What’s going on is pretty darn bad
As you have surely noticed, a lot of things really don’t feel okay right now. And a lot of us do not feel okay about that.
I’ve been hearing from people in health care doing their utmost to save those who may not survive and those who will not survive. I’ve been hearing from people trying to secure adequate storage space for human remains. I’ve been hearing from other therapists. From people who have gotten ill and been hospitalized. From those who are losing loved ones, losing jobs, losing savings, losing health insurance, and from those feeling trapped and scared and angry.
We are all facing an enemy that uses our greatest human strength in its attack against us: our connections with others. An invisible fire is burning through humanity, and we don’t know who is aflame, who will burn, and who will pass through unharmed. The uncertainty is nerve-wracking.
You may hear people saying “Humanity got through previous pandemics, it’s not the end of the world!” Well, yes…humanity survived, but we didn’t all get through those crises. Many died. And for those who died, it was the end of the world. (At least, this world.) And the world was permanently altered for survivors and their descendants. So this event is a true threat. It makes sense to feel distress.
What our experiences are and how we are dealing with them – it’s okay
Whatever we may have already been struggling with has been exacerbated: loneliness, depression, illness and disability, social issues, financial issues, employment, relationships. Meanwhile, many of the life trajectories we were working on in the hope that they would provide us with security, stability, and balance, have been upended. Exposed as transient, fragile, or even inconsequential: careers, money, possessions, self-image, institutions, political and social dynamics. These are great losses that may leave us feeling anchorless, or make the world feel frighteningly unreal.
For many there is also a cognitive dissonance between feeling the background hum of constant threat, while other parts of life continue apace as though nothing is happening and things are normal. “When your world falls apart, some things stay in place” (Billy Bragg). This dissonance can be crazy-making too!
With all that is happening, many people are experiencing an increase in symptoms. Some new, and some familiar. Many are symptoms of depression, anxiety, or past trauma. But please know that you are not alone in this. The most common symptoms I’ve been hearing about in the past few weeks are:
Sleep issues: insomnia, exhaustion, hypersomnia.
It’s hard to sleep when you’re feeling threatened. It’s not surprising many are having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. If you are sleeping more than usual, it is partly because you have so much more to process, and that is exhausting!
Dreams: increased vivid dreaming (or increased memory of dreaming), not necessarily nightmares, either. We have a lot to process lately and it’s spilling into our nighttime hours.
Impaired executive function: forgetfulness, loss of concentration, unusual time perception (speeding up or slowing down).
Dissociation: losing track, losing time, spacing out, not being present, feeling numb, feeling unreal or that the world is unreal.
Hypervigilance: being easily startled, easily woken, heightened anxiety about possible contagion and contamination.
Grief and anger: we have incurred countless losses, individually and as a society. It is not wrong to grieve losses or to feel anger about them. It’s understandable.
Guilt: This has been a big one for a lot of people! Specifically, guilt about productivity, guilt about parenting, survivor guilt, and free-floating guilt. Please understand that unnecessary guilt is a symptom of both depression and anxiety, but it’s a feeling that makes it especially easy to buy into the content, so we tend to think it’s real.
Regarding the productivity guilt: your value as a human being is not your productivity. The most important thing you are producing is someone who survived the pandemic! If you come out of this alive, and with your children alive, you did it!
This is the earliest reference I can find, but we all know this statement by now. You’re not “working from home,” you’re at home, working under a global crisis.
Furthermore, you are not obligated to somehow optimize yourself. You never have been! But this is a good time to finally understand that at a deep level. It’s an especially ludicrous expectation right now.
As the airplane rocked and shuddered, smoke filling the cabin, over the sounds of people screaming, I leveled up by using that extra time to work on my side hustle project. Why didn’t you?
— George Porter (@georgemporter) April 23, 2020
Many people are struggling with unhealthy coping mechanisms right now: drinking and substance use, eating behaviors, self-harm. But the first thing is to cope. To get through this day, and this night, and the next. So if you are using unhealthy coping mechanisms, instead of beating yourself up about it, allow yourself first to cope. And then start working on adding in some of your healthier coping mechanisms. All behaviors, even dysfunctional ones, are adaptive in some context. Sometimes an unhealthy coping mechanism is healthier than not coping at all.
Future directions & hope
Listen, we don’t get to choose what arc of history we occupy, only what role we play in that arc. You are living through a historical event that you did not choose.
A lot of things are not okay right now, many of us aren’t okay with that, and it’s okay to feel that way. It’s reasonable to feel distress. We are all walking through this invisible fire, but what matters most is how well you walk through the fire (Charles Bukowski). You can still choose what role you will play.
Humans have an immense capacity to take something good and positive out of surviving even the most horrific events. Things we always heard could not be done are now being done: work flexibility, distance learning, accessibility, financial and personal support. Meanwhile, things we always heard were implacably crucial, are turning out to be not so important. Deadlines! Attendance! Fees! Work pants!
Many more people who are in a tough spot now suddenly understand that we all need support and we are all mortal. We are all vulnerable. This kind of insight can be a turning point for great change. This is a liminal space in which we can effect that change.
It’s easier to see the real rock-bottom truth from here. Human connection is still our most important strength, even without physical proximity. We take care of each other: family, friends, neighbors, community, churches, local government and organizations. Our strength comes from sharing via those systems. Power comes from the people. You are the people! So let this radicalize you, rather than leading you into despair (Mariame Kaba).
Let this radicalize how you treat others: What can you do to help reshape an inequitable system? Is there some way you can help support those who are already marginalized, on whom the bulk of the crisis falls? The illness and death, the job loss, the financial hardship, the limited access to resources. If there is to be a new normal, what social improvements do you want to help solidify?
Let this radicalize how you treat yourself: Learn that your value does not lie in your ability to produce. Learn to treat yourself as well as you would treat an honored guest, a close friend, or even a beloved pet. If there is to be a new normal, what habits do you want to bring back from this experience? What deserves to be left behind in the ashes?
Walk this invisible fire with compassion, flexibility, and acceptance. Acceptance for others, but also for yourself. ❤