Overcoming mental lowpoints during the COVID-19 pandemic

Back in mid-March, as COVID-19 swept the globe, I remember sitting at my favorite cafe in Munich, drinking a cup of coffee and thinking, “tomorrow is lock down and I can’t get coffee.” I never thought I would be stuck in my apartment in a foreign country with only a few months supply of IBD medications that I bring with me from the U.S. I also never expected that I would experience one of the most mentally challenging periods of my life. 

My fiancée and I made the choice to stay in Germany, as officials said that the lockdown would only be a few weeks. I had enough medication to last me for four months; a resupply would come from my mother when she traveled from California to visit us during the summer. 

As a professional cyclist, I was immediately concerned about how I would continue to train during the pandemic. Luckily, Germany allowed people to exercise outside during lockdown, so I was able to ride and train on my own, something I am already very used to with my training. I was happy to be riding outside, as a lot of other racers around the globe had to train indoors on stationary bikes.

Although I was able to go outside for training, I was isolated the rest of the time, something IBD patients are all too familiar with. And as the months drew on, my mental health took a negative turn. While I was forced to isolate before years ago during my worst moments with IBD, this time I was being forced to isolate because of the uncertainty going on around me. That uncertainty began affecting my mental state. My driving force as an athlete is to win races, hear cheering fans, and gain a chance at winning. It’s our so-called carrot, but COVID-19 took that away from me, much like IBD did some years ago. But whereas my disease has motivated me and given me something to fight for, coronavirus took away my identify as an athlete and left me with many unknowns. It got to the point where riding my bike felt more like a chore and less as a job that I am privileged to undertake.

As my mood worsened, I noticed so too did my gut. The stress of life began to compound and negatively impact my disease. To make matters worse, the borders were going to be closed for the foreseeable future to America, and my medication resupply was in question. I was afraid of what would happen if I couldn’t get back to the U.S. to get my medication. Would everything that I worked for over the past few years – my health and my career – be put in jeopardy?

When I began to realize how COVID-19 was affecting my mental health, I turned to one of my most trusted ally, my coach. He has been at the center of my support network helping me manage my condition and my career for a longtime, and I knew he would be able to help me with my struggles now. We created a plan on how to manage the situation with my medication and how to return to the U.S. in a safe way to make sure I stayed on top of my treatment.

I was able to travel from Germany to the U.S. thanks to having a European visa. It was weird to be on a nearly empty airplane, wearing a mask, and social distancing, but I felt safe overall. During my time home, I spent time with friends and family. I enjoyed riding my bike in some of my favorite places and was able to see my gastroenterologist to ensure my disease was under control. After a few weeks at home, and with my medication resupply in hand, I made the journey back to Germany after receiving word that racing would soon resume, and with a renewed motivation. 

I am now back to competing and while it isn’t quite the same as it was before COVID-19, it feels good to have some normalcy back in my life. Living through this pandemic is an experience we as IBD patients can learn from. COVID-19 has taught me that being open about my mental health can lead me from my worst moments to my best. What started out as a horrible experience full of uncertainty that had me wanting to quit has now reinvigorated my career and shifted my focus on using my bike as a way to spread IBD awareness around the world. 

Whether you are dealing with an IBD flare or social distancing during a pandemic, it is important to be open and honest not only with yourself but also with those around you. The social stigmas of our disease, though at times embarrassing and seemingly hard to overcome, are easily broken down when you go at them surrounded by those who love and care for you. Remember, your identity is not just that of an IBD patient, your purpose is more than fighting your disease. Fight hard, but never give up on your true passions and loves in life, even if they seem so distant due to a disease flare or a pandemic.

Cory Greenberg is an ulcerative colitis patient and professional cyclist riding for Team Veloclub Ratisbonia. You can read Cory's first blog post here.