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Nancy, a 24-year-old first-generation American who grew up “mostly low-income,” is the only member of her Central American and Caribbean family to have left New York. She currently lives in Los Angeles, where she’s employed full time as a production coordinator. She’s been working since she was a teenager. Now, as Nancy's seen others lose their jobs or risk their health as frontline workers during the coronavirus pandemic, she feels “lucky enough to work somewhere that 1) I enjoy quite a bit and 2) pays me a salary that [means I can] afford an apartment and the majority of my bills and not feel underwater,” she told me. “It’s definitely still all very new to me to have all of this at my age — the goal is very much to eventually give back to my family.” She was diagnosed with depression and anxiety in her late teens, and has been struggling through some bad spirals during the lockdown, mostly in silence.
“I only recently spoke to a friend about not feeling too stable, and still felt burdensome,” she said. “Even when she told me that I wasn’t being a burden, I still felt like I couldn’t take the ‘handout,’ for a lack of better word.” She hasn’t sought support elsewhere, because “I don’t want to put it on my friends and family.” She’s been crying herself to sleep or getting “incredibly high” at night to cope. “It’s destructive and I’m fully aware of that,” she said. “But I’m also so painfully aware of everything else that I feel like a bit of a brat for even going through these emotions.”
She’s not alone. Anxiety, grief, and trauma are natural responses to the pandemic, but placed in a class context, some people are finding it hard to accept or give voice to their own feelings. Anna Borges, a former colleague of mine who writes about and reports on mental health, has discovered in her interviews with therapists over the past month that “many people feel ashamed of their emotions because of how their circumstances compare to others in more vulnerable positions. And it's adding extra distress to an already awful situation.” My own therapist, who frequently calls me out for downplaying my anxieties — I love to insist that nothing is ever “that bad” — caught me in downplaying overdrive when we had a phone session earlier this week. After listening to me beat myself up for a particularly dark spell of depression, when I was mostly recovered from presumed COVID-19 symptoms but still seized with stomach cramps and ground down by weeks of fatigue, she gently reminded me that feeling badly was the most natural response in the world to a pandemic, no matter my relatively privileged position.
The psychological impact of the pandemic cuts deep into the core of middle-class anxieties.
Class in the US is complicated. What we call the middle class is in fact a huge category of people with varying backgrounds and identities. What they share, however, is a sense of precarity. Fewer than half of middle-income American adults say they have enough saved to cover three months of expenses, according to a Pew Research survey conducted this month. Many of those who’ve experienced upward mobility are still connected — financially, emotionally, or otherwise — to the places they came from. And counter to the bootstraps mentality of rugged American individualism, mobility doesn’t only work in one direction. Many people are only a single medical crisis or job loss away from finding themselves backsliding toward debt or even poverty.
But it can be difficult, especially for those who’ve experienced some version of class ascension, to feel as though their grief and anxiety is really earned when they’re also reckoning with survivor's guilt. If you’re relatively privileged, are you even “allowed” to feel anxiety and despair right now?
The clinical psychologist B. Last, writing for Damage Magazine, notes that “the psychological impact of the pandemic cuts deep into the core of middle-class anxieties.” For Last’s patients in a free mental health clinic in Philadelphia, who are mostly families who live beneath the poverty line, “the global pandemic is not a break from normalcy. The outbreak and its social repercussions are continuous with their experience of a world where bad things happen and where they lack control of the outcome.” But the middle class has so much at stake, “both materially and psychically,” when it comes to this crisis that they’ve resorted yet again to seeking individual solutions to systemic problems, whether by panic-buying or putting their nuclear families’ comforts ahead of the public good.
Last points to large-scale epidemiologic surveys that suggest high-income and highly socioeconomically unequal countries, like the US, have “significantly greater rates of anxiety disorders than low-income, more equitable countries.” Within wealthy and unequal nations, those most prone to anxiety “occupy what Erik Olin Wright has termed ‘contradictory class locations.’” It isn’t the ultra-wealthy or the very poor who suffer most acutely from psychological distress, but the middle class: “the middle manager or low-level supervisor, who lacks the agency to meaningfully alter her social conditions, but has the education and financial means to place her fingers in the dike. In recent years, she has become overwhelmed as the number of leaky holes multiply.”
This virus was never some sort of great social leveler; it’s making some lives way harder than others, and killing far more people in communities that were already vulnerable, too. But even those lucky enough to be spending lockdown in homes with yards, and those who don’t have children or other dependents to care for, and those who can do their jobs from home rather than on the front lines of the pandemic are still struggling with their mental health. How can we adequately address this big, collective trauma without minimizing anyone’s suffering, while still acknowledging that the way our society is structured maximizes different people’s pain?
A young woman who grew up an hour outside of Toronto and recently moved to New York is currently living with her partner, who has wealthy parents — “and through him I have the privilege of a safety net for the first time,” she said. Having grown up working-class, most of her family is still employed in the service industry, at places like Walmart. “I’m not really worried about money right now because of my partner,” she said. “And I’ve been feeling a lot of guilt and weirdness about this since I have family who still need to risk their health to go to work.” Talking to friends about her complicated feelings isn’t really an option, either, because most of them are wealthier, “so I feel like I’m putting them in a weird spot.”
