Alright folks, all together now please recite the biggest understatement of the year: “2020 has been an absolute shit show.”
Everyone is feeling the struggle. Shit has been hard. Since FEBRUARY.
As I headed out of the mind-fuck that was April and into May, work from home was hitting a good rhythm, and I was dangerously close to relaxing into the “new normal.” Our COVID numbers were starting to decline, restrictions were easing up, and there was even talk of returning to work at the end of June. My therapist went on maternity leave at the end of May, and in our last session when she asked if I wanted to set up some sessions with someone else while she was away, I was all “naaah I feel good, I got this.” And we laughed uproariously and shared a Zoom high-5 and the screen froze and we rolled to credits and the next scene was 2021 and shit was all good.
Except that didn’t happen – June happened and shit wasn’t all good.
June. Back in the US, it all started to explode. Murders, riots, anti-maskers, rising COVID numbers, rising unrest, growing hate mongers. I’ll admit – it’s always been very easy for me to live within my own bubble. Like, “Oh, that doesn’t affect me so I don’t have to pay much attention.” But I started feeling every event of strife back home.
Here, Pancake started to eat her ass again, and it got mega infected, so she had to go back to the vet and BACK in the cone. Stress at work started to slowly ratchet back up, like someone tightening a belt trying to make it to that last hole. And two people at work had parents who passed away within days of each other. I learned one of those parents was living overseas and had passed from COVID complications, and travel restrictions made getting to her and the rest of the family impossible. Hearing about that made my stress levels rise infinitely every time I saw picture of friends or family going out to eat, going on trips, doing things. All I could think was, if something happens and they get sick, I can’t be there for them. And it caused a physical pain and anguish I couldn’t shake off.
My skin, which started pretty thick with YEAAAH LET’S DO THIS in January, had withered away layer by layer every month, and by July, it was basically transparent. I succumbed to every bad coping mechanism I know. I was crying at work on the reg. I became a zombie (at one point I hadn’t showered and wore the same clothes and underwear for 4 days in a row — really testing the boundaries of “does Joel love me at my worst?”). Whenever I thought of writing I became paralysed. I called my parents and cried/sobbed on the phone asking them to promise me they’d stop going out and going to hotels. In one Zoom meeting, a doctor I work with asked me seriously “Are you ok?” because I unconsciously had bitten away at my lip while we were talking and it started to bleed. SO yeah, I wasn’t coping well. And when the straw the broke the camel’s back and I had 2 emotional outbursts at work in one day, I knew it was time to do something. I came to the realisation that I can handle life stress, I can handle world stress, I can handle work stress. But I can’t handle life+world+work stress all ganging up on me at the same time. The well meaning EAP counsellor told me I should take a day off of work to relax. I told her “I need a fucking month where no one talks to me.” She asked if I would compromise with 2 weeks. So I talked to my boss and my HR manager and decided to take 9 days off of work over my birthday.
In the weeks leading up to my leave, my resilience level was at 0%. So I was looking forward to time where I could just not think. Because of Joel’s work schedule and the sick cat and COVID, going anywhere for a mini-break wasn’t an option. But, to be honest it was fine by me, because I was too exhausted to care or make any decisions. I’m pretty sure I spent the first 4 days in a vegetative state watching old episodes of America’s Next Top Model and moving as little as possible.
I attempted to think about utilising my stay-cation as a way to make creative plans and get back to writing – but at some point, I was like, Fuck All That. I decided “I’m only going to do things that I want to do.” And that included cleaning out my closet, reading — heaps of reading–, taking walks, getting sun, seeing friends, adventuring to a couple beaches, drinking a lot of coffee, doing a little work on my book, and eating cake for breakfast every day. Oh, and I turned 36. Joel got to spend the day with me, so we lounged around having a nice time, and then we went to the movies for the first time since February and saw a special screening of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas at a retro theatre I’ve been wanting to check out. It was great.
I needed that vegetative state. It was renewing and relaxing and refocusing and all sorts of good words that begin with r. I was prepared to go back to real life with learning to sit with feelings of disappointment, anxiety, and irritance and then letting them go, and drawing better boundaries between me and Everything That Is Upsetting Me. I.e. I was going to start doing what my therapist has spent ~3 years telling me to do.
On one of the last days of my holiday, I was anxious about going back to work, so I made a 3 page long TO DO list of deep cleaning to distract me. I was rushing through like a maniac, and inadvertently cut the heck out of my thumb (more on that here), and ended up having surgery to correct the tear and clean out all the glass.
