“No no no
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Til its gone.” – Joni Mitchel
By Susan Tretakis – Coral Springs, Florida – It’s very difficult for me to write anything these days without hearing these lyrics in my mind.
Did I ever think that going to the supermarket would involve so much preparation? That walking in my neighborhood would become a daily matter of social distancing and attempting to pacify out-of-control neighbors??
Since March 30th, when my county officially began closing down, I began remembering all sorts of things – swimming in my community pool, going to the dentist, the eye doctor, hugging a friend, going out to dinner in restaurants and meeting up for happy hours where the number of people in attendance meant literally nothing – except if it negatively impacted on us getting a table or a seat at the bar.
Did I ever think that facial masks and plastic gloves would be necessary items? Would I be getting deliveries of Lysol wipes, to only wipe down the Lysol box with other Lysol wipes?
Did I ever feel more confused by the many contradictory reports about the state of our public health?
What was the constant worrying and stress about my personal health as well as the health of my friends and their families doing to me – both physically and emotionally?
I am going to be honest with you; this post is not as heavily researched as many of my previous posts. There is one simple reason: I feel we’ve all been buried in “research”. We’re all text alerted with updated death counts, new viral mutations, stories of more medical doom and gloom. To top it off, scientists are reporting on “invasions of killer black hornets” and here in Florida, our daily newspapers remind us that we’re staring at “an extremely dangerous hurricane season” that will begin sooner rather than later.
If the television and print media wasn’t enough, there’s social media. There you can read posts that “tell the truth” about Covid 19 conspiracy theories, follow the vilification of the “mask people” versus the “non- mask people”. Social media will show how to make masks and then post an article detailing how masks are a government conspiracy. YOU TUBE will enable you to listen to individual Governors’ daily updates, and slowly, with each written and spoken word, I promise you that your anxiety level will spike, your physical aches and pains will increase and a free-floating sense of depression will literally, engulf you.
This I know for a fact – because it happened to me.
Those of you who know me know that I take my mental health – as well the preservation of my mental health – very much to heart. I have danced with depression and anxiety my entire life; my father suffered through painful post traumatic episodes and his mother, my grandmother, died in a mental institution. I have always believed that “genetics loads the gun, ones’ lifestyle does pull the trigger” so lifestyle choices are most important to me. Knowing my family history led me to the study of psychology. It’s the reason why I became a counselor, and later, a therapist. I’ve written about my anxiety and my depression; I’m candid about my experiences with various pharmaceuticals as well as my success and failures with “talk therapy”. With the help of an extremely gifted and compassionate psychologist, I have a “tool box” of emotional and intellectual tricks, refined from years of use, to help me through the tough times.
I thought I was prepared for anything when it came to my mental health. I also believed, that since I have lived alone for far longer than when I was married, “social distancing”, or “sheltering in place” would be a relatively smooth transition for me. Basically an introvert, I felt sure I could find another book to read, another picture to paint, another article to write.
None of this turned out to be the case. This April, however, was a nightmare.
April has always been my favorite month, primarily because it is my birthday month and my “inner child” is a spoiled brat who celebrates the entire month. This April had me sitting alone in front of the TV eating far too much, far too often. This April had me drinking far too much. While “a quarantine birthday” sounds somewhat cool – and yes, I had a handmade tee shirt saying so – and while there were Zoom calls and Facetime toasts – it was lonely.
So I ate and drank some more.
April also gave me a broken air conditioner which forced me to spend two nights at a hotel – where all amenities were closed down except for my air-conditioned room. The emptiness of hallways, and the view from my hotel window was both unsettling and frightening.
April also brought me a leaking hot water heater and, as the household repair bills mounted up over three credit cards, so did an overwhelming sense of despair. But I couldn’t deal – at least not yet – with the financial impact – I was too busy trying to remember all that I read and heard about staying safe when workmen – yes, masked and gloved – are adrift in your home. I was trying to remain cool in a house where the thermostat read 99 degrees. I was trying to remember if I was supposed to Lysol them down before they entered – Lysol everything they touched after they left?
I would ponder this while taking my fourth shower of the day.
