It was about the end of the third week of quarantine when I hit emotional rock bottom. It was brought on by my having to cancel my long-scheduled travel plans to see my dad, who is in the last stage of Parkinson’s disease, as well as my brothers, my nieces and nephews and even our youngest son by way of a side trip to Japan. I have been missing all my family and friends like never before.
The realization that I didn’t know when I would get to see any of them again (or in my dad’s case, if ever again) hit me hard, like being punched in the gut.
By now we all have heard the phrase “flatten the curve” and know what it means. I think, however, that “flatten the curve” can also apply to our emotions; it is important to understand how our moods are affected by the global pandemic and how to best “flatten” our responses.
While we have lost the privilege of going outside, our emotions are still travelling on a big roller coaster ride.
I went into lockdown with optimistic thoughts to get things done – things I have been putting off for a while. Now that outdoor activity was wiped from my calendar, perhaps it was time to perfect my Spanish, master classical guitar, write more blog posts, start new on-line courses, even finally start the book that Jim and I often discuss writing together.
You know how much I’ve accomplished in this AC (After Covid-19) time since I have been housebound? None. Nada. Nil.
My sense of time and motivation has completely gone out the window.
I spent the first three weeks doing things that I usually avoided BC (Before Covid-19), like chatting mindlessly on messenger apps, checking news feeds thousands of times per day, and eating more (a lot more) comfort food not known to be healthy. I slept poorly – waking up in the middle of the night just to check on more news that added to my anxiety. I remain perpetually exhausted. I struggle to focus, and everything takes twice as long as usual – even writing this post, which I had started at the end of the third week…two weeks ago.
All this non-effort made me depressed and lethargic. I am trying hard not to feel guilty about my mood or lack of accomplishment. Apparently, all this is normal. It’s part of grief. According to this article, and this.
My grief, it turns out, is part of a greater collective grief. We’ve all lost something in this global pandemic. In addition to the obvious losses – jobs, businesses, even loss of family members’ and/or friends’ lives, we also have less obvious, existential losses.
None of us was prepared for this kind of separation and loss; the loss of normalcy, social and family connections, control, freedom, and the sense of security and safety that comes from taking routines for granted. This is hitting all of us hard and we are all grieving.
So what to do? According to David Kessler – an expert on grief, understanding the stages of grief is a start. The stages aren’t linear and may not happen in the same order:
“There’s denial, which we saw a lot of early on: This virus won’t affect us. There’s anger: You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities! There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right? There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end. And finally there’s acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed.“
Acceptance, as you might imagine, is where the empowerment and recovery lies. We find control in acceptance. I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can save lives by staying home. I can learn how to work virtually.
I realized I was in the sadness stage right around the end of the third week. I’m an industrial engineer and risk management by training. I tend to analyze where the problems are, figure out how to improve things or manage the risk. But there’s nothing here that can be analyzed and improved. There is nothing to do but to be. Plus I can reduce the risk for myself and others not by doing or analyzing something, but by staying home. I am approaching the acceptance stage but I am also still switching back and forth between sadness and acceptance.
Until we have a Covid-19 vaccine (which experts think will be about 18 months), normal life, or whatever normal life will look like in the future, is not within our grasp. The next few months will continue to be rough on everyone’s mental health. This is likely the most disruptive global event of our lifetimes.
One thing I have realized is that, just because my calendar looks more open, doesn’t mean I have room to fill my life right now with new tasks, new goals (learning Russian, anyone?), and new expectations of myself.
In reality, the things taken away have been replaced by heavy invisible emotional baggage: worry, fear and grief.
I need to recognize that I am going through the grieving process. I need to allow myself time and space to deal with these new invisible burdens, not beat myself up for not taking on new ones on top of them. All grand plans will still be there when it’s the right time to tackle them.
The basic household functioning – cooking, some light cleaning, light gardening, reading, and walking on my terrace, are the best I can do right now; they give me time for reflection and healing, which is what we all really need to be doing now.
I’m trying to be okay with that. It’s part of trauma. It’s part of grief. While writing this piece doesn’t take my mind off the pandemic, it helps me process what’s happening.
So, my advice to myself and everyone – lower the bar, lower your standards for yourself. For me, just getting through the simple tasks of taking care of myself daily takes a lot of mental and emotional energy these days.
Until the big victory is won, look for micro-victories and opportunities – something that will bring joy and be thankful for something not lost. For me, I am thankful to have a great partner like Jim and the companionship of the cats. Together, I found we make great art.