Last month, on August 19th, my children went back to in-person classes after having been home with me since March 13th. And when I say home, I mean home. In the house. I think I can count on one hand the number of times I allowed them off our property. I let them take walks around the neighborhood now and again, but it was summer in Florida. They didn’t stay out long.
We went to PetSmart to buy fish for my younger daughter’s new birthday aquarium a couple of times. We went to doctors’ and dentists’ appointments. And that’s pretty much it.
So the idea that they would be leaving the house every day to spend six to eight hours in groups of students–even though all of those students were required to wear masks, and the school hired porters to wipe down the high-touch surfaces between classes–nearly had me hyperventilating. I started crying daily.
During one of my crying jags, my fourteen-year-old daughter, who I don’t write about much (because she forbids it, but this time is allowing it for the sake of the post) sat down with me. She handed me a tissue and put her hand on my arm. “I know you’re worried, but the school is doing absolutely everything it can to keep us safe. My sister and I are going to follow all the rules–mask-wearing, hand sanitizing, keeping our distance. And we really need to be in school, live, with everyone else. We just learn better that way.”
I dried my eyes and pulled myself together. I pulled her into a hug, and instead of resisting, she let me. “I know, honey. I know. I’m just scared. You know how I’ve been since this whole thing started.”
My daughter said, “Yeah. You’ve been a mess. And I know it’s important to visit the worst case scenarios sometimes, because it helps us to plan. What happens if I fail a test? What happens if I get into an accident? What happens if I feel dizzy while working out? And yes, what happens if we get Covid? But after you make the plan, you have to stop. Here’s the thing, Mom: You’ve been living on catastrophe island. But it’s uninhabitable. It’s not conducive to life. It’s time for you to get off the island.”
How many of us have been living on catastrophe island lately? For how long? For me, it’s been since February, when I first heard about this odd virus that was devastating an area in China. For others, it may have been since Donald Trump was elected in 2016. Maybe you found a small apartment there when you heard the story of George Floyd, or Breonna Taylor. Perhaps it became a temporary residence when you or someone you love had a health scare. I had a fairly sizable loft there as a graduate student, when I was trying to conceive after a miscarriage, and when I thought I had breast cancer.
And in all that time I’ve spent on the island, I have discovered that my daughter is absolutely right: it’s not conducive to life. Living in the world of worst case scenarios is mentally, emotionally, and can even be physically crippling. At best, it leads to anxiety and depression. At worst, it leads to substance abuse, dissociation, and even suicide. I see a lot of people out there nowadays who are so withdrawn from life that it’s as if they aren’t living at all.
So, how did I get off catastrophe island?
1. I solidified plans in my head. What would I do if someone in my family came down with Covid symptoms? What would I do if I came down with them? I wrote the plan down, and in that very act of writing I was released from so much anxiety. I had an order of operations, all of my doctors’ numbers, and a list of friends to call (some had already had Covid, and recovered, and offered to help if we ever needed it; others are the kinds of friends who would make a drop off meals). I also had the names and numbers of our lawyer, who has our will, and our financial advisor, who has everything else, in case both my husband and I were to die. Because when I go worst case scenario, I go all the way.
2. The plan being on paper, and knowing there was little else I could do, I began to work on accepting and acknowledging that I have no control. I hate this one. It goes against every fiber of my being to admit there are things over which I am powerless. One of the reasons I’m the driver in the family is because I need the feeling that I’m in control of the vehicle. I feel so much stronger with even just the illusion of control. But coronavirus took that away from me, so I had to find a way to deal with it. If you know me, it’s not surprising that I turned to my Catholic faith. If you’re interested in more specifics, I’ll eventually write about it on my own personal blog, Unicorn Dreams, but the best way I can summarize it here is that I started practicing abandonment. A lot of people would understand abandonment as stated in the Serenity Prayer, “Give me the serenity to to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
3. One secular thing that really helped me work on letting go of control is the cultivation of mindfulness and detachment through daily meditation. Essentially, it requires living in the present, being mindful of where you are in the here and now, rather than dwelling in the past or looking toward the future. The best resource I have found for this is the app Ten Percent Happier, though I have a few friends who really like Shine and others who like Calm. For my Catholic friends, I also like the app Hallow which combines prayer with meditation. Ten Percent Happier, though, was started by news anchorman Dan Harris who also wrote a book by the same name. Reading the book and trying the app at the same time really made it work for me. I no longer spend the majority my days in tears. I do not immerse myself in imagining worst case scenarios. I spend at least ten to fifteen minutes a day trying to be present in the moment. Sometimes I only spend a minute. But as Dan Harris says, “Even a minute counts.”
4. I engage in an incredible amount of self-protection. I barely spend one hour on social media a day, and I do not read any articles posted there. I read my local newspaper, and when something happens where I feel the need for more information I consult both The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. I do not, however, spend more than one hour looking at any news source.
5. I take real, specific action toward things that concern me. I keep all home surfaces and high touch spots very clean. I cook healthy meals. I walk on the treadmill. I pick the kids up early if I can. I make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the homeless. I donate my previous monthly Starbucks budget to organizations I believe in. I meet with friends in parking lots or on porches for socially distanced lunches and coffee. I try to meet online with distant friends at least once a week. I recently resolved only to talk to people on the phone, via text, on a face to face web meeting, or in person rather than engaging in discussions on social media. I regularly repeat Mother Teresa’s words “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”
Spending time, in the world, doing the smallest thing we can imagine is infinitely better than dwelling for even a second on catastrophe island. I hope those of you who find yourselves there find a way off. It is no way to live.