April brought me early morning and late-night telephone calls notifying me of the deaths of four friends, two of which were Covid-related while two were from random, but still deadly, accidents. Now I added more guilt to my self-talk; how dare I worry about my mounting bills and increasing weight; people were dying and families needed to be consoled. Trust me when I say that Zoom funerals and Face Time condolences are little comfort to everyone involved. April also saw a good friend, someone very much an active part of my life for over 40 years, move out of state, leaving me further floundering in this strange new world.
So much loss; so much sadness. I felt an increased loneliness and alienation from those who were balancing home schooling and additional family relationships. How could I speak of my loneliness and fears without becoming an additional burden to friends who were balancing so many other things? I couldn’t and I wouldn’t, so I did what the psychologist in me knows is the worst possible choice: I buried it.
April saw far too many people unemployed, hospitalized and victims of domestic abuse; I attempted to help, but therapeutic resources were dangerously low. I was hurting too much to be much help to others. I was too proud to admit that I was one in the need, so I ignored what I was feeling and I pushed myself to “soldier on”.
Bad habits, poor choices led to impaired sleep patterns and un-expected mood swings.
Quite simply, this April was not the best of times.
Web MD and The Washington Post, as well as many other medical sources, are writing that Americans are experiencing high levels of emotional distress from the coronavirus pandemic. Some experts warn that we are headed to a national mental health crisis.
According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, more than half of Americans reported that worry or stress related to the outbreak has led to at least one negative mental health effect. Those include trouble with eating or sleeping, drinking alcohol more, frequent headaches or stomachaches, shorter tempers, and other health problems.
Another recent report, released just last Friday from the Well Being Trust, said the pandemic could lead to 75,000 additional “deaths of despair” from drug and alcohol misuse and suicide due to unemployment, social isolation, and fears about the virus.
I know my triggers for depression; they include my fears of being a burden on others, of acute loneliness, of being in debt. Other triggers include drinking alcohol and eating processed, sugar filled food. Unfortunately, I was now living in a world where restaurants were advertising “family feasts” of pizza, lasagna, tacos and fried chicken wings could be delivered every hour. They would even throw in free dessert to thank you for your business. I was living in a world where wine and other spirits were delivered – to ensure I stay “safe at home”.
I was home; but my triggers were pinging and I was far from safe in this “new normal.”
Since beginning my journey into Traditional Chinese Medicine with acupuncture in 2016, the fact that our bodies and minds are bound together remains a singular truth for me. My health is not just about what I am eating or drinking – it’s also about I am thinking and saying to myself. My thoughts can poison me as harshly as food and drink can. My over-thinking can break my own heart. What I hear and see can make me weak and ill.
It became very apparent to me that if I was to survive, I would have to pull back and create my own “new normal”. It was very evident I need to monitor the time spent watching the news and what I chose to read in the newspapers. Screen time – which had once been a source of fun and new knowledge – was now only further upsetting me.
When everything seems out of control, I have found I need to literally step back and focus on what I can control. While I could not control what was going on in the world, I could control what foods I brought into the house – or had delivered. Truthfully, I preferred going out early to shop for my food over the delivery services; while I love the ease of water and paper goods being delivered, I am fussy about my fruits and vegetables.
I went back to reading labels – as difficult as they were to read through fogged glasses because of my face mask. I also knew which grocery stores to go – some are filled with gluten free items, others are not. I hated trying to open plastic bags for produce with plastic gloves, but I learned. I kept my distance from others and my shopping time short.
I learned too – once I freed myself from wasting too much time watching the news and switching to food television shows – the best ways to keep vegetables fresher for longer periods of time. I went through my pantry – which in March I had “panicked-stocked” and took a look at expiration dates. I started to grill and poach my own food – I began to use my freezer for more than Rocky Road and Chocolate Mint ice cream, which I truly believed, back in March, I could control the amount I inhaled. (Don’t ask how that went.)
I stopped using You Tube for governors’ updates and Corona Virus briefings; I started downloading videos on exercises I could do at home with hand weights and my Pilates ring and stick. I walked my circle in my neighborhood early each morning – until the South Florida heat and humidity conspired to do me in. I then went to my indoor bicycle.
Did I ache? Yes. But it was a far better pain that the upset stomach or the hangover head which was my “new norm” by mid-April.
