Pandemic Brain

Pinball machine image by Vlad Vasnetsov from Pixabay

Dear friend,

I recently had an aha moment about the pandemic. It came after days of typing and clicking on my laptop without producing or accomplishing anything of value. I had zero energy and wondered if I was depressed.

Do you have those days?

Many writers have struggled to practice their craft after COVID-19 hit. I had been fairly productive for several months, but lately, I’ve felt my enthusiasm wane. During this period of writing sloth-dom, even this short blog took me three four five days to finish. (Below, I list of some of the topics that bounced around my head in the process. It’s kinda funny, actually.)

I was pretty discouraged, as I get sometimes. Building a name for oneself as a writer is not for the faint-of-heart. And the pandemic adds another layer.

The pandemic adds to our already-full plates.

I think it’s because every day—every hour and minute, for some of us—we’re facing existential questions about our lives, the future of our country, even the future of humanity and this planet. My husband and I have gone so far as to give each other “if I get COVID” instructions above and beyond our advanced directives.

Many of our deepest existential questions have no easy answer, if they have an answer at all. The whys and hows just bounce around our brains until they fall in a black hole, only to pop up again the next time we ask.

This intensity of unknowns creates… (and here’s my aha moment)…Pandemic Brain.

Pandemic Brain is caused by an overload of existential questioning and the intensity of the unknown.

When I realized I had Pandemic Brain, I already felt better. Funny how naming a problem can do that.

Imagine a pinball machine. If you walk past it, it’s quiet. But as soon as you engage with it by pulling the plunger, you’re trapped. There’s so much pent-up energy in that tightly coiled spring, it’s nearly impossible to resist the urge to let it snap back. And when you finally release it, bedlam ensues.

With Pandemic Brain, the plunger is engaged by the news, a Facebook post, a comment from a friend, or even a thought you have in a quiet moment. You may have felt on top of things, but as soon as you release the plunger with a sproing, your thoughts zig zag in a million directions with a gazillion different trajectories all at at once, and you try frantically to create some semblance of order, knowing you’ll have little control.

Pandemic Brain is like a pinball machine

Yup. That about describes it for me. So whatami gonna do about it?

What I’m going to do is return to the strategies I use anytime I feel overwhelmed, distracted, unproductive, in a funk:

  • Give myself permission to be imperfectly human.
  • Look for and articulate the lessons I learn from every struggle.
  • Meditate–even five minutes helps.
  • Look for moments in the day when I am not in overwhelming pain or discomfort, nor under extreme pressure. For many of us, there are more of those moments in a day than we realize. I revel in the calm of those moments.
  • Practice gratitude of the little things. Of course we’re all grateful for family and friends, but don’t forget to appreciate curbside pickup at the liquor store, plentiful rolls of toilet paper again available, and programmable coffee makers.
  • Laugh. I’ve never watched the Ellen Degeneres show, but her funniest moments Youtube videos are fall-on-the-floor hilarious.

And for some roll-your-eyes humor, here are some topics that dinged around in my Pandemic Brain for this months blog:

  • Why I call my husband Michael “Mike” in my book, and my son Matt “Matthew,” and what it’s like to be “Karen” lately now that the name is infamous, and do you even know that “Karen” is a thing, and what’s really in a name?
  • My book proposal is almost done except the marketing section, which is the thing I dreaded most about writing a proposal and I think I’m having a major flare of imposter syndrome.
  • I’m such an introvert that even virtual engaging like on Twitter and Facebook is exhausting so I take breaks for a few days but then I think about what I should be posting and tweeting and I’m going to coin the phrase “the vortex of engagement,” and that would be a great essay if I ever have the time or energy to write it.
  • And what authors can I ask to blurb my book, but the real question is, do I have the nerve to ask?

One thing I failed to mention in my list of “treatments” for Pandemic Brain is writing. It may be hard to generate intelligible prose with a blur of ideas and questions and fears buzzing around in my head, but when the words come, they help me understand myself and the world I inhabit.

So writing is another thing for me to be grateful for. And I’m grateful to you for reading this today. Thank you, my friend.

Now it’s time to get back to work.

Post-traumatic growth–the end of the pandemic tunnel?

The light of post-traumatic growth may await us at the end of the tunnel.

