Take a Quick Break with Me

Last Tuesday night, I stood in my kitchen knowing it would likely be the last time for at least a month or two. I downed my magnesium supplement and a spoonful of peanut butter in the hopes of canceling out my insomnia. It was 3am. I had to be up at 7:30am to do an 8-hour drive up to Northern California. My daughter and I had decided to leave our apartment in Long Beach to go stay with family where we’d have a yard for the dog and more space/less people during the pandemic lockdown.

As I looked around my living room, memories flashed of all of the late nights in the weeks and months following my mom’s death. She got sick the month we moved in and died two months later. I looked over at my stove and a memory of those early days of grief came up. The guy I was seeing at the time made baked chicken for me and my daughter. We had laughed and watched TV till 6am. It was a respite from our grief. Other friend-infused late night memories flashed through my mind.

I smiled, thinking how those were different times, times when we could socialize, have people over, hug, take a sip of a friend’s drink, without fear.

My chest tightened, the thought of leaving our home reminded me of the two times my children and I were homeless. Panic. PTSD. I reminded myself that this time was different, we still had a home. We were only leaving temporarily. My son had his apartment too. I took some slow breaths.

Loss has a habit of reminding us of other losses.

The next night we arrived at my Mapa and Stepmom’s home in Sonoma County. We air-hugged from six feet away. We are quarantining in their RV for 14 days before we move into the house.

We are lucky we have this option. We are lucky we have a loving family that has a nice home and that they are happy to have us. Even though the majority of my parenting days are over now, I’ve been head of household so long that it feels nice at a time like this to be part of a bigger family unit.

But by last Friday morning, between adjusting to a new space, WiFi issues, my daughter breaking out in itchy stress-induced eczema all over her body, and the daily onslaught of pandemic news, I’d reached my limit. I made the hard decision to cancel two meetings and took the day off. (Even forgot to send my weekly email, doh)

Again, I was lucky I could do that. I called my best friend and took a walk around the neighborhood while we talked.

We’re each other’s go-to when life feels like it’s going to squash us flat. She was one of my first calls when my parent’s neighborhood was decimated in the Tubbs fire a few years back. In October 2017, nearly 1,500 houses burned down in their neighborhood alone. They narrowly escaped the sudden firestorm, and miraculously their house was one of only a few hundred that survived.

In December of 2017, my kids and I drove through the neighborhood. Back then it was an eerie, charred wasteland in almost every direction. But now, the neighborhood is a mix of newly built homes, empty overgrown lots, and homes in various phases of construction.

Photos of a Santa Rosa, CA neighborhood, left to right, a new home being built with the blackened skeleton of a tree in the distance, an empty lot where a home once stood, filled with flowers and wildflowers, another empty lot filled with green and three charred but living redwoods just beyond the fence.

This is a community that knows overwhelming devastation, personal and communal. They are recovering, they are rebuilding, adapting. And now adapting to the pandemic.

Though we’ve never faced anything like this pandemic before, it gave me hope to see not only the neighborhood’s progress, but the wildflowers and grasses doing their part to make the empty lots look vital again. I couldn’t help but draw parallels with what we’re dealing with now.

Everyone is handling this crisis in their own way, and in waves of calm and chaos. My natural inclination is to fix things, come up with creative solutions. But it was all too much, and last Friday I was spinning hard. As I lamented to my friend that I just didn’t know what to do next, she said, “nobody knows what to do in a pandemic.” I laughed. She was right. My stress level dropped a few major notches.

We all have varying degrees of responsibilities, stresses, and capacities right now. On some level though, we’re all going through a major traumatic life event. 

So I think if anyone is going to offer advice on how to cope it needs to apply to the grocery store worker as much as those who have the privilege of working from home (me included), or the hospital janitor as much as the out-of-work waiter, hoping with fingers crossed they’ll have food next week.

So here’s what I know helps in just about any scenario (I can conceive of):

  1. Carve out any time you can for some alone time to do nothing but breathe, and maybe think (or not). Even if that’s 5 minutes a day alone in the bathroom, DO IT. Breathe consciously, a few seconds in through your nose, down to your belly, then a few seconds out slowly. Do this 5-10 times. Focus on the breathing. Or focus on the faucet dripping or the bird outside. Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter just give your mind and body a break from the stressful things in your head. A stressed/traumatized mind needs breaks. And if you can get as much as a couple days off to do as little as possible, do that.
  2. Be gentle on yourself. Expect less. You are grieving losses on many levels, you are trying to adapt to this new reality. So cut yourself some slack. I know it’s hard, believe me. I used to have these mini mental breakdowns at some of the harder points in my life where I was convinced I was failing at EVERYTHING. Now, when those thoughts come up, I tell myself it’s bullshit and ask myself how I can honor how I’m feeling. Give yourself permission to treat yourself with the same kindness you would a friend. You’re not weak. Knowing when to take care of yourself is STRONG.
  3. Do something enjoyable that’s not going to drain you later. What I mean here is that some activities (drinking a couple bottles of wine for instance) might be fun in the moment but make you feel worse off later. Other things refill your well, bolster the good feels and help you access your more logical, peaceful side. So treat yourself to something you enjoy: paint with a $3 watercolor kit, dance to your favorite song in your living room, go for a walk, watch a comedy special, play a game, or just stand in the sun for 10 minutes. The point here is that you’re interrupting your mind’s roiling fight or flight response and helping re-access your prefrontal cortex which is the part of your brain that can problem solve, regulate emotion, etc.

And finally, yeah we don’t know how or when this will end and for so many of us that is torture. But it will end. There is a light at the end of the tunnel even if we can’t see it yet.

We will rise from the ashes of this catastrophe, but in the meantime our mission is to survive in the healthiest ways possible. Be good to yourself so you can survive, learn, and rebuild.