I have been in absolute panic mode now for almost a full week. The health scares in the news are perfectly designed to hit dead-center in the Venn diagram that comprise my (currently treated, usually under control) mental illnesses: obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression, and hypochondria. If the world news wanted to freak me out any more, there would literally have to be a zombie-clown apocalypse, because that would add the undead and clowns, the only two things that really petrify me.
On top of the viral news, my eldest daughter is away for a week in Panama City on a mission trip to help out the folks who, even two years after Hurricane Michael hit, have not yet fully recovered. Because it’s a mission trip, they’re not allowed to have their phones, which means I have not spoken with her since Sunday (no texts, either). While they may allow her to call me once this week–maybe tomorrow?–there is no guarantee I will have contact with her until she is back on the bus on Friday. That may be a good thing, because I think if I hear her voice I’m going to cry, and that’s not what I want her to hear.
I’m glad she went. I think this is good for us. I know in my heart that this is an important part of letting go. I just think maybe it could have been better timed than when everyone is crying pandemic.
So, in my already letting-go-mom fragile state, I have spent too much time over-researching the current health crisis in the news, and an equal amount of time conscientiously avoiding everything about the health crisis. Immersion vs. avoidance. Neither have been positive practices. The only thing that’s worked, actually, is gradual exposure. Something pops up on my news feed, I give it a glance. It’s about the virus. I freak out. Then, I have to do three things: Stop, Breathe, and Think.
Stopping sounds like this: “Okay. Stop. Just Breathe.”
Breathing sounds like this: “Inhale for four, hold for four, exhale for four. Repeat.” I do that four times. I’m told it’s called square breathing. It appeals to the obsessive-compulsive in me. We love to count.
Thinking sounds like this: “We operate from the knowledge that there are no guarantees. I could get sick. My family could get sick. Everyone could get sick. This is all true. If I get sick, I will go to the doctor (I know this makes me very lucky). If my family gets sick, they will also go to the doctor (again, lucky). The doctor will do what he or she can for us, and while there are no guarantees, we are healthy (which is something I am fortunate I can currently say), we are young (well, the kids are, my husband and I are on the cusp), and we have a chance to fight this.”
In the midst of thinking, Fear likes to come in, though. Fear is this overprotective monster who thinks it’s helping, but is really just ruining my life. Fear says, “But what about all the people who aren’t as lucky as you are? Look at all the people who have died! Isn’t it horrible? It’s horrible, isn’t it? Horrible!!!!”
I once again stop, then breathe (oh how I love the counting!) and then I think: “Yes. It’s very sad.” At this point my depression likes to come in, take over, and cause me to weep for awhile. That’s okay though. I read somewhere that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who first identified the stages of grief, would set aside ten minutes a day to cry. So I try to give myself that time. You know what? Ten minutes usually works.
Once I’ve gotten out all the sadness, Thinking continues, “The truth is, I am nothing short of devastated any time I hear of a life lost. Whether that life is in China, Seattle, Italy, Tennessee; whether that life is an elderly person, an immunocompromised person, a child, a perfectly fine and healthy adult, someone who was doing something noble, someone who made a really stupid mistake–I grieve the loss of every life that has been here on this planet because every life is worthy of respect, and love, and sadness at its passing. I will not grieve or fear more or less because a person does or does not fit my demographic.”
Then Fear pulls out the big guns: “NO! It’s not about being sad at the passing of a life. Well, I mean it’s sad, but there’s a bigger issue here: one day YOU are going to DIE TOO! And your husband. And your kids. And everyone you love!”
At that point, the pins and needles start not in my hands or my feet, but all over my body. My stomach lurches. I start to sweat. I lose focus. I find it hard to breathe. My heart starts to pound. I feel nauseated. I want to cry. I want to pass out. I stare into the abyss, the inexorable passage of time, the unstoppable forward motion of everything, and it’s so easy to get lost in there, so hard to pull myself out. But there is a part of me, a very well-rehearsed part of me, that says, “No. I will not do this. Stop.”
And once I stop, because I’ve practiced, next comes “Breathe,” and oh! the blessed counting.
Breathing opens up the space for Think, and it says, “Yes. Everything that lives, dies. Why would you think you or those you love would be any different? Why would you get a cosmic pass? Aren’t you fortunate enough, as it is, to get what you’ve already gotten? To live where you live, how you’ve lived, for as long as you’ve lived? Where is the gratitude?”
And there is the ah-ha. The gratitude. Because as I’ve written before, if there is one thing that fear can’t hold a candle to, it’s gratitude. So Gratitude continues: “This is the way of the world. Instead of mourning it, be grateful for it. Don’t focus on what can be lost. Focus on what you have already had. Dream of what may still be to come. It may be there, it may not. But what, of all the things in the world, would you most want to do today if your last day was going to be tomorrow?”
Everyone’s answer is different. Some people have a bucket list. I don’t. I mean, there are things I’d like to do, but no matter what, hands down, the thing that will trump all other things on my list is to be with my family. To be close to them, to hold them, to tell them I love them, to bask in their love for me. To laugh with them, to cry with them, to make them laugh, to console them. And so, that is what I do. I find my husband and give him a hug. I find my younger child and ruffle her hair. I put on a show we can laugh at together. We play a video game. I make them dinner, or offer them a snack. I revel in our closeness.
Throughout, Fear likes to come back in. So I stop. I breathe, and I think: “You see, though death is inevitable, I am not going to die without first living. And though I know, Fear, that you just want to keep me safe, I have to choose to take some risks. No, I am not going to lick a person with a fever, or run my hands up and down a bathroom wall and touch my eyes. I’m not going to try to cross the highway on foot. I’m not going to intentionally drive the wrong way down the street, or drive my car into a river. I’m not going to take too much medication or step in front of a loaded gun. I’m not going to do the hundred things that I know may make my life shorter–or at best miserable.
“However, I am not going to hide in my house, either. I am going to do what I have always done: volunteer at my kids’ school, shop, cook, clean, drive. And yes. At some point, one of those activities may kill me. I could get into a car accident. I could get shot. I could get sick. I could have a piano fall on my head. I could be swept up and killed by a tornado. There are no guarantees. But are these things likely? Maybe some more than others (the piano is a stretch). But mostly, no.
“As I get older, there will be more and more risks. I will have to take more precautions–or choose to take more chances. But I’m going to live my life with the level of risk that I feel is appropriate for me. Some people climb Mt. Everest. That is not my level of risk. Some people cliff dive. Also, way higher than my average risk level. Some people tend the truly, deathly ill. Not my thing. Some people put themselves in harm’s way every day, fighting crime or protecting us overseas. And some people die doing these things. But here’s the thing: they’re living their life the way they want to live it. And what else is life for? Why have we been given this gift if not to do with it what we wish to do?”
So now, when facing a panic, I stop, breathe, and think. Then I ask myself: How do I want to live my life? What level of risk am I willing to accept? For some people, it’s not even leaving the house. That’s okay. For others, it’s jumping out of an airplane. That’s okay, too. For me, it’s somewhere in the middle. And that’s where I’m going to stay, at least for now. Knowing that nothing is guaranteed and that no one is getting out of this alive, I’m going to live my life, rather than fear it. What will be, will be. My time on this earth will only be diminished by fear, and only augmented by gratitude. The more I hold to this, the better I feel. And after the week I’ve had, where I’ve let my reactionary thoughts torment me, it feels good to feel good.
Plus, as of the moment this publishes, I will be only 56 hours away from hugging my eldest daughter. And that’s going to be the best feeling of all.