Mentors

My six year old granddaughter was getting frustrated. It was very hot as we played a round of nine holes of miniature golf under the blazing sunshine at Topgolf, the first such round for her. She was doing quite well, all things considered, until we hit one of those holes that required a tricky shot into one of two small holes at the end of a log which then allowed the ball to roll downward to the green and cup below. She lined up, struck her pink ball up the gentle incline, and down it rolled again. When she was finally close enough to attack the shot through the log, she stood with feet pointing in two different directions, putter head at a strange angle and an aim that was obviously going to send the ball upwards to ricochet back toward her and perhaps down the hill again. Golf that only Sisyphus could appreciate.

I approached her and gently asked that she let me help her with her stance, club alignment and swing. “No! I can do it myself! I want to do it myself!” I tried to remain calm but finally said, “No, you can’t, and I would like to show you what might make it easier for you to get this ball in that hole and down to the green.” After a little more bluster and vague noises of discontent, she allowed me to guide her hands. After a couple more tries, the ball entered the log, came out the other end as expected and a stroke or two later she had successfully completed the hole.

We all need a little help at times. There are things that we have never learned to do, things that we have learned to do incorrectly and things that simply require learning skills that we do not yet possess due to age, or training, or experience. As a young medical student, I remember thinking that I knew more things about more things than I had ever known in my entire life, but also having a vague inkling that most of this knowledge was absolutely useless without primary experience and the guiding wisdom of teachers that had my best interest at heart. Like my granddaughter, I wanted to cry out, “I can do this myself! I want to do it myself!” Fortunately for me, I was surrounded by learned men and women who were patient, skilled and who wanted to teach me how to be a doctor, an excellent doctor. I listened to most of them (I think!) and am the better for it every day of my working life now.

Over the last couple of years, I have lost several of those mentors. Some were ill and died too soon. Some were old and it was just their time to pass the baton along to my generation. One taught me general medicine mixed with psychiatric consultation, one taught me rheumatology, and one taught me how to approach problems in medical ethics, still one my all time favorite courses in any of the schools I have attended in my lifetime. I was shaped by these teachers, in ways that not even they fully knew, and they will always be a part of me and the way I approach medicine and patients who need my expertise. They not only taught me the facts, but how to think about the facts, and then how to take that thinking one step further and formulate a viable plan that would help my patient recover from whatever ailment they presented with. There are still times that I cannot do it all by myself, and I turn to those who can help when help is needed.

We are still battling the coronavirus pandemic, like it or not. As we have discussed here in several previous columns, this illness has lead to both physical and mental illness in thousands of people. It has cost hundreds of thousands of lives. In this fight to better understand this illness, to learn how to treat it and to save lives, we have desperately needed mentors who could guide us in our endeavors. Whether it has been the pure science of the vaccines, the protocols involving ICUs and ventilators in acute care hospitals, or mental health and substance abuse issues we have sorely needed words of wisdom and tested treatment measures. Unfortunately for us, this is the first such pandemic in one hundred years, and no one alive has been able to act as such a mentor.

Now, we are at a crossroads where science and facts learned over the last eighteen months are in juxtaposition to fears, misinformation and rigid dogma. We must, like it or not, allow someone to come in and guide our hands. We need those with facts and tests and procedures that will help us to beat this illness modify our grip on our own fears, align us with solid scientific facts, and insure that our steady and confident swing is complemented by a fluid and smooth follow through. We need the mentors that this crisis has created in real time. Like my granddaughter, we can learn to make the shot, but we cannot do it alone.

Languishing

How have you felt lately? Really?

Good? I am happy for you. Depressed and hopeless? I sincerely hope that you are seeking help and on the road to recovery. The rest of you? My hunch is that you may be feeling a little flat, not motivated, and “meh”. This is weird, right? Vaccines are here, many of us are back to work, things are opening up a little bit, and the warm sunshine of spring and the promise of summertime should be brightening our days. Why then, do we still feel a lack of motivation, have trouble concentrating and find it challenging to focus on the things that matter to us?

Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at Wharton, addressed all this in his April 19, 2021 article There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing. He pointed out that we are not depressed or hopeless. We are not impaired. We are functioning daily. We are not burned out. There is just little joy and we feel aimless at times. We lack anticipation for the good things that we used to look forward to.

According to Grant, languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. We are muddling through, and as some of my patients have said in the past “existing but not really living”. Many of us who have had COVID and recovered or those who have not had the illness at all are struggling not with long COVID syndrome, but with “the emotional long haul of the pandemic”.

Think back to early spring 2020. We were all a bit frightened, unsure of what was happening in the world around us that was heading our way. Back then, according to Grant, our natural threat detection system was “on high alert for fight or flight”. We learned that masks were helpful, but we were still scrubbing surfaces and sanitizing our groceries. We developed crude routines that “helped ease our sense of dread”. The problem is that as time has gone by, our acute state of anguish “has given way to a chronic condition of languish”. As languishing is squarely between depression and flourishing, we don’t feel bad but neither do we feel back to our pre-pandemic good either. Grant says that “you’re not functioning at full capacity. Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus, and triples the odds that you’ll cut back on work”.

The term was coined by a sociologist named Corey Keyes. According to the article, his research suggests that these who are languishing today are going to be at much higher risk of developing depression and anxiety over the next decade. That second great pandemic wave you’ve heard about? It may be psychological, not purely medical. Grant also says something about languishing that hit me: “You’re indifferent to your indifference.” You may not even realize how slowly you are sliding into the malaise.

So, what do we do with all of this? Grant says that one of the best ways to handle emotions is to name them. In the spring of 2020, we were all obviously experiencing acute grief, from loss of loved ones to loss of freedoms to loss of routine to loss of income. So many losses. Now, we learn that we are languishing, and naming it may be the first step in battling our way out of it. Languishing is “common and shared” and just knowing that may give us the ability to bestow a little grace not only on others but on ourselves.

What next? Focus. Relearn, if you must, how to pay attention to the things that are important to you. I am the worst when it comes to this, so believe me when I say I am not preaching to you. Grant says in his article that “computers are made for parallel processing, but humans are better off serial processing”. Simply put this means do not try to multitask! Again, I have five or ten or fifteen things that I must do, want to do, love to do, and I delude myself into thinking that I can do five of them at a time extremely well, but this is simply not true. Pick something, make it realistic and doable, and put your whole focus into it. You’ll feel much more accomplished and maybe even happy if you do!

Set boundaries and block out time for yourself. A colleague and I were talking about this by email just this morning. We need processing time, thinking time, planning time. I know it is hard to come by when you are working from home, taking care of the kids and responding to emails and Zoom invitations all day, but it is worth aiming for.

Grant tells us to focus on small goals. “Try starting with small wins”, because the pandemic was such a big loss to us all. Don’t be too easy on yourself though. Pick something moderately challenging sometimes. “The most important factor in daily joy an motivation is a sense of progress.” Do things that matter to you.

The article finishes up by acknowledging that “languishing is not merely in our heads-it’s in our circumstances”. “Not depressed doesn’t mean you are not struggling.” As one of my patients told me that other day (I told him I would steal this and he agreed), “Just because I am smart and can articulate what is going on with me does not mean that I can fix it.” Don’t let yourself languish, isolate and fall into the pandemic abyss. Use the tools outlined in this article, use your support systems, and get professional help if you need it. We are so close, and we will get there together.

Pandemic Pitfalls

I read a good article on the physical effects of the coronavirus pandemic on our physical health recently. Yes, the Pandemic Is Ruining Your Body was written by Amanda Mull and published on January 14, 2021 in the Atlantic. In it, she addressed many of the ways that living in the middle of the worst worldwide health crisis in a century affect us as human beings who are struggling to be brave, squash fear, stay productive, and thrive, all without the help of our usual social institutions and personal interactions.

She acknowledges that for some of us, myself included, sitting at home virtually all the time, even when working hard, is a situation of relative comfort and incredible luck. We have jobs that allow us to use computers, faxes, cell phones, scanners, email, and videoconferencing to meet, greet, schmooze and therapize to our hearts’ content, just not in person. But at what cost? She says that in her own experience of working from home, she began to experience decreased hip mobility, low grade headaches, sore shoulders, a stiff neck, and dry skin. At first, she and her ailments felt isolated, because she was isolated. She could not see that her coworkers were doing the same things, stretching the same tired muscles and “gobbling up ibuprofen” as she was. Many have been sickened or even died from COVID-19. Those who have avoided those fates, says Mull,  are living through an extended disaster that at the least is painful, but at its worst can be catastrophic.

