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Sunflower in the foreground of a sunset

By Julio J. Fonseca, Senior Program Manager, AIDS United

I recently got an email from a colleague and friend who leads a national black social justice organization. 

He signed off with “I hope you are continuing to guard your joy.” 

That resonated with me. One, because someone leading a social justice movement in the midst of ongoing protests against police brutality and systemic oppression against his community would be checking on me; and two, because I wasn’t quite sure if I was.

Prior to joining AIDS United, I was an employee of Mental Health America (MHA). I left MHA to try a completely different venture in June 2008. It is great to still have so many close times with MHA staff and alumni. The relationships we forged trudging through health care reform, working towards mental health parity, and battling mental health stigma have been some of the most important in my life.  

In the interest of shattering stigma by leading by example I have:

  • been a lifelong warrior against my own depression;
  • have been sober and in recovery from drugs and alcohol for 3 years, and;
  • have been living with HIV since February of 2009.

I am also a self-identified out, queer, cisgender, Latinx man. My mental health and wellness have become the parts of me in my life I have realized I need to nurture most.  

And yet, working in public health in the era of COVID-19, it has been quite a challenge striking a balance to ensure that my joy and mental health are being not only guarded but also nurtured.  AIDS United took the precaution of going to complete remote status in March and will not re-open this year. This meant a pivot to remote work and additional pivots in public health to a COVID-19 response. Like many, adjusting to being at home for extended periods affected me. Oh, did I mention I live in a studio apartment? Zoom fatigue has been real. Recovery meetings all went virtual to Zoom as well, so that has been an adjustment. And then other things that may not seem huge have had an impact as well. My mom is older with underlying conditions and I have not seen her in person since the beginning of this year. I think my last hug with anyone was in early March. When I get stressed, I eat. Physical distancing (more commonly known as social distancing) can create isolation which is particularly difficult if you are like me and are dealing with ongoing recovery and depression.

June is also LGBTQ+ Pride Month. Pride is typically an opportunity to gather as LGBTQ+ people to gather in person and celebrate our diversity. Pride activities this year have been cancelled, but the energy and support and allyship in support of Black Lives Matter has created opportunities to mobilize either in demonstrations or virtually, and have helped many of the LGBTQ+ community be more engaged in social justice and anti-racist efforts. Marsha P. Johnson, a black transgender woman, and Sylvia Rivera, a Latina transgender woman -both heroes and foremothers of the Stonewall uprising in 1969 - would no doubt be happy to see how many LGBTQ+ people have pivoted to uplift voices of black people during Pride Month this year.

So how is all of this change managed so quickly in what feels like so much uncertainty? As I write this, I am having a good day. And I must acknowledge that I am working on how to have a positive day without feeling guilty when there seems to be an overabundance of suffering in the world. I would love to hear how people balance their energy to strive for this “less guilty” feeling.

I have become very deliberate in how I guard my joy and try to protect my mental health. Here are some of my strategies: 

Routine: This may seem like a no brainer, but for me, I function better with a routine. It took about a month to standardize my day and there have been some starts and pauses, but I have also created a space for myself to realize “Hey, you’ve never lived through a global pandemic, so it’s ok to be learning in real time.”  I still get up, put the coffee on, get a bike ride in (if I’ve slept through the night), grab a shower and meditate before I head to my desk.  After a week in sweats, I realized, it made me feel better to put on clothes and get ready as if I were heading out into the world. Also, when work was done, then I changed in my typical evening clothes. Having a clear demarcation between the beginning and end of my workday has been great.

Exercise/Outdoor Activity: Exercise is good for mental wellness. And yet, it is so easy to use stay at home orders to go in the complete opposite direction. Trust me I know; I have been gaining and losing the same 5 pounds since March. After a period of time, more research showed that outdoor walks (social distanced with friends) and bike rides and other activity with risk reduction strategies like masks and/or gloves were good ways to help address the cabin fever we’ve all been experiencing.  I personally feel comfortable going out earlier in the morning to get my bike rides in when the streets are empty and less people are on the sidewalk.

Social Media/Media limits: I have set up my phone to let me know when I have hit a certain amount of time on social media apps. It has been important for me to ensure that I am not constantly bombarded with information that can put me into a negative headspace and keep me there. And it is hard—we have more time on our hands and it is much easier to say to yourself, “Oh I’ll just read one more article,” to stave off boredom.  There is also the balance of needing to stay informed. I have implemented a morning news break and typically that’s it. Otherwise you could literally sit and watch bad news all day long and that is not healthy.

Productive or Calming Hobbies: I have to say, I have read about 6 books since COVID-19 with zero guilt! When I’ve felt the temptation to spend too much time reading the news, I remember that I have a stack of books that are very helpful for me to focus on something completely different. Have you wanted to pick an old hobby back up? Have some adult coloring books that you want to revisit? What are the things that bring you joy that you could incorporate into your mental wellness arsenal?

Gratitude: For people that know me, it might seem odd to imagine me making lists of things that I am grateful for, but when times are tough and my brain wants to fog up, it’s a helpful way to change my thinking. I was bummed that because of COVID-19, in-person Pride Events were cancelled this year. I was also bummed that my annual beach vacation was also cancelled. Each time, I sat and wrote five things I was grateful for. Sometimes it’s the basics: “coffee, running water, a place to live,” but it’s always a helpful reframe towards the things in life that are going right.

Connection: The temptation has been for me to isolate. I am by nature a social introvert and there were a couple of weeks in the beginning of COVID-19 where I was in heaven. “You mean I don’t have to go do anything? Great!” At the same time, as someone with depression and anxiety who is in addiction recovery, being alone can be incredibly detrimental. So reaching out to friends, sending texts, asking people if they could talk on the phone or FaceTime has helped maintain connection in unanticipated ways with people who are at times very far away. It is not the same, but it’s also a good way to not feel so alone.

Vacations and downtime: Make sure you are using your health/wellness and vacation time if you need to. Those are part of your salary and benefits package so do not feel guilty for accessing your benefit. And if you do not feel comfortable traveling, staycations are a thing. I think that part of my summer vacation will be going through a closet which I have never had the time to do - until now. Oh, and I have about 7 more books to read and a few silly shows to binge watch too!

The best thing I have done for myself during everything going on in these unprecedented times has been to ask myself every day “How are you feeling today?” What can you add to your to-do list that is achievable and that will set you up for feeling successful? And now thanks to a colleague - “Are you continuing to guard your joy?”  - ensuring that every day I put my mental health at the top of my agenda has been a great place to start.

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