On uncertainty, ritual, and mental health during a pandemic.

“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end… because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing… this shadow. Even darkness must pass.”

-” Samwise Gamgee”, J.R.R.Tolkein, The Two Towers

The world has been quiet. There is a clumsy and looming cloud over the globe at the moment. We all know it is there. We all know it could rain at any moment. No one is immune. There is a very real fear. Intangible, uncontrollable. It flutters overhead, teasing, poking fun at the vulnerability of the humans it taunts.

I have been quiet. I have found myself slightly ashamed at the fact that I haven’t acted as an advocate, or as a leader during this time. Afterall, as a coach and mental health provider, I ” should be doing more”. There’s that “should again”. I’ve had some time to really think about all of this, and what it means. I have been terrified. Every morning, I wake up hoping that this pandemic is just a terrible dream. I find myself worried for my loved ones who work in hospitals, just hoping that the last time I hugged them won’t be the last time. Because there is no real knowledge of when this ends.

I never imagined I would be sitting here writing something like this. I’ve been following the news, observing how COVID-19 has crept up on communities and devastated them from within. It’s like when you realize your grapes have all gone bad because there was on bad one in the middle of the bunch and you think “if you’d have just seen it sooner…”. I’ve been trying to distract myself from what is happening in the world. Trying to distract myself from how afraid I feel all the time lately.

Two weeks ago, I saw the news conference saying the first confirmed case was here. That Sunday I received a call from my boss, saying that we would have to start devising a plan for teletherapy with our clients as we would be moving toward remote access. Since then, we have over 150 confirmed cases here, with 3 deaths. The past two weeks hold enough within them to feel like a month. My days have been blurring together. My coworkers and I have been on high alert while trying to use humor to cope.

My daily routine before my agency decided to have us work remotely, had changed significantly. I’d get up earlier. Shower. Go into work, no coffee, I need to stay as hydrated as possible. The drive is void of traffic, and I listen to the newest updates. Usually a few new cases. I lock my car, and as I walk up to the employee designated entrance, I prepare myself mentally for what might be coming. I swipe in, say good morning to custodial staff and go into my office. I wipe down all my surfaces. I wash my hands. I take a breath before I read the unusually large influx of e-mails regarding action steps, usually protocol changes at least twice in the time I was away from my computer, with new steps and precautions listed every day. I read them all. I take another breath and check my voicemails. Three kids ran away from home this week. Of all weeks. I call parents back and tell them what to do, who to contact, how to file missing persons reports. I call other clients and tell them groups are cancelled, we will talk on the phone, I will be in touch, please answer when you see this number. They don’t. I read new protocol. I do a treatment plan. I wash my hands. I send a referral for residential services to find out that they are not taking new patients due to COVID-19. I tell the families they will have to wait to get their kid help for substance abuse a little longer. I give them the number for crisis hotline, I listen to them, I make sure they’re washing their hands, we tell each other to stay healthy. They thank me. For what, I don’t know. I attend the staff meeting via virtual meeting rooms. I make more phone calls. Write more notes. I panic. I breathe. I wipe down my office. I wash my hands and grab a wipe to wipe down my steering wheel and inside of my car. I go home. I take my shoes off before I go inside, and immediately strip down and take a shower. I make dinner, changing the way I think about it and rationing a few things here and there. Just in case. I try to distract myself for hours. I check in with my family. Tell my parents stay home. Tell my sister to be careful–she works in a hospital. Wish that I could hug them but know it is not safe at the moment. I check my temperature. I wash my hands. I lie in bed and distract myself more until midnight when I can’t stop crying. My partner hugs me through it. I do it all again the next day.

I want to take a minute to talk about people who struggle with mental health in the midst of a global pandemic. This is new for us, and at the same time it is not. There has been a shift in society back to making sure we are taking care of and monitoring our physical beings. Which is incredibly important at a time like this. But it does not and cannot void out room for mental health.

As someone who is clinically diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, I tend to have obsessive thoughts and compulsions about contamination, washing, disease etc. This stems, in part, back to childhood. I have managed, with lots of therapy, to get a handle on some of it. I have my days but such is life. But now, all I hear all day long is “wash your hands”, and headlines and posts about becoming sick, being contaminated etc. It is safe to say, I have relapsed. I think what shocks me, is that the anxiety I have been feeling about this did not shock me. I am used to this feeling. But there has always been some rational insight, some part of me that knew that even though I was worried, it was not 100% warranted. Now for someone with anxiety, it feels warranted. It’s not just “in our heads” this time. That’s the scary part. COVID-19 is not just an illness of global proportion–it’s the physical manifestation of what anxiety feels like, knowing something lingers in the background and there is not a goddamn thing we can do about it besides use some soap. Our worst fears have become reality with this thing.

If you have anxiety, I am not trying to scare you. If you don’t have anxiety, I am not trying to scare you. I’m saying this thing might be here to stay for a while and we are going to need to learn how to challenge it and cope with it. Especially because the only thing we can do is isolate, which is exactly the opposite of what we are told to do when we have anxiety about the world. We are going to have to show up for ourselves in new ways. Because while you might not want to, you are going to have to work harder.

Before I go further, you should know, that however you feel right now, is valid. You can feel what you need to feel. There is a reason I have taken so long to speak on this. I have been trying to figure out exactly what I feel. I still don’t know. But it’s here, and it is happening. Sometimes the panic is so acute and real, that I feel trapped. Other times, I find myself able to laugh and joke with my partner. Most times, things feel pretty normal and then I think the reality of the situation strikes and I realize nothing is. So in terms of feelings, understand we are all figuring this out as we go. And that’s okay. You don’t really need to know what that feeling in your gut is just yet. It might be that your only option is just to sit with it. Which probably makes you want to run as far away as possible.