Dear friend,

I’ve been thinking about that phrase, “The light at the end of the tunnel.” At this stage of the pandemic, I can still see the light, but it feels like this damn tunnel keeps getting longer and longer. Does it feel that way to you?

Or maybe you’ve lost sight of the light altogether.

I hope my words today will help—they are my final thoughts about the Art of Manliness podcast my son, Matt, brought to my attention last month. To catch you up, I first wrote about pandemic grief, and then about the sixth stage of grief, which is making meaning.

But the reason Matt sent me the podcast in the first place was that it referenced something else he and I have in common.

This was our text exchange:

Matt: “Wow! This is that podcast I always talk about. The episode I just listened to is about the pandemic, but from the perspective of emotions.”

Me: “Cool! I’ll listen at lunch.”

Matt: “I WAS NOT expecting it, but they went on to talk about a lot of your book stuff, and just as I was starting to think it, the guy mentions…POST-TRAUMATIC GROWTH!”

Post-traumatic growth—PTG— is what happens when a person grows from trauma, instead of languishing in it, as they might do with post-traumatic stress disorder–PTSD. I had never heard of post-traumatic growth until Matt introduced it to me a few years ago after hearing about it on NPR.

Post-traumatic growth—PTG— is what happens when a person grows from trauma.

When Matt told me, he said, “I have that, Mom. I have PTG.”

After I looked into it, I realized I, too, have post-traumatic growth, twenty + years after Matt’s diagnosis at age eleven with a brain tumor.

Twenty years. It was a long tunnel.

And I didn’t realize until recently, when my therapist suggested it, that I probably had undiagnosed PTSD. Every once in a while, it’s still triggered when Matt hits a snag in life that I am powerless to solve, like when his basement got flooded last fall with five inches of water.

With no idea what to suggest or who to call–and it was late in the evening, so who would answer anyway?–I was lost. Michael was out at a meeting. I had just finished a glass of wine and didn’t feel safe driving over to Matt’s to offer emotional support, although he needed it.

It triggered the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness I had when Matt was young and was deteriorating before my eyes. That crumbling tunnel was three years long, and the light almost flickered out.

Helplessness and hopelessness–sound familiar?

So when Matt called about his basement, my mind flooded, too:

It was a mistake for him to buy that house. It’ll get mold and he’ll get sick. I wish he didn’t live so far away. (Twenty minutes!) I wish I could buy him a perfect house that would keep him perfectly safe and he’d never have an emergency like this and I’d never have to worry like when he was little and I wanted to move us to a desert island where no one would tease him or make him feel bad and I’d love him enough to keep away the hurt and I’d keep him safe and I’m so tired of worrying because I’ve done enough worrying already to last me a few lifetimes.

Yet Matt got his basement pumped out, dried out (mostly), and grew wiser, more confident, and seasoned as a homeowner. I grew too, in reminding myself that my fears are not Matt’s. I grew in understanding that with adversity comes growth, a lesson I hadn’t fully embraced when my children were young.

My difficult motherhood taught me more than I would have learned from the perfect life I had expected. It’s cliche, but I’m a better person because of it—more compassionate, humble, forgiving, wise. That’s part of post-traumatic—appreciating the lessons of your experience.

If your interminable tunnel has been too chaotic or lonely or dark to see any lessons yet, I hope you’ll be open to finding them in retrospect, when they often reveal themselves. And I hope you’ll remember that the light is there, even if you can’t see it.

The light is there, even if you can’t see it.

If this rings true for you, if it feels right, feel free to stop reading.

But…

It may not ring true if you’ve lost loved ones during this difficult time when our normal support systems for grief are absent. The loved one was your light. That light did go out.

I have not walked in your shoes, so feel free to X out this page, and know that my heart goes out to you. But if you’re open, here are my thoughts:

I believe you are now in a different tunnel, one without your loved one. It is longer and darker and grimier and lonelier than you ever could have imagined. You may not see the light at the end of that new tunnel, so you may believe there is none.

But it is there.

And on the days when you feel you can’t get out of bed or pull on a pair of pants or put a fork to your mouth, all you need to accomplish in those difficult moments is to believe in the light.

Believe it is there. Believe you will see it again. And believe you will reach it, because someday you will get there, and that will represent growth.

