Waves and its synonym “curve” have been used many times as we all have tried to understand this “novel” coronavirus, its impact on the world, and our influence, yet lack of control, over so much now.
We were introduced to the concept of “flatten the curve” as “social distancing” and “shelter at home” were explained: the curve, or wave, reflecting the numbers of severe illnesses likely to lead to unnecessary deaths from an overwhelmed healthcare system.
Then, we were informed that we could expect future “waves” in which the numbers increase again when “shelter at home” guidelines relax.
There are many calculations about how high, wide and far apart these waves will occur, reflecting how many will become ill, how long the higher infection rate will occur, and how many months before the next sharp increase of infections, and finally, “How long will this go on?”.
There are other waves, less discussed and yet so powerful: waves that knock you over, toss you, and threaten to pull you under. I want to share some of these waves that I and other mental health professionals experience, and hope to inspire hope that together we can learn to ride the waves, or at least to float, until they pass over.
In January my husband and I took the trip of a lifetime to celebrate his milestone birthday. As we waited for a connection the news reported a new virus spreading in China; excited for our trip, we barely thought about it. Returning two weeks later, I noticed a sign at customs indicating those traveling from China would be directed elsewhere-again, just a notice, not a worry. Upon our return, we immediately were immersed in the many details of moving our group practice for a March 1 move, “7 minutes” away, yet, after 28 years, a major move. We didn’t notice any threat of the approaching storm which would create waves upon waves, upon waves.
We moved, and a week later learned that the number of COVID-19 cases were increasing exponentially in New York. Small waves of concern swept through my patients, but I and most of them were comforted with the “this has the same infection rate as the flu” and “it doesn’t affect children” and “only the very elderly and compromised become seriously ill”.
Then, larger waves of recognition as New York health systems struggled with managing the ill and we first heard of “sheltering at home” as a solution to save lives. In less than two weeks the storm was upon us as in rapid succession schools shut down and a series of executive orders shut down most business and activity in the state. We were “battening the hatches” and very afraid.
Waves of fear: how will I meet my clients’ needs? Will my clients, my children, my parents be safe? Will I be safe? How will my clients deliver their babies safely, and how can they be assured their families are safe from infection?
Waves of confusion: How can I practice-what is the safest, most private platforms for Telehealth, and how do I use them? Will Telehealth be adequate when subtle communication is so important in psychotherapy? Will insurance really pay as promised?
Waves of grief: For the loss of life, for the loss of a sense of security, for the loss of freedom to go where I need/want, for the loss of connection with friends, for the loss of hugs and kisses, for the loss of community celebrations and for the loss of community memorials.
Waves of sadness: As my loving children tell me one by one they will not be able to visit out of fear that I will lose my life and they will be left without me. As my healthcare clients share their terror that they will bring home the virus to their children or their parents. As I learn of unintentional infections, transmissions, and guilt of survivor transmitters.
Waves of compassion: As I plot out with clients back up plans for the delivery of their babies and for the care of their other children. As I help parents manage the incredible juggle of working remotely from home while caring for their babies, toddlers and home-schooling older children.
Sometimes the waves subside, and I experience a few days, even a week or so, in which the intensity is lower, and I feel strong, competent, and able to navigate these rough waters, even very briefly, to rise above them. And then another wave comes, and I feel like I am drowning, completely overwhelmed.
Sometimes the wave comes from within, sometimes from a particularly traumatic or sad session with a client, and sometimes from my life partner, since we are literally in the same boat, riding this out together. The ever-present undertow of profound knowledge of our utter lack of control threatens to pull us under, into indulging in self-destructive coping strategies for intense feelings of fear, sadness, anger, irritability, and depression.
In between the intense waves it is much easier to practice what I preach: to practice self-care habits-filling my pitcher so I can pour into others’ cups. I have been best about the habit of meditating, fairly good at nutrition, (with the exception of too much ice cream!) and OK at exercising and getting outside. I know I have to be better than “OK” with the exercise, my ability to be pain-free and healthy depends upon it; so I work to increase my steps. Breath practice helps between clients as well as in the middle of the waves. I have found great satisfaction and joy with being outside gardening, and connecting with friends via zoom and socially distant walks have been tremendously restorative. I kept a gratitude journal after my twin sons’ births, and I think now is the time to use that tool again to maintain balance in the waves.
This is tremendously hard. Acknowledging and accepting this reality may be the most important tool you and I have. Because when we accept our reality rather than fight it, just as when we surrender and float on waves, we save our energy for where it can be used.
May you be healthy, happy, and at peace.
Sharon Thomason, Ph.d., PMH-C (Perinatal Mental Health Certified) is a Psychologist who delights in helping Moms and Dads grow their families with less stress and great joy!