There is a chance that many things in your life, as they were two weeks ago, will change forever. If you are scared, be scared. If you are fine, be fine. If you are angry, be angry. You are not obligated to feel any differently than how you do about what is happening. Everything is different now. Something as simple as grocery shopping could feels like taking a risk. This is a major interruption in your life, and it is probably going to force you to face demons you thought you’d successfully stored away. It is probably going to force you to get to know who you are right now.

There aren’t any answers coming any time soon. If you don’t have anxiety, knowing that has probably given you some now. But the major theme that comes to mind here, is not fear. It’s uncertainty. Humans hate uncertainty. We want to know it all, right now. We want to know how things end, if they end. We want to know that there is a light at the end of the dark. Living through pandemic is riddled with uncertainty. We go into fight, flight or freeze mode. Those of us who would fly or fight have been told we have to freeze. Those who freeze, may be struggling with the sense of helplessness that comes along with that. We don’t get to rely on adrenaline in a pandemic, but our instincts are still acting for our survival. There are still chemicals in our brains telling us we are under threat and with no end in sight, it feels long term. The new normal. And we hate it. If you find you’ve been exhausted at the end of your days, this might be why.

I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t shed light on a few things for you at this point. Because in times of uncertainty, we need to be reminded that we do possess some morsels of control. There are elements of your life, right now, that you can manage to empower yourself through this.

I want to invite you to look at your current situation and consider what it is you lack. Is it hope? Courage? Strength? Patience? Understanding? Whatever it might be, I am going to encourage you to consider how it is that you might create situations which you can become those things for yourself. This is what I mean by showing up for yourself in new ways. If you need hope, what situation can you provide yourself at home that sparks a it of hope in you? Perhaps planting a seed and waiting to see if it grows. Perhaps if you need courage, it is trying a new task at home you’ve never done before. There is a reason this is important. It is ritual. Humans thrive on routine, yes, but ritual is different.

Ritual. It sounds almost archaic at times. Like some big gathering, full of sacrifice and feast. But I think society has lost the reason this came to be in the first place. Ancient civilizations utilized ritual when they required some big change in the world or to build tradition, familiarity or comfort. And right now, if you require any of those things or some opportunity to self-nurture, and build upon your resilience, it is time to utilize ritual. You may need to create it for yourself and when you do, you can carve time out for it in your routine. Ritual feels indulgent. Ritual exists to comfort, yes, but also to help us understand the meaning of the present moment. Because right now, is what we have. And whether you like it or not, you have time on your hands to focus on the present.

My first experience with ritual was simple. Showers. I am a water baby. I have a tremendous respect for the water. It terrifies me, and mystifies me all at once. It allows cleansing, and healing. When I feel that I am in need of a fresh mindset, I take a hot shower and I make a point to turn the water to cold before I exit the shower. It refreshes me. It reminds me that my skin is attached to my body and I am planted right where I stand until I move. And when I move, I am planted in that spot. And so on. Ritual allows for grounding. It allows for living in the moment. It allows for mindfulness. It allows you to eradicate judgement. It is not about what you “should be doing”. It’s about what you need. Right now. Ritual allows for a reframe and in turn allows rest, and turning away from fight or flight or freeze. It allows for a focus on rebuilding until you can return. All of this promotes healing. All of this allows for tomorrow to feel less terrifying.

What helps you re-frame? If you do not know, you now have time to figure it out. What allows you peace for thirty seconds longer? What allows you to shift focus to the present so the past and the future can’t plant thoughts in your head? How can you find out? How can you create more of this?

I understand that this is not something you can do overnight. It’s something that takes dedication and your lives are busy, and probably seemingly even busier now that the rest of the world is quiet. Tomorrow when you wake up, I invite you to ask yourself: What do I need today and how can I create more of that in my life?

Maybe the first cup of coffee in the morning is a moment of quiet indulgence to fuel you for the next hour. But when you take that sip, slow down. Allow the taste to grace your tongue slowly. Imagine this coffee is not fuel for consciousness, but a gift to your tastebuds. What do they love about it? What does it mean to them? What are you looking at? Is it the sunrise? Or is it your phone? Which of those things brings calm? What changes do you need to make to your environment to feel safer? Because sometimes we need to create safety for ourselves.

I’m not saying that tomorrow you will wake up and feel peace and everything will be amazing. I am saying it might be a good time to build something for yourself so that the next day is a little easier. This time is scary. It is also a time for choosing slowly. In this, we have been gifted time to reflect inward. To re-frame. To build ritual. For thinking rationally about the way we move forward. For reframing the way we live life so that we can act in partner with it to build harmony rather than resentment. This harmony is where resilience is born. And I am certain we could all use a it of that right now. We are certainly going to need it for whatever comes next.

I will leave you with this:

What can you do tomorrow to create situations for yourself that promote healing, and whatever else you need more of right now? How? How can you make this a daily practice? How will your life in this moment be different if you do? What is at stake if you don’t?

Please stay healthy. Be kind to yourself. Remember that no one can tell you how to feel right now. Check in with yourself and loved ones. And wash your hands.

*Maybe some of you are isolated in unsafe situations. Maybe some of you struggle with substance use. Maybe isolation is utterly soul sucking for you right now. Please know, that I see you, I hear you, and it is not lost on me that some of what I’ve mentioned here may not be attainable for you. If this is the case and you are feeling thoughts of suicide or needing a safe space please visit the link below to explore your options:
https://www.mentalhealth.gov/get-help/immediate-help

Published by

Gina Sacino, MS

Gina is a writer, a restorative healer & self-nurturance guide with a clinical background. Her work aims to help others develop a lifestyle of healing through a decolonized lens.

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