They love each other. That should go without saying. They have, in fact, gone through hell and back for one another — and that was before 2020 rolled out its string of gut-twisting, sleep-depriving upheavals.
Still, Janay Barfoot will be the first to say that hers is a difficult family and this year has tested them all.
Difficult as in a 20-year-old who has autism as well as a heart condition and bipolar disorder. He has been hospitalized on and off over the last eight years because he’s been a danger to himself and others. This 6’5”, 250-lb. child of hers, who still wants to cuddle, whose goofy smile blazes with innocence, now spends too many of his days playing video games in his basement room. His voice ricochets through the house, and all Barfoot can think is that she wants a better life for him than this.
Difficult as in a 14-year-old who started her freshman year online and who aches for connection, but who keeps her computer camera off when she can during online classes. She is smart and cracks up the family with her quick wit, but fears that the curious eyes of her classmates also may be judging eyes and she is certain she does not measure up. Depression stalks her.
Difficult as in Barfoot having decided to stay home after the pandemic struck because she has an autoimmune disorder and felt unsafe in the surgery center where she worked intake and billing. Quitting that job means her husband’s job at the water company is their sole income. One income means less income and more stress.
Their Lakewood home feels as though it is shrinking around her.
“Everything seems to be a battle,” she says.
Barfoot, who is 53, also grapples with depression. She regularly sees a therapist through the Jefferson Center for Mental Health.
“[My therapist] has always told me to think about it as being on an airplane,” she says. “They tell you to put on your oxygen mask first.”
You would have thought, Barfoot says, that a life punctuated by the stress of coping with the intertwining of mental illness and physical disability would have prepared her for 2020. But, no, this year’s added layer of uncertainty has proven unrelenting in its ability to make her feel powerless. “I feel like I have no control over anything,” she says.
If you’re struggling, help is available on Colorado’s crisis hotline. Call 1-844-493-TALK(8255)
School is online, then hybrid, then online. Her son’s job training is meeting today, no, tomorrow. Her daughter’s Westernaires horse club meetings are in person, then remote — too few and far between for a child who finds comfort in the company of animals. Moods in the house lurch from zero to 60. Her son is pacing again, up the stairs, down the stairs. The continuity he requires no longer exists. Her daughter wants help, but doesn’t want help. Dishes wait in the sink, laundry in a pile.
It is a whiplash existence.
Barfoot finds respite in walks with her sister along the nearby foothills or visits with their parents, who live nearby. She finds solidarity in the online groups for parents with kids who have special needs. She will steal away to her room to read when she can.
But she is not a woman who sugarcoats. Not the thousands of dollars in medical debt. Not the stress of her children’s needs. Not the tension so much constant pressure inevitably creates between her and her husband of 23 years. Her candor for this story has a purpose: It is too easy for people to skim the surface of mental illness, she says, too easy for people to speak of anxiety and depression as if 2020 has given rise to something new when, as she sees it, all it has done is crack open a window too long sealed shut.
“It’s not just 2020,” she says, emphatic. “I think our world is spinning out of control right now, but everyone goes through their own internal struggles and yet are afraid to talk about them. Right now, it’s OK to talk, but prior to COVID, I think it was ‘fake it ‘til you make it,’ and that is such a big thing that I really hate because it puts up this front, keeping people’s feelings still so suppressed. ‘Fake it ‘til you make it’ says if you have these feelings, hide them, we don’t want to know about them. We don’t want to see them. We just want you to say what we want to hear.”
She does not doubt that more people are struggling this year with anxiety or depression. But she greets the rising conversation around mental health with something approximating a suspicious embrace.
Yes, let’s talk, she says, but let’s be real when we do. What her family has gone through over the years has required hundreds of hours of therapy. It has required specialists. It has required nearly a year of intervention from Social Services. It has required child psychiatrists who are in short supply. It has required never-ending vigilance over how the schools respond to her children’s needs.
Next year may bring the end of social distancing and quarantines. It may bring less unemployment and recovering businesses. It may bring less political and social division. But what it cannot bring, she insists, is a return to ‘fake it ‘til you make it.’ Or to tolerating discrimination against those with serious mental illness or to a status quo in which mental illness is considered less urgent than physical illness.
A window has been cracked. It’s time, Barfoot says, to open it wider.
This story is part of a statewide reporting project from the Colorado News Collaborative called On Edge. This project is supported in part by the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Reporting and a grant honoring the memory of the late Benjamin von Sternenfels Rosenthal. Our intent is to foster conversation about mental health in a state where stigma runs high.