By Reba J. McMellon, M.S., LPC
If you have felt all sorts of crazy in the past six months, join the crowd. COVID-19 seemed to start gradually then hit us like a tsunami.
We were just beginning to hear about it, learn to spell and pronounce it, discuss it among family and friends when bam! – a “shelter at home” order was issued.
Businesses were shut down, re-opened then shut down again. Initially all the masks looked like those blue medical things that portend some sort of medical procedure involving pain or discomfort. Now we’re use to people looking like they are going to a robbery. Facial expressions are blocked. Tension doesn’t begin to describe what we all felt and are still feeling in the atmosphere “out there.” In the beginning, every time I heard shelter in place or shelter at home, I pictured a chihuahua shivering with his nose in a corner waiting for a thunderstorm to pass. But this is no thunderstorm. It hasn’t passed. Does that leave some of us shivering in place?
Then comes the debate: What is this? Is it blue, is it red, does “it” have ties to being liberal or conservative, does it have left wings or right wings, can it fly through the air, does it make you really sick or not sick at all, do people die from it? It’s something we can’t see, touch or taste. It’s also something we can’t control. We Americans do not like things we can’t control.
It’s a type of sickness that will physically separate you from your loved ones, especially those in the margins of life. No. Uh huh, that just isn’t acceptable. A pandemic that hits the United States?
We thought we, as a society, were way past that sort of thing. We’re used to having fast paced control. Just look at what our cell phones can do. Technology is the way of the world, not some viral outbreak no one has heard of. This sort of thing might happen across the pond but not in our country. We tend to be vague about our world geography and ignore all things not in our backyard, so let it be something that happens somewhere else.
But here “it” is, all up in our backyard. This leads to a little bit of acceptance that went something like this: “Ok, I’ll accept a couple weeks of disruption that could lead to a month or two but that’s it. Then we’ll move back to normal.”
When two weeks turned into two months and now six months with no end in sight, family and friends began to splinter in how they chose to cope. Conspiracy theories of fake tests, clandestine financial motives, political gain or loss, election plans, medical financing-you name it. Anger at not being able to bargain our way through “this” gave rise to anxiety, fear and irritably. Sometimes extreme irritability. When this stage started to wane, a sadness-like depression rolled around. Lethargy, giving up, giving in, preoccupation with health, fear of routines that previously brought comfort, finding new comfort in numbing out, giving up and giving in.
Life as we knew it is, well, over. This leads to a new level of acceptance. Acceptance of a life and lifestyle previously unfamiliar to most. One of much less doing and much more being. Living more simply and present in the moment can be extremely uncomfortable for a society that values doing over being. A society that equates busy with important. Depending on your personal value system and level of spiritual maturity, this could be asking you to rework your whole system of thinking.
Just when you think you’re over the anger, irritability, shock, anxiety, denial and bargaining, a sense of new peace flows down and you feel as though you’ve arrived at acceptance.
But, just like the stages of grief, the feeling may roll back around and play out again and again. The good news is, the more you lean into acceptance, the shorter the other stages will last. We, as a society, have a lot of strengths. Patience and trust don’t tend to be our top two. We are a nation that gets to work and fixes things. Natural disasters? No problem. We show up and rebuild. But COVID-19 is intangible. Most of us can’t show up anywhere and fix any of it.
We are, as a nation, hardheaded. Hardheaded but not hopeless.
The five stages of grief (loss) are: shock, denial, bargaining, anger, depression, testing and acceptance.
If you find yourself stuck in one stage for more than two weeks, it’s a red flag. Check in with yourself on a regular basis. Write on a calendar or in a journal so you can keep up with your moods and thought processes, as well as the days of the week, the change in seasons, the months that pass by.
If your mood causes you to lose your perspective, your ability to love your neighbor, family or friends and your ability to find joy or humor in something every day, talk to somebody! Not just anybody, talk to someone who really listens. You may need to see your medical doctor or mental health counselor. If you didn’t need extra support to see you through this COVID-19 crazy, you are in the minority. Needing a little extra help is a normal response to an abnormal situation.
If there were ever a time for the serenity prayer, it’s now. Light your candles, use holy water, listen to God, follow the liturgy of the word. If not now, when?
Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. The courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.
(Reba J. McMellon, M.S., LPC is a licensed professional counselor with 35 years of experience. She currently lives in Jackson, Mississippi and works part-time as a mental health consultant and freelance writer.)