Floating in class limbo can make it difficult to connect with people on either side of your own particular class divide, especially in times of crisis. A 33-year-old also living in Los Angeles told me that she’s “caught in that gray area of not great, not bad, just okay.” Most of her friends “are a mix of very comfortable to very paycheck-to-paycheck situations. I'm finding myself code-switching a lot, trying to find the language to bridge that gap — how to talk to my friends and family who are only inconvenienced by this pandemic vs. my friends and peers who are devastated emotionally, financially, physically.”
“I'm finding myself codeswitching a lot, trying to find the language to bridge that gap.”
Another tricky question: If you’re not quite financially stable, but not quite drowning, either, how do you know if you should tap mutual aid networks for support? The 33-year-old is a freelancer whose upcoming projects have been canceled because of the pandemic but isn’t currently receiving unemployment benefits because her name got misspelled, and “it’s impossible to get a hold of them.” But because she has some savings in the bank, “I’m not applying to any of the artist grants or offers for Venmo payments from people online, because I can be okay for now and others can’t…but that will dry up. And at some point soon, I will need help.”
Emily, a 34-year-old living in Texas with her family, is dealing with similar confusing feelings about her class position. On the one hand, “I work with lots of middle-class people, and I’m pretty sure I’m the most broke in the office. Our kids are on CHIP [the Children Health Insurance Program through Medicaid], we never take vacations — nothing tragic, but a different experience from people who go out for lunch every day and are always taking up collections for gifts.” But on the other hand, she’s currently in the process of filing for bankruptcy, “and we’re soon to be cleared of $50k of debt … so we're in a better place financially than we've ever been. And my husband can see to the kids, so we're not balancing two remote jobs. It's hard and we're really struggling, but I know it could be much, much worse.” Emily said she’s been dealing with clinical depression “on and off for 20 years,” and it’s now back in full force. “I’m depressed, but feel I have no right to be.”
One easy way for people across socioeconomic classes to deal with feelings of guilt or powerlessness is by giving back, financially or otherwise, to those less fortunate. But determining exactly how much to give away isn’t so clear-cut when you’re not necessarily thriving. Studies have shown that poorer Americans give a greater percentage of their incomes to charity than the wealthy, perhaps because they’re more intimately acquainted with the value and necessity of spreading wealth in a fundamentally unequal society. But how much should you give when you’re just barely hanging on yourself?
Morgan, a 22-year-old who works at a law firm, feels incredibly guilty because she’s able to work from home while her three roommates are currently out of work because of the pandemic. “I'm constantly in fear that my roommates who don't have an income right now are mad at me or are talking about me,” she said. “I've even offered to pay for some of their bills during this time since I feel so guilty that I have something they don't … I end up dreading having to go between the same few rooms every single day and that even has me questioning my own existence. Is this living situation even what I want?” To feel more empowered when it comes to helping her community, she donated 20% of her stimulus check to her local church, which has partnered with a nearby homeless shelter, and the rest she put into her savings. “I feel guilty that I am not using the bulk of my stimulus money to benefit someone else, but I have to realize that I'm a person too, with needs, and they may not be as great as someone else’s...but they're still needs.”
Meeting one’s own needs while also taking ethical considerations into account has always been a moral minefield, but it’s become especially fraught now. In the absence of clear directives from so many of our leaders, we’ve all been judging and policing the hell out of each other’s responses to the pandemic. Some of these judgments are heartily deserved, especially for people in power who’ve put others in danger, but “some of them, maybe even most of them, are misguided manifestations of fear and confusion in the face of a very real vacuum of authority,” as my colleague Anne Helen Petersen writes.
Zoe, a 33-year-old living in Brooklyn who’s currently making a six-figure salary, told me she feels extremely lucky that she and her partner are healthy, employed, and have enough cash in a savings account to support them for six months. But once the pandemic began, “I had an emotional breakdown every other day,” she said. “It was overwhelming to feel scared, sad, angry, confused, and powerless while also acknowledging the immense privilege and gratitude I have in this world.” She said she feels “like a fucking traitor every time we order something on Amazon, but I'm now too anxious to go to the stores to get hard-to-find essential items. Then I tell myself there's no ethical consumption under capitalism and I personally cannot change the world so just fuck it — buy the dish soap from Amazon!”
"I feel badly about being okay enough to not be panicked, but not okay enough to really be able to help anyone else.”
I heard that phrase a lot when talking to people for this story. Mary, a 29-year-old New Yorker, said she’s “trying to be as ethical as possible in how I spend and donate money and how I acquire food, but it's tough and it feels like there are no good options. I know there's no ethical consumption under capitalism, but this feels worse than usual.” She experienced a severe depressive episode earlier this year that led her to take three weeks of medical leave from work, “which was a first, and now feels like an insane luxury.” Her income has remained steady through the pandemic, “So I mostly feel super lucky, but a lot of things, of course, are harder, and I feel guilty about that.”
