Flattening the Emotional Curve

I am one of those weird people who have always enjoyed responding to disasters. One of my mentors in this field from Columbia many years ago was talking to me about this topic as we sat in the bright, non-disastrous sunlight by a lake during a springtime work picnic.

“It’s hard to explain to other people. You and I know what it feels like, the rush of adrenaline, the ability to work long hours in the heat or the cold, the decreased need for sleep and food, the drive to help people at any cost, the sheer exhaustion that paradoxically gives you more energy than you’ve ever had. Try to explain that to other people, to tell them how good it feels, how exhilarating it is to be in the field in the middle of a disaster response, and they look at you like you’re crazy.”

I have done this work in various ways over the years, and it has been some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever been privileged to participate in. I have worked with disaster groups within the framework of the Red Cross, been a part of our local disaster response teams through work, and been a part of what we affectionately called the “DIRT Team” in the SC Department of Mental Health years ago. I have hunkered down in bunkers in downtown Columbia and Aiken, SC, I have slept in freezing cold church Sunday school classes on hard cots with scratchy blankets, I have felt the wonderful cleansing power of a portable shower in the hot Mississippi summer after a hurricane, and I have cried softly to myself when the homesickness and the hurt and the pain were transiently too much to bear. It has been a true privilege over the years to give time, physical labor, emotional support, a listening ear, technological support and medical expertise to those in true, dire, raw need. There is no work like it, though my mentor was right when she said that it is hard to describe it without folks thinking you’re a freak.

The COVID-19 medical disaster is an animal that many of us less than one hundred years old have never had experience with. It is a disaster like few others we have known personally, or as a planet, a slow roll, tsunami-like wave of death and destruction that we could see coming from days and months and thousands of miles away but were almost powerless to stop. That was the first half, the front end of this disaster. We knew it was coming, and it got here soon enough. Now, it is here to stay for who knows how long. So many uncertainties. We just don’t have enough data, enough experience, enough time to know the answers yet. I have had conversations with my wife about how this is a disaster that is terrible for those of us who see things in black and white, who like to assess, evaluate, operationalize and fix. There’s so much gray here that it makes my brain hurt. I do not like gray, though as I have more of it on my head I can tolerate more of it in the world around me.

This is not a disaster that is quick and dirty. It is not fixable, at least not yet. It does not come up on you, slam you to the ground, then move on, allowing you to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get things back to normal again. There is no normal right now. There is the “new normal”, not one of my favorite phrases, something that represents a normal that is not now and never has been normal before. See, doesn’t your brain hurt now?

I deal in emotions every day. It’s my stock in trade. It’s my life’s work. It’s my bread and butter. It’s my vocation. All that, but damn, it’s hard living it while you’re helping others deal with it.

I have been working at home at least four days a week for the last month. I go into our main clinic on Fridays, but I may as well be at home then too. Isolation is a very real issue right now for many of us. We may talk to others (again, my MO every day, as that is my job) but we do it in our own little spaces in the guest bedroom or the garage or a corner of the dining room. We work alone. We pat ourselves on the back and keep ourselves going. We reach out to others by email and Skype and Zoom and FaceTime, but we all know it’s not the same.

What emotions have I had during this disaster?

Well, I can’t lie that the first thought that ran through this disaster junkie’s head was “wow, this is going to be fascinating!”. How will we face this threat to our society, our way of life? Do we have the coping skills, the resolve, the will to see this through and keep ourselves safe? Do we have the right stuff? It was all heady, at least at first. Kind of like the time that I saw Hurricane Katrina making the turn past the tip of Florida, watching the tracking change with the soon inevitable direct hit trajectory towards NOLA leading to the thoughts that I had back then. “This is the big one. This is the big game. I have to be a part of this. I have to go. I can’t sit this one out.” Go I did, and spent seventeen days in an environment of stress and vicarious trauma like none I had experience before or since. Life changing stuff, that. Acute stress, longing to be there but longing to go home where it was safe, wanting so badly to help but feeling so impotent. It was tough, but it got better in days, weeks. The end was visible, the rebuilding possible, the losses grieved, the destroyed assessed, catalogued and tagged for reconstruction. Emotional relief finally came when I hit the airport in Jackson knowing that I was headed home I knew I had done what I could do and that it was okay.

This is different.

That adrenaline rush that hit me at first, a million years ago in March, intensifying in April, is long gone. The excitement of my non-voluntary “deployment” to the upstair bedroom, my one minute commute being the new normal, the newness of signing onto services not previously used, and doing my job in ways that I had never done it before, has subsided. I am in a new groove now. A slow roll. A grind. A carefully choreographed series of steps and phone calls and video chats and typewritten notes that flow easily and mesh together pretty much as they should. I get the work done. I always have.

I miss my office. The first time I went back there it did not feel like my place at all. I miss my people. Last Friday, mask in place every time I set foot outside my space (which was exact twice in eight hours), I saw only three people. One of them walking by. One twelve feet away. One outdoors eating lunch by herself. We spoke maybe three words. This is not heady excitement. This is not adrenaline-fueled cooperative work in a hostile environment. This is not normal.

COVID-19 has flattened my emotional curve.

I do not have boundless energy for work when I get out of bed in the morning. Oh, I’m doing my job fine and still enjoying it as I always have and always will.

I do not feel joy, real joy, in my work every day. Again that does not impair my ability to do my job. It simply colors what was still bright and shiny two months ago a dull, consistent, predictable gray. I know it will be bright again one day. Just not now.

I am not depressed. I am not sad. I am not suicidal, like many of my aggrieved colleagues who have had to see the true death and destruction this virus has caused on the front lines in New York City and Washington state and New Orleans. I am not any of these things, thank God.

What I am is a black and white person living in a gray world surrounded by the Invisible Enemy.

An action oriented person who does not know exactly what to do, so keeps doing what he knows usually works until we know more.

A happy and very blessed person who is not sad or depressed, but whose emotions have been blunted by this pandemic, as I’m sure yours have, to the point that today I’m okay, today I’m okay, today I’m okay, at least for now.

In order for the vast majority of us to come out of this on the other side, we must flatten the emotional curve. We must resist the grandiose temptation to think that we know it all, that we have all the right answers, and that we can proselytize and cajole and intimidate others. We must be smart, compassionate and patient. We must be even handed. We must be kind. We must be even more expressive through the twinkling of our eyes and the bump of an elbow since big smiles lurk behind designer masks and hearty handshakes are no longer de rigueur.

The pre-dawn grayness often leads to the most intensely colorful sunrises.

It will be morning soon enough.

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