So I ended up with 3 extra days on my vacation, which wasn’t the worst thing in the world. I had made jokes this would happen, but I didn’t think it actually would happen. And for those extra 3 days, I really couldn’t do shit. My dominant hand was all out of order, and extra heavily bandaged – it took me a long time to do anything – even texting was a one finger typing ordeal. Joel stayed home with me the first day, and was my permanent nurse-maid for that week (he’s seriously the best – he did all the shopping, cooking, cleaning, and even washed my hair). And I have to admit – it was nice to be kinda forced to sit down and do nothing for a couple of days.
When I finally got back to work, I was surprised with a temporary set of new duties, which I had to sorta self-learn, and was instantly overwhelming and all consuming. Basically, for all of September I’ve been thinking about work non-stop. And once again fell back into all my bad habits: avoidance, uber and uber eats, avoidance, excess napping, staying late at work, avoidance, ruminating thoughts, skipping showers, avoidance, catastrophising. It was a rough few weeks (which would have been infinitely more rough had I not had my awesome team and everyone else at work holding my hand from time to time – and for Joel showing me how to make pivot tables on Excel).
So now I have, for the most part, everything under control (or at least, everything is under pretty good guidance – it feels like I’m a babysitter and I have one kid napping, one kid about to go down for a nap, 2 kids playing quietly, and 1 kid is doing something I’m only vaguely aware of – probably eating a little play doh – but he’s not hurting himself so he’s ok until I get the other kids down).
It’s such a damn irritating pattern in my life: I fall apart, take time to regroup, learn lessons, make a pledge that I won’t fall apart again, make goals, face a sressor, remind myself of lessons learned, completely disregard every lesson I’ve learned and instead lean into panic, stress, bad habits. 100% because it’s so much easier to just do that then it is to pick up your armour and fight against it, fall apart, take time to regroup, make a pledge that I won’t fall apart again, make goals, face a stressor…
It’s the worst habit I have, I think – worse than procrastination – that I fall apart when I know I can remain together. I don’t really know how to make myself stick to the good, how to quiet that impulsive voice that SHOUTS over the rational voice.
In therapy, I’ve learned that we develop negative coping mechanisms and develop bad habits because we’re trying to compensate for something/someone we think, or know, we’re missing. And a way to move past these habits is to forgive ourselves for giving ourselves what we thought we needed to cope. I think I’ve done that. Like, I don’t hate myself — I used what I knew at the time. But at some point, I need to take responsibility for the fact that I do know better now. And I need to acknowledge that when I indulge the bad, easy habits instead of the good, harder habits, I am choosing to not do better. Just typing that feels like a punch in the gut. But it’s my choice, and my responsibility. And my consequences that I continuously get tired of dealing with. You guys, I fell so hard into my bad habits of avoidance, and obsessive cleaning that I literally wound up in surgery because I hurt myself. It isn’t ok.
All that to say, this is where I am now: this year has been a struggle with a billion unexpected challenges, but I want to face the rest of this year as I know I can, and trying to figure out how to quiet that impulsive voice.
I’ve decided to take it one step at a time.
I’ve made a list of all my coping mechanisms, and grouped them in the following groups: Great, Good, Not so Good, and Bad Stuff (e.g. “talking to someone” and “reaching out for support” are Great; “treating myself with something as long as I have $$ in my petty cash” is Good, “re-watch episode/s of comfort show” is Not So Good”; “compulsive shopping with money I should be saving” “taking valium instead of confronting my stressor” “binge eating entire box of donuts” “invoking demons to inflict my wrath on my enemies” are Bad Stuff). While I know first hand that saying I can’t do anything will make me do everything – I’m going to read this list the next time I’m on the brink, and I’m going to chose 1 Great or Good option, and 1 Not So Good option. The idea is to distract myself with the less harmful coping mechanisms, and see if they can stop me from falling prey to the Bad Stuff.
OH, and I’m going to record my progress here, or more likely, on instagram, because it’s easier when I’m feeling like opening the laptop is too much.
Here’s how I used this plan today: that’s my mission for this week. Today, I’m sitting with some uneasy feelings regarding summer/fall nostalgia, a Big Week at Work coming up, anxiety about the election, and excitement about being a better person. It’s put me in a bit of a funk. So I picked something from the Great group: writing it out; and some things from the Good list: 15 mins of focused cleaning, baking, 20 mins of mindless scrolling; and 1 from the Not So Good Group: watching season 4 of Project Runway.
I feel pretty good now, or at least better than I did this morning.
I need to keep reminding myself “I can do this. All that hard shit I thought I couldn’t do, but ended up doing it? That’s because I’m capable of doing hard shit.”
I am capable.
Wish me luck!