Here are some things I’ve learned from my experience of crashing and burning and getting back on track again.
Five ways we can give ourselves a break
- You are not crazy. Stop gaslighting yourself. It’s not mental illness if you are reacting to an event in your life like any normal, healthy person would. In the face of loss, (and there is so much pandemic loss right now that I decline to list all of the ways because it would be too long) we naturally respond with the sadness and anger of grief. So stop denying yourself those feelings, pretending they don’t exist. Don’t laugh them off or project them onto someone or something that’s not us. Be real at least with yourself. Why am I tired all the time? Because there’s a pandemic going on! Why do I have trouble sleeping? Pandemic!
- Slow down. Whatever you are doing you are probably doing it way too fast because that’s how we used to do in the ‘Before COVID Times’. Find your new pace. Give yourself permission to embrace that slower pace. That is not giving in. That is adapting.
- Spend time with non-judgy people. I always feel better when I share what is really going on with me with someone who really gets it and doesn’t shy away. I try hard to resist the urge to say (with the voice of Daniel Levy’s character, David Rose, of Schitts Creek) “I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m really fine.” Because it is important to be honest about our vulnerability, to allow the people around us to care for and to love us as we really are. Just as we do for them.
Sidebar: Be that non-judgy person for your loved ones. It’s not easy to tolerate their unhappiness, sadness or discomfort without jumping into “It’s not that bad” or “Here’s what you need to do to feel better.”
- Let yourself have a pity party. If we don’t find a way to express our real feelings, if we bury them down, down, down, eventually they begin to rot, stink and leak in other ways. You do not want that to happen. Go ahead and cry for no reason because there is a reason! You may think there’s no trigger but that’s only because the trigger is everything!!! There is relief and release in being real with yourself. Whether alone or with a trusted loved one, cry for five, ten, fifteen minutes. Then breathe in deeply and out slowly a few times. Dry off and say kind, compassionate things to yourself.
- Be aware, and this is important, of appreciating what’s in the full part of the glass. While we acknowledge that this sucks we can also stop and say, “Can you believe this loaf of bread I just baked?” or “Aren’t my tomatoes killer?” or “I haven’t talked with my sisters this much in the Before COVID Times. This is nice.” We can be sad and full of love at the same time. It won’t break us. It just might save us.
- Here’s a bonus. If you could use some help distinguishing healthy grief from the kind of depression or anxiety that threatens to overwhelm everything, then please call us at Explore What’s Next. We stand ready to provide real, honest and compassionate support.
In writing Chronic Illness During The Time of COVID, I reached back to other writing I’ve done about chronic illness and what we can do to cope with it and live our best lives in spite of the pandemic.
The very first chapter of my book “7 Rules For Living Well With Chronic Illness” is entitled “Your Not Crazy. Trust Yourself”. There’s a reason for that. Anyone who finds themselves dealing with unexplained sudden or creeping illness or any disability that won’t go away, wonders if they might be making the whole thing up. The answer is NO! You are not. Your body really does hurt. Your energy really has taken a nosedive. You just don’t know why yet.
In the fog of the unknown, our mood is affected whether it’s because of the illness itself, the treatment for the illness or the fact that our lives have sustained an existential trauma.
But, as I ask in the book, is it really depression if what you are feeling is in reaction to loss? How do we find a way to give ourselves a break?
Feelings of sadness, bruised hope, fatigue, anxiety over an undefined future, irritability, anger are also signs of grief. Depression and grief look and feel the same but are not.
Grief is the natural, healthy reaction to loss, a process that ultimately leads us to acceptance.
Depression is more complicated; an illness of the mind that can be caused by genetic inheritance, life experiences, unresolved trauma and more.
We are all feeling a cauldron of symptoms that can be either grief or depression. Whenever a celebrity says out loud what a lot of us are experiencing, like Michelle Obama saying she’s been dealing with a low-grade depression, we feel a sense of recognition, maybe even relief.
Let’s face it, if Michelle Obama feels it then we are not crazy!
The danger of recognizing that a lot of us are feeling down like Michelle, is that we minimize our experience. That isn’t fair and may possibly be harmful. We might falsely think, “If everyone is feeling this sucky then it must not mean anything.” It’s kind of a cousin to the “I don’t want to make a big deal of this. Other people have it so much worse than me so I must be OK.” That would be a huge mistake. Having empathy for others’ suffering does not negate our own. Our pain is unique, wholly ours and deserves recognition and attention.
Most of us are proud of how well we cope with adversity. In this country we are a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” kind of people (Sidebar: Does anyone know what boot straps are?). Therefore, we are constantly in danger of minimizing our pain, even to ourselves. “It’s not that bad.” “I’m fine.” Giving ourselves a break is not in our lexicon. Full steam ahead is more like it.
That’s why it stands out when one in the herd dares to shout out “Emotional fire here!” like Michelle Obama did. First we all gasp, take a beat, then hold up our hands and nod vigorously. Me, too!
Soon after that cathartic moment, all too quickly, we shut that sucker down. “Nope, not me. I’ve got this. I’m cool.” Why do we do this? Why do we lie, to ourselves, to our loved ones, that everything is OK when it isn’t?
1. We’re afraid that once we acknowledge our pain that is all that will be left. We fear becoming overwhelmed.
2. We are invested in appearing strong, unphased, capable. People in the helping professions, therapists included, are especially guilty of wearing this mask that hides the very human grief and fear. Giving ourselves a break can be seen as self-indulgent.
3. We are so used to denying ourselves the comfort of letting others help us, support us, that when we do say what’s really going on we feel uncomfortable and awkward as hell.
People living with chronic illness know this feeling well.
When you are adjusting to illness that won’t go away, you become isolated. The very things, you used to be able to do, those things that make life joyful, seem impossible. Now, with the pandemic, everyone feels vulnerable. The stuff we used to take for granted, like gathering with friends and family around a table to blow out candles on a cake, are painfully unavailable now. Instead social gatherings are analyzed and planned with the precision of a military operation. The simple everyday things we used to do without effort or much thought now become difficult.
I know I’m not alone when I join the chorus of chronic illness survivors to everyone else: