By Melanie Padgett Powers, Managing Editor

Ryan Seeley, of Orchard Park, New York, has dealt with mental health issues for most of his life. About 10 years ago, Seeley, now 52, was forced to retire from the nursing career he loved and go on disability. He has severe hemophilia A and multiple chronic illnesses, including psoriatic arthritis. In an in-depth interview聽in late February with Dateline Federation, Seeley shared how mental health issues have affected him, what has helped him over the years and what happened when the pandemic struck last year. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)

Q: What was your mental health like before the pandemic?

A: I鈥檝e been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder, and I was officially diagnosed with depression at the age of 25. However, my symptoms started well before that, probably聽in my junior high years. There was a lot of bullying going on that made the depression worse. Of course, back then, I didn鈥檛 know that it was depression. I just knew that I didn鈥檛 feel good. I was and have been for many years, since age 25, on an antidepressant medication. I had to go through probably eight different medications to find the one that helped me best.

Prior to the pandemic, I would say overall all of my issues were well- managed, but there is definitely 鈥 in depression at least 鈥 ebbs and flows, meaning that you can be good one day and then all of a sudden it feels like a heavy wool wet blanket was plopped on top of you and you can鈥檛 get it off.

Q: How does Hemophilia fit into this?

A: I don鈥檛 know that I would say hemophilia was a cause of it, but I think with anyone living with any type of severe or chronic illness, it can affect their mental well-being. But, people with depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders are more at risk for those symptoms to become exacerbated because聽of the chronic illness. In my case, I have multiple chronic illnesses that ultimately forced me to retire 10 years ago and go on disability. You deal with a lot of loss when you live with聽a chronic illness because there鈥檚 a聽lot of things that you either can鈥檛 do physically, aren鈥檛 up to doing mentally or you just feel isolated because you feel like you鈥檙e the only person that feels this way.

You go through feelings of feeling different because nobody else has this, especially hemophilia because it鈥檚 so rare. I come from a generation of death, to be honest. My brother was infected with HIV and died in the 鈥80s. I am also gay, and I watched the LGBT community, as well as the hemophilia community, decimated by HIV and AIDS and lost many people on both sides. Out of it all, I came out and here I am at 52 still alive. I鈥檝e lived with a lot of survivor鈥檚 guilt because of that, and that鈥檚 definitely affected my mental health issues as far as depression and anxiety.

In the hemophilia community, men in general have a really hard time talking about emotional things. I think society dictates that a man is not supposed to show emotion, not supposed to talk about taboo subjects like depression and mental health disorders because they fear they鈥檒l appear as weak. I think that our community has done聽a wonderful job providing resources to younger people to cut this off at the pass. I see younger people in our community more open to talking about these things versus someone in my age group.

Q: When the pandemic hit, how did that affect your mental health?

A: When everything started, I could see the writing on the wall. I鈥檓 a retired nurse. I鈥檓 a trained medical person, even though I鈥檓 no longer聽in practice, and that training never goes away. When I started seeing these reports on the news and started seeing issues with food shelves emptying out, I would say that I had聽a mini-breakdown. I told my husband, 鈥淲e need to prepare for the worst because it鈥檚 happening. We鈥檙e not there yet, but we鈥檙e going to be in聽a week or two.鈥 I remember that minute going to the grocery store and completely terrified that anybody that brushed against me was going to give me this. I鈥檓 at high risk because the psoriatic arthritis is an autoimmune disorder. That means my immune system is not as strong as someone without it, and the biologic I take is an immunosuppressing drug. I鈥檓 at very high risk and very susceptible to not only contract COVID but also die from it.

I spent $400 loading up on things that would sustain us. We created a shelving system like our own grocery store in the basement. I even have an app that I use to track it, so I know when to use stuff. I created all of that in a matter of 48 hours because I saw how bad things were going to get, and I also knew that I was going to have to be isolated in the house and not be able to leave because if I did, I could risk dying.

My husband works as a manager with Home Depot, so he was exposed to the public. Probably about a week or so into this after it really ramped up, he actually went to his boss and said, 鈥淢y husband is high risk. I cannot risk bringing this home to him and killing him.鈥 Home Depot was generous enough to give him six weeks off with pay, so that he could stay home and protect me.

We stayed locked down and didn鈥檛 leave the house other than to walk聽the dogs for those six weeks that we were home together. Then we learned that it wasn鈥檛 as contractible as maybe we thought, meaning there has to聽be a perfect storm for somebody to actually get it out in public, but we were masking and bleaching things and washing hands. We developed our own coping scenario. I did use a grocery delivery service for most of the summer. It costs more money, but I didn鈥檛 have to put myself at risk.

