Distraction in the time of COVID-19.

Image courtesy Pixabay.

How are you holding up, dear friend?

Our lives are all in such different places lately that the continuum of potential responses to that question seems to get longer and fatter each day.

Some of you may be bored, reduced to cleaning out closets and old email messages. Others of you may be swamped, like my husband, who is trying to manage the needs of his staff and unit from home. Others are surely crazed with fear and worry and grief, either because COVID-19 has hit too close to home, or because you are on the frontlines fighting it.

Whatever your experience, I’m thinking of you.

As for me, I feel driven. Overwhelmed. On edge.

I’ve been doing a final read-through of the memoir manuscript I “finished” last fall, expecting to have a little tweaking I might want to do. I’m now on day four of dedicated tweaking–no other writing, very little social media, and, of course, sheltering in place. I’m up to chapter seven of twenty-seven chapters and I am obsessed with finishing.

When I get absorbed in a project, if the end is anywhere in sight, I want to ignore everything else, put my life on hold and GET. IT. FINISHED.

At first, tweaking was a good distraction from coronavirus news. But chapter seven covers the year before my son was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age eleven. It got to be too intense. I didn’t know if I was crying more about the memories, or about what’s going on in the world today.

Then, yesterday, it hit close to home. I got the news that my friend who is infected with COVID-19 has taken a turn for the worst.

My emotions are so close to the surface, I can’t even watch or read happy and uplifting stories without crying because they remind me how much is at stake.

So I’m reaching out to connect with humanity. I need a distraction.

My son, Matt, is going stir-crazy working at home alone. I wanted to do something every day to let him know I’m thinking of him. So yesterday, I texted him some silly riddles and knock-knock jokes. (Writer’s Digest has a good collection.) They weren’t even funny. But sometimes what’s funny isn’t the joke, but how bad it is.

Here’s one:

I took the shell off my racing snail thinking it would make him faster. It only made him more sluggish.

(It’s OK to groan, really.)

It’s such a little thing, but I already know this will be a memory Matt and I will have forever. When I’m old, we’ll laugh at our attempts at comedic relief. It’s simple. Literally, right at our fingertips.

Next week, I’ll have more distractions to share–three essays coming out. Their deadlines so close to each other kept me driven at the beginning of my social isolation and I was glad to get them behind me.

What about you? Do you need a distraction? Do you have a distraction to share? If you’re hurting, I’m listening.

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To be, or not to be…assertive. That is the question I pose to you.

My hospital room when my assertive  appendix demanded its release.
The view from my hospital bed on Memorial Day.

Being assertive is a challenge for me, but apparently not for my appendix, which choose Memorial Day to demand its freedom. That evening, I happily complied, and a surgeon put my appendix, and me, out of our misery.

(BTW, I’m perfectly happy without that little wormlike appendage to my colon. I’ve recovered quickly, thanks in part to the many doctors over the last century who contributed to the development of laparoscopic procedures.)

The day after my surgery, an interesting dilemma presented itself–to defend myself, and risk offending my surgeon, or to stay quiet. I chose a middle ground, and I’d love to know what you would have done.

To be assertive may risk causing offense.

In my memoir, which is written and soon to be agent-ready, I explore the roots, manifestation, and consequences of my excessive agreeableness. I own the sad truth that my inability to stand up for myself made it difficult to stand up for my son Matthew during his long rumble with a childhood brain tumor.

For many years, I was well aware of my reticence toward speaking up. There were times I tried to be assertive, but mostly I stayed in my comfort zone where others’ needs took priority over mine.

Being assertive is outside my comfort zone.

But with my uncomfortable truth ready to be laid bare to the world on the pages of my memoir, I’ve been making a concerted effort to be stronger, more assertive, to speak my truth.

Part of what makes it hard for me to speak openly is my fear that I’ll offend someone. That’s what happened with my surgeon.

The morning after my appendectomy, the diminutive man with thinning hair, square glasses, and nutmeg skin stopped in to check on me, and give me my discharge instructions. In a thick accent, he sped through the dos and don’ts. I caught a few snippets–showering was OK, swimming was not, no lifting, call his office if I had any problems.

“So I don’t need to schedule a follow-up appointment with you?” I asked when he finished.

“Yes, you do!” he said with a laugh, “I just told you that.” His laugh didn’t hide his derisive tone.

What I wanted to say, also with a laugh, was, Well, you have a very heavy accent and you talk too fast, so don’t blame me.

But that seemed rude. I was afraid I might offend him. I didn’t want to sound prejudiced.

