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The Scarlet & Black

Mental Musings: Day of the Dead, Anxiety Edition

Graphic by Tess Kerkhof.

As I write, I am indulging in the leftovers from Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, which took place on the two days after Halloween. Translation: while everyone else got drunk and sported some, might I add, insanely good costumes (at least from what I saw on Instagram), I cooked Mexican food with a friend in the community, drove to Marshalltown for pan dulce and printed photos of my deceased loved ones at the Walmart kiosk.  

I felt a lot of pressure on multiple fronts: especially given the loss I experienced last month, my preparation for Day of the Dead could not have felt more important. I spent more money than I maybe should have trying to put together the best altar I could with limited shopping resources out here in the middle of Iowa. Even if to some it appeared to only be a “display,” given that the practice of setting up an ofrenda entails leaving for spirits who are thought only to take the food’s essence, I couldn’t help but feel as though guests would arrive at any minute.  I didn’t realize it, but despite the stresses that holidays entail, a dose of my roots, the culture that holds me together even in my worst hour, turned out to be the remedy I needed in the midst of the post-fall break/pre-Thanksgiving chaos.  

As the months grow colder and events are being moved back inside, I’ve found myself relapsing a bit: as mentioned in a previous column, I have a bit of a history with germs. I have always possessed irrational, bordering compulsive fears surrounding public surfaces, cleaning supplies, and infectious diseases. It hasn’t persisted throughout my whole life, but it tends to flare up in moments of stress and manifests in subtle ways. If you ever notice me hesitate to touch a bottle of all-purpose cleaner, or happen to see an unnerved look in my eyes at the sight of sprouting potatoes or browning fruit, that’s why. It all centers around the same theme: germs, toxins and illness. Usually, I can talk myself out of avoiding these anxieties all together: after all, it’s perfectly normal for potatoes to sprout, and it’s a bit contradictory to fear germs along with the cleaning products that they entail.  

Of course, living in a pandemic for as long as we have, I’ve experienced periods in which these anxieties rise and fall. During remote classes, however, these anxieties were much easier to comply with: I didn’t have to fight them, since I didn’t find myself exposed to nearly as many germs, and cleaning products became a bit easier to handle, as they allowed me to control the environment around me. This is a key concept: control. In reality, we have so little, but for my brain, finding the areas where I can have some semblance of control allows for me to breathe easy.  

But throughout the last few weeks, I’ve had to get used to more and more stimulus. All our classes are in-person, as are work meetings and department gatherings. I didn’t notice myself slip back into the constant hand washing, the frequent sanitizing and, of course, the fear of interaction with literally any other human being, until it was too late. By the time fall break rolled around, leaving my apartment became a strenuous, energy-draining activity. Not because of the social interaction it entailed: despite the fears that social interaction posed, I’m an extrovert at heart. No, the exhaustion came from all the thinking I’d have to do: “when did I touch a public surface last, did I feel like I was standing too close to that person in line at the grill, oh, and did I accidentally touch my eye just now? Maybe I’ll go wash my hands for another two minutes until I feel better.”  

And what am I supposed to tell myself? I can’t say that my concerns aren’t real. COVID still persists, not only in Iowa but across the globe. In a way, the pandemic is a manifestation of some of my worst fears. This reality, this is my nightmare. And I still haven’t woken up from it. The last few weeks, I’ve especially been reminded how ingrained these behaviors are in me, how quickly I’ll find myself visualizing each action I do as a threat to myself, to the well-being of those I love and as a hindrance to see my family. I’ve been so tense about the surfaces my body touches, that I’ve managed to make my jaw sore from how much I’ve been grinding my teeth.  

I really wanted to give into temptation: as much as I love Day of the Dead, I knew preparing for it would require a lot of shopping that would force me to interact with germs outside of my home, and even worse, outside of Grinnell campus. So, I talked it through with my therapist, and came up with some scripts to get me through the day. And then, I got to work.  

First, I went on a massive Walmart run for all the essential ingredients I needed to cook mole, a Mexican staple for holidays and weddings. Once I had all the ingredients to cook, along with some impulse buys to decorate the altar, I went home and cooked the full meal with my friend. I did this a few days in advance, since given my workload, you wouldn’t catch me cooking a full Mexican meal on a Tuesday. 

Then came the Marshalltown run for pan de muerto, or bread of the dead in English. You can only find this particular baked good at Mexican bakeries or panaderias. This required me going beyond the scope of Grinnell itself: that meant a whole new pool of germs, not to mention a whole car ride by myself to think about every single one of them. With a large bottle of sanitizer, paper towels and a spare mask, I made my way over. The bakery reminded me of my childhood, specifically of trips with my grandmother to the panderias in Chicago. I grabbed some pan de muerto, along with my one of other favorite pan dulces, made a quick coffee run and made my way back to Grinnell. All in one piece, and with incredibly clean hands.  

Once all the supplies were gathered, then came the actual decorating, which I considered a reward, as I was able to do it in the comfort of my own home, with Coco playing in the background. On Nov. 2, the day when adults are celebrated, I took a shot of tequila, gave a toast to the dead, and decided that, on therapy on Thursday, I’d congratulate myself. I’d managed to prepare an entire holiday, and even though I didn’t get to spend it with my family in person, I’d pushed myself to stay safe while also not completely flying off the handle. That was something, right? 

All of this to say, mental illness is an uphill battle, one that never has a completely permanent solution, only detours that can get you closer and closer to the top. Sometimes, like this past summer, you find a peak. And sometimes, you slip, and you have to problem-solve your way back up. Day of the Dead was my first step to getting my thoughts under control; now, for the next one.  

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