The pandemic spring of 2020 was no season for extroverts like City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.
In retrospect, Johnson said Thursday, months working from home amid an unprecedented crisis and bruising budget negotiations likely fed a growing depression.
“I’m a very social person. And I felt totally kind of off-balance from the daily routine of life and going to City Hall and going to events and being with people — and instead everything became over Zoom,” he told THE CITY.
Johnson, previously viewed as a top-tier contender in the 2021 mayor’s race, announced Thursday that he would not run, citing a recent challenging bout of depression.
The condition brought sadness, an inability to sleep, loss of appetite and “a loss of joy,” Johnson, 38, said in an interview Thursday.
But he did not fully register what he was experiencing until after the budget wrapped and he went to Cape Cod for vacation in July. “It all sort of caught up with me,” he said.
“I had so many people that were reaching out to me about, you know, just what was happening in the city, and I was just trying to balance how hard that crash happened with not disappearing,” Johnson said.
The Chelsea Democrat restarted talk therapy, which he had stopped at the beginning of the pandemic. His therapist, via Zoom, helped him “pinpoint what exactly I was going through,” he said.
The decision not to run for mayor sparked “relief,” Johnson said.
“When you have the possibility of being the mayor of the city of New York, it’s a big decision to make,” he said. “But I ultimately decided that it wasn’t doable for me to balance three things: doing my job as speaker, focusing on getting better and setting up a citywide mayoral campaign over the next nine months.
“And the only one of those things that could fall off the plate was the last one.”
‘Saw the Tsunami Coming’
Johnson emerged as a gay rights activist as a Massachusetts teenager while still in high school.
As a politician, he has rarely concealed his exuberance — lip-syncing up the City Hall steps to the Eurythmics on a cloudy day, for example — or his challenges, including being HIV-positive and having struggled with addiction.
But as his depression deepened in the spring, Johnson confided only in his mother and his boyfriend, he said.
“I’ve always said, which was a big lesson from my own early sobriety, that you’re only as sick as your secrets,” he said. “And this secret was really wearing away at me.”
Johnson felt he was scrambling from the onset of COVID-19 in the city, he said.
“I was very, very, very, very, very stressed at the beginning of the pandemic, where I felt like I saw the tsunami coming and I was trying to warn everyone about it, and you know, a lot of people were not recognizing it,” said Johnson, who urged the closure of city schools before Mayor Bill de Blasio acted.
“I don’t know if ‘guilt’ is the right word, but like, I was trying to do my best to shut down and to warn people as quickly as possible.”
Johnson feared getting sick, especially as an HIV-positive person. He had gotten “really, really bad flu” in 2015, 2016 and 2017.
“I had to go to the ER a few times, the last time I got the flu,” Johnson said. “So I was really worried at the beginning about, of course, not getting sick myself, not wanting to get my boyfriend sick, so that was stressful.”
Depression began to set in, he said, but he did not immediately recognize it.
“It was non-linear, it wasn’t like it all happened at once or that every day was terrible,” he said. “It was like a rollercoaster, and I’m not even sure that I was completely in touch at the time, early on, with the peaks and valleys of that rollercoaster, because I was so focused on what the city was going through, on the budget, on the unrest over what has been what has been happening in America.”
Tough Political Battles
From mid-May to the end of June, Johnson was at the center of the fight over the city’s budget.
It was the first one in years to grapple with a revenue crunch and became the focus of anti-racism protesters who wanted to see the NYPD “defunded.” Demonstrators camped outside City Hall and marched in front of Johnson’s boyfriend’s apartment.
In recent weeks, Johnson landed in the middle of the battle over a proposed rezoning of Brooklyn’s Industry City, placing him between business and grassroots groups. The developers killed the project Tuesday, blaming “a lack of leadership.”
Johnson, who is term-limited in the Council, said he will not run for anything in 2021, but hopes to seek office again eventually.
Asked about Manhattan Congressional seats, Johnson said he did not believe the current Reps. Jerrold Nadler and Carolyn Maloney were going anywhere anytime soon.
As for Brad Hoylman’s State Senate slot, Johnson said his fellow Democrat would have to win the borough president’s race before he’d consider a run.
For now, Johnson said, he plans to focus on his Council work — and on his own well-being.
“There are plenty of other elected officials who are contending with depression right now,” he said. “Because we’re not different than other people.”