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I Think I Broke My Brain

Written by

Collective Culture
February 1st, 2021

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How covid-19, quarantine, isolation, anti-black violence and white supremacist terrorism left me in shambles.

Written by: Mouna Traoré

Edited By: Jazmin Batey

Author’s note:

I have struggled with depression and anxiety since I was very small. My mother is diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression, and many members of my family also live with diagnoses under the schizophrenia spectrum. I have never been formally diagnosed or assessed, but several therapists and doctors have labelled my symptoms using terms like depression and anxiety. I am not a mental health professional and by sharing my story, my intention is only to share my experience candidly and offer some advice on how to cope with similar mental health struggles.

2020 was supposed to be my year. The year I did it all. In January of 2020, I moved to Los Angeles, finally fulfilling my lifelong dream of being an actress in Hollywood, (whatever that means lol). I’ve worked as an actress in Toronto for more than a decade, appearing in a number of film and tv productions (The Umbrella Academy, Self Made: Inspired by the life of Madam CJ Walker, American Gods, etc). My career strategy from the beginning was to build up my resume and create a foundation for myself before trying to “make it in America”. Last year I finally decided to take the plunge and move to America. I secured my US Visa and even convinced my long distance boyfriend (who is also an actor) to join me on the adventure. We were going to throw ourselves into the proverbial lion’s den, taking on our career and relationship full force, exhausting every opportunity.

We spent the first two months of our time in California looking for our dream apartment. The plan was to stay in LA from 3-5 years minimum, so we chose an idyllic place where we could grow and make a home. We signed the lease, completely oblivious to the fact that later that day the World Health Organization would proclaim that the COVID-19 crisis was a global pandemic.

Like everyone else, there was no way we could anticipate the spectre of this unprecedented world wide crisis. As I watched Canadian friends flee LA in droves, my gut told me to stay – I was meant to be there. We decided to stick it out in our new home and shelter-in-place, hoping the incoming quarantine restrictions and lockdown would be short lived. But as more information about the virus, its rate of transmission and its deadly effects came in, it became clear that things were not opening up or going back to “normal” anytime soon.

In the early days of our quarantine, I was determined to establish a daily routine. I had a meditation corner, a shitty little work out station in our garage, and we went on daily hikes and runs to keep our bodies active. Eventually, as the travel bans and lockdowns were extended indefinitely, existential dread and relentless despair set in. It became harder for me to keep up the routine. I would sometimes spend days at a time in bed, quietly anxious and terrified of the unknown. Although I could recognize my privilege, and I was grateful for my comfort and circumstance, I was immobilized by sadness, anxiety and stress. I was scared for my family and friends and deeply sad for the millions of vulnerable people whose suffering would only be exacerbated by this new virus.

In May, after the murder of George Floyd, any routine I had tried to implement completely evaporated. I took time off from acting and stopped auditioning – it seemed so unimportant in the face of such injustice. I lived in bed or on the couch, consumed by the trauma porn that was being churned out every second on social media and in the news. Horrifying images and videos of anti-black violence, police brutality, and government officials reinforcing systemic racism and oppression. I felt compelled to be up to date on everything that was happening to black people everywhere. I felt like I wasn’t doing my part if I didn’t witness every image, every video, every interview, every think piece. Burning rage and disgust seeped from every pore.

I stopped sleeping altogether when the federal government deployed National Guard troops to Los Angeles during the protests, and flooded the streets with armed police. Suddenly our neighbourhood felt completely hostile. I desperately wanted to take to the streets but my fear of contracting COVID-19 kept me inside. By then, I was planning to go home and see my family, and I was determined to keep them safe. For over a week, the sounds of sirens and helicopters swooping overhead were heard almost 24 hours a day. I would wake up in a panic from the noise, or after some violent dream. I was lucky if I caught an hour or two of fitful sleep.

By the time I got back to Toronto in June, I was a mess. It was very clear to my family that I was in serious distress. I struggled to form sentences, or complete thoughts. I was shaking, panicking and crying constantly. My friends and family encouraged me to speak with someone, and I was very lucky to meet with a counselor online, offering services to black women.  She quickly identified my symptoms as being a response to the trauma and stress of dealing with the pandemic as well as to the anti-black violence, racial injustice and white supremacist terrorism.  She offered me some insight into how to change my thought patterns, so I could rein in my thoughts before spiraling into doom.  Being able to identify and then disrupt my pattern of compulsive and obsessive thinking provided some relief.  It took a few weeks, but I eventually started sleeping again.

My trip to Toronto, which was intended to be 3 weeks, ended up being 6 months. During that time I felt more and more like myself. I still had symptoms of trauma and depression, but I was managing them. My boyfriend, (who also holds Canadian citizenship), travelled to Canada so we could be together as we reevaluated our life plans. I even booked a few small acting  jobs, which gave me a boost of energy and a sense of purpose during my stay. However, my ability to cope with the ever changing landscape of the pandemic fluctuated as much as my work. By the time November rolled around, the cold weather and the growing numbers of positive COVID-19 cases in Ontario led to me to feel increasingly isolated. The gloomy change in season caused me to slip back into a depression, feeling more hopeless than ever.

