A few weeks into this stay-at-home order we’ve been heeding in some parts of the United States, I reached out to a colleague who seemed to need an ear. During our conversation, I reassured her that she wasn’t alone in feeling lost. I shared that I had had a downward spiral just a few days before and had to lift myself out of it.
“That’s what I need to know,” she said. “How did you do that?”
Well, let me start here. I’m not about to give blanket advice to those going through this who are dealing with forces I’m not – i.e., home schooling, dicey marriages, mental health issues, fear around loved ones on the front lines, restless teens. I am also not prone to feeling lonely because I treasure my solitude and have long since stopped being sucked into the ‘traditional or bust’ way of living.
All that said, we are being challenged in ways we couldn’t have dreamt of. Imagine ushering in 2020 with big plans and having a pandemic say, “You think getting through 9/11 and Superstorm Sandy tested your mettle? Hold my beer.”
From the outset of this in early March, I have mostly treated this time as a chance to reflect, be, and grow. I see it as a re-set. Don’t be fooled that this means I’m sitting on a stash of cash. I’m not. My “money job” is on hold and I don’t know if it’s ever coming back. The senior citizens I teach weekly are obviously not convening, so that’s a big question mark.
My life has been upended like so many others. But I’ve learned where petulance and panic get me and I’ve learned where positivity and focus get me and I’m trying to live in the latter place through this. Let’s be clear. No one is handling this in a mature, thoughtful, joyful way 24/7. So maybe that’s my first piece of advice: Don’t expect yourself to be super human. That serves no one. Strive for being positive on balance.
When this started I happily posted on social media the stack of books I’d be reading with all my found time. I’ve read one so far. You know why? When I’m not trying new and creative ways to make money, helping others, taking an online Yale class in The Science of Well-Being, facilitating a free weekly Zoom session, editing articles and projects for clients, coaching clients, taking walks, teaching myself how to navigate my new computer, staying updated on what’s happening with the Coronavirus, worrying about being hypertensive and vulnerable to Covid-19, and grocery shopping with a mask, I gravitate to the TV or social media instead of a book.
Which brings me to my second piece of advice: Let yourself go there. No need to be virtuous in your entertainment choices. For goodness sake, I could recite the dialogue in the first four seasons of Chicago PD; it soothes me. Same with Sex and the City. So be it. We’re in a health crisis! Lighten up on yourself. Sometimes rather than talk to my coffee table, I might want to share the slammin’ smoothie I just made with some lovely people on Facebook and Instagram. I like the connection. Sometimes that’s more valuable to me than escaping into a novel.
And speaking of connection, I pay heed to my need for lingering, meaningful conversations with people I treasure. There are appointments in my calendar for all sorts of phone, FaceTime, or Zoom “dates” to chat, drink coffee or wine, or simply to check in on one another. So, more advice: Carve out some time to connect with people, ones you talk to frequently and those you like to catch up with a few times a year. It feels good.
In the world of me, that’s a necessity in between the crushing sadness and surging anger I’m feeling. Yes, I said feeling. I am allowing myself to feel my feelings. I can be a bit of a broken record on this, but it’s that important. Otherwise, where am I going to put it all? Am I going to let it fester and become a health issue? The answer is no. Did you miss the advice? Feel your feelings.
Andrea Bocelli singing to an empty plaza in Milan made me burst into tears. I let it. My uncle died and I poured myself into writing about it to process the grief. When I’m at my desk working and a song I love comes on, I pop out of my chair, crank it up, and dance or pace through my apartment, singing every word. “You said your mother told ya all that I could give ya was a reputation …” When I’m walking, often deep in pensive thought, I stop to appreciate the vitality of the tulips. Alternately, I’ve written some venomous, vulgar columns and posts and it felt liberating.
After 9/11 I learned to pay attention to life and to become aware of the power of intention. That’s some bigtime advice, right there. I wrote a whole book about that journey, a memoir called Alive in the Sunshine. Somehow, using attention and intention, I taught myself how to deal with adversity and use it to become a better person.
Circling back to the aforementioned conversation with a troubled colleague, I found myself drawing from those previous lessons learned. I hadn’t consciously been doing that in my pandemic isolation, but suddenly she made me aware that I had that toolbox. So when she asked the question about how I got myself out of a downward spiral, I shared an example from a few decades ago.
I was in therapy with a brilliant woman, working some of the time with her on my penchant for using food as comfort. One Friday evening on my way home from work, feeling hurt by a man I liked, I stopped in a store by my apartment to get some Ben and Jerry’s. It was automatic. Hurt = food. Then, remembering a recent session with my therapist, I put the ice cream back in the freezer and bought a bouquet of flowers instead.
That’s attention to one’s behavior and intention around modifying it. Again, the idea is not perfection. Who needs that pressure? For me it’s about putting back the ice cream maybe seven times out of 10. Sometimes you just want to savor a tasty treat. And perhaps a pandemic is one of those times where you say, hey, this will make me feel better. You do you.
The other night, dying for chocolate, I started Googling ways to use cocoa powder that didn’t require baking. I needed a fix. I made a chocolate peanut butter smoothie and it did the trick.
Kindly note I don’t want to make light of it if it’s an addiction. I know there are plenty of people out there struggling with alcohol, for example, and this crisis is proving to be excruciating. I don’t pretend to have those answers. That’s the next piece of advice: Seek out professionals where needed.
It appears I’ll be doing this shelter-in-place thing for at least another month. On one hand, ugh. Please, Lord, can’t I just sit in a diner or visit my parents? On the other hand, I see opportunity to keep enriching myself, to deepen connections, to launch new things, and to figure out what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.
A daunting and exhilarating challenge.