It was different in the summer. Spring, summer and fall here in the Buffalo area is actually quite pleasant. We lived at the time in downtown Buffalo and had a humongous outdoor patio.聽I was able to be outside over the summer with the dogs. We actually adopted a rescue puppy in July. We bought a house in the middle of the pandemic. We did some major life things throughout the late spring and into early fall. We bought the house and moved to a suburb of Buffalo in the middle of September. It was a little bit easier to manage those mental health issues because I was able to be outside. Even though we were in our little walled fortress, I was still able to be out and feel like I was able to leave the house safely.

The hardest part has been the isolation of not being able to just go out and have dinner, just my husband and I, which we used to do a lot. We live in an area of Western New York that has amazing restaurants, and we鈥檙e foodies. We have friends that we did stuff with that we鈥檝e not been able to see鈥攕ome in a year鈥攂ecause they know that I鈥檓 at high risk and they鈥檙e not willing to risk it and I鈥檓 not willing to risk anything.

As far as coping with all that, I definitely have developed coping skills. I鈥檓 a Buddhist, and I meditate every day anyway, so I鈥檝e amped that up, and that鈥檚 helped ease some of the anxiety. I鈥檓 a planner too, so I think that having a plan gives me security. I have a routine.

When I鈥檓 home by myself, having the dogs and having to take care of them gives me purpose. Plus, they鈥檙e enjoyable. They show love, and they play, and they鈥檙e funny. I think that鈥檚 helped me.

I鈥檓 very much into music therapy. I listen to all sorts of music, and I鈥檒l make playlists of songs that make me feel good. I鈥檝e categorized them as 鈥渢his list of songs helps me if I鈥檓 feeling this way.鈥 I read a lot, so that鈥檚 been a nice diversion. Those are a couple coping skills, but also I have an online presence with a group of people that I鈥檓 able to reach out to, so I don鈥檛 feel completely cut off. 聽I know that at any time I can send one of those friends in that circle a private message and that support system will be there.

I鈥檝e used therapy as an option intermittently over the past 25+ years. I鈥檓 at a point now where so much has happened and it鈥檚 been a long time since I had a professional therapist that I鈥檓 actually in the process of setting it up now. I think that it鈥檚 important to note that I am not ashamed that I need to see a therapist. I鈥檓 not ashamed that I have to take medication, no different than when I take medication for hemophilia. It鈥檚 the same thing; it鈥檚 a disease. The mental health issues are no different than my physical health issues. They both need medication.

Q: The pandemic has been with us for more than a year. But now, we have vaccines available, and many people see hope on the horizon. How do you feel now?

A: Going back to my training as a medical professional, I believe in science. I always knew that a vaccine would help us pull out of this eventually. I鈥檓 definitely very hopeful. At the same time though, I鈥檓 extremely angry and frustrated. I see聽how it鈥檚 still not where it needs to be. In fact, I鈥檝e been waiting for months for a vaccine. Two weeks ago, they opened up the appointments to people in my group, and they were booked across the state within minutes. Now, it could be April聽or May before I get my vaccine. I鈥檓 very frustrated. Again, I鈥檓 a planner.

I鈥檓 very frustrated with our state as well because, as much as I think our governor has done a wonderful job with most things, I could have had an appointment today or tomorrow at a Walgreens here, 10 minutes from my house. However, they鈥檝e mandated that pharmacies that are vaccinating can only do age 65 and over. You鈥檙e going to let somebody who could die from this by going to the grocery store wait months?

When someone鈥檚 feeling desperate, that鈥檚 when they make rush decisions that they may regret or that are irreversible. I鈥檓 talking about suicide. I don鈥檛 know if there have been any studies or numbers on that during the pandemic, but I would bet that there鈥檚 been an increase. I鈥檝e been there before, and I know how in the snap of a moment you can feel one way and then you just feel like, 鈥淭hat鈥檚 it. I鈥檓 done.鈥 Most people think that these people who commit suicide are making these big plans and all that. Ninety percent of the time, it鈥檚 not that at all. You can feel fine, and then you can be so despondent that you don鈥檛.

While it鈥檚 hopeful, and I see people, lots and lots of聽friends who are teachers and first responders, getting their vaccines, and I鈥檓 ecstatic for them鈥攐ver the moon happy鈥攁t the same time, I鈥檓 angry because here I sit and I live in one of the most economically stable or rich states in the entire country.

It鈥檚 been frustrating, and I would say that it has caused聽the depression to dip a bit because you feel like there鈥檚
no end in sight. I definitely think that that鈥檚 had a bearing, and I feel for people who may not have the coping skills that I do because I know how easily it can change and how quickly that mood can change.

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