I almost had a panic attack in a grocery store last week. Venturing out to restock for the first time in weeks, I went to a small chain in my neighborhood only to encounter an entirely bare produce section and the rest of the shelves half empty. No milk, no eggs, no cleaning supplies and definitely no toilet paper. There wasn’t even a single canned vegetable in sight.
I started to panic. Had grocery stores run out of food and no one told me yet? How were people getting vegetables to cook the things I saw on Instagram? I felt myself start to hyperventilate.
A trip to the nearby major grocery chain (huge shoutout to Texas hero HEB) reassured me we weren’t actually in a food scarcity crisis. But the feeling of being shaken to my core didn’t leave me for days.
These are horrible and weird times we are living in. Most states are sitting in wait for their peak of COVID-19 deaths. The unemployment rate may have gone up by almost 10% in a matter of weeks. Many of us are inside almost all the time and have to treat every person we encounter as a potentially deadly disease vector.
I know I’m lucky. I still have a job. I’m healthy. My family is healthy. I don’t have to homeschool anyone. And, though I wonder what the effects of being largely alone for months will be, I’m also grateful to not be annoyed by a partner or roommate.
But, like most people I talk to, my mood swings wildly from one moment to the next. Mainly, I have a constant low level of distress and find working an eight-hour day at home during a pandemic feels like a 16-hour day pre-coronavirus. I am fried.
Trying to stop trying so hard
In news that will shock no one who knows me, part of what has me feeling ragged is that I haven’t slowed down much during this time. I’m the type of productivity monster who makes goals like read Anna Karenina (the 900-page-plus Tolstoy classic) and learn Python before sheltering in place ends. I’m also constantly on my phone — responding to texts, checking on people, video chatting, scrolling through Twitter for news and Instagram for updates on what people are doing all day. It’s a draining habit and a numbing amount of screens and digital noise.
My current habits and lofty goals go against what I’ve learned (over and over again) — that if I don’t make room to feel my feelings they will stay in the dregs of my body and mind to fester and flare up when I least expect them. So as tempting as it is for me to “make the most of this time” or stay distracted, I’ve realized I need to actually take a damn break. This is a crisis. And as some have pointed out, what we’re all feeling is grief for the loss of life as we knew it before.
Coronavirus is like a shitty breakup
Prior to this, the majority of my experience with grief was around romantic breakups. And from those, I’ve learned that there’s no use pretending I’m fine when I’m not — it only drags out the grieving process — and that I have to make time to feel things and really feel them.
I know how to do this: a few years ago, a relationship with someone I cared a lot about ended. I knew it would be hard, so instead of pretending to be OK or trying to lose myself in other activities, I decided to schedule a mourning period. I set three months aside to not take on anything new, not make any important decisions and not work toward any major life goals. My priority was simply to take care of myself during a hard time. So I lay on my couch a lot. I watched all seven seasons of “The Gilmore Girls.” I often skipped plans with friends to stay in and journal. And when the three months were over, I felt almost fine. I had acknowledged how hard it was, I had grieved and I had made my peace with the past.
At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, I was faced with this again on a small scale as a two-month relationship ended. We liked each other but faced roadblocks early on and both knew our connection wasn’t plague proof. I literally closed the door behind him as my social distancing lockdown began and thought, “What a terrible time to be sad and lonely.”
And I was sad. Not just about the guy — but also about how demanding I am of myself. I tend to blame myself for anything that goes wrong in my life and hold myself to impossible standards (hence the attempts to read thousand-page novels and learn to code in a matter of months). I was also sad about the state of the world in crisis. And afraid of what was to come as a result of the coronavirus.
So I grieved. Fast and hard. I did one of my favorite things to do when I’m sad — listen to Argentine singer Mercedes Sosa and sob in the bathtub. Listening to a woman who lost both of her husbands and was forced to leave her country during a violent dictatorship sing, “Thank you to this life” gets me every time. I cried until my fingers and toes were pruney and the bathwater was lukewarm.
As I got out of the tub, I felt a deep calm come over me. In my experience, this is what taking really good care of myself and exploring the depth of my feelings feels like — like I’m a washcloth that has been fully wrung out, with nothing left to mull over.
Making time for grief
Since the grocery store incident, I’ve realized I need to make time regularly to not be fine. Since I’ve been self-isolating in my house, I’ve had a number of days that feel like “If you give a mouse a cookie,” except with boring, adult tasks — I fall into a spiral of trying to tackle all of my cleaning, laundry, cooking and life admin tasks at once. It’s like if I can just “finish my list” then I’ll have time to sit around and process things. But that list never ends. I need to put “feeling my feelings” and “grieving” on there too.
So I’m trying. Yesterday I didn’t start work until 10:30. I recognized that what I needed most of all was a slow breakfast, and to read a book, meditate and stretch before my brain said, “OK, we can do this now.”
Our current situation is complicated. I don’t want to dive into the depths of my anxiety and discomfort every day — that would be too much. But if I don’t make time and space to feel the grief and exhaustion all this is causing, I know I’ll burn myself out faster than you can say “classic Russian literature.” I’m finding that even things like not listening to music or podcasts while I take walks is a helpful way to be more present.
I hope you’re finding ways to process all this in doses that are manageable too. If you have any suggestions, please share them in the comments.