Monday, 8:53 pm — I’m on the bathroom floor, hyperventilating and gasping for air between guttural sobs. Just got off the phone with my brother, who gave me the most loving, funny pep talk. What is wrong with me? How did I end up on the bathroom floor? Why can’t I breathe? Why can’t I focus? Am I going to throw up? Am I having a panic attack? Is this a coronavirus symptom? What the heck is wrong with me? Hands shaking, I fumble to SOS text my therapist for an appointment. Done. Gasp. I roll over against the wall in the fetal position, struggling for air. Hands still shaking, heartbeat pulsing through my ears. I search to figure out: How will I survive the night with myself?
A month ago, my company asked me to lead our coronavirus response team. I kept telling myself: “I got this. I do well under pressure. I made it through the recession. Hell, I survived my dad’s death last year.” I felt immense responsibility to protect our clients’ livelihoods, financial well being and families. Within weeks coronavirus cast a swift, panicked, vengeful shadow across the globe, ravaging our health, families, minds, fears and uprooting the economy. And I felt this in my entire being. I dove into work and helping others. I donated to local businesses, sent care packages to hospitals, bought my nurse/doctor friends dinner. If there was something or someone I could help, I exhausted the options.
Outside of work, I often panicked about my mom getting coronavirus. Last year my dad died after a month on a ventilator in the ICU, so every time my mom mentioned a trip to the grocery store, I vividly pictured her in the ICU, struggling to breathe and suffering (or dying) on a ventilator. My voice broke when I asked her to be more careful, because I can never unlive that horrific month with my dad. Then, pushing me further into an anxious spiral, my long distance boyfriend got coronavirus and, my help, he did not want. Worry, stress, and anxiety flourished in a petri dish of chaos and unchecked emotions.
For weeks I battled with nausea, focus, stress headaches, self-criticism, quick irritation, and then the episode on the bathroom floor. “Focus on the bigger picture. You’re strong,” I meekly convinced myself, while also avoiding the mirror to witness myself slip back into the same velocity of grief and pain I had when my dad died.
“Take off your red cape,” Dr. K said. “You can’t fix this, you can’t save everyone, you can’t solve this. You’re not superwoman.” She doesn’t care about my resume or my reasons. She knows I struggle with maladaptive perfectionism and untamed anxiety. What’s happening in the world is real and uncontrollable and I rationalized that I could influence the outcome. Pro tip: Overproductive anxiety and fear DGAF how rational, reasonable, and influential you are. Neither does coronavirus.
Since I’ve picked myself up off the floor, I want to share what helped me, in case it helps you:
Keep your toolkit polished.
Previously, I wrote about the dichotomy of ambition and anxiety, as well as how to survive the early days of grief, so I revisited the tools (and friends) that helped me manage back then. I also created a few questions for our “new normal”, to help reframe the reality and write about it. The goal was to be future forward and specific, and miraculously, these questions disrupted anxious, negative spirals and reset my frame of mind. It’s amazing how creativity spawns from anxiety, how readily we spin up a million narratives. Somehow I channeled that creative storytelling into a new direction and eventually a new outlook. The anxiety softened.
What do you look forward to doing in the future?
- Hugging my friends and mom again
- Dinner at River Oyster, vinho verde, mussels and happy hour!
- Mexico City adventure: food + anthropology museum (later addendum: with my best friend Vera who confirmed on April 7th)
- Friends can visit Miami again
What makes you feel alive?
- Music, dancing, singing
- The breeze on my balcony
- Sunrise on Biscayne Bay
- Traveling to a new place or to see friends
- Sharing a great bottle of wine with someone I love
- Feeling hopeful and optimistic when I look at the future
- The beach, salt water, the sound of waves, breathing in beach air
Spiral, write, revisit, add, rinse, repeat.
What 3 future outcomes could come out of this?
Last Saturday, I woke up at 2:56 am after a recurring dream about failing classes (hello, subconscious). Unwelcome adrenaline seized my body and mind, so I grabbed a notebook and sloppily divided a page into 3 columns for “Future Life Design Options”. Each column represented a worst to best case scenario. Option A: The world crumbles at a rapid pace. Option B: We slow down and struggle through. Option C: We emerge in amazing ways. What possible outcomes exist in each of these situations? Who am I with? What do we do? After outlining three options, I felt some comfort to navigate through our unknown circumstances, and strength around how I could improvise along the spectrum of outcomes.
Empathy and kindness must begin with yourself.
My best friend has a habit of saying, “Be nice to my friend, Jade.” While being my toughest critic has led to success, my inner voice is a complete asshole: supremely self-destructive, coupled with lofty expectations and a dissertation in all the ways I could have done everything better. I told myself I wasn’t allowed to be sad because that is selfish and small-minded. Instead, I normalized the crisis, the helplessness, the irrational need for control, the loneliness, and the loss of safety. I buried myself in the question, “What else can I do?” Compassion festered into anxious empathy and grief, until I broke. Hard. On the bathroom floor. Look closely at the stories you tell yourself, particularly around responsibility, comparative suffering and performance. And when you fall inward, consider the airline safety briefing about putting on your face mask before helping others: Apply empathy toward yourself first, before helping others.
Last week I learned that the things that make me successful are the same things that led me to the bathroom floor. Compassion is a powerful ally, when anxiety is tempered. Keep your tools polished, your love up front, and take care of yourself while helping each other.