In the Thick of Quarantine Life: Why Acceptance is Not Enough
I’m writing this on what would have been a typical morning at the office. Instead I’m writing it from home while my children are running around my house. These are strange times. It’s been a lot to get used to. From where I sit, it’s been particularly unprecedented for me seeing as that I am going through the exact same thing as my clients are. And all of my clients are struggling with the exact same situation. Nothing is normal right now. This is true in the world of mental health clinicians as well.
In North Carolina, Governor Cooper issued stay-at-home orders at the end of March. I’ve been sheltering in place prior to that. For me, this week marks 6 weeks of quarantine and I know that may be similar for others. It definitely feels like we're in the thick of it now.
In my own self observation and observations of my clients, there seems to be phases in the emotional experience with this. For some each phase lasts a week. For others, it’s hours or days. Those early weeks had an entirely different emotional quality to it. Indeed, one of those feelings might have been shock, disbelief, and deep deep sadness. Others, panic, stress, or worry. Perhaps 3 weeks in, different feelings. Perhaps more frustration, boredom, loneliness, irritability. By no means is there a set "normal." All feelings are valid. Including positive ones.
By now you may have read or realized that much of what we are all processing right now is grief. Here is a great article that circulated a few weeks ago about that. https://hbr.org/2020/03/that-discomfort-youre-feeling-is-grief. I believe we are grieving many things. Our loss of freedom, social contact with others, loss of our ability to plan for the future, to name a few.
And just as a review or in case you are unfamiliar with the 5 stages of grief, as outlined by psychiatrist and visionary death-and-dying expert Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, they are: denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance. We now know that these stages do not have to occur in any particular order and we also know that there is no “right” amount of time to spend in each state.
So here we are. Weeks later. You’re perhaps adjusted to this new normal. You perhaps went through a phase of chaos and personal rule breaking (Tuesday night binge drinking anyone?) and having gone to that extreme perhaps now you might have regrouped and gotten a new routine down. Does it seem like that uncomfortable feeling is still here? You may be wondering why, since after all, having processed all this grief and feel like you have accepted this new reality we are all living in, why on earth can’t we simply shake this awful feeling then?
Because the stages of grief are not linear. If you believe you have reached acceptance but are still struggling with anger (“why are all these people protesting?!” “why must we stay home if the curve is flattening?!”) or depression, anxiety, or any other uncomfortable feeling, it is probably because you can move around all these stages more than once.
So here’s the deal. If it seems like this is hard for you. It’s because it IS hard. So what can we do about it?
1. It helps to name the feeling. Name it to tame it.
2. Feel them and let them go. In other words, instead of fighting them or pushing them away, let yourself feel them. Let them move through your body like a raincloud moves over a terrain. Empty yourself of the feeling by allowing it to simply exist. Cry. Punch pillows. You are not the feelings, they do not define you. This is stormy weather paying a visit. Let it run its course. The fear is always that these feelings are bottomless. I promise you they aren’t. You absolutely can run out of tears, much like a raincloud can run out of rain and make way for sunnier skies.
3. I highly recommend journaling at this time. Not only for your own peace of mind, self awareness building, and out-letting of emotions but also for record keeping. Remember we are living through an historical event. Historians of the future will be very interested in reading of our experiences. Sure, the internet will be replete with information. But you and I both know most of what they come up with will be toilet-paper memes and Tiger King references. Allow the depth of your experience reveal the underbelly of this moment.
4. Once you’ve given yourself the space you need, continue being gentle with yourself. This is new for all of us. No one has mastered pandemic coping skills yet. There is just you and your wellbeing. What it means to be well can only be defined by you. Just remind yourself that it is ok if you’re not using this time to learn 6 new languages. It’s ok if you are struggling. It’s ok if you aren’t serving gourmet meals to your family. It’s all ok.
As I always say, the only way out is through.