Earlier this week I had an emotional breakdown. Chances are, you did, too. Why? Because all of us are existing under a huge amount of stress caused by pandemic-related restrictions and fears. Why is this happening now? I think I’ve spotted the trigger: what was a novelty a couple of months ago has morphed into a concealed enemy: normalized stress.
It’s happened in increments. Before the restrictions, my walking partner and I (we’re childhood friends who are fortunate enough to live near each other) would hug upon greeting. When social distancing guidelines were announced, we laughed and bumped elbows. Now we say “hi” from a minimum six-foot distance. At least we’re still making our 3 weekly walks (at a safe social distance), a little bit of “normal” in our much-altered lives.
It’s funny, though, when you stop to think about it. Touching people is no longer normal.
Good thing you have us.
Yeah, because we’re on the inside so we’re just like we’ve always been.
But we can see you, you know, so thanks for getting your hair cut and highlighted today.
You are welcome Lily. Lily is my inner fourteen-year-old. My bold print friend is 9, who is 9.
So tell us what happened on Monday.
Yeah, that was kind of scary, even on the inside.
You’re telling me. The most succinct way to put it is, I freaked out. I started the day feeling a little down, so I consciously set the intention to have a good day to stem it off. Nothing worked, though. My walking partner wasn’t feeling well that day and cancelled. Fine, I’d already put in a half-hour on the Nordic Track and would walk later by myself, plus I now had an opportunity to do something kind for her. I made a trip to Klicker’s, Walla Walla’s iconic destination for produce, antiques and ice cream, and bought her some of their local strawberries to speed her recovery. Though it was well before noon I treated myself to a scoop of Bordeaux Cherry on a waffle cone; it was simply the thing to do.
Between do-gooding and a mild sugar buzz I was in pretty good spirits, but then. . .
Perhaps it was a case of “working too hard to stay positive” fatigue? By mid-afternoon, even after taking a 40-minute walk around my neighborhood (including the gorgeous Pioneer Park), I was still so emotionally fogged that I hadn’t absorbed any of the considerable beauty. I was so far down when I got home that The Boys (Doc, Friday and Hoosegow) followed me around in a pack from room to room, their furry brows wrinkled with anxiety. Everybody wanted a pet, a treat, my undivided attention. Overwhelmed by a sense of being the last human on earth, I snapped under the pressure.
I doubled over and screamed from way down deep. When I could make words I screamed “I can’t take it anymore!” The Boys looked on pleadingly. The pressure of their emotional demands was too much. “You guys can’t treat me like this anymore!!”
After considerable sobbing I finally sobered up. I felt much better after the explosion and soon fell back into my Snow White surrounded by the Cute Little Woodland Creatures (AKA The Boys) mode of living. I felt awful about how I’d behaved, though, just couldn’t accept that I’d given in to such a dramatic, roaring fit of frustration and loneliness. I’m not “like that,” right? I’m a strong person, right?
Actually, that is right. But on the inside, where we live, it’s easy to see that you’re only human.
Yeah. You need to remember that!
How many times have I told you, don’t be so hard on yourself?
Normalized stress. We need to fight it by remembering and honoring what we’ve lost from our previous lives. Late spring and early summer make the loss starkly apparent, as graduations are scaled down and reconfigured for social distancing, weddings postponed, reunions and vacations cancelled. And while I don’t think our lives will bounce back with everything we cherish in place like it’s always been (or, at least, as we remember it’s always been), I do believe there are better times ahead, with a wider range of options. I also think that some of the things we’re leaving behind are, in fact, better left behind.
It’s hard to set plans right now, hard to resist hitting the news sources like we’re starving lab mice and the media is the food bar in a Skinner Box. It’s hard to live day by day, sometimes minute by minute, in a constantly changing world that we once imagined we controlled. It’s hard to accept weakness in ourselves when we don’t pass the test. We need to learn to forgive ourselves for not being perfect in highly challenging circumstances.
Is there something else we can choose to normalize, in place of stress? It won’t be easy, but how about taking on the task of normalized kindness? Starting with ourselves.
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Ah, dear, yes. Part of the stress I feel is the relentless flow of opinions that “oh, this is nothing, buck up!” or “If a health care worker can do it for 15 hours, you can do it for five!” Or just the constant reminder that there’s something terminally dangerous about contact with our fellow human beings. Never mind normal! None of this is natural! My nomination for new “normal” is to allow our emotions, devote regular intervals of just feeling our feelings, without shame or denial or having to justify. That’s what I would consider a tremendous act of kindness, to let ourselves be human.
Erin, as ever you surface as the All Wise. Thank you for being so! I like what you say about allowing our emotions. It makes me think of a scene from last year’s summer horror flick Midsommer- -the protagonist, newly-crowed May Queen, discovers her boyfriend in a sexual ritual with another young woman. She is overcome with rage, hurt, etc., heaving huge, ragged sobs as she runs from the scene, her court of young women running after her and falling to the ground with her as she howls with hurt and rage. They form a human shield over her and literally process her emotions themselves, heaving and sobbing and screaming and, most critically, breathing with her. Powerful stuff!