What are doctors and others seeing? Aches and pains come up for seemingly no reason and then stick around. People who work from home found themselves setting up what they thought would be a temporary home workstation that they might need to use for a few weeks at best, a few months at worst. I did this myself. Over the last year, as pandemic reality set in, I have changed my equipment configuration, furniture and workflow more times than I can even remember. Sitting in front of a too short table, shoulders hunched, laptop screen too low, keyboard at the wrong height, and normal implements not easily reached, makes work tough. This, as Mull says, “all while sitting in a chair meant to support a human for the duration of a meal, not a workday”.

We are also working longer hours. How can that be, I asked myself after I read this in multiple articles for the fifth or sixth time. If you must get up, get ready, drive to your workplace and then leave at a prescribed time once you are done, there is an eight or nine hour rhythm to your day. If you subtract some of the prep time and all of the commute time, you find yourself (and again, I can attest to this) working an extra hour or even two. As I wrote this, I finished a “normal” ten hour workday that was jam packed with patients, emails, consults, and reviews. It simply feels that work has been busier, more packed with tasks and with much less down time or break time then pre-pandemic. Let’s be honest. Everyone feels just a little twinge of guilt when they work from home. And Mull says, “expectations of productivity have increased” because you are there. Granted, some may be able to outfit a spare bedroom or home office with nicer and more usable equipment, but “for those living in cramped housing with kids who go to Zoom school and other family members who also need space to work, building a personal mini office simply isn’t an option”.

Does any of this bleed over into our emotional wellbeing and ability to cope with the social and mental stresses that this pandemic has caused? Of course it does. In the past year, many months of which I have worked predominantly at home, there has not been a workday that goes by without me hearing about folks who are anxious and can’t sleep. Not a single day. Much like Amanda Mull discussed in her article about the physical stresses that can lead to physical problems, I have seen the psychological toll that the coronavirus has had on our normal psychological and emotional worlds. While staying home, we have lost out physical connection to others. There is no chatter around the coffee pot or in the parking lot before or after work. We have been forced to use different “equipment” to connect with each other. As my rector opined at a recent annual church business meeting, “Well, Zoom gets the job done I guess, but it’s not the same, is it?” Screens are now our “windows on the soul”. Why? Because any time we are face to face with most people we know outside our immediate family, we are wearing masks. Unless you are extremely close to someone, it is hard to read real emotion from just raised eyebrows or crinkling crows feet. Why is this important?

Because stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness, and hopelessness kill. They are not dangerous in themselves just for the misery they cause, and the potential for catastrophic consequences like suicide. As Mull states in her article, depression and anxiety “are enormous risk factors for heart problems, especially among people over 50. Quarantine itself is also a risk factor. Loneliness and social isolation increase the risk of myocardial infarction and stroke by up to 30 per cent”.

What can you do now, today? Connect with others, however you can, however awkward. Call. Zoom. FaceTime. Text. Reach out to the elderly who have little social support. Spend some non-screen time with a child. Cook dinner, and then leave part of it in a basket for the neighbors next door. I know I keep saying this, but it’s true. This pandemic will end. We will get through this together. We just need to make sure that we come out of this ordeal as physically and mentally healthy as we possibly can.

Plandemic

Remember when you first heard about the coronavirus? Were you watching the news on television, did you read a brief article in the newspaper, or did you have something served up to you via Google News? How did you feel? Perplexed? Anxious? Indifferent? Terrified? I know, trust me, it was probably a little bit of all of that rolled into one long, gaspy, chest-tightening, lump in the throat kind of fog that you found yourself in those first confusing days of what was an epidemic growing into a worldwide pandemic. It’s only in Washington state, we thought way over here on the east coast. It’s only a few people in a nursing home. It will be treated and contained quickly, and then it will “magically disappear”. Not so, I’m afraid.  As I write this, as of nine minutes ago, there have now been almost five million cases of COVID-19 in the United States, and one hundred sixty thousand people have died of the disease.

