Let me set the scene: Around 6:00 p.m. on Saturday night. Month six-ish or so of the pandemic. The last adult beverage in our house in my hand. Lights off in the basement except for my daughter’s battery-operated camping light in the middle of the room. “Teach Me How to Dougie” blasting on the speaker. My three-year-old and I shaking and grooving with the mood lighting making it feel like we’re at a hip (yet toddler appropriate) dance club. There was laughter and spinning and singing and dancing.
And it may sound like all was right in the world. But if I didn’t fully embrace this random dance party with all of my being, I was afraid of the mental breakdown that seemed so imminent.
Quarantine life has been challenging on some level for every single one of us. You will never hear me compare my COVID isolation to yours. There are parts of the last few months that many of us feel “lucky” about, while there are parts of the last few months where many of us aren’t sure how we survived or if we can continue to do so, for that matter.
I’m a full-time therapist so I talk to about 25 people every week about how their mental health during a pandemic could use a little TLC. And what’s funny (not really but if I don’t say it’s funny I’ll cry) is that in all of my training as a mental health clinician, no one ever stopped and said, “And here’s some tips to help your clients through a global pandemic.”
On top of that, no one has ever said, “Here’s how to help your clients with their mental health during a pandemic while YOU THE THERAPIST are repairing your own broken marriage, working full-time from home with a three-year-old who needs your love and attention, while your bathtub pours water into your living room through a cracked pipe. And then when life ‘settles down’ enough you’ll try to put your house on the market and buy a new one only to have to shut that down immediately when your daughter’s daycare closes for who knows how long because of COVID exposure about ten hours after Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies and the unrest in the country settles even deeper into your soul and you feel like you’re back at square one.”
The collective trauma that we as a country are enduring day after day is challenging our home lives, our school lives, our work lives, our social lives, our mental lives. Every piece of who we are is challenged.
For anyone else out there taking care of children at home during this pandemic while trying to work and/or school, we are in especially challenging circumstances. And I was in survival mode for about six months; just trying to complete my work, see my clients, feed my kid, stop my marriage from drowning, walk my dog and repeat the next day. I truly had time for little else… like reflecting on how this pandemic was ravaging my own sanity and mental health.
It hit me a little over a month ago. I was sitting at our kitchen table and realized I was feeling sad. And I cried. Hard. Because I was finally able to label what I was thinking and feeling since all of this started in March: loneliness.
I’m somehow talking to clients or family or friends every second of every day but I’ve been walking around this pandemic in a stressed-out haze never actually connecting to myself. Due to crisis after crisis either in my home or on our society, I hadn’t had a single second to breathe and reflect and ask myself, “What am I feeling?” And when I allowed myself about 30 seconds to think about that, I wept. Because I finally wasn’t only focused on surviving like I had to be for the last six months.
It wasn’t that “I didn’t want to” or “couldn’t make the time.” It’s that a global pandemic threw me into survival mode where I was focused on those lower, physiological levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Food. Water. Sleep. Shelter. And some days I was missing one or a few of those. You see, stress, or trauma (like we’re all undergoing right now) affects chemicals in our brain that can essentially shut it down. And mine has been shut down so intensely for so long that I wasn’t even aware enough to realize it had shut down.
A little bit each day following that moment at my kitchen table, I’ve had the mental capacity to move into those next levels of needs: Safety. Belonging. Self-actualization. Sit and reflect. Journal. Have a cup of tea. Read something good for my brain.
As the numbness began to lift from my body and soul, I found myself connecting in small ways to the world and the people around me. And I’m so thankful for that fog dissipating otherwise I may have been so unaware of one of the most prominent moments of my life.
After bath time, I was in my daughter’s room getting her pajamas ready. My husband got our daughter out of the tub and she came running into her room where I was sitting on the floor. She crawled on top of me, her body a little warm and damp. She placed each leg on either side of my hips and wrapped her little feet around my back. She grabbed the sides of my face, and leaned her hooded forehead against mine. She looked deep into my eyes and said, “Hey mama… we are alive.”
I was shook.
Such a simple statement. Something that was probably from a new cartoon she had seen or a game she had made up in the tub. But something so deep that I needed to hear. Something that resonated in my soul in ways that I haven’t felt in months since the pandemic started.
I wrapped my arms around her, began to cry while I laughed a big, hearty laugh and I said, “You’re right, baby.” My hug grew tighter until I pulled away to look into her eyes again and I said, “We are alive.” We smiled for a moment and then she hopped off of my lap.
Maybe on another day or another time I would have been too stressed and distracted to listen to her. Or if my husband said it, I’d be like, “Yeah, yeah get out of my way, I’m trying to fold laundry.” But I think the stars aligned just right for that moment to hit me like it did. And my prayer is that wherever you find yourself in the COVID fog, whether it’s lifted, or whether it’s so deep you can’t see your own hand in front of your face, that your family, friends, therapist, medications and YOU all work together to get you to a space where you can feel the power behind the statement: We are alive.
So many of our neighbors far and near have not been so lucky over the past seven months to be here. To be parenting little minds. To be growing in resilience. To be alive. We are alive.
If you are experiencing a mental health emergency, please call 911 or go to your nearest emergency department. 24-Hour Suicide Prevention Hotline can be reached at 800-273-8255 or text 741741.