The uncertainty of hitting that pandemic wall

by Carolyn Thomas    @HeartSisters

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.

Enthusiastic?

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

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Q:  Are you hitting that pandemic wall, or has your own ‘spiritual warrior’ woken up?

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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).

See also:

– 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

 

 

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21 thoughts on “The uncertainty of hitting that pandemic wall

  1. Such an interesting post and comments for me to hear other’s perspectives.

    After reading in Feb about the Cytokine Flood that can shut down all the organs, I self-isolated March 1st before the mandates here in California. (I was tested to have chronically elevated Cytokine levels and figured I didn’t want to take up a hospital respirator that others might need).

    Upon reflection I have 2 blessings:

    1- Self-isolation has not been much different for me since I’ve been exhausted on a daily basis for 25+ years and interaction of any kind can flatten me completely for days. It actually has been a bit of a relief not to have to respond to others requests to get together.

    2- My brain doesn’t remember the past well at all and seems relatively incapable of making future plans. It’s generally stuck in the present which can be both a problem and the solution. I used to think something was wrong with me, but I’ve come to the conclusion it’s just hard-wiring.

    I know I probably am not typical and there may very well be a “wall” looming in the future that my brain can’t fathom. Just hoping that when I hit it there are no permanent imprints on my head.

    Sending love, keep safe & sane, Carolyn.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Judy-Judith – I remember reading about those cytokines (the “cytokine storm syndrome”) – very scary hyper-inflammation state! I was alarmed by what I was hearing about respirators, too, but not for your own noble reasons – mostly because I read of the shortage of sedatives that are usually given to patients on respirators!!! I didn’t want to be “that patient”, unsedated and making a fuss in ICU…

      It is good to count your blessings!

      Re #1: I’ve heard from several readers who have shared similar observations, that self-isolation feels very much like “regular” life to them! On one day this past week, I spent the entire day in my jammies, did not brush my hair or my teeth, did absolutely nothing but noodle around planting my balcony pots with summer annuals! It was heavenly! Normally, Pajama Days mean I’m sick in bed, but they are so much more fun when you just don’t feel like getting dressed – because you don’t have to!

      Re #2: I too hope you don’t see that wall in the future! Nothing wrong with the way your brain’s wired!

      Same love, safety and sanity wishes back at you! ♥

      Like

  2. So helpful on day 70 of shelter in place for me, or as friends in Peru call it, carcel en casa (jail at home).

    I started out determined to do what I could to help, feeling that if I weren’t 76 with microvascular angina, I’d be working as a nurse on the frontlines. I cooked dinners for my nurse neighbor, got all the supplies to make medical face masks. Well I still send dinner next door sometimes, but had to drop the mask project because I don’t have the eyesight to do this many. So I just make them for friends and family. Disappointed.

    Today on an early morning dog walk, I had to stop after my usual mile to sit on a bench and let nitroglycerin have time to do its job. Walked home very, very slowly with many rests, frightened. Ok so a rest day. Just can’t will myself to be and do more than is in my capacity. Back to basics.

    I really needed to read this today.

    Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for sharing these important examples of how the best intentions can run right into reality on some days, Sara!

      Some days need to be rest days, no matter what else we may have already planned. I like your “back to basics” term, which reminds me of the need to focus in a laser-like fashion on what we can actually do, not what we “should” do. I was thinking that your (now limited edition!) masks will be especially appreciated by your family and friends who are fortunate to be the recipients…

      What’s that old definition of life – something like, “what happens to us while we’re busy making other plans”!?

      Stay safe… ♥

      Like

  3. I thought I’d be a natural at this staying home business. By nature I’d rather have a quiet life than a busy one.

    2019 was a write-off for me. I had cancer in December 2018 that required the removal of my left eye and everything in the socket. Recovery was difficult physically and emotionally. When I was finally ready to be social it was early summer. July 10, I was to have the cataract removed from my remaining eye, but I had a positive mono test. The surgery was postponed, as was my social life.

    When I finally felt better, in September, I got together with friends! Within days I had the flu, which gave way to bronchitis that lasted well into November. So I thought I was a master at staying home and physical distancing.

