How a Worldwide Pandemic Became a Harsh Therapist

photo by cottonbro

CW for eating disorders, snakes, destructive coping mechanisms, problematic relationships, pandemic fears, body dysmorphia

I had a wonderful mother.

At a time when few women were encouraged to chase their dreams, my mother was all about her daughters growing up to be whatever they desired. As a result, I became an adult without realizing the degree of misogyny and inequality women faced in their careers. I thought that particular battle had been fought and won. Perhaps because of this, I entered the workforce confident of my place there, and it showed.

Taught not to expect help from anyone, I became the person who waded into a project, saw what needed doing, and got it done. Once, I was camping with friends when we discovered a copperhead near the tents. I trapped the venomous snake in an empty trash can and forded an ice-cold spring river to release it on the opposite bank. The river was deeper and colder than expected, and the trash can filled with water as I dragged it behind me. The snake began rising to the top of the can, but I didn’t panic. I kept my eye on the snake until I arrived, teeth chattering, to dump it out on the far bank and plunge back into the river. And yes, the photo here is a picture taken by me of that snake.

My mother also instilled in me a love of reading, a treasure that brings me joy to this day and for which I will always be grateful. My love of reading has sustained me through illness, isolation, depression, and times of high anxiety. It has also given me my passion in life, which is to write my own stories of love and adventure.

I also had a… problematic mother.

Her determination to raise independent daughters, combined with her own troubled upbringing, meant she brought her issues to the table when parenting. Fatphobic, her own eating disorder was reflected in most of her children. She had an almost pathological fear of aging, one that I struggle with today. Messages intended to make me self-reliant came across as “no one will ever want you” and “you’ll never be smart enough, pretty enough, talented enough, good enough for anyone.”

On meeting my mother for the first time, one of my friends said to me, “Oh, my God. All these years we thought you were exaggerating…”

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to understand my mother a lot better. Her complete devotion to her job meant she had little time and energy left over for her children, and working with disadvantaged children meant her own, privileged kids had better get it right on the first try. And oh man, do I get the irritability that comes with utter exhaustion now. I cringe when I hear my mother’s words come out of my mouth, and tell myself I’ll do better next time.

If I’m hard on those around me, that’s nothing to the internal monologue I aim at myself. Right now, I look the worst I’ve ever looked in my life: fat, frumpy, and old. Face it, I can’t really call myself “middle-aged” anymore unless the average life span of a human being is 110. I haven’t had a decent haircut in six months. I’ve added another ten pounds to the twenty I’ve been trying to lose. From the time I turned 25, I’ve been scanning my face and body for signs of aging. I used to joke that I had “Aging Anorexia”, but I have since learned there is a disorder called body dysmorphia: the inability to look in the mirror or see a photo of myself without adding imaginary years to the image or magnify perceived flaws. If I had a hard time believing I could be loved when I was young and fit, you should hear my inner thoughts now.

Yet all in all, I’m fairly well-adjusted, though I could probably use therapy. I was in the process of finding a therapist when the pandemic hit, which brought the process to a grinding halt. So many people were in the same boat, and most of the therapists recommended to me were overwhelmed and not taking on any new patients. I decided I could wait, even though it was clear I wasn’t handling things well.

The stress of being an essential worker during a pandemic triggered binge eating, stockpiling, and evenings where I stayed plugged in to Netflix. I bought a sewing machine in a desperate attempt to make masks. I planted a garden for the first time ever because I feared I’d need to grow my own food. I even looked into putting in bee hives and a chicken coop.

I’d already had a rough couple of years. Deaths of family members. Deaths of pets. Health issues. Work stress. The loss of communities. The horror of seeing every terrible prediction I’ve made about a Trump administration come true. I did whatever I needed to do to get me through my stress and anxiety over the pandemic, and to hell with the consequences.

But the pandemic didn’t end. It still hasn’t ended. It’s not contained. It’s out of control here in the US. We have no vaccine. We have no specific treatment. People speak of the Second Wave, but we’re still riding the first. We are in this for the long haul, with no foreseeable end. As of this writing, the global death toll from the coronavirus is a half a million people, and in the US, 128,000 people have died. Compared to the number of deaths from the flu in the 2018-2019 season (34,200), this virus is far worse. More people have died from COVID-19 in the US than the total death toll from WW1. There are those who believe we’re on track to lose as many people as the 1918 Flu Pandemic. Not surprisingly, there was an Anti-Mask Movement then, too.

