It’s 2020, coronavirus has all of us in a state of global emergency, and I am a mental health professional.
Here are my thoughts.
It seems as though some moments, certain chunks of time, are exceptional. It’s as if these moments have superpowers, they can do things to you and for you that you never expected.
Things that other moments can’t. They have this power over us, these moments.
They don’t happen often, but when they do, you know it.
It was a Tuesday and I was a junior in high school, dancing to the radio at 7am, flatironing my hair within an inch of its life, when my grandpa called our landline and said, “turn on the news, buildings in New York are on fire.”
It was a freeze frame.
Parts of that day will forever be memorialized, like an insect stuck in amber. Small things, like the expression on my teachers face when the question came from one my peers: “What does this really mean?” The girl next to me in AP English who just stared out the window and didn’t move. I found out later that her dad was in the military and she knew she wouldn’t see him for a long time.
The unity of having a shared fear. Collective panic, barely contained.
I remember it was confusing because it was terrible but also sort of wonderful.
Not the fear. The unity.
Because every person, regardless of how old they were or how much money they had or whether they were popular and cute or just ordinary like me, now we all had something in common. It was as if suddenly we were all the same.
We all knew what it felt like to be shaken, rattling around in a snow globe, with stuff swirling around you while you tried to hang on. And so we hung on to each other.
And then, we fractured.
There was that day, a Tuesday, where everybody was the same. And then the days, weeks and months afterwards, when we were different.
I remember that, too. The togetherness, which had felt wonderful, didn’t last. Without warning [to me, at least], the division came. Not everybody agreed on what had happened, and why, and how we should respond. There were arguments and hurt feelings and disappointment.
That felt almost worse.
Instead of being together, we were taking sides.
I was a teenager and my understanding of global politics, economy, and conflict was virtually none. I had never seen people divide themselves in such a way. It was upsetting, especially when I saw kids at school arguing over their different ideas.
I missed the togetherness, and I wished that it had lasted.
I guess I was naive.
Last Friday, the governor of Washington State handed down a K-12 school cancellation for 6 weeks.
That same day, I sat across video call from a loved one while they wept in fear. I couldn’t do much, helplessly watching through the screen and trying to help somehow. While recognizing that we were at the start of something that would slowly steal each of us away from our carefully controlled lives.
Each person, regardless of who you are, curates their existence. You choose where you go [for the most part] and with whom [for the most part] and why [for the most part].
Unless a moment takes that freedom away from you, the ones that have the power to freeze time and inject fear.
And I knew this was another one of those supernatural times.
Where time goes slow, and every movement is unprecedented, and you lose things you didn’t even realize you had and the instinct is to protect what you still have, unsure of when it will also be taken away from you.
Things feel especially hazy, sort of like slogging through muddy water in galoshes.
For me, my training kicks in.
I become extra aware of the stability of my loved ones; I am by nature a creative problem-solver. That’s what I’m good at. It’s instinctual.
So, my creativity kicks in and I’m ready to suggest ideas.
I’m ready to come together [metaphorically, due to social distancing requirements] and build up the community as a whole, do my part to inspire, and take care of those who need me.
I mean, I was.
Until I realized the mental health impact of this was much greater than I could have ever anticipated.
It’s greater than any of us could have anticipated.
Yesterday, we received a “Stay at home” order.
I am in-home adolescent family therapist.
Which means that I go into people’s homes [with their consent] and sit on their couch and help them figure out if they can get along better than they currently are.
All my families have some involvement with child welfare and they’re usually pretty stressed.
On a good day.
On a day where school has been canceled for 6 weeks [minimum] and there are no malls open and you can’t go to a friend’s house and all daily routines are shot to oblivion and your family is driving you crazy and your coping skills are scraping the bottom of the barrel — well.
I don’t even know if there’s a word for that level of stress.
I set out to keep doing what I do best: Meeting with families, creating positive space for growth, hearing from adolescents about what they know to be true.
Except, from a distance. Via video chat, text, and even snail mail.
Turns out, it’s harder to support people who are at risk through social distance. It’s hard to see people struggling and not be physically present with them. In my conversations, I’ve been focusing on a few key ideas that might be especially useful during this time.
Maybe they’re worth sharing:
Vulnerability is a strength, not a weakness
Every evening, a young man [I say that because he’s younger than me, probably early twenties] walks by my house with his headphones in, hands in his pockets, singing at the top of his lungs.
