One thing is becoming clear as we pass the two-month milestone of our current COVID-19 global pandemic: I don’t like uncertainty.
I like feeling in charge of tomorrow’s plans. I like things that make sense to me. I like being pretty sure of what’s coming up next. But precious little certainty exists any more for me (or for anybody else – including those tiresome politicians pretending to know). I’m not sure of very much these days and by now, I’ve had enough of uncertainty.
But I do like the way psychotherapist Nancy Colier explained this level of pandemic uncertainty recently. She compared it to “hitting the wall” during the last few miles of running a 26.2-mile marathon. . .
“We’ve hit the twenty-mile mark in this pandemic marathon, the stretch where we don’t know how or even if we can keep going, when it feels like we can’t go on another moment, when we are completely spent, empty, and all reserves have been used up.”
Colier, author of “The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World“, has worked with competitive athletes as a performance consultant. So she has a unique perspective on this common reality for so many distance runners.
As Runner’s World describes the phenomenon, during sustained exertion when we run low on stored glycogen (a carbohydrate stored in our muscles and liver for energy), even our brain wants to shut down, which leads to all that negative “I can’t do this!” thinking that’s so typical of hitting the wall.
Of course, hitting the pandemic wall has little to do with our stored glycogen, but everything to do with what Colier calls the “general malaise, hopelessness, boredom and depression setting in on our collective psyche.”
Even those of us who started off two months ago being all brave and strong and hopeful might now be thinking: “I can’t do this!”
As Nancy Colier points out, for instance, we don’t know when the pandemic will end, or if it will come back again with a vengeance. As our own Dr. Bonnie Henry (British Columbia’s top public health physician and a veteran expert in viral infections like polio, SARS, Zika and Ebola) warned earlier this week in her daily pandemic update:
“We’ve never had a pandemic in recorded history that has not had a second wave.”
(Speaking of which, one week after France began allowing students to go back to the classroom very recently, a renewed COVID-19 outbreak among 70 people linked to schools has caused the immediate closure of seven of those schools. Nobody knows when they will re-open).
What else don’t we know? Colier believes that we are living with an “infinite question mark”. She has this list of questions, for starters. . .
- When will a vaccine or reliably helpful drug appear?
- When will the grown-ups reappear and come up with a plan to get us through this?
- When we will go back to working in offices, or safely eating in restaurants, or hugging our friends without worry?
- Will summer camp happen?
- Will there be a fall term in schools?
- Will air travel be possible?
- Will we end up being quarantined again at the end of the year?
- Will we get to live a regular life again?
As a person with two distinct cardiac diagnoses, I learned back in March that heart patients like me are in a high-risk category during this pandemic. Not only was I statistically more vulnerable to being infected with the novel Corona virus, but I was far more likely to have a bad outcome if I were to be diagnosed. See also: CardioSmart’s comprehensive report, “Heart Patients Warned of Risks from COVID-19“
So I decided early on that I simply could not/would not get sick. Period. I would do whatever it takes to avoid becoming a pandemic statistic. I enthusiastically embraced all of the precautionary requirements of self-isolation.
I was insufferable!
Starting in mid-March, I thought it would be fun to start posting on Twitter my daily isolation agenda/To Do list. I included the routine (renew my meds prescriptions), the domestic (clean out kitchen drawers) and the exciting (Zoom chat re my upcoming conference presentation). Fascinating, right?
But I knew after only three weeks that my agenda was no longer working – on the day I started Tweeting morning plans like this one:
“Day 21: Make a decision about washing my hair. . . “
I had already started to fizzle. By the time I got all the way to Drawer #14, I had zero interest in sorting out Drawer #15, and I also suspected that my Twitter followers couldn’t care less about my kitchen drawers. And by now, not being able to hug or cuddle my five-year old granddaughter felt like torment.
I was facing the pandemic wall.
And as Nancy Colier quite accurately explained that reality:
“”We continue to go through the stages of deep gratitude and love for the front-line workers, and profound appreciation for the human capacity for kindness. But we’ve passed the stage of being excited about getting to take free workout classes online, or enjoy performances by the best artists from the comfort of our couch.
“At this point, well into the pandemic, the pies are baked, the dog is nearly dead from walking, the closets are clean, the notebooks are filled up with gratitude lists, the songs are sung, the Netflix shows have all been watched, the pots are banged, the dance parties danced, the Zoom happy hours imbibed.
“So, what now?”
She wisely reminds us that when life is going well, it doesn’t take that much effort to be the person we want to be.
And even when this crisis struck, I believed that I could manage to be brave and strong and hopeful, just as she described here:
“When facing fresh new challenges, we can find ways to be our best selves. We create a story line about our ability to rise up and meet life’s difficulty, to make lemonade from lemons!”
But the real questions and challenges arise, she says, when the hardship has been around for a while, when it has ceased to be new, obviously meaningful or even interesting, adding:
“When hardship becomes the norm, the spiritual warrior in us must awaken.”
But how can we make that happen?
How can I find my own spiritual warrior within me – a slacker who is apparently not only asleep by now, but in hiding with the covers pulled up tightly over her head?
Nancy Colier suggests that the remedy here may be to focus on our intention.
We must, she says, practice being in the present moment. In fact, she maintains that, paradoxically, staying present may be our best protection from despair.
That advice stopped me in my tracks.
It reminded me of frightening or painful times in my own past when what helped me the most was to shut my eyes and try to imagine looking back at this time, and picturing how I’d want to one day describe this current moment and – most importantly – my own response to it (e.g. “That was really hard, but ______” ) In other words, what was my own intention for getting through this experience?
Colier’s last words on “hitting the wall” were actually two questions to ask ourselves:
– “What’s happening right here where I am, inside and outside of me?
– “Who do I want to be in this very moment? “
Please. Stay safe. . .
Brick wall image: Michael Laut, Pixabay
Q: Are you hitting that pandemic wall, or has your own ‘spiritual warrior’ woken up?
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote much more about how heart patients manage health crises in my book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease. You can ask for it at your local bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN to save 20% off the list price).
– More about Nancy Colier’s latest book, The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World
– More Heart Sisters articles about COVID-19 and heart patients