“Have you ever heard a story like mine before?” she asked me, a pleading look on her face that both begged me to say no, making her special, and to say yes, alleviating her fear that she was so unique that there was no help for her.
“Why, yes, I have, many times,” I answered.
She slumped, her body releasing the tension of years of not knowing, of fearing the worst, of thinking that she was beyond help.
“Please, tell me. Tell me. What do I have? What is my diagnosis? What is wrong with me? I just want to know that someone knows what this is called, what my symptoms mean. I want to know. To be clear. To be certain.”
I told her what I thought, while at the same time telling her that not much in the field of mental health is absolutely certain. The brain is a fascinating organ, but when something goes wrong deep inside it, it may neither be as easily diagnosed as a fractured femur, nor as easily repaired.
Many of my patients come to me with anxiety, with fear, with uncertainty. They feel things, they experience things that frighten them and make them feel that their world is out of control. They are hesitant at first to uncover these feelings and thoughts and impulses and changes in mood and thought that they think will label them as crazy or weird or not normal. Can we blame them? Absolutely not. We all want to appear, to feel, and to be normal, at least in the eyes of our family, friends and peers. We crave normality. We crave the usual, the mundane, the predictable. Of things that can be known and explained, we crave certainty.
Now, these past few weeks have been different, wouldn’t you say? We are told to distance ourselves from our loved ones and coworkers. We communicate via FaceTime and Doxy.me and Zoom and Skype. We wear masks. We wash our hands many times per day. We look askance at the person approaching us in the aisle at the grocery store. We have developed an intimate relationship with Netflix. Some of us have lost our jobs, and with that has come a rise in anxiety, insomnia and fear that I have not seen in my patients for quite a long time. All of this is stressful enough, but it is bearable, at least for the short term.
Enter the lack of certainty.
Humans can bear almost anything for a finite period of time. Think of previous pandemics, the fall of empires, the great wars, and natural calamities. We have faced much, and we have survived much. We are able to bear the most painful hurts and atrocities, as long as we know there is an end in sight. As long as we know there is an end to the suffering, the pain and the uncertainty. This is one of the reasons that our current situation, battling the unseen enemy that is the coronavirus that causes the illness COVID-19, is so difficult for us to bear. We simply do not know exactly how and when this is all going to end.
We are told to get out but keep our distance. We are told to go to work. We are told to stay home. We are told that we can work in a modified way, then we are unceremoniously handed a pink slip or a furlough notice. We are told that we must stay in our homes for six or eight weeks, then we are told that the churches will be gloriously full of people on Easter Sunday.
How do we respond to this? We are anxious. We are stressed. We do not sleep. We hoard things that we think might be in short supply soon. We obsess over how we will pay our bills, care for our children, and check on our elderly relatives. We get depressed. We lose hope, that most precious of commodities that fuels recovery from any disaster. We worry needlessly, because as one of the nation’s top scientists said, we do not make the timeline. The virus makes the timeline. What to do?
How can we protect ourselves? The key is to recognize that we cannot be certain about this virus, this illness or the resolution of this pandemic. Even the medical scientists who know everything there is to know about these things are not in agreement about how this will all play out. We must let that go. What we can be certain about is how we live out our own life in the middle of this event, choosing to be positive and proactive instead of responding to the growing reports of illness and death.
Sleep. Sleep enough and rise and go to bed at the same time each day if possible. Eat healthy foods. Do not overindulge. Exercise. Meditate. Read things other than the news. Journal. Create. Connect with friends and family in any acceptable, non-risky ways you can. We are social organisms, and we do not do well with long term isolation and emotional and physical deprivation. We just don’t. Learn new skills that help you navigate this crisis. Do not expect to do things the same way because “that’s the way it has always been done”. Keep an open mind, learn new techniques and skills, participate and be a part of life as it is today, not as it was three weeks ago.
This pandemic will pass. I don’t know exactly how or exactly when. I just know that I am certain about a few things right now. I can still see my patients from a home office that did not exist until last week. I can get outside and take a walk and eat lunch in the warm sunshine on my front porch. I will go to the river and fish this weekend. I will read and listen to music. I will connect with my family in technological ways that were only vague dreams when I was my grandchildren’s age. This is the life that I can lead right now, and I am going to embrace it with everything I have. Of that, I am certain.
I hope you choose to do the same in your life. Be well and stay safe.