Because a bunch of selfish wankers refuse to wear a mask that AT WORST is only an inconvenience and at BEST might stem the tide of a spreading pandemic, I doubt there will be a single family in the US not affected in some way by this horrible disease. I expect to lose more family members before this is all over, and I find that unforgivable.

The human psyche and body is not designed for sustained stress. For many people, this has resulted in pandemic fatigue and a desire to “get back to normal”, even if that means risking death.

Even among people still concerned about the risks of the pandemic, there is slacking off in taking precautions. You’re not as careful about disinfecting your hands after touching a public surface. You don’t pay as much attention to social distancing as you should. You don’t always time your grocery runs so that fewer people will be at the store.

But surprisingly, I’m finding that some good lessons have come out of the pandemic for me.

I am learning to find joy in little things again. Quiet time on walks with the dogs. Music. Reading.

I’ve realized that I am not willing to spend the rest of my life living only to make money to pay bills and lose weight.

Normally an upcoming birthday is a trigger to go into a frenzy of diet and exercise in order to feel better about tacking another year onto my life. Now I’m just happy to still be alive.

Making healthier food choices is about feeling better and being in a better position to fight off illness than about losing weight and “looking my best.”

Exercise is about mitigating pain and improving flexibility instead of losing weight. It’s about being able to continuing doing the things I love. As such, the diet and exercise choices have become smaller, quieter decisions I make every day instead of panicked, overly ambitious ones I make on a deadline.

Sunscreen and skin protection is about avoiding cancer, not about reversing the clock. “Oil of Delay” no more.

The pandemic has taught me about being in things for the long haul, and how we need to pace ourselves. How it’s okay to declare you need a mental break some days. 

If every day we were expected to place 100 pounds of rocks in a backpack and carry it with us to our destination, most of us would break down under that weight before we learned to carry it. Some of us couldn’t carry it regardless of all the training we put in. But most of us can carry a few small rocks a short distance. If we have to keep going back to the pile to transfer them all, if it takes us ten times or a thousand times longer to move them the entire distance, that’s okay.

We’re in it for the long haul.

 

An Anxious Woman’s Methods of Staying Calm in the Midst of COVID-19 Panic

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

I want to preface this first by saying most posts exhorting me to be calm when the situation is frankly terrifying annoy the snot out of me, so I understand if you are already a little peeved from the beginning here. I get it. I think we’re royally screwed in a major way, the more so depending on whether or not you live in a country run by incompetent, criminally negligent assholes who are more concerned with lining their pockets and slashing regulations during a worldwide catastrophe than trying to halt a pandemic. Ironically, if the yahoos in charge had put the lives of the world population FIRST, the economy would have been better protected, but that’s a rant for another day.

I also have to share with you the fact that the threat of a pandemic is one of my personal bugaboos: the reason I can’t watch zombie movies or anything about epidemics. I’ve been terrified of things like that my entire life, so no Walking Dead or Contagion for me, thank you very much.

All this is to say that my fear is real. I’m not denying the risk to us all. I think we’re in big trouble. I don’t think things will just “go back to normal” in a few weeks or months. I think if we survive the pandemic itself (and that seems iffy for a large majority of us), then we will have to deal with shortages and disruptions of supply chains, the loss of our medical personnel, and people without the knowledge or means to grow their own food, and well-armed people who will likely take what they want. Wow. I’m not doing a very good job of decreasing anyone’s anxiety here, am I?

Deep breath.

Okay. The point to this is that many of us, myself included, were already at the top of our anxiety charts before this came up. We were stretched too thin, taking on too many responsibilities, working too hard, and putting ourselves last on the list every time. I’d been planning to write about my job burnout before the pandemic struck. I mention it now because this crisis coming on top of all the daily fires I had to put out sent me spiraling into a tailspin of anxiety. The kind that spikes your blood pressure, that crushes your head in a vise, that makes it hard to catch your breath. Is that panic or is it COVID? Who knows?

Well, if you’re not running a fever, the odds are it’s panic. I’ve had to reach for my anxiety meds more than once this week, though having a few days off in a row where I didn’t have to risk exposure to the general public helped a lot. Feeling stir-crazy on self-isolation? I find I’ve been able to cope much better by having a few days where I wasn’t on high-alert constantly.

So let me share with you some practical advice from the trenches, so to speak.

