There's a pandemic happening. There is no getting around it, and the first few months of it were really scary, for a lot of reasons. Mostly because whole cities and countries shut down and life dramatically changed in a lot of ways. This post will come out in mid-June of 2020 and these things are still happening. I probably don't have to remind you, as the reader. Your life has probably changed a lot — maybe more dramatically, maybe less, but it’s definitely different than it was in February or January of this year.
My work outside of writing didn’t change a whole lot, it mostly dried up. I went from 4 jobs at any one time, to one. One of the things I’ve been doing for the past couple of years is working as a dog walker and pet sitter, and I love it. I truly do. I get to go outside, get exercise, and spend my time with those purest of souls - dogs. My phone is filled with pictures of my different clients, and I regularly tell stories of the different personalities that I encounter. Though with most of their owners either losing work of their own or working from home, what had been 4-5 regular clients a week was whittled down to two.
This is not a complaint. I know that I am incredibly lucky to still be working at all, to be able to still pay my bills, to still spend time with the dogs that I love and help the people that need it. One of my best friends and clients hasn’t been able to leave her apartment complex since March, due to underlying conditions, and her work was in the entertainment industry — she also hasn’t worked since that shut down entirely. I’ve been able to run errands for her, and help her stay sane, even if that means physical distance movie nights before I walk her dogs.
But make no mistake, this pandemic is a traumatic event, on a worldwide scale. That shouldn’t be glossed over, or swept under the rug.
My mental health has always been really important to me. I visited counselors semi-regularly as a kid after my parents divorced, and started therapy on my own shortly after moving to Los Angeles to help process other traumatic events. It was only recently that another mental health professional I met with told me that trauma is a lot like throwing a hammer into a washing machine. It is not supposed to be there, and even if you take it out, things won’t work quite the same way. We’ve all had a hammer thrown into our washing machines, right now. Your hammer might be smaller or larger, might be easier to deal with or harder, but it’s been done. I am not here to tell you how to deal with it, just to share how I’ve been dealing with mine.
(And boy howdy, let me tell you, it’s been a process).
With the loss of work and clients, came the addition of time. I went from jumping between clients for essentially 8 hours a day, to scheduling time between the two that I had left. That would often be just a couple hours in the afternoon, and then a couple hours at night, with a lot of empty space in between. That’s really hard for someone who saw her productivity levels, how much I was working, as a measure of worth. I was working a lot, I often reasoned, so I’m doing okay. I’m lucky and happy because I’m working a lot. Keeping busy is good for me, even if it means that I get so stressed sometimes I’ll lock my keys in my apartment three times in one week, or that I have stress nightmares so bad I’ll only get maybe 3-4 hours of sleep in any given night… or week.
The pendulum swung the other way. Suddenly I had so much time I wasn’t sure how to fill it. That’s not a new story, either. Social media was full of stories of people teaching themselves how to cook, how to bake, new instruments or new skills, to fill the time they suddenly found themselves with. Books they were reading, shows and movies they were watching, new artistic endeavors they were starting out on.
“This is the time to be productive!” Everyone seemed to shout.
“You should be more productive!" My brain would tell me.
There were loads of things I knew I needed to do, that I hadn’t done because I’d filled my time with work. There’s still boxes that I haven’t unpacked in my apartment, even though I’ve been here two years. It took months to set up this blog, despite wanting writing to be my chosen career and oftentimes the only thing I feel like I’m good at. Even small things like doing the dishes, putting away my laundry, putting my shoes in their proper place, seemed insurmountable. Not out of exhaustion or sadness, they simply were. Trapped behind a wall I didn't know how to get around, or through, or over.
I was stuck. Sleeping in until ten, watching Netflix or Hulu until 3pm, then getting ready in a hurry to go visit one of those clients, and coming back home to do the exact same thing.
And that’s okay too. Processing trauma is about giving yourself space to rest. Then April and May rolled around, though, and the world had been quarantining for almost two months and I had little to show for it except for increasing anxiety about the things I hadn’t done that I had wanted to do with this time. My previous therapist taught me to focus on self-care in those times. Grounding, and being gentle with yourself, and doing things that made you feel centered. Most of the time for me that means a nice hot bath when I can get it (my apartment doesn’t have a bathtub unfortunately), focusing on my skin care routine and/or doing a face mask, meditating, or some other small action to bring myself back to the present moment for a while.