I found a wealth of information on www.mindful.org. I learned how to do a “body check” each morning. Mass media outlets regularly reported what deadly symptoms I should be maniacally checking myself for each day. My inner hypochondriac did not do well with this information. Was that pain in my chest the Covid 19 attacking my lungs, was I having a heart attack or was it that I simply fell asleep on my Kindle?
Luckily, it always tended to be the latter. Were my sudden hot flashes the mutated virus, a hormone imbalance or the fact that this was the hottest April on record for the past five years?
Mindful provided articles and guided mediations on how to remain emotionally grounded. Mindful taught me how to do a daily “body check” – where I would begin each morning visualizing a healing Light starting at my feet and slowly making its way up and through to my head. This practice – which is accompanied by measured breathing – helped me slow my panic and to realize that much of what I was feeling was emotional. Mindful reminded me how important a morning meditation can be – especially when you have yet to hear the day’s newest “Breaking News”. There are meditations for panic attacks, for insomnia and for conquering fear and loneliness. Their website provides articles about necessary life resiliency skills: the need for a daily schedule, a routine – the need to care for myself and to allow myself time to mourn.
I re-learned how to eat mindfully; how to sit to sit at a table with the television off and music playing – rather eating over the sink while watching the latest, and more upsetting, TV news. Mindful meals are not eaten lounging the couch playing Word with Friends on my phone or in front of the television tracking the pandemics latest outbreak.
Every day, I replenished the areas by the couch, my bed, my desk and in the kitchen with fresh bottles of spring water. There was not a room I could enter where I did not see fresh water. I saw it. I drank it. I felt better for it.
Five years ago I completed my Reiki training, and this I did keep up with via the beauty of technology (writes she who hates technology). More than ever, I needed my Reiki healing and protective chains for me and my friends. Some will dismiss it, but for me it works. Reiki teaches you to turn your thoughts inward, to care for you so you can care for others. Reiki gives you permission to hit your inner pause button, to say no when you either can’t, or simply do not want to indulge in something. Reiki allows you to help others without draining yourself of much needed energy.
My county is officially open now. Neighboring counties opened last week. I am thrilled that my acupuncturist is again open and that I have access to my Chinese Herbs. Truthfully, I am thrilled to see and speak with like-minded people. Like every medical office in my county, there is a strict protocol demanded by the Board of Health. Yes, it’s annoying, but I understand it, so I’ll match my mask to the day’s outfit and be grateful for the help I am receiving.
I’ve learned a great deal these past 10 and 1/2 weeks.
Yes, there were tears. There was anger. There were emails and texts I wish I had never written let alone sent, words I wished I had never spoke. There were incredible and bitter feelings of envy and loneliness. There was a lot of “stuff” – thoughts and behaviors – I truly could have done without. There is still worry, still fear, still a great deal of sadness.
Truthfully, I have no idea of what the future will be like. Will I be wearing a face mask throughout a scorching South Florida summer? Will a hurricane level my house? Will this pandemic come back in some mutated form in January?
But here’s the difference now – 10 and 1/2 weeks after the fact: I recognize these things are outside of my individual control. Eckhart Tolle wrote, “Sometimes survival means giving up trying to understand and becoming comfortable without not knowing.”
I insist on being a survivor.
What is in my control is my personal health care. More than ever before, I believe that everyone needs to be an aggressive advocate for their own health. Everyone needs to do what they can do to keep themselves healthy – in what we eat, drink, think and do. We need to do all that we can to strengthen our own immune systems. We need to recognize that mental health care is just as important as physical health care and should be readily available.
It is now blatantly obvious that we cannot leave our health in the hands of the news media, or the local or federal government, or truly, to some doctors. We need to select healthcare professionals with whom we feel comfortable – and who have our health as their focus. We need to fire those who don’t meet our needs. We need to become informed citizens on emerging healthcare treatments. We need to do what we feel comfortable doing – and we need to be able to say “No” when it is necessary.
We need to learn the difference between “public health practices” and “individual self-care health practices”. We need to hold BOTH ourselves and our elected officials responsible to the highest degree.
10 1/2 weeks ago everything was different; and now when I look back, I see that 10 1/2 weeks can do a great deal to a person. More than ever before I believe I am stronger than I once thought; I trust in my resiliency.
And I know I am blessed.
Let’s take care of ourselves because by taking care of ourselves, we take care of each other.
Let’s all be survivors.
- Dr. Landon Agoado, Care Wellness Center