It's week 6 of sheltering in place during the coronavirus crisis, and I've been reflecting on what I'm learning and how my experience of this strange period of history is changing over time.
In the beginning, like so many of us, I was flabbergasted and overwhelmed by the shocking changes to daily life: the orders to stay at home and see no friends; my toddler's daycare closing and the daunting prospect of trying to work from home for an unknown duration with a tiny tornado on the loose; the cancellation of every gathering I looked forward to and every class I was supposed to teach; and the newly ubiquitous clouds of fear and sinister illness hovering over every sunny day.
I responded with a roller coaster of anxiety, shut-down, hypervigilant news-checking and manic bursts of productivity, trying to avoid powerlessness by brainstorming projects that might help, like offering a bunch of online support groups. I did not get what it would mean for this whole disaster to be a marathon instead of a sprint, and what it would take to sustain myself and my family over the coming months.
Now that it's obvious we're in this mess for the long haul, my manic energy has settled down. The reality of the world we're living in has become more clear. While the specter of catastrophic disease can seem a little distant here in Santa Fe where, as of this writing, we have fewer than 100 confirmed cases, folks in other regions are living through utter devastation. One of my jobs is trauma counseling, and I have a client in another state whose mom just died a surprising, terrible death from COVID-19. I am suddenly finding myself midwifing someone through great mystery and great tragedy. It pushes all my buttons, because my mom died in a similar way years ago, and it also feels like an immense honor to accompany her in this journey. I did not expect the coronavirus crisis to bring something so sacred into my life.
Yet this is juxtaposed against the astounding drudgery of these endless days in isolation. How can three people possibly create so many dishes? How can I be singing "Little Bunny Foo Foo" for the 26th time in two days? How can my daughter destroy the house we cleaned before bed by 10 am every single morning? Is it really time for another Zoom call? Is it really time to make more hand sanitizer? Is it time for another snack? Are we actually watching another nails-on-the-chalkboard episode of the unbearably saccharine Daniel Tiger because we desperately need a break from entertaining the kid? Yes. Yes we are.
And this is juxtaposed as well against the sometimes overwhelming sense of urgency and rage that hunkering down in isolation can cause a trauma survivor. I did not grow up associating extended periods of time at home with safety and respite. I grew up with a deeply unstable and severely alcoholic mom, and a super checked out dad. Home was a place I associated with being trapped, surrounded by stagnation, bitterness and rage. Now I'm a grown-up and I get super triggered if I feel like I can't get away from irrational people, and let me tell you—toddlers are not rational. They throw unbelievable tantrums over the tiniest infractions. Just like my mom. And we are stuck together 24/7. As I mentioned in my last column, some days I can call on my wiser, more patient self and meet my daughter with grace and sensitivity. Some days I feel like I'm back in a war zone and I just want to run away or fight. Except neither of those are possible, so I get stuck in freeze. Are you finding yourself bizarrely tired, kind of rigid and a little glassy eyed these days? You might be stuck in a freeze response too.
This crisis is definitely challenging me to love myself with more tenderness and compassion. The way out of overwhelm never involves force. Sometimes it involves reaching out to my network of far-flung comrades for support. Sometimes it involves collapsing on the couch with my wife to watch a trashy episode of Love Island while checking my phone. Sometimes it involves driving 100 miles to Cline's Corners and back to buy cheap gas station ice cream and watch the clouds change. We were sure the toddler would fall asleep, but she didn't, and the only way to soothe her yelling was to reach deep into the backseat so she could hold my hand the entire way. The muscles in my forearms nearly gave out, but there was still something raw and sweet about stretching towards her and singing old songs with the radio. Light busted through open wounds in the sky and it almost felt like we were on a road trip to somewhere vast and unknown.
It almost felt like we were free.