In the midst of the upheaval these days–the unknowns, the closings, the call for social distancing–I have found myself recognizing a corresponding upheaval within myself. Almost all of us in this country have found our lives in some way affected by COVID-19 at this point, even if it is just the general noise surrounding the spread of the virus that finds its way into every moment of our days. I know that I am in the best spot possible to handle a life disrupted by a pandemic. Our basic needs are met and not under threat. I work from home already, so I don’t have to worry about needing childcare. None of us is at risk for serious complications should we catch the virus. I understand my privileged position and I recognize that all of this has and will affect others much more harshly.
But despite all the outer stability and my continued assurance that we are all going to be ok, I still felt a rising sense of uncertainty and fear and worry this last week. All week long, I was faced by the conversations surrounding this issue. All my news podcasts were tracking the spread, John and I had many conversations as he worked through his responsibility as a spiritual leader in this time, and my kids continually came home repeating whatever rumors were currently circulating in their schools. One of my four children usually brought home all the insistences that it’s really all going to be fine, another one had me check his temperature every hour because he was convinced that he had contracted the virus. His fears swung wildly between fear that he himself was going to die or that he was going to spread it to everyone else at school.
In the middle of the week of holding all these things, of trying to manage and assure my children while also giving them truth (some of those school rumors were just plain ridiculous!), we had one really hard day. My worrier child began acting out in extreme ways, culminating in setting the toilet paper roll in the bathroom on fire. In my processing through his inexplicable actions, I realized it was his stress that was seeping out in unpredictable ways. Right on the heels of that realization was the accompanying realization of my own levels of high stress. Tears were below the surface that night as I went to bed, emotionally exhausted and anxious.
That was Wednesday. Thursday I had a previously scheduled EMDR session with my therapist, so I brought all my baggage to her and she helped me unpack it. I told her that it felt immature to admit that I was scared, and that I felt at war within myself over that fact. My head kept feeding me the assurances that things really were going to be ok, but deep inside something was still very scared. When we provided space for that fear to speak, I realized that it was connected to a previous version of myself. As a child, I was constantly worried about the spread of germs and washed my hands and arms repetitively. I was never worried that I myself would get sick, but rather that somehow I would get someone else sick. It was a compassionate impulse, but one that resulted in some very unhealthy obsessive behaviors.
That is very much a PAST version of myself. I spent years learning to not take those impulses quite as seriously, to relax, and to only wash my hand at appropriate intervals. I count it as a huge success that I no longer live my life constantly aware of everything my hands have touched and how long it has been since I washed them. But this week, as I was attempting to reassure my worrying child, I was telling him to wash his hands. Because, despite the fact that he is very like me in many ways, washing hands is not something he routinely does, EVER. So, I was attempting to point out the one thing he has control of that would have the greatest effect over his and everyone else’s health. At the same time I found myself washing my own hands much more frequently because I was recovering from a cold and was trying to be extra cautious. I didn’t realize how on a subconscious level all of these conversations and my own actions were poking that earlier version of myself. I realized how even though this part of me no longer controls my daily decisions, she still whispers to me occasionally, clouding my judgement with complicated emotions. I hear her every time one of my children tells me they are sick and can’t go to school, she’s the part that makes me feel guilty when I send them even though I have other voices of experience reminding me of the personal anxieties and common physical complaints of each child. I can be completely convinced of my child’s wellness and still feel a twinge of doubt because of this internal voice.
All that to say, this voice, though still often present, is not usually controlling. Continued experience continues to contribute to my present much more laid back common sense approach to life. But this week, that worried little girl in me was poked one too many times and past emotional baggage rose to the surface. My therapist encouraged me to cease my fighting, to instead, listen to the voice that wanted to speak and respond with compassion. I realize now that what that little girl needs is for me to figuratively wrap my arms around her and tell her it is ok to be scared, but that everything is going to be alright. I need to ask her to let the adult me take charge of the situation, to let go of the weight of responsibility that was threatening to overwhelm her. This is, of course, the same thing that I as a parent can do for and say to my worried son.
Our session wrapped up with her asking me to envision the possibility of a school closure, what that would look like for our family and to choose a positive cognition to approach the weeks ahead with. I chose “I am capable.” The day after my appointment all schools in WV were closed. I am thankful I had the chance to process and prepare internally for this event. I am capable. We will make it through, even though even in the best case scenario that I envisioned, it will be exhausting and we will probably make mistakes. But I have decided to proceed not only with caution, but with compassion.
Years ago, another therapist helped me see that what I thought were the worst parts of myself were shadows of my greatest strengths. My worries as a child were often centered around compassion for others. I hope I never lose that impulse towards love.
Compassion allows me to hold in my heart all those who will be affected negatively by this pandemic, those who are at a greater risk of complications or death, those vulnerable to loss of income and/or access to regular food, those with insufficient healthcare, those who may find themselves caring for a sick family member, those who will be helping on the front lines. I can hold all that while also not internalizing it as crippling worry. Compassion can also hopefully help me find little ways that I as an individual can help counter the negative impact for others. Compassion will also counteract the fear that sometimes wants to drive my choices, helping me not give in to the panic. Yet at the same time, compassion allows me to treat with gentleness those who have lost the battle with fear and are driven by their own panic. I can have compassion for them because I recognize those same tendencies and urges within myself. Compassion allows me to reassure my family members, while also reminding them that the sacrifices we make right now are because we care for everyone around us, that our choices are motivated not just by a desire to protect them, but to protect everyone. Compassion allows me to forgive those leaders who may make mistakes in this time of unknown, knowing that new situations require our best efforts, but will often be filled with trial and error. And compassion also allows me to take care of myself, allowing space for all the emotions and confusion and fear, while also countering it with rest, wise consumption of media, stable routines, and grace for my own mistakes.