It’s okay to be scared. Most of us with any sense are. Stop beating yourself up for being terrified. Just remember that a lot of people around you are scared too, so be kind to them as well as yourself. I can’t emphasize this enough: STAY HOME if you possibly can. But if you MUST go out, treat your delivery people, grocery store attendants, bank clerks, pharmacists, etc with kindness and patience. It’s not their fault. Treat your customers with the understanding they are panicked as well. Also, WEAR A MASK. More on that below.

But the main thing here is there is no shame in being scared right now. Maybe you need medication to calm down. That’s okay too. Just be conscious of the other people in your life and allow them room to be scared or depressed as well. If they are always being strong for you, then you aren’t helping them.

Prepare as best you can, then let it go. Hopefully by now, you’ve done what you can with regards to laying in supplies. You’re stocked on acetaminophen and cough meds. You’re taking your temperature twice a day and self-isolating if you get sick. My advice from this point is to limit the news as much as possible. Check in twice a day, much like you take your temperature, but then turn it off. Many of you are home now with time on your hands: resist winding yourself into a tizzy over things beyond your control. Every time I start to feel a bit calmer about things, I check in with the news and I’m back to panic mode again. I don’t think it’s good for our immune systems to be geared up like that all the time. So turn off social media and the news once you’ve caught up on the important stuff–like what the restrictions are in your area.

Find some meditation apps, play your favorite music, explore some museums online, but stop haunting the news threads. (Side note: If you are taking MAOI medications (as many prescription antidepressants are) find out what OTC fever and cold medications you can and cannot take. NOW.) Remember what I said about being on high-alert constantly? It’s bad for your ability to cope.

Social Distancing is PHYSICAL DISTANCING. If you’re not sick or super high risk, and if you are physically capable of doing so, you should get out in your garden or walk the dog in your neighborhood. Sing. Dance. Move. When we become anxious, our bodies turn to flight or fight mode, and with nothing to battle, we direct that energy inward on ourselves. Movement of some kind can help diffuse this energy and redirect it into a better outlet. BUT, and this is a big but, this doesn’t mean you pile the family in the car and take them to the local playground! It doesn’t mean crowding down at the beach or causing traffic jams on walking paths or hiking trails. If someone isn’t going to give you six feet of clearance, avoid going in that direction. And please keep in mind not everyone can see you!

Give a person with a service dog a wide berth–their dogs aren’t trained for social distancing and it’s up to YOU to pay attention to the people around you. Better to stay home than to endanger yourself or someone else if you can’t maintain distance. Social distancing means STAY HOME if you don’t need to go out. It does not mean run to the store because you want Twizzlers, or take the dog in for routine vaccinations, or pop in to the nail salon. Come to think of it, if you have acrylic or SNS powder on your nails, will a pulse oximeter work? I don’t think so…  Bottom line: I can’t stay home because YOU won’t stay home. So just do it, okay?

Wash your hands. Yes, you’ve heard this. Soap and hot water, 20 seconds or longer. Frequently. Soap disrupts the lipid layer of the virus better than anything else, better than hand sanitizer. But sanitizer is better than nothing. You need to wash or sanitize your hands after you touch ANY public surface: gas pumps, door handles, keypads, etc. Before you touch your face or things inside your house. Change out of your work clothes if you’re not staying in, and shower before you interact with the rest of your family. I wash my hands before leaving work. I use my elbows to open the doors. I use hand sanitizer when I get to my car. When I was still going to the store, I sanitized my hands again after leaving the store and before I got out of the car at home too. And then washed my hands as soon as I got inside the house. I also wash my hands after every interaction with a customer. Yes. That often.

Set up a support network with family and friends. Email chains, chat groups, Google Hangouts, WhatsApp, Zoom. I find I don’t need a lot of contact until I do, if you know what I mean. Make sure you check in with someone once a day. If nothing else, you’ll know you’re not alone in all of this. I’ve also found myself contacting relatives I haven’t spoken to in years. Let people know you care about them. I can tolerate a LOT of alone time. I love being alone! But even I can get too much into my head sometimes.

Talking with someone can break that cycle, even if you’re both scared. Be respectful of other’s fears though. Someone may need to NOT talk about the pandemic when you’re bursting to share your concerns. I belong to several groups and for many of them, we’ve created separate channels for voicing our fears so not everyone in the group is exposed to our anxiety. At the same time, I know there’s a channel I can do to where the conversation will be light and fun when I need it.