When you knew, really knew, that this pandemic was real and that it would eventually make it to your state, county, city and neighborhood, what did you do? Not what did you feel, but what did you do? My hunch is that on some level you began to plan. Maybe not even consciously, but on some level your brain started to play out scenarios that might happen, just like moves on a chessboard on the way to checkmate. There was, very quickly, the problem of finding and wearing masks. N95s, even simple surgical masks, were like gold. My wife, just like some of you, sewed a few cloth masks from an old Oxford shirt of mine, elastic at various lengths, some too tight on my ears, others just right. Bulky, blue-striped, sweaty, but effective. This very simple thing lead to other acute decisions that needed to be made: where and how to work, the potential for layoffs, how to help the kids finish up the school year, how to make sure that the bills were going to be paid, how to keep our families and those around us safe and well. We started to plan for a crisis that we thought at first would be like any other crisis. This epidemic soon to be a pandemic would sucker punch us in the gut, we would exhale, recover, and then move past the acute trauma, getting back to our old lives by Easter, Memorial Day at the latest.

When that did not happen, our brains, which had been humming in the background, running all those potential moves, went to the next step of our response. We had to come up with a continuation of our plan A, a more detailed, longer term set of reactions and actions that would get us through what looked to be a more involved medical and social crisis than we had dealt with for a long time. Some of us were laid off. Some of our businesses closed. We could not get a haircut. We could not go to the gym. We could not have a date night at our favorite restaurant. We could not visit. We could not hug. We learned the meaning of the thirty second commute and how to Zoom and work in Teams and find hand sanitizer. We were always planning, but to what end? How long? How so? For what reason, to what end? What next? What if? So many questions.

We have continued to plan. Now, we are facing not just working from home, but the very real prospect of working from home while educating our children. Six hundred dollars may have become two hundred dollars right before our eyes. Rent and mortgage payments are due. School supplies and books and pencils and possible laptops or tablets need to be bought. The internet access in our homes is not quite good enough for this whole distance learning thing. Assess. Analyze. Plan. Act. Repeat.

Are you overwhelmed yet? I know I am some days. What do we do in this, the worst pandemic in a century? Planning is key. A few pointers.

  1. Prioritize your obligations. Some things must be done. We know that. So just like the book Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy teaches, don’t leave the most stressful, most difficult decisions and plans to last. Do them first. For example, tackle how you will get your necessary bills paid first. All else can wait, right?
  2. Take care of those who depend on you. You know how stressed you feel? Your spouse or significant other knows it too. They might even feel worse than you. The kids? They are excellent little barometers of parental stress. They know. Don’t let them get overwhelmed but let them know some of what you are planning and doing and why. Work as a team.
  3. Make time for recreation and relaxation. I know, I know, there IS none. I hear you. We’re in Plandemic mode, right? We must plan, must schedule the time to do the things that are going to get us through this alive and healthy. I have learned one very hard but very important lesson over the years: no one is going to do this for you. You plan the time, you reap the benefits. Period. Do it.
  4. Reach out and connect to others. Call, message, FaceTime, Skype, fire up Teams, write a real letter! (Yeah, it will get there. This pandemic is going to last a while.)
  5. Get the facts about the pandemic. There is a lot of information and misinformation out there. You know that too. Don’t get embroiled in the religious, the political, the factional, the sectional, the cultural spins on this whole process. Learn about the science of this virus and the disease it causes. It is real. It exists. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I have had people that I knew and worked with die from this disease. It’s no joke. That said, plan for how you can best keep you and yours safe and healthy until things start to go back to some semblance of normal. How long will that take? Truly, no one knows right now.

This is not an event that requires you to take a single punch, get up off the floor, and go back to your normal pre-pandemic life. This is a Plandemic. It is going to continue to require lots of rational thought, good decision making, and plain old common sense.

We cannot plan for an endpoint. When it comes, we will have one hell of a party, but for now, we must hunker down, learn all we can, make good decisions and wait it out. Stay safe out there.