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Danielle Grossman: Known and unknown, COVID-19 is a process

Other Voices
Danielle B. Grossman

It’s a process. Is there anything more annoying that a therapist can say? Isn’t my job to help people feel better, not just state the obvious?

Yet sometimes I have to accept that there is no roadmap or perfect tool to offer my client. We have to just acknowledge that it’s a process and sit in a place where things feel chaotic and stuck and full of contradictions that can’t be solved.

Sitting at my desk at home, looking out at the same view I have looked at for many weeks, feeling scared and unsure about everything, and also grateful and oddly content, finding no answers in the newspaper or on Twitter to reassure me … I guess this time of COVID-19 is “a process.”

The process is exceedingly hard on people. It’s not like other types of stressors. We do pretty darn well when there is an immediate major crisis. If there is an earthquake, we go into survival mode and shift our priorities into the basics of life and death. We protect ourselves and our loved ones. While we may be terrified, we may also find relief in letting go of the pressure of trying to keep everything in life under our control.

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Humans are also reasonably equipped to manage rebuilding. The earthquake is over, we assess what’s lost and we grieve and we commit to the life that is still with us. This isn’t a quick or painless transition but we generally can do it with some support. We may even get energized to create a new life that’s more aligned with our values and desires.

We even have abilities to cope when earthquakes are a constant normal for us and we live in an extended life or death crisis. It damages our minds and bodies terribly when we have to remain in chronic survival mode. But we can do it.

Where we end up flailing and failing the most is when we know the ground is shaking but we can’t gage how badly it’s shaking. We don’t know if it’s going to get worse or better, or worse and then better, or better and then worse. We sort of know we will be OK in the end and at times it feels like it’s really not that bad but maybe it is that bad and maybe we won’t be OK.

This is what COVID-19 is for us. It’s known and unknown, hope and despair, control and no control, safety and no safety all packaged together and spinning us out into states of overwhelm and a roller-coaster of emotional states. We keep trying to calibrate but can’t find the sweet spot where we can stop tumbling and stabilize. Do I relax or do I stay vigilant? Do I stay in survival mode or do I try to feel normal? Can I do both? Why can’t I do both? Why am I so tired?

While I am not sure why we haven’t evolved to be better at coping with the process, I do know that our ineptitude at dealing with it ensures our emotional interdependence. If no one has a fix for the process or a strategy to conquer it or a bullet point list of tools to master it, then what else do we have but the comfort of being in it together?

When I can let go of the fantasy of magically transporting myself or anyone else out of the discomfort of the process, I sit in the truth of what the time of COVID-19 is really like for any human, for all of us.

To anyone mentally or emotionally suffering, I can say, it’s not your fault if you’re flailing here. It doesn’t mean anything bad about you. I can say, you’re not alone. I’m right here with you. Even if you feel alone, even if you are actually alone in your home or alone on a ventilator in the hospital, you are not alone.

My humanity is tied to yours, in all the certainty and uncertainty, the darkness and the light, and all the weird spaces between.

Danielle B. Grossman, MFT, lives in Truckee. Contact her at truckeecounseling@gmail.com.


 

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