One 43-year-old woman who grew up in the Northwest and currently lives in Montana feels grateful that she’s still able to work both her full-time and part-time jobs from home. “But, my god, I desperately want a week off. I am so exhausted mentally and am working so hard to manage my history of PTSD bullshit through all of this.” She’s uncertain if her full-time job at a nonprofit will still exist later this year, so when she received her stimulus check, she decided to put it all in savings. “But I want my community to survive all of this. So I've decided for the next three months I'm going to spend $150 each month on things or places I wouldn't have normally spent.” So far, that includes donating to the Montana Free Press, buying a homemade mask from a friend who lost their job, and ordering Mother’s Day gifts from a friend’s shop. “They are little things, but it feels like it's a small way I can help others,” she said.
Catherine, a graduate student who grew up in the West Indies, is “riding out the ‘rona” with an aunt, since she had to move out of campus housing (she’s currently in the US on a student visa). “It has been a hassle from a mental health standpoint, but I am mostly perfectly fine. I've actually been able to save quite a bit because staying with family has supplemented my grocery costs. I feel badly about being okay enough to not be panicked, but not okay enough to really be able to help anyone else.”
It can also be hard to admit feeling grief for losing things that many people never had in the first place. A nonbinary person in their early thirties told me they feel guilty about their new job, where they’re making almost $20,000 more than they used to. “I think it's definitely appropriate at this point in my career, but I feel guilt over it as people lose their jobs.” While they have been able to send money to people in their life who need it, small things like the inability to “get a professional haircut, which I was looking forward to because it would help me feel better about my gender expression,” are frustrating. And yet, they said, “whining over this feels wrong.”
A 25-year-old self-identified “straight white guy,” who became financially independent at 21, told me he “used to be a market believer and like a ‘learn to code’ guy (gross, I know).” Now, he’s a Bernie supporter and data scientist. “At 25 years old I make just over $90K, after my raise this year,” he said. “I have plenty of savings to cover a sufficient number of months of rent, I have no debt and a 401k.”
“The main thing that I am mentally hung up on is whether or not I'm a bad person for benefiting from a system that causes so much harm,” he said. “Every single grocery store employee, truck driver, medical worker, delivery worker both works much harder than me — I sit in a chair and type on a computer — and is paid less than me all while being at greater risk to the virus. That seems pretty fucked up to me.”
“I am also very conscious about not having myself used as an example of meritocracy working as designed,” he added. “I think plenty of people could do my job, and there's nothing really intrinsically special about me. I also wouldn't say I have worked particularly hard to get here. But it's easy to believe in these myths when it helps to repress the guilt of benefiting from a messed up system.”
So much of my own depression and anxiety is exacerbated by my experience of what Wright and Last call a “contradictory class location.” I don’t have enough fingers to plug all the leaky holes. For now, I have enough money to indulge in some creature comforts, but I don’t make the kind of salary that would allow me to buy a better life for the members of my family living below the poverty line. I doubt I ever will. Stuck in class limbo, I punish myself for what I do have and constantly regret that I can’t do more, for my own family or for other people.
It's clear I’m not the only one. The pandemic is responsible for fueling a new mental health crisis, the fallout of which could last for generations. Those dealing with depression and anxiety right now are being forced into the incredibly difficult position of trying to manage symptoms at home while the health care system is ravaged by the virus. Mary, the 29-year-old New Yorker, is one of the people bearing that burden: “I’m also aware, coming out of one of the worst depressive episodes in my life, that I need to be extremely careful not to require serious care, because I know that's just not available right now.”
“I've literally exhausted practicing gratitude ... it just makes me feel worse knowing that so many people are suffering all around me."
All the typical ways of managing anxiety and depression, besides therapy and medication — exercise, sleeping enough, eating well, expressing thankfulness — can only go so far. “I've literally exhausted practicing gratitude,” Zoe said. “It has come to a point where when I list the things I am grateful for (my nice apartment, the food in the fridge, the money coming from my job, the health of me and my family) it just makes me feel worse knowing that so many people are suffering all around me in this city — in my own neighborhood!”
“How can you be grateful when you know you're surrounded by suffering and powerless to change it?” she added. “What good is the privilege I have when I feel like I can’t do anything meaningful with it?”
Guilt, of course, isn't helpful or productive, when it comes to justice work or mental health. But anxiety and depression, especially left untreated, tend not to listen to logic. And individual people, after all, can only do so much — though that doesn't mean small, personal efforts can't be meaningful. For now, what we can do is try our best to care for ourselves and our communities while agitating for the kind of structural change — from universal health care and pre-K to more robust employment protections to taxing the rich — that could curb the effects of future crises. Everyone is just doing their best. And hopefully whatever world we build from the ashes will be one in which more people are able to fully and freely live, rather than just try to survive. ●