I haven’t written a blog post in a very long time. I thought I had said everything I had to say. Then, enter the novel coronavirus. Suddenly, I am sitting in my beautiful office in my typically bustling suite of offices with a single member of the staff isolated behind glass in the reception area, and I’m seeing my clients virtually. Initially, I thought I would be doing this for a couple of weeks. Now I’m in week four, and there’s no end in sight. I wake up every morning and click over to the John Hopkins website where I can monitor the number of cases of COVID-19, the number of deaths, and the shape of the curve. Daily, I read the news about celebrities dying: John Prine, Ellis Marsalis, and Adam Schlesinger, and I talk to friends whose loved ones are very sick. I worry about my friends who are frontline healthcare workers. I am not a person prone to anxiety, but I have to admit, the world feels very, very dark right now.
I’m noticing a trend that is well-illustrated by this quote from one of my clients:
I’ve got nothing but time. I should be getting my college essay done. Alana, age 16
Because so many of us are following stay-at-home orders, we have much more free time than usual (unless you’re a frontline healthcare worker or a teacher!). Even though I am continuing to work at full capacity, I’m not spending time at the gym or the local bookstore. I’m not running errands beyond once-weekly trips to Trader Joe’s. I’m not meeting friends for coffee or going out to dinner with my family. In some moments, I am using that free time to write a blog post or read a novel or bake bread or Facetime with relatives. To be honest, though, a lot of it is frittered away in unproductive pursuits like playing Words with Friends or scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed or taking my pooch on her tenth walk of the day. From where I sit right now, I can see two boxes of old papers I need to go through, a very cluttered desk that I need to organize, and a pile of winter clothes I need to put in storage. I could be saying to myself, “I’ve got nothing but time. I should get my office organized.”
I’m resisting that urge, and I strongly recommend that you do too. Here’s why:
WE ARE IN THE MIDDLE OF A GLOBAL PANDEMIC!
And guess what? That takes an emotional toll. A big, unpredictable toll. We simply are not going to feel like being productive all the time. We are not always going to feel inspired to write poetry or try new recipes or clean out the garage. And that’s completely okay.
As I ponder COVID-19 and its impact, it has been helpful for me to think about dialectics. The concept is that ideas that appear on the surface to be contradictory can simultaneously be true. My very first virtual family therapy session with a high school senior, Bethany, and her two moms provides a great example of what I mean. Here’s a snippet of the dialogue:
Bethany (tearfully): I just know that there isn’t going to be a senior trip, a prom, or even a graduation. It just totally sucks.
Mom: But, honey, really you just need to be grateful that all of our loved ones are healthy.
Mama: Your mom’s right. You need to stop thinking about all the disappointment and focus more on your blessings.
Now, I really like this family. The parents have done an exemplary job of supporting Bethany who struggles with depression. I don’t even disagree with the points that they were making. So, what I said was this:
Me: I wonder if it’s possible for it to “just totally suck” AND for Bethany to be grateful that all of your loved ones are healthy? Does it have to be one or the other? Can’t she feel both things at the same time?
Here are some other examples of dialectics that I’ve been reminding myself of and talking with clients about:
- I have lots of free time AND I don’t feel like doing anything productive.
- It’s unfair that friends are still hanging out AND I know that social distancing is the right thing to do.
- Thank goodness Zoom meetings are possible AND I am really sick of Zoom meetings.
- I am so fortunate that I am still employed AND my work is really hard right now.
- My work is really hard right now AND frontline healthcare workers have it much worse than I do.
- This migraine is horrible AND I am glad I don’t have COVID19.
- This is a great time to get stuff done AND this is a great time to practice self-compassion.
That little word “and” makes all the difference. Compare the first example above to this:
I have lots of free time, BUT I don’t feel like doing anything productive.
“But” creates a different emotional impact. It can invalidate the very real feelings being expressed. This is especially true if the “but” comes from someone else as in the example of Bethany and her mothers.
I’m rambling, I know, but here are a few closing thoughts. No one alive today can remember living through something like the COVID19 pandemic. We are all navigating new terrain. It is steep and rocky, and there are venomous snakes. Let’s be gentle with one another. Let’s help each other over the boulders and crevices. Let’s not be critical when someone needs to take a rest. Let’s validate each other’s complaints, even though we’re also hot and tired and hungry and afraid. Even when we are tired of hearing them. Let’s keep in mind the fact that we are much more likely to get to the other side of this if we work together and hold each other up from time to time. And let’s remember that this is really, really hard AND we can do it.
[Names and other potentially identifying information has been changed to protect privacy.]