Hi, everyone! You’re relaxed, refreshed, and ready to take on a new year, right?
I’m kidding. It’s all been terrible, and this isn’t what we bargained for. You did all the right things. You sent your kids off to school and activities hoping for the best, knowing that their mental health depended on it. You bought the right masks. You refreshed the CVS website until you got carpal tunnel trying to schedule a vaccine appointment. Perhaps you even promised them something special, something from Before Times, after their shots or after their quarantine. Or maybe you couldn’t do any of that because you work several jobs, don’t have reliable Internet access, or can’t afford or find rapid tests.
And, so, here we are — with school closures and staffing woes, skyrocketing cases, elusive home tests that might not even work as well against Omicron anyway, confusing quarantine procedures, overwhelmed emergency rooms … oh, and work. Remember work? Because we have to balance all that, too. We were promised something different this year, and it hasn’t materialized.
“Every time I send my kid off to school, I feel like I’m inviting Omicron home for dinner,” one Boston parent told me.
Oh, and for parents with kids under 5? The pandemic continues even though we’re carrying on with life as normal, business almost as usual, whatever that means, nothing to see here, as leaders remind us that this is a pandemic of the unvaccinated. (For your own safety, do not ever say that to a parent of a toddler.)
“I want our civic leaders to put actions to their words over the past God-knows-how-long of their ‘family values’ bona fides. Nothing about the last two years has been family-friendly or pro-life. Stop treating us like cogs in the wheel of capitalism to be ground down and replaced when worn out. Treat us like the human beings we all are, from the janitor on up. Prove it with your actions and our tax dollars for once,” says Somerville’s Andrew Franks.
“I’m stressed. I’m anxious. I’m angry. And I feel like the world has just moved on into the inferno shrugging their flaming shoulders at all the people burning to a crisp behind them.”
This isn’t whining. It’s psychologically jarring, especially for the 40 million American adults also suffer from anxiety disorders — not butterflies or the occasional cold sweat but crippling, can’t-get-out-of-bed terror exacerbated by the ultimate anxiety-provoking situation: COVID’s latest, apparently inevitably infectious, variant.
This isn’t just an inconvenient logistical snafu. It’s a mental health crisis. (Did I mention that therapists are impossible to find these days?)
I want to talk about what we can do about it: How to regain some modicum of empowerment (I’d never say “control”) over the next month or so.
Russ Doherty, a Metrowest father of three, has taken Klonopin, Lithium, and Wellbutrin to maintain his mental health during the pandemic while helping his two teenagers navigate disruptions to touchstones such as school and sports.
“I can no longer drive on the highways. I have anxiety to the point where I have to pull over,” he says. “My coping mechanism is to find a quiet spot, and breathe. Anxiety can get really bad with a mask on and [I] need to pull [it] away from my face to get fresh air.”
In Acton, Mikell Taylor’s child is too young for vaccination and has underlying health issues. But she feels like society has simply shrugged. While she can’t control the speediness of a vaccine, she hopes that employers take the problem more seriously and that messaging around the pandemic reflects the hardships for parents of very young kids.
“The biggest anxiety problem ... is that I feel like everything is on me. It is on me to figure out whether a faint positive antigen test but a negative PCR is really a positive or not. It is on me to determine whether or not my kids are safe enough to be at school. It is on me to find N95-equivalent masks,” Taylor says.
There’s scant support from outside sources and little acknowledgment that life really isn’t back to normal at all.
“I want employers to admit this is all happening and stop pretending there aren’t huge interruptions in childcare reliability. Honestly, it feels like I’m being constantly gaslit by society at large for expressing any concern at all, and I’m absolutely mentally exhausted by it,” she says. “I’m doing what the rest of the world has decided is no longer necessary. I feel like I’m crazy.”
In the meantime, Taylor does go to therapy. She also urges other parents to learn from this moment.
“What do you wish you’d done to prep two months ago? Do that again in case there’s another surge,” she says.
In Arlington, Alyissa Dzaugis is “coping by withdrawing from a society that obviously [doesn’t care] about people, families, or children.”
Her vaccinated father almost died from COVID in November, and her 4-year-old and 1-year-old still await vaccine approval.
“Yes, yes, please tell me how COVID isn’t as bad in children … but that completely ignores the fact that sometimes it is really bad, it disrupts childcare, work, and they can transmit to other people, [vaccinated] or not,” she says.
She has had obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety for most of her adult life, which she manages with Zoloft. After screaming at her toddler one day after she picked up trash on the street and wouldn’t wash her hands, Dzaugis realized she needed a change: She’s done trying to deny her emotions.
“There’s only so much you can do, and it’s OK to be upset with the way things are. It’s bigger than you. It’s bigger than your neighbors. It’s not in your control. Pulling yourself out of that is is important,” she says. In the meantime, she’s waiting for the inevitable pick-up summons from daycare.
In Wakefield, Jennifer Percoco’s panic attacks were so bad when COVID hit that she didn’t eat for almost two weeks, as she tried to care for two children while working from home. Her mom came to help. Her PCP prescribed Lexapro. She also found a therapist through www.betterhelp.com. Now, when she feels a wave of panic coming on, she also practices “four-seven-eight” breathing, wherein she inhales through her nose for four seconds, holds it for seven, and exhales through her mouth for eight.
“I have to take every day as one thing. I cannot worry about tomorrow. For anything. Focus on what you have in front of you at the moment,” she says.
A local attorney who works with an incarcerated population shared ideas with me. Obviously, a pandemic is different than incarceration — but, when it comes to a sense of powerless and entrapment, some of the coping strategies apply.
Rescheduling: using different intervals to gauge the passage of time: mealtime to mealtime, or hour to hour, or quarter hours. Take it bit by bit. The day will end. It will all end.
Removal: routine work and exercise, busyness as an end in itself. Choose at least three things to go through, such as reading, playing or listening to music, or watching a movie. Time passes one way or another, and it will indeed pass.
Reorientation: shifting your time orientation from past and future (what you once had or what you wish to have); resetting your temporal horizons to focus on the present. There is no pre-pandemic or other side of the pandemic. There is only now, now, now — just this one cycle of breath, just this one moment.
Resistance: undermining systemic power imbalances through radical solidarity and mutual aid.
Most of all, remember (and this is from me, someone who has anxiety, too): There are people who care and who can help. Others are in the same boat. Don’t be shy about admitting that you’re defeated or frail or weak or tired, even if it seems like we should be over this by now. Don’t accept this as normal just because it’s persistent. It’s not.
Kara Baskin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.