis explains my inability to grasp my emotions regarding the pandemic and has left me feeling this unruly weight on my shoulders and a constant battle in my mind instead.
My depression led me to simply stop taking care of myself. I couldn’t even focus on my work, something I am most passionate about. I just wanted to hide away forever. I tried hiding what I could from my beau, but he wasn’t blind – he was watching me crumble and wither away, and he didn’t hesitate to step in. He encouraged me to be completely honest with my therapist about my self-mutilation, insomnia, bouts of agoraphobia, and limited eating. I was then sent to a psychiatrist, and after some evaluations I was placed on antidepressants and other anxiety-reducing medications. I was ashamed of myself for needing to be on medication, but my aunt reminded me there’s no shame in it at all. Some people need a bit of a stabilizing boost during this time, and I’m one of them. And guess what? That’s okay. It’s okay if you need to turn to more than just therapy for help. I was last on antidepressants from 2012-2014 and I honestly didn’t think I’d ever need them again, but here I am and I’ve accepted that it’s okay to need that help for the time being. My puppy Luca is also about to begin his training as a psychiatric service dog to assist me in certain situations.
I’ve accepted that in order to move forward and take control of my life, this is what I have to do. I admit that so far it’s working. I’ve been feeling more motivated and I’ve been feeling like I have better grips on my emotions, with outbursts and episodes no longer plaguing my day-to-day life. That doesn’t mean my episodes have been eliminated completely, but I’m feeling more in charge of myself and despite the fact that surrounding factors haven’t changed, I am starting to feel like the Alyssa I know is inside me somewhere. She never went away, she just needed some help.
So why am I writing this? To be honest, I debated ever publishing this post. I’ve had it written down in separate articles for months now, but I was always afraid to post it as I was worried I’d feel even more abandoned, that I’d be judged, and that I’d even be attacked. I had messages on Instagram from people saying that if I continued to talk about my own mental health struggles, that I would be kissing my career goodbye since, and I quote, “no one wants to work with or be with a crazy person.” To be fair, if a brand doesn’t want to work with me because I’m too honest about my mental health, then they don’t deserve me or my audience – plain and simple. But I am writing this because I know I am not the only one. I know that I am not the only one struggling with their mental health.
This pandemic has resulted in a lot of us who struggle with mental illness to really be unable to take control of our emotions and our behavior, and all actions have consequences. I’ve advocated for mental health awareness for years, and I’m not going to stop now. I am someone who suffers from a mental illness and I still struggle with it to this day, and the pandemic has not helped it one bit. I’m here to let all of you know that if you’re struggling with something similar – you are not alone. And you know what? It’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to not be perfect. It’s okay to be different. And it’s okay to seek help. Mental health doesn’t discriminate – it affects everyone from all corners of the earth.
So what are some ways to help others while we still endure this pandemic 18 months in? The biggest thing we can do is check in on one another. We should be checking in on everyone. A simple, “Hi, I was thinking of you and just wanted to let you know that” or “Hi, I’m just checking in to see if you’re okay” goes a long, long way. I have a very small support system, which isn’t great especially with my BPD, so my loneliness is multiplied by 100 when I am feeling most vulnerable. So as someone who is struggling with anxiety and a mental illness, I can tell you that hearing from others definitely helps. Feelings of abandonment run wild when you are suffering from anxiety and depression. Reaching out to someone to show them that they aren’t alone, and that you’re thinking of them and support them, will mean more to that person than you could ever imagine. Lots of people around the world have been separated from their families, their spouses, their children, their pets, etc for a year and a half or longer. Lots of others have suffered loss after loss thanks to this virus. Loneliness in those who suffer from anxiety and depression is amplified when they truly are left on their own.
What can we do to take care of ourselves during this time? As Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles have courageously shown us, it’s okay to take a step back. You are not weak if you step back. You are not lazy if you step back. You are not worthless if you step back. You are not incapable if you step back. Prioritizing your mental health should be first and foremost. Mental health affects your physical and emotional well-being, and is the backbone of your existence. Everything in life revolves around mental health, and I’m sick and tired of it being pushed to the back as if it doesn’t matter at all. It’s not usually included in health insurance (it’s never been included in any of mine), and it’s usually easily dismissed by others.
This pandemic isn’t over yet, and this virus is showing signs that it is inevitably and regrettably here to stay. We can’t control what others do or what restrictions our governments implement, but we can find other ways to be in control of ourselves. I’m not going to sit here and tell you to just do whatever makes you happy. I swear if I heard someone tell me that phrase one more time I was going to explode. It’s not a helpful quote to hear over and over when you’re suffering from anxiety and depression, since those two things pretty much zap the fun out of even the most passionate. But finding something that is good for your mental health and physical health is a great bonus, which is why I personally turned to fitness. I can’t control the pandemic, but I can control my body, and over the last year I have watched my body evolve into something strong and fierce, something I have never felt with my body before, and now it’s an activity I have relied on most. As I said earlier, mental health doesn’t discriminate. I’m very grateful to have a roof over my head and most of my family in good health, and it’s because I have those things that I felt ashamed of my anxiety and depression. But there should be no shame in mental health, and that’s something even I have had difficulty coming to terms with.
I wish I could tell you this will all be over soon. I really wish I could. But instead, I will tell you that you are going to be okay. It may not feel like it right now (I’ve had my doubts), and it may not feel like it for some time, but you will be okay. I don’t think anyone had “years-long global pandemic” on their 2020 bingo card, but it’s still here and we can find ways to manage life around it now. It won’t be easy. It’s going to be hard as hell. But if we are there for each other and if we are able to keep the conversation going about mental health and why it’s so important, I think great strides can be made. Lend an ear to someone and vice versa. Don’t be afraid to call someone if you need help. It’s okay to need help. Remember, you’re not alone. We’re all human in need of support.
And never forget – you’re going to be okay.
If you or someone you know is battling a mental illness, please check out NAMI for more information.
If you or someone you know is suicidal, please call 1-800-273-8255.