Can’t go to your convention or conference? Do something anyway. Consider an online version! I was supposed to go to the ATA Spring Writer’s Retreat this weekend. The organizers wisely saw the writing on the wall and converted the entire thing to online sessions. It’s been fabulous–but you know what? I had a hard time making myself attend some of the sessions. At first it was because I wanted to wallow on the sofa watching another 37 episodes of Monk. I couldn’t focus on the material in the sessions. But when I made myself join the Zoom groups, it was like purposely doing exercise: something I had to force myself to do that made me feel better for the action and ended up with me being glad I did it. For a couple of hours, I completely forgot about the world crisis. I learned things and shared things and made plans for the future–something that has more power than you realize.

Making plans means you believe there will be a future, and there is great power in that kind of belief. My point is if there was some event you were looking forward to attending that’s been cancelled, look for alternatives. If you think you’re too frazzled to concentrate on whatever project you are working on, give it a try anyway. You might get more out of it than you think.

Along those lines, I’m also planning to put in a garden this year. Okay, I’ve been planning to do this for the last ten years, but I’ve gone as far as to order seeds this time. See? Practical planning for the future is helpful to my state of mind.

Not feeling productive? Don’t worry about it. No, seriously, I realize that seems like the reverse of what I just said, but if all you can manage is Netflix 10 hours a day while eating Sugar Pops dry out of the box (not that I would know anything about that…), that’s okay. It’s okay if this is your coping mechanism of choice. Don’t beat yourself up because you aren’t “making the most” of your time to finish your opus or write the equivalent of King Lear (as Shakespeare has been said to do when quarantined during the plague). We’re all doing the best we can during a terrible crisis. It’s okay. And you know what else is okay? Not wanting to watch or read your usual comfort tropes.

There’s a reason why I’m watching back-to-back episodes of Monk and Psych. I have reasonable expectations that nothing in these shows will hurt me too badly, and yet I’m not so invested in the characters that watching the programs will somehow taint the show for me in the future by association with this horrible time. I’m not “spoiling” anything I love by linking it to my almost toxic fears. These shows are also just unfamiliar enough that they keep me engaged and distracted. So if you can’t bring yourself to read your favorite books or watch your favorite movies, it’s okay. I understand.

Wear a mask in public. So I know the CDC is saying don’t wear masks. And I know that our medical professionals are so woefully under-prepared for this pandemic that television medical dramas are sending their props to hospitals, so no one wants us buying up all the face masks our medical staff desperately needs. But there’s been a study out of the Czech Republic that shows when they went from zero masks to 100% usage in 10 days, they were able to halt the spread of new COVID-19 cases. They made their own! So if you already have the materials, think about making masks–as many as you can. Do NOT make them if you are sick, and after you make the first one, wear it as you make the rest. You need to keep the mask making process as clean as possible. Donate to hospitals. Give them to your friends and family. Because we’re probably looking at 18 months before a vaccine is available and we’re going to have to go back into the workplace before then.

Watch Jeremy Howard’s presentation on YouTube explaining the importance of #masks4all. I spent some time researching DIY mask making this afternoon and it’s a practical thing I can do to try to keep myself and my loved ones healthy–and it’s something we ALL should do. But here’s the thing: don’t run out to the nearest fabric store to buy supplies! NO SHOPPING. Talk to your crafty friends! They’ve been dragon hoarding materials for YEARS looking for the perfect opportunity to use them. CRAFTMAKERS ASSEMBLE! Having something concrete and useful to do during this time of crisis has been one of the best things for my head.

Here are the best videos I’ve seen so far. There’s one for if you have no sewing machine, as well as a very detailed one for if you own a machine. The best is by the doctor that’s embedded here (I recommend this if you have a high risk job or if you’re making masks to send to hospitals) but remember, any mask is better than none.

 

The important thing here is my anxiety and need to prepare is being put to GOOD USE here. It’s a practical redirection of my energy that has the potential to make a difference as well. Not the sewing type? Me neither. But I’m going to learn to be.

Creativity, Gratitude, and Self-Care in a Dumpster-Fire World

I’ve been finding it very difficult to write lately.

I know I’m not alone in this–it’s a refrain I hear from many creative types right now. It has less to do with my personal battles with depression and more to do with the constant bombardment of horrific news–especially the mounting tension as we move steadily toward the US mid-term elections. These elections are going to prove to be a referendum on so many things: where we stand as a nation on democracy, diversity, climate change, health care, decency, equality, and compassion. The stakes have never been higher.