Late fall, I miraculously booked a job out of town. For this project, I was in an unfamiliar city, living alone in an apartment, and thrust into a highly social and demanding working environment. The production followed the required ACTRA Union COVID-19 safety protocols, but I was still extremely anxious about being around large groups of people and the possibility of contracting the virus, as well as just being social. Although I understood what I was walking into, I was not prepared for how my body and mind would respond to the sudden change after months of social deprivation. Being on set all day every day was like sensory overload! The job I loved was now triggering and stressful. I also felt the absence of my family and my boyfriend deeply. Without the safety blanket of my loved ones, I was completely out of alignment. Don’t get me wrong, I was grateful for the opportunity to work, but truthfully, I was overwhelmed. I tried to keep it together but I felt like I had to act as if everything was ok, like the last 7 months hadn’t happened.

I think I believed I could step into the job as if my trauma, depression and fatigue wouldn’t come with me. Maybe I convinced myself that the job would be the perfect antidote for my issues. What actually happened was my brain stopped working and everything that had been going on with me was amplified x10. When I tell you I was in SHAMBLES, I mean I was in big chunky pieces, falling apart in my trailer and apartment every night. Because I was not okay. My short term memory all but disappeared. I literally couldn’t remember or memorize anything, which is a nightmare as an actor on set. And again, much like in the summer, communicating and expressing myself became more difficult. The more I stressed out about it and the harder I tried, the worse my memory and speech got. I also stopped sleeping again, which made everything so much worse. I was basically a sad messy cranky vortex of stress and indigestion. I couldn’t help but wonder if I broke my brain, because everything about how it was functioning was completely different than it was the year before.

Now I’m not a scientist (even though I’ve played one on tv). I don’t know what exactly happened to me, but the brain fog and memory loss haven’t gone away. At first, I was terrified. I mean, anyone who knows me knows I love to talk. Before, ideas and words were so easily within my grasp, like a piece of low hanging fruit dangling from a branch in front of me. Now I must strain and overextend myself to highest branch, just to find a ripe word. Still, so often, I end up with something bruised, or a word I don’t even want. Settling with the feeling of not being able to describe or communicate something has been tremendously frustrating.

The advice I have for anyone dealing with similar stress and trauma related issues is limited – I’m still learning about what’s going on with me, and discovering what is improving my experience as I heal and recover. Here are some strategies I’ve used to get through this shitstorm:

Recognize your symptoms

Identifying symptoms and paying attention to my emotional state gave me the opportunity to manage my stress and anxiety. Instead of ignoring symptoms and letting them proliferate, I had to admit I am not okay. Symptoms of anxiety and stress manifest differently in each person, so I would highly recommend consulting with a mental health professional or a finding a trusted mental health resource when trying to make sense of what’s going on.

Find Support

Reaching out and asking for help made all the difference to me. Leaning on friends and family, seeking the support of mental health professionals and finding community has been crucial for my progress. Sharing my struggles offered the opportunity to connect with others authentically and feel loved despite my emotional state. It cut through the feeling of isolation and reminded me I wasn’t alone.

Protect your peace

In order to protect my peace, I had to monitor my media consumption. That meant limiting how much I read the news and used social media, and being mindful about what time of day I chose to do those things. I also unfollowed and muted social media accounts that triggered me, and refused to read the comments on political posts (that’s where trolls live).

Prioritize Joy 

I know it sounds corny, but self care is essential. Before I do anything, I make sure to connect with myself and the world. I try to start my day with gratitude and intention. Even though I sometimes resist, I find that when I start my days like this, my emotional experience is generally better. I also try to find time to do things I love and bring me joy. If you’re having trouble knowing where to begin, remembering the things you loved as a child is a good place to start.

Let go

It’s easier said than done of course, but surrendering to this pandemic experience and letting go of any ideas of what it should be has also put me at ease. Because this whole experience is unprecedented and the virus itself keeps changing, embracing a more open and flexible and compassionate attitude to everything and everyone has really takes the pressure off. When I set intentions for 2021, they were all about just being okay with anything that happens, making zero plans, and embracing whatever version of myself shows up. Being realistic and managing my expectations for myself, my career, my relationships, and the world has helped me to feel more rooted.

If you or someone you love is struggling with any of the issues I identified, I highly encourage you to reach out and seek help from a professional. I’m aware that not everybody has access or can afford mental health services, so please check out the following links:

What’s Up Walk-In (Toronto)

1-866-585-6486

Black Mental Health Canada

1-888-220-2510

Therapy for Black Girls

https://therapyforblackgirls.com/

Crisis Text line

text home to 686868

https://www.crisistextline.ca/

South Asian Therapists.org

https://southasiantherapists.org/

The LifeLine App National free Suicide Prevention and Awareness App

https://thelifelinecanada.ca/

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