by Cindy Trawinski, Psy. D.
It has been about 6 months since the shelter in place order in Illinois was announced. Most therapists I know went remote in March. Therapy offices around the city sit unused and many therapists are working from home.
The spring challenged all of us to adjust to new precautions and COVID-driven changes to our lives. Summer brought overdue attention, focus and urgency to the country regarding long-standing racial disparities and injustices that have resulted in violence, brutality and death for too long. Now, fall is in the air. The election approaches bringing its own tensions, anxieties and uncertainties.
Back in March, after the initial logistical changes, for some, the first phase of adapting to the new social/physical distancing reality may have been greeted with a sense of relief. Surprisingly, some of us found working from home comforting. We felt safer in our homes and apartments, insulated from the unknown but pervasive viral danger we were facing. The hustle and bustle of getting places ceased to be a central feature of our very mobile lives. We were able to slow down, find our own rhythm and pace. We could settle into our personal sense of introversion. If we (or our partners) had not lost our jobs or been furloughed, we gradually adjusted to our new normal and welcomed the sense of having more time. Some felt privileged and grateful that they had work that was in demand and could be provided virtually.
It was a bit surreal but for many the transition was manageable.
However, for those who lost work, confronting financial losses during the slow down became front of mind. Essential workers had and have difficult choices to make. There was the issue of personal risk for those who continued to work. Those with children at home now needed additional childcare (if available and safe) or time and energy during the day for their care. Those with their own or a loved one’s immune-compromised health were faced with their vulnerabilities in new ways. Some people became ill with the virus or loved ones became ill. There were recoveries and hospitalizations. Of those who became ill, some are still in recovery from the longer-lasting effects of COVID. Sadly, some of us lost a co-worker, a friend and/or a relative. Some lost more than one.
Many of you seemed to adjust to the new world and perhaps had online therapy as a resource and support but some have fared less well with the changes. Polyamorous and non-monogamous folx may have decided to separate from partners, friends and loved ones to manage the risk of spreading or contracting the virus. Some of you faced big decisions about who to shelter in place with and how to manage, if you did or did not. Conflict emerged for polycules distressed by the decisions around quarantining. Many of you have suspended physical contact with your partners indefinitely. Some relationships simply broke apart. If you are/were single or un-partnered, you may have found yourself thrown into a different kind of isolation or loneliness. Some of you are managing the tension, loss and urges related to their separations and some are really struggling.
Missing Life Out and About
For some of you, life under shelter-in-place was a harsh disruption and barrier to the nourishment, excitement and stimulation that the world can offer. Our usual life in society — commuting and working with others, attending conferences, socializing with family and friends, dating, partying, seeing art, dining out, enjoying team sports as players and spectators, and more was suddenly closing down In the kink community, closures of dungeons and online munches left some feeling disconnected from potential or existing partners. Support groups and other community events were cancelled or went virtual. Things were different and sometimes not all that satisfying. We all started missing the things that gave our days meaning and connection.
There were hard choices and losses. The absence of familiar activities and others (partners, playmates, family and friends, but even our barista or neighbors) from our lives brought loneliness, emptiness, fear, sadness, and frustration – and there were worries about the emotional and physical well-being of family and friends as well as clients who relied on our care and immediate and palpable presence in their lives.
Ground Hog Day
Lately, I have noticed that reactions are changing since those earlier weeks and months of the pandemic. The feeling that every day is a little Ground Hog Day-like sneaks up slowly on us. With every trip to the grocery store or gas station, sustained vigilance and self-monitoring invisibly wears the committed down. Invitations to in-person social visits seem like small scale temptations but require more effort to resist as the months pass and confusing info about “opening up” clouds earlier clarity. Even routine needs for in-person retail and professional services (like haircuts and doctors’ visits, etc.) seem to require unusually high levels of discernment. For some, a need to throw off the shackles of isolation or caution fills us with dis-ease even as we stick with it. While some find they have relaxed unintentionally into a less socially distanced life and then suddenly have a need to get tested, reset and restore a sense of safety.
For those who welcomed the gradual re-opening of businesses and easing of social and recreational limitations, there may be moments of uncertainty and concern that the guidelines continue to be ambiguous. The question of what is safe floats somewhere in the back of our minds. Few are completely free from worry about some element of health risk, whether it is for their own health or that of a colleague, friend or loved one.
Leaning In, Pushing Against or to Giving In?
Some of us are waking up feeling unusually stiff and achy from holding tension in our bodies. Our eyes and necks hurt from craning at our screens. We think to ourselves we may be drinking or smoking a little too much. Our adherence to a healthy diet has given way to vacation-style food indulgences and comfort foods which we justify by saying we are trying new recipes. Whether it is working out, walking, reading, taking a yoga class, meditating or learning online, the idea of using this unusual time to improve ourselves is so appealing. Yet, some of us find it hard to sustain enthusiasm for new learning beyond the initial burst.
The seemingly indefinite suspension of important pre-COVID, everyday activities and relationships fatigues us. The effort it takes us to continue to live under our relatively new circumstances wears us down. Changing and confusing health messaging continues to be something manyof us wrestle with. Decisions have been put off. Vacations and weddings were delayed or postponed. Funerals were downsized or went remote. We don’t know when we will next see friends and family living states away. Yet, our hearts and minds are drawn to questions about the future again and again. We are creatures born to anticipate the future, to look ahead. We tire of turning away from decisions we long to make.
Finding Respite Where We Can
Recently I came across a helpful post on LinkedIn from Holly C. Barker of the Grief Resource Network. She listed 9 types of rest we can offer ourselves and others. I recreated her list below added a few of mine own thoughts. I offer it here as potential balm for the kinds of fatigue, weariness, pressure and tension many of us may be feeling.
A REST MENU
- Take time away. Time away from your everyday experiences, venues, activities and/or relationships can provide a chance to refresh your perspective and relax into a deeper experience of yourself without the familiar pushes and pulls of your daily life.
- Give yourself permission not to be helpful.This can bring a big sense of relief to many of us. I offered this list to some of my clients when the moment called for it, and far and away, the idea of letting oneself not be helpful received the strongest positive on this list.
- Give yourself permission to be “unproductive.” Allowing ourselves to be unproductive, can provide us with space from inner and outer demands — and produce healing and rest.
- Connect to art and nature. Grounding, earthing, forest bathing or just looking at a tree – any form of indulging in green spaces can deliver health benefits.
- Use solitude to recharge.Being with alone yourself, whether you are active (i.e. walking or cooking) or still (i.e. sitting or laying down), allows your attention to move freely and can restore a sense of space, time and energy.
- Take a break from responsibility. Sign out.Close your virtual door, put up your out of office or vacation message and unplug. Take time off from social media, your personal or professional responsibilities.
- Let stillness help you decompress.Find a quiet corner and be still. Let your body and mind settle.
- Spend time in a safe space. A safe space can allow you to let down your guard, to stop trying to protect yourself – to just be.
- Spend time alone at home. Reacquaint yourself with your home environment by being in it or moving thru it alone. When we share space with others, we often agree explicitly or implicitly to let them shape and inhabit the space we live in. As a result, we often find ourselves unconsciously accommodating to their presence in one way or another. Being alone in your living space can allow you to experience it and yourself anew.