As such, I find myself creatively holding my breath, unable to concentrate on the WIP despite a looming deadline. It feels too damn frivolous to be carving out a HEA right now, even though readers probably need the stress-relief, temporary escape, and emotional encouragement more than ever.

And yet I believe in the transformative power of storytelling.

For a while now, Supergirl has been accurately needling social issues of the day in its writing. On the surface, the show is nothing more than a little escapist superhero television action, but at the end of season 2, Cat Grant makes an amazing speech on resistance and courage in the face of fearful times, and I fistpump the air every time I watch it.

 

It’s a powerful scene that fits seamlessly with the the plot without overtly hammering the viewer over the head with the message. It’s brilliant.

But the writers of Supergirl haven’t stopped there. In another episode, James Olsen shares an experience of being accosted and accused of a crime as young black child–an experience Mehcad Brooks had in real life when he was only seven years old.

And this season, the show’s opening montage openly describes Supergirl as a refugee on our planet–and the first couple of episodes have dealt with the growing hostility and suspicion of “aliens” living on Earth and a rising “Earth First” movement. Yes, it’s a somewhat cheesy CW show–but it’s tackling real issues and I applaud them for it. I was particularly struck in this past week’s episode when the AI’s shield that allows him to look human fails while he’s ordering pizza–and the resulting hostility on the part of the restaurant owner takes Brainy completely by surprise. He keeps saying, “But you know me…” while the pizza guy calls out workers with baseball bats to beat the AI to a pulp.

The imminent violence was stopped because one person stood up–a person, it turned out, who also had a lot to lose if her own secrets were publicly known. Who wouldn’t have been spared from the same violence. That’s courage. As is telling your boss that he needs to do more than ‘tell both sides of the story’, that he needs to take a stand.

And that’s what makes storytelling compelling. It’s what moves a program beyond the realm of ‘cheesy superhero TV show’ into something worth watching.

This is the kind of writing I want to do myself. I want to bring that kind of layering and introspection to a story that is meant for entertaining consumption. Because when we start to have compassion for the Brainys and Nias of this world, then we can see them as people in our neighborhood, and not enemies to be hated. 

But it’s hard when your creative well is dry. When fear and anxiety dominate your thoughts. I’ve recently come to the realization that I can no longer support this sustained level of outrage and horror. It’s not healthy. It’s not useful to anyone, let alone me.

In some ways, it means I’m still speaking from a place of privilege, that I can even say I need to distance myself from current events. There are so many who can’t, who are living the very events I find so appalling. But self-care and distancing is not the same as turning a blind eye. It’s saying that a warrior needs to sleep before a battle. That an army must be well-fed and rested before an incursion. That this is a marathon, not a sprint, and there must be breaks along the way.

So I purchased the little notebook pictured above. I can’t say that I really believe its sentiments, but I’m making a concentrated effort to find something each day that makes me happy–something for which I’m grateful–and jot it down in this little book. I’m cultivating a sense of gratitude in a field sowed with fear and poisoned with anxiety.

WE ARE ALLOWED TO DO THIS.

No one would expect you to eat tainted food day after day without making any effort to clean it up and make it healthier. No one would demand you willingly consume poison in sublethal levels when it’s possible to filter it (unless you live in Flint, Michigan, apparently). Yes, we should be outraged at what’s happening in our country and our world. But outrage alone is ineffective. And a steady diet of outrage will kill us as surely as the things we’re outraged about.

So I’m reading more and watching the news less. Taking a little break from writing and playing around with other forms of artistic expression, such as painting. I’m having my nails done, despite the fact it’s an expensive luxury. Having nice nails makes me feel good at a time when precious little else does. As coping mechanisms go, it’s probably one of the less destructive ones.

I’m also making a determined effort not to spread fear and hate. I’m of two minds over this–I think we should be outraged. I think we should be making our voices heard. To say nothing is to be complicit. But I also fear by pointing fingers at it, we’re also fanning the flames over it and keeping it alive.

Vote. Donate your time or money, whichever you might have. Overcome your fears and participate in the process. But don’t let the fear consume you.

Remember it’s okay to tell stories that are simply pure escapism. What may be a light fluffy story to you is what gets someone else through a dark time. It’s not a crime to be proud of your successes, and share your happy news. We need more happy in this world. 

On the back of my little “Okay” notebook is an awesome quote from Jane Austen. I leave you with that thought now.