The first time, I saw him before I heard him, and I was concerned. See, this is no casual hum or relaxed headbop. This is passionate, full voice song.
And nobody can hear what he’s singing along with, if anything. Only he can.
And I’ve seen passersby stop and watch, some impressed, some annoyed.
This behavior is so contrary to social norms that this person has stuck in my mind. Well, that and the fact that he goes by every day. He’s impossible to forget.
Somewhere along the line, he made the realization that he wanted to sing at full voice, so he started doing it. And regardless of expectations of people around him, he has continued to do so. Daily.
And by doing so, he’s quite vulnerable.
In fact, it’s the reason I’ve continued to think about him.
Vulnerability is brave.
By making ourselves willing to be vulnerable, there is a greater potential for human connection, for wonderful things to come from our openness.
So why do we not allow ourselves to be vulnerable?
Is it because we’re afraid? Maybe that nobody will understand, or even worse, that there will be judgment.
Is it because we’re unsure? Maybe because our culture tends to praise those who are strong, self-assured, and give the illusion they have the world in their pocket.
Is it because we’re out of practice? Maybe because in the past, nobody cares. You’re better off just answering “How are you?” with “Fine” because experience has proven that those who ask don’t really want to know, anyways.
I have the sense that it is all these, and more.
One time during a session, I had a 15 year old boy look me in the eyes and say, “I don’t need you.” And my gut reaction was to back down. To agree. But I knew that it wasn’t true. So rather than simply give in, I looked back at him and said, “Or maybe you’ve just taught yourself that you can’t trust anybody, so you taught yourself to need nothing from nobody, so even if you did need me you wouldn’t say so, and maybe if you needed me you wouldn’t even know it.”
I wonder if that’s not a perfect description of all of us.
We’ve taught ourselves to be “strong.” To not need each other.
But it’s a lie.
We need each other, and that vulnerability shows up in situations like this more than ever before.
However, it only works if we let it. Each of us has to make a choice, to let down the facade, to admit who we really are and how we’re really doing.
Then, we might get somewhere. We’re actually stronger when we’re vulnerable.
And yes, it’s scary.
And it’s hard work.
You might need some help to get there [that’s okay, too].
But it’s worth it. It’s so, so worth it.
Emotional and mental well-being is a process
Sometimes, we’re really hard on ourselves.
I have a few people in my life who are high-achieving types, you know those? The ones who have a 5 year plan and keep track of their credit score and want to talk about how they added a new weight level in their workout class.
Always reaching for something, a new goal or accomplishment.
It’s impressive, and also a little exhausting.
Mostly because there’s a pervasive sense of thought that goes along with that way of thinking, which is: No matter how hard I work or where I get to, it’s never quite good enough.
One of my kiddos who is 18 said to me a few weeks ago, “I just feel like I’m always gonna be broken, no matter what I do.”
[Talk about vulnerable, huh?]
When it comes to the way our emotions work and how we interact with the world around us, there will always be something to work on. None of us, even [especially] me, say the right thing all the time or recognize exactly what it is that’s making us so hard to get along with.
And sometimes we make progress, really good progress.
Until the person we love does something that makes us mad, or we can’t control our surroundings as much as we wish we could [read: coronavirus]. Or until we get scared and act out in irrational ways to protect ourselves, or we see aspects of our own humanity that embarrass us, so we act quickly to cover them up and blame somebody else.
The truth is that you and I act in ways that we can’t explain. And that we don’t like.
We feel regret. It sucks.
I’ve been there, so I am very familiar with the self-loathing, the vows to never stoop so low again, the frustration with how I thought I was “finally better than this.”
But it’s not the end.
So, I guess my challenge to all those negative thoughts is: You’re not done yet.
The story’s not over, there’s still more time.
Especially when you’re stuck at home with lots of opportunity for self-reflection, growth, and intentional focus. Especially then.
Yeah, you make mistakes. I do too. And sometimes those mistakes really take a toll on our mental health, our relationships, our ability to self-regulate. Our ability to be okay. But it’s not the end, there’s more to come.
You’re not done yet.
It’s okay if the plan isn’t going according to schedule, or if it’s so derailed that you can’t even really see the original plan at all from where you currently are.
Just take it one day at a time, work on yourself a little bit and remember to be kind.
Listen the the voices around you and examine them from through a critical lens. Is there any truth to what you’re hearing? If so, filter it in. Think on it, and decide what it means for how you might change for the better.
