Diane's Voice

Five Steps to Escape Catastrophe Island

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.

3 replies »

  1. Yes! Diane, I have been thinking about you and wondering how you’re doing. Isn’t it wonderful to have a kid who’s old enough to talk straight with her mom!? You sound like you’re doing better. My kids are also back at school and the whole house is so much happier–they hated the remote schooling stuff in spring. I hope it lasts! And, really, I’m not the best housekeeper, so I know they’re doing a better job cleaning than I do. They’re getting the kids outside for about an hour and a half of the day–it’s been a nice fall here so far–and they’re learning and socializing (with more than just their twin). I’ve been so busy with work I have almost no time to worry, though I do manage to fit it in some. Spring was really hard, but I think I have only enough concentration to actively fear something for about 3 month. We’re still being safe, but we all feel more “normal.” I hope you’re writing and reading. It was really nice seeing you at the Catholic book club, online. We’re doing a short story collection now, which doesn’t seem as popular with the group, though I’m enjoying it. Take care, thank you for writing this–and virtual hugs, and prayers for your continued health!

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    • It is a blessing beyond words to have children who are able to surpass their parents in every way. Both of my girls are so wise, and I know that’s both by God’s grace and my family’s hard work (as my mother and my husband’s dad have all contributed to who they are, as have my friends and my husband’s family members, not to mention teachers and friends’ parents–all one big accumulation of awesome). My daughters didn’t mind the remote schooling as long as everyone was doing it, but the idea of being the one of five at home in a class of twenty where fifteen are in live school was a no-brainer for them. They needed to be physically present to be mentally present. I really hope it lasts, too. So glad that you’re busy with work; I should probably try to figure out how to do that, too, but I’m kind of grateful to not be busy because I would have let a lot of people down over the past few months. I am doing a lot of reading–I had set a yearly goal of 24 books for 2020 and I’m ahead of schedule–less on the writing because I just can’t focus. But I’ve been doing a lot of praying and Bible studying, and meditating, and I think that’s where I need to focus my energy right now. I really enjoyed the book club, but Facebook is so weird, it doesn’t show me certain things unless I specifically click on the groups, so I didn’t see the post about the new book. I borrowed it from the library, though, and was going to read it on my own. Since I’m trying my best to stay off Facebook as much as I can I’m not particularly interactive right now, but I like the book recommendations. It’s always great hearing from you, and I hope to write more soon.

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      • It’s so great to hear from you. You sound like you’re taking care of yourself–so important, especially right now. I struggle with online Mass and we haven’t been to in-person Mass yet, so that’s hard for me. And I miss my choir a lot. I’m a true believer in: to sing is to pray twice! Oh, and well done for you staying off social media. I go for the book and author updates, but that’s it! I’m excited to do attend over Zoom the book club meeting with the author Kirsten Valdez Quade–she’s so young (I’m a little envious, I admit!). And thank you for your positive feedback on your teens. I keep hearing horror stories about that phase. My guys are also thriving in in-person school, which makes me sad for all the kids stuck at home. But grateful.

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