Searching for Signs of Myself at the End of the World
Could pandemic fiction ever have prepared me — a clinically depressed person — for the COVID-19 crisis?
When I first read about a novel coronavirus quickly spreading across China in late 2019, a great sense of foreboding washed over me. As someone with depression and anxiety, I felt an urgent need to bathe myself in worst-case-scenarios. I turned to pandemic fiction.
My subconscious was craving confirmation that I could survive: survive both the public tragedy of a deadly, highly contagious virus, and the private catastrophe of my mental illness. I bounced from the sublime to the ridiculous.
First, I read Emily St. John Mandel’s literary novel Station Eleven. Next, I binged all four seasons of the dark comedy tv series The Last Man on Earth. By then, we were on lockdown and my anxiety was through the roof. I had trouble sleeping: I’d spend hours tossing and turning, panicking about the prospect of my extended family getting sick.
Post-apocalyptic fiction is comforting because we identify with the survivors, we see ourselves as one of the lucky ones for whom life goes on. But what if I didn’t find myself? Or worse, I find myself in a character treated as weak, burdensome, unworthy of saving?
I found one survivor in Station Eleven described as having depression. She spends all of her time desperately seeking a supply of her antidepressant medication. Eventually, she is seen walking into the woods and is never heard from again. I’m not sure what I expected from a book that leaves its one disabled character to die alone in his high-rise apartment because his wheelchair reliance would be too much of a burden on his brother, but I know I wanted better for both of these characters.
The apocalypse is not for the faint of heart. I know this. But was it too much to ask for a vision of the future where people with mental or physical illnesses aren’t treated as expendable?