So what I said, with a smile, was, “Well, you gave me a lot of information, and I’m just trying to take it all in.”

This was growth for me. In the past, I might have said, I’m sorry, I must have missed that. Or I might have been too embarrassed to say anything.

I took a step in the right direction by not taking the blame, and not feeling the shame. But I regret not being more assertive, and I don’t know how I could have responded without offending the person who had held my life–or at least the life of my inflamed appendix–in his hands.

I regret not being more assertive.

The dilemma is, when you want to stand up for yourself, but you don’t want to offend someone in a way that is antithetical to your beliefs, what do you do?

Since I’m learning to navigate these new waters of assertiveness, I’ll ask you–

What would you have done?

I’m in mental health therapy. It’s no big deal.

Photo courtesy Pexels.com

I have a therapist—a mental health counselor—who I see regularly.

It’s no big deal.

I’m not mentally ill. I don’t have drug or alcohol addictions. And I’m not in the middle of a big transition like divorce, serious illness, a loved one’s death, relocating, losing a job, or starting a job.

And yet, I see a therapist.

My point is that you don’t have to have a specific diagnosis or life-altering crisis or HUGE problem to engage in counseling. It doesn’t have to be a big deal.

Mental health counseling doesn’t have to be a big deal.

I’ve been in counseling many times in my life, starting when I was an overweight 16-year-old, my self-esteem in the toilet. In college, and as a young adult, I also sought help. And then again in 1997, when motherhood overwhelmed me because my 10-year-old son Matthew was falling apart from what would later be diagnosed as a brain tumor. (OK, that WAS a big deal, but we didn’t know it was first.)

Recently, three life events sent me back to my therapist:

  • Writing my memoir, and re-living the challenging years of parenting Matthew through his brain tumor.
  • The pain and isolation and frustration of my chronic illness, year six.
  • Growing pains. Sigh. Yes, still, at 60.

Mental health counseling is more than a bandaid.

My husband has strong shoulders to cry on, and my friends have ears open to listening, but sometimes I need a neutral, skilled party to help me weed through the surface shit and find the core of what’s bothering me. Friends and loved ones are sometimes just bandaids–very caring and soothing, but bandaids all the same. Therapy is like open-heart surgery–it gets to the source of the angst.

Some people don’t “do” counseling.

Earlier in my career, when I was a student assistance counselor in elementary schools, if I assessed a student who could benefit from counseling, I would ask the parents to consider it.

“I don’t DO counseling,” I often heard.

I get it. Some people would rather have a tooth pulled than to bare their souls to a stranger. Some people don’t feel the need to dig deep into their personalities or lives to figure themselves out. Some people won’t air their “dirty laundry” beyond family or friends. There’s no judgement here.

But if you had a recurrent pain in your calf or elbow or any there body part, when it got to be too much to bear, wouldn’t you see a doctor to treat it?

If you had a toothache, wouldn’t you see a dentist to stop the pain?

If you’re confused or sad or angry or don’t know how you feel, but you know you feel something and you want to feel better, why wouldn’t you reach out to get that help?

I reach out for help from a mental health professional because I love figuring myself out. I feel and think very deeply about just about everything…as my husband would attest. I’ve got more layers than an onion, more sides than a prism. Counseling helps me understand myself and my relationship to the world. We all have just one chance at this life, and I want to be my best self as I fumble through.

Mental health counseling is like running a marathon.

I love counseling in the way that some runners love marathons. It’s hard work. It’s usually painful. It challenges you to push through fear and self-doubt and find your inner strength. It makes you a better person in the end. For me, it’s all about personal growth, and counseling is the ultimate fertilizer.

In recognition of Mental Health Awareness month, I’m sharing my “no big deal” story in hopes that it will normalize counseling. I hope to de-stigmatize asking for, and receiving support from, a professional to help you obtain, regain, and/or maintain your emotional health.

Despite my convictions, I’m nervous about this disclosure.

In spite of my conviction that counseling need not be hidden because there’s nothing to be ashamed of, I’m still a little nervous about “outing” myself to the world on this topic. It just goes to show we all still have work to do.

I hope you’ll do the work with me. If you want counseling, I hope you’ll get it. If you’re in counseling, I hope you won’t hide it. If you’d like to “out” yourself here with a comment, go for it. I’m with you 100%.

Together, we can make caring for our emotional selves no big deal.

Resources:

How do you find a therapist? Click here, and below for some resources.

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mental-illness/in-depth/mental-health-providers/art-20045530

Also, many states and local governments have departments of mental health, or behavioral health, and may help you find sliding fee services.