If there’s something overly critical, harsh, or unnecessary, filter it out. Examine why you want to believe negative things about yourself and/or those around you, use it as an opportunity to put your own thoughts on trial.
Most importantly, rest your mind after you do this hard work.
Give yourself some grace.
Keep working, but focus on the process rather than the end result. It’s not about accomplishing perfection. At least not here on earth.
Give it time.
Don’t be too hard on yourself, you’re not done yet.
Our minds and bodies are interconnected
It took awhile for me to realize this, and I recognize how ridiculous that is.
Embarrassingly, because it seems obvious now. But mental health is SO impacted by the physical state of the body. I know, I know. But cut me some slack, I’m sometimes a little bit clueless.
So, the body is impacted by the mind. And vice versa.
Yes, I’ll be accepting my nobel prize now.
Even little things, like how the stress of checking the news every 10 minutes creates a shot of tension to my gut that makes my stomach hurt. Or how the first instinct I have after a hard conversation is to get a high-calorie snack that will make me feel drowsy and grumpy as soon as it metabolizes.
Or the fact that when my brain feels fuzzy, my first inclination is to lay down on the couch and stare at pretty pictures on Instagram for hours; what my body is actually asking for is a quick walk around the block, so that more blood will pump into my brain and make me feel alive again.
Those sorts of things.
Being armed with this awareness gives some empowerment over your own body. There’s less helplessness, knowing that if the body has what it needs, the mind will follow suit.
And, our minds are incredibly resilient.
It’s quite remarkable.
The brain was designed to reset to factory settings after a good night’s sleep. That’s why when people say, “You’ll feel better in the morning,” it’s usually true. Our blood pressure lowers, the chemicals and the synapses find equilibrium, and it’s a new day.
Our moods respond to these physical changes in notable ways.
I’ve seen one of my teens morph from a surly, depressed ball of sharp retorts into a mellowed-out softie after a walk up and down the waterfront. I was wise enough not to call attention to it in the moment, but it worked.
Exercise, a snack with some protein in it, even a dab of ice cream every now and then to boost the mood. All of this makes difference.
It’s also worth noting that food is such a social aspect of our lives. If you share a delicious morsel with somebody, that’s a bonding experience. It’s a positive aspect to your day that also gives some energy to the body. Win win.
There’s a reason why I bring kit kats and hi chews to my sessions.
It makes it easier to talk about life when there’s something yummy involved.
And if you have something challenging to talk about, sometimes walking side by side is less daunting than sitting down, staring at each other. You can look at the trees and flowers as you’re walking by them [even if you don’t care at all, it’s something else to focus on] and avoid eye contact for a few seconds.
Plus, the body likes to be in motion. That’s part of how we were designed, with moving parts and sustained energy.
Change of environment helps the mind and the body collaborate better.
We’re whole beings.
It’s maybe easier to separate out sometimes, because compartments are more comfortable or because humans as a whole are so overwhelming.
But we were designed to be body, soul, and mind.
It all matters.
So, those are a few of the things I’ve learned lately.
Of course, I’ll keep learning as this goes along. I’ll be frustrated and exhausted and cranky and lonely and disappointed. I have no doubt that I will make mistakes and fail and have to pick myself back up again.
But I keep thinking about how this time, right now, this supernatural moment, has the potential to bring so much togetherness.
It really is an opportunity for growth, both personal and collective.
Rather than allowing it to push us apart, with our opposing ideas, or focus on the things that we’ve lost, what if we were able to allow it to bring us together? [Metaphorically]
What could be gained?
It’s such a rare experience, that for a brief period of time, we are all the same.
Not in every way, of course. But in a big way.
We’re upended, turned around, swirling and freefalling. We could hold onto each other, practice vulnerability in new ways. We could find extra grace for each other, spend time really knowing the ways that we impact each other and move towards improvement.
We could face our flaws honestly and bravely. We could learn.
I mean, it’s possible, right?
Maybe I’m still naive.
But I’m not 16 anymore, I’m 33. And I’ve seen a little more of how the world works. And I do understand global politics, economy, and conflict [sorta]. I’ve seen how people treat each other and I know that there’s a lot working against us.
And I still think this, so maybe there’s something to it.
Maybe this is a moment full of potential and it will make a difference in who we are as humans, both now and in the future.
Maybe we’ll look back on it and recognize how necessary those changes were for all of us, and be kinda thankful for it.
Maybe we’ll reset our humanity and find a new sense of what it means to be alive.
All I know for sure is, I want to be a part of it.