The path to PTG is paved in meaningful moments.

In the podcast, grief expert David Kessler, who lost his teenage son unexpectedly, says the path to PTG (at around 13:50 in the podcast) is paved in meaningful moments. When friends and family call and text and send food and flowers, those are meaningful moments. Revel in them. Allow them to buoy you. They are reminders that the light exists, even if it’s still hidden.

When you are ready, you’ll create your own meaningful moments—picture collages, memorial gardens or displays, virtual celebrations of life—and you will catch a glimpse of the light. It will flicker on and off for a while. But it will call to you, and you will put one heavy foot in front of the other and slowly, laboriously, painfully move toward it.

Only you can decide if your loss manifests as PTSD, and if your growth feel likes PTG, but those are only labels anyway. What matters is that you climb out of your tunnel, and the you who exits, worn and tired though you may be, has survived.

That is my wish for us all—that we move toward the light, that we survive, that we grow.

There is light at the end of the tunnel. What will it hold for you?

(The podcast doesn’t go into much depth about PTG, so here’s another great resource.)

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Purpose–it may be simpler than you think.

Image by ArtCoreStudios from Pixabay

I had intended to write a blog last week to process some of my emotional overload, but after starting a draft or two, nothing substantial materialized.

Then, I got caught up in the whirlwind of coronavirus writing and submitting, because there’s so much I want to say and so much that needs to be said and so many opportunities not be squandered and this could be my big break to get a byline in a big mainstream publication and I’d better not blow it.

The outcome after three days of frenetic writing and revising was two essays and a handful of rejections. Everyone, it seemed, was writing about COVID-19. No one, it seemed, was interested in my words.

By Friday, after I submitted my essays one final time each, my thoughts returned to writing a blog. Easter was almost upon us, and, even for those who don’t celebrate, the metaphor of resurrection from darkness was too meaningful to ignore in these pandemic days. Again, I started a draft, but nothing gelled.

My thoughts were dandelion seeds dispersing in the wind, and in my attempt to catch them all, every single seed slid from my fingers.

Then I thought maybe I’d wake up early yesterday, Easter Day, and tap something out. Surely a seed would germinated on Easter, right?

Wrong.

Easter morning dawned on the heels of a few worse-than-normal gut days for me. The morning was another physical and emotional ordeal. By noon, I was so exhausted, I had to lie down.

Usually, when I need a ten or twenty-minute reset like this, it will revive me enough to face the rest of the day. Yesterday, it didn’t. I didn’t know if I could get up. I didn’t know if I wanted to.

I’ve never had a day when I couldn’t get out of bed, when depression or illness imprisoned me so fully that I gave in to the pull of the cocoon under my covers.

Yesterday, I wondered if it would be the first.

But my son was coming over. He was coming to celebrate Easter.

My husband and I had nothing special planned. We got curbside take-out on Saturday, wiped down the containers, and put them in the fridge for Sunday. We planned out our social-distancing-together strategy—where we would sit, how we would handle food distribution, which doors to use or not use.

Steve, our son who lives further away, didn’t make the drive for the weekend as he’s done for years. It was the right choice not to travel. I missed him, but he was safe–that mattered more.

But Matt lives twenty minutes away, and he was coming over. He was my purpose in getting up. So I did.

Please excuse the pun, but I rose from the bed.

I brushed my teeth and showered and got dressed and ate lunch and picked up a little around the house and scrolled through Facebook.

By the time Matt arrived at dinnertime, my gut had settled, allowing me to enjoy our visit. The day that I thought might break me turned out to be a great day.

Sometimes, we just need to find one purpose in the day that won’t allow us to quit, that makes us get up, show up for our day, and crawl through it if that’s all we can manage.

If you think you don’t have a purpose, you are wrong my friend.

For you have read my words. You have given me purpose today—to get these imperfect words onto this imperfect page so they reach your imperfect eyes.

Today, you are my purpose.

You may not think anyone cares if you get up or not, but you may be the very reason someone else rises, too.

If you can rise, I can rise. If I can rise, someone else can rise. And if more of us rise, then we make a statement that all hope is not lost.

The world needs that message right now. The world needs you. I needed you today, my friend, and you showed up for me.

Thank you.