An open love letter to my depression & anxiety
Written by: Dimitri Joseph Moïse
It’s day, whatever, of the COVID-19 crisis that has led to national quarantines, shutdowns all over the world, and the worst global economic crisis since 2008 and 1987. We’re on track to hit the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. People are getting diagnosed and our loved ones are dying at alarming rates. (Sound familiar?) People all over the world are working from home or have lost work altogether. We’re in the middle of “peak death week” and unemployment in the U.S. is at an all-time high. In fact, it’s at one of the highest rates in American history.
Maybe you’re thinking back to when you were diagnosed with HIV. Maybe you’ve been too depressed to leave your couch or too anxious to get any work done. I wouldn’t blame you. Maybe you’re thinking about how you’re going to pay rent next month. (Maybe you’re fine, and that’s okay too!) But if you were to look up the recipe for ‘Depression & Anxiety’ in the “mental health cookbook,” the coronavirus crisis undoubtedly has every single ingredient. Grab a pinch of interpersonal isolation, some stress and loss, an ounce of financial difficulty, a dash of sensationalized media, and BAM! It’s the perfect storm for an exact recipe.
It’s hard to be isolated, which means it’s easy to be depressed. I’m here to tell you: it’s OKAY. For the first time in our modern history, we are experiencing a shared and collective trauma all over the world. If you’re anything like me, you’re beating yourself up for feeling less productive than usual. You can’t stop watching the news. You’re feeling incompetent. Believe me, you are not alone.
You might be reading this thinking, “jeez, enough already!” But there’s a point to naming all of these sobering realities. As important as it is in this new socially distant world for you to find a regular routine, stay active, exercise, and check on the ones you love — it is just as important to acknowledge the depression and anxiety you may be feeling. The more you are able to take those limiting beliefs and make friends with them, the easier it will be for you to shut them up, put them in the backseat, and grab control of that steering wheel again.
I’m sure you will look back at this moment and always remember where you were during the “Quarantine of 2020,” much like you might be remembering where you were when Beyoncé dropped Lemonade (like me), or maybe where you were at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. If we’re talking about the quarantine, I was in the middle of rehearsals for a new off-Broadway musical in New York City, which is now cancelled.
When we got the news that our show would be suspended indefinitely, I was feeling a mix of things, but I was mostly relieved. Inadvertently, it turned into the staycation I desperately needed. I’d been working nonstop for the last ten years — four of those immersed in one of the most rigorous musical theatre college programs in the country, and the following six working as a professional actor on Broadway, tour, television, and commercials. The introvert in me was relieved that I was “required” to practice isolation and social distancing indefinitely, that part was easy. For my depression & anxiety to take hold in the weeks to follow, it was even easier.
My first two weeks of isolation were spent quarantined in my apartment. Something came over me. I spent almost all of that time inside with the lights off and the blinds closed. I wasn’t answering the phone unless it was mom or dad. If I wasn’t asleep, I was obsessing over the news, glued to the television screen. And forget about social media. Between all of the workout videos, Tik Tok challenges, and Instagram and Facebook reminders that Shakespeare wrote King Lear while he was quarantined, I was feeling as incompetent as ever. This, unfortunately, was not unlike the usual depressive episode for me.
But then something changed. At the start of week three, I was tuned into my church livestream. Our associate pastor spent time preaching to the congregation about mental health and spiritual wellness in the age of COVID-19. At the end of what I believe to be one of her most compelling sermons to date, she said, “while it will be a great tragedy to endure this crisis … the greater tragedy would be coming out of this experience having learned nothing new about yourself.”
Then it hit me. In a lot of ways, my church community was a saving grace for me. My church welcomed me with open arms after the one I grew up threw me out because I was gay. They assured me that God loves me, just as I am, for every single part of who I am. They supported me through my HIV diagnosis. They are my biggest cheerleader. Because of my church, I was finally able to form the relationship with God that I had been searching for my whole life. And now, here we all were, worshipping together online. It took an indescribable amount of work, but we were still able to have a weekly Sunday service, even though it was online. We were able to spread peace with each other, worship together, and pray together — even in spite of the quarantine. I felt a spirit of gratitude come over me, to have this community, to be part of a family like this. The very next day, I was invited to start a 21-day meditation challenge by one of my friends in the congregation. Coincidence? Who knows. Ironic? Definitely. All I can say is that I’m on day 8 of 21, and I’m ready for day 9.
It’s been almost two years since my HIV diagnosis. As a national HIV spokesperson, I work to help empower the lives of people living with HIV every day. I’m incredibly proud of how far I’ve come since then, though truth be told, I hit some of the lowest lows of my life. On the day of my diagnosis, it was my little brother’s birthday. I was in the middle of a long-running successful Broadway tour while simultaneously managing an award-winning magazine. I wasn’t ready for an HIV diagnosis, but God had other plans. When I was given the opportunity to become an HIV advocate — ultimately making the decision that I would — I was struggling to keep everything together. Much like the perfect storm that is COVID-19, in many ways, so is HIV.
If you’re living with HIV, this period of time could be incredibly traumatic for you. Maybe you, or someone you know, was diagnosed with or died from COVID-19. Maybe it’s bringing back past trauma. Maybe it’s reminding you of when you were diagnosed. When you hear doctors on the news talking about “testing positive” for coronavirus or about COVID “viral loads,” maybe it’s reminding you that you’re a person living with HIV who was never able to reach an undetectable status. I’m here to remind you: you are not alone. I’m struggling with you. But that doesn’t mean we can’t discover moments of gratitude every day. That doesn’t mean we can’t get up each morning, feel our feet on the ground, take our daily medication, and feel empowered that modern science has given us the opportunity to control our HIV and live long, healthy lives.
If you’re reading this, it’s day 26 (AKA week four) of isolation and social distancing for me. I still think of Rev. April’s sermon, and in fact, I have learned something new about myself. I’ve learned that it’s okay to give myself grace. We are in the midst of a global pandemic. We are living in isolation. Try to give yourself some grace too. It’s okay to take things one step at a time.
Dimitri Joseph Moise is an actor, award-winning editor, and national HIV spokesperson. He is currently featured in a national HIV awareness broadcast campaign titled “Keep Being You,” also featured in GQ magazine. Dimitri has also been featured in HIV Plus magazine, Them magazine, Thought Catalog, PAPER magazine, Teen Vogue, and on Good Morning America. Instagram: @dimitrimoiseofficial