I started small. I realized I needed more physical activity, so I decided to start a yoga challenge from YouTube. 30 Days of Yoga with Yoga With Adriene. I started a hashtag on my personal Twitter account to keep track of the days that I did it, and in case anyone else wanted to follow along with me. That was a small chunk of time, less than an hour, and relaxing and fulfilling, but not enough to fill the gaps of time I now found myself with. Even if I scheduled it, told myself to do it between the hours of 12 and 2pm, I still found myself doing a whole lot of nothing up until then, and then rushing out the door once more to my afternoon client. The only time I would have during the day without the anxiety of things I wanted to do that I simply couldn’t.
As much as I loved doing yoga, and was able to even finish that 30 day challenge and gain the ability to touch my toes without bending my knees (something I’ve never been able to do in my entire life), I was still… stuck.
Self-care is different for everyone and every different type of brain. It is the ability to deal with our washers after we’ve taken the hammers out, or a workaround with them still in there, to make things not so chaotic. With this pandemic, my washer suddenly had a different hammer in there, that I had to learn how to take out and deal with. Or rather, a hammer that had always been there, that I’d learned how to work around for years and years, and suddenly couldn’t anymore.
If you’re lucky enough to have the same type of brain that I do, you might’ve picked up on those hints. If you’re also lucky to not have the same type of brain that I do, it’s time to move on to probably what should’ve been the first part of this post.
Attention Deficit Disorder, ADD or ADHD, is pretty common in my family. My dad has it, my youngest sister has it, grandparents on both sides have or had it. It presents itself differently in women, too, and is often harder to diagnose because of it. There are different types: hyperactive, inattentive, or a combination of both. I haven’t been officially diagnosed, but with that kind of history, it’s a little hard to ignore. I had teachers approach me at various times throughout my school career to discuss the issues I’d been having getting assignments in. Problems that my family had recognized but thought might be better for me not to treat - at the time.
I spoke with one of my best friends in Texas who had gone through this whole thing since we’d been friends in middle school. I asked him questions, got his advice and guidance, his encouragement that I was doing the right thing. At the encouragement of my mom, I told my youngest sister the problems I was having. The inability to do anything, the frustration, the anxiety. She sent me resources, articles and subreddits and things I could use to help explain the things I was feeling. She validated me, and helped a lot more than a face mask and some meditation would’ve. Gave me the tools to find the person that would help me further by exploring some medication options.
I found a psychiatrist and started on a stimulant medication. He was kind and listened and understood the way I described my struggles with things. How hard it was to do anything, that it was either "I'm going to do this thing and this thing and this thing RIGHT NOW” or “not now.” I'm either a hummingbird, flitting from one spot to the other constantly, or a sloth. How anxiety seemed to come along for the ride when that happened, the things that fell through the cracks when that happened.
He’s the one that gave me the hammer and the washing machine metaphor. Gave me the tool to adjust my washing machine to accommodate my hammer this time.
It took two weeks for me to realize how much it had helped me. I had been able to finish building this blog, and get it ready to launch. I had been able to maintain the smaller chores — doing the dishes in a timely manner, putting my laundry away before the next laundry day, keeping up with my nightly skin care — that had been easier to say “not now” to despite the gnawing anxiety in my chest over it. Things that seemed to make me feel weighed down, even small things like those day-to-day ones, didn’t seem that way anymore.
Self-care comes in a lot of different forms. Sometimes it’s yoga, stretching and breathing in a mindful way to focus on the present. Sometimes it’s a hot bath and a good soak, bringing the blood back to your skin and a peace of mind with a fun bath bomb or a hot shower and a scrubby body wash that smells like jasmine.
Sometimes it’s realizing you’re struggling in a different way, and asking the people you know equipped with those tools for help. Sometimes it’s a medication that helps your brain work in a way that it hadn’t been before. And it’s still work. You still have to take those tools and fix the things that the hammer messed up. The hammer might not ever go away entirely, either, but your tools are there to help things work even with the hammer there.
I hope you have the tools to help your washing machines right now. I hope things aren’t so loud and clanging and difficult for you right now, and I hope that maybe your hammers become easier to deal with because of the tools that you have. And I hope that you have the community around you to help you with the tools that you don’t, or that you know how to ask for help when that time comes.
We’re all stuck in this world for the long haul, and these tools are all we’ve got.