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'My Life Was A Pandemic': Coronavirus Outbreak Triggers Anxieties From Upbringing By Mentally Ill Father

Rittner and her father
Rittner and her father
This article is more than 2 years old.

As news reports of the coronavirus got more intense, Phyllis Rittner's anxiety started to mount.

"Usually with kind of physical symptoms — maybe a racing heart, kind of racing thoughts," Rittner recalled. "At first, you know, I started to feel almost congestion in my chest, which mimicked some of the virus symptoms."

She had felt many of these things before.

"Just fearful thoughts, difficulty winding down to sleep," she said.

The panic attacks had started in the early 1980s, when she was a student at Boston University. She was diagnosed with anxiety — and decades later, post-traumatic stress disorder. With therapy and treatments, they remained mostly under control.

But the coronavirus pandemic caused some of her symptoms to bubble back to the surface, along with some new ones.

"Now I'm starting to fear things ... I forgot to wipe something down ... I ate, maybe before or after I touched my computer. Now, did I wipe down my computer?" Rittner, of Watertown, recounted in one of several oral diaries she recorded for WBUR. "I have never had these fears, really."

But it was more than the fear of getting sick. In an interview, the 58-year-old said she was triggered by all the restrictions imposed to prevent the coronavirus from spreading.

"Because it kind of reflected my life as a kid," Rittner said. "My life was full of restrictions. In fact, you know, my life was a pandemic. Every day of my life was a pandemic."

It was a perpetual crisis that originated in the mind of her father. And he was the vector for an illness — dominated by fears and rituals — that Rittner said he imposed on the rest of his family.

"And now everybody else is behaving like my dad. And that never, ever has happened before my life," she said, referring to the extreme behaviors people have had to adopt during the crisis and overall anxiety about exposure to the virus.

Phyllis Rittner, standing on her porch in Watertown says the coronavirus pandemic has made her PTSD and anxiety reemerge. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Phyllis Rittner, standing on her porch in Watertown, says the coronavirus pandemic has triggered certain aspects of her PTSD and anxiety. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

'Dictatorship Of Delusions'

Her father feared everything that could possibly harm him and his family — and things that couldn't. He was a World War II veteran, a Bronze Star recipient. He was loving and brilliant, Rittner said. But he developed severe obsessive compulsive disorder and paranoid delusions. Their household became what Rittner called a "dictatorship of delusions."

Around age 10, she became his consoler and mediator, trying to calm and reassure her father. And today, she again finds herself trying to get out from under the grip of his obsessions and compulsions.

"This whole hand washing thing has really thrown me for a loop," Rittner said. "My father was a compulsive hand washer — so much that his hands were red and raw constantly. He was terrified of shaking hands with people or even handling money."

From the time she was tiny, she said, he would constantly ask her if she had washed her hands.

"He would ask me so many times a day that I would just go upstairs ... and turn on the faucet so he could actually hear the faucet going," she recalled.

Rittner said the warnings coming out of the pandemic — wash your hands, wear a mask, keep a 6-foot distance — take her back to the 1960s and '70s. They cause some of the same physical reactions she experienced when she felt isolated as a child, such as a pit in her stomach.

She recounted an experience recently, when she realized a neighbor in her building could probably hear her coughing from her allergies, and she feared her neighbor would think she had the coronavirus.

"And I was coming out of my house, and she was talking to a neighbor outside. And she happened to be on the porch where I was. And she immediately jumped down the stairs to be away from me," she explained. "And I was [thinking], 'Oh, my God. It's like, that's what my father would have done if he thought I got near something that was a contaminated thing.' I couldn't walk by a high power line ... I mean, if I had somebody over my house that happened to have a cat, [my father] thought all cats had cat leukemia. So therefore, I could no longer have a friend over."

Rittner's father was afraid of catching AIDS from a waiter in a restaurant or from trying on the same clothing another man had touched in a department store. The family couldn't use certain appliances or hairdryers because they might contain asbestos. There was the time her mother broke a mercury thermometer in the kitchen. Her father didn't let the family use half of the house for two years after that. They went to a grandparent's house to prepare food and eat.

For Rittner, knowing her dad couldn't help being mentally ill doesn't erase the pain of her childhood and its eery connections to the present.

"He thought the air was contaminated where I [went to] school," she said. "And so he forced me to wear this scarf that I would wrap around my head. And then I'd run — like, sprint to class, to school. And everybody would laugh at me."

"I was often woken up at 2 o'clock in the morning to get into the shower and scrub myself down because my father had been agonizing for three hours whether or not I was contaminated," Rittner recounted. "So these masks ... just symbolize to me fear. It just feels like more distancing, more isolation."

'I Am Not My Past'

She said as a child, she couldn't tell anyone what was going on in her home. She tried to talk to her teachers, but she couldn't find the words to explain it.

Now she has the words. She said she has a great psychologist, and talk therapy helps a lot. She has found it healing to give presentations for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She also shared her story at a "This is My Brave" event in Boston a few years ago. There, she told the audience her PTSD is only a small part of the woman she's become.

"I am not my parents. I am not my past, and I am not my mental illness," Rittner said. "I'm just me."

After a long career as a legal secretary, Rittner found happiness running her own company teaching seated dance to seniors. That's now on hold because of social distancing.

To cope, she does something called Emotional Freedom Technique, or tapping; that's a form of acupressure combined with affirming statements. She uses guided imagery meditation CDs. She finds walking therapeutic, along with connecting with friends on the phone and Zoom. She takes medication for anxiety.

Through it all, she has wondered how her father would have handled the spread of COVID-19.

"This was his ultimate fear," she said. "This would have been it — contamination by a virus. I don't know how he would have lived through that."

Rittner said she knows she will live through this, despite the trauma the pandemic has unearthed.

This segment aired on April 21, 2020.


Lynn Jolicoeur Twitter Producer/Reporter
Lynn Jolicoeur is the field producer for WBUR's All Things Considered. She also reports for the station's various local news broadcasts.



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