    The hitch came in April, when learned the cancer had spread to a lymph node in my neck. I had major surgery on my neck May 4th but that didn’t quite get it all. Now I’m being prepared for radiation and chemotherapy. I haven’t seen any friends or family since March 8, but I’ve been very busy with medical appointments with people no one ever wants to have to meet.

    Worse, I haven’t been able to fly to my daughter, who was suddenly widowed in March and is alone.

    This was supposed to be a summer with a family wedding at one end of the country and a 95th birthday party at the other end. Instead it looks like it will be the most grueling of my life.

    I will get through it and look back on it differently than others who look back on the corona summer. Just as I look back on a Christmas Day that I spent in hospital after having open heart surgery to get a valve replaced.

    These things all all-absorbing at the the time, but life goes on, ‘though we are changed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, Jenn…. You have encountered far too many “walls” since that initial cancer diagnosis in 2018, well past your official lifetime quota of dreadful personal events, your visits with friends and family now replaced with, as you say, “people no one ever wants to have to meet”.

      And not being able to be with your daughter after her own tragedy – just breaks my heart. ♥

      I’m so sorry that all of this has been happening to you. The surreal part of your story seems to be that you are oddly correct when you predict that you WILL get through this, one step at a time, although each new crisis sounds like something that most people believe they simply could not survive. In the way that people throughout the worst crises in history have somehow, amazingly suffered yet survived, you will get through this and look back on this as so much more than a corona summer.

      Please take care – I’ll be keeping fingers and toes crossed for you this summer. ♥

      Like

  4. Wow. As so often happens, your article came at precisely the right time for me. I opened your post right after sending an email to a friend, telling her that my husband and I are hoping to go camping next weekend, and I’m just hoping that nothing “bad” happens this week that would prevent us from going.

    I’m rarely (never?) prone to that level of negative thinking! But, lately, things seem to be that we haven’t recovered from one crisis before the next one hits. Was recovering from a very serious illness … and then broke my ankle … was finally able to get out and walk again … and a week later, the lockdown … had two hospitalizations (1 week each) for UTIs … a two-week hospitalization (with NO VISITORS) in which my 26-year transplanted kidney finally failed … started dialysis last week.

    I feel completely beaten down. I’ve hit that wall, so to speak, where I definitely feel like I can’t go on. Everything seems to be happening TO me, and I have no control over it all anymore.

    Of course, I know that I do have control over how I handle it all. For the most part, I accepted being laid up again with the ankle, I have handled the lockdown rather calmly, I was rather frustrated with the first two hospitalizations but was able to be pragmatic about the fact that these were temporary setbacks, but the last hospitalization with its life changing prognosis finally knocked me down. I feel like I’m just waiting for the next thing to hit.

    So, I’m going to really focus on taking Nancy’s advice and stay present in each moment.

    And, hopefully, after a week of pleasant days, there will be an opportunity to enjoy the campfire in the beautiful campsite.

    Thanks again for the inspiration you bring to me every Sunday!

    Charlotte

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Charlotte for your kind words, and especially for reminding us what can happen when it’s not just ONE thing that hits us, but another, and then another, and then another!

      You got slammed with first a serious illness, then a broken ankle (ouch!), then the lockdown, then not one but two hospitalizations (and NO VISITORS!!), then kidney failure and dialysis!

      No wonder you felt so awful. There was barely time to even start recovering from each event before the next came crashing down on your head.

      I sure hope that you will be able to go camping next weekend – because you would really love that after everything else that’s happened lately.

      But already, I’m impressed that you had already begun to adapt and adjust to each setback. I think we can do that, we cope and cope and cope until that final straw can just seem TOO MUCH!

      I wrote about this a while back (on how I simply could not stand one more bad thing happening – even though the “bad” things I was whining about at the time were laughably minor. But suddenly, to me, they all seemed impossible to manage anymore! Here’s the article

      Take care, stay safe and Happy Camping! ♥

      Like

  5. Rather than a wall… consider it a ramp. Your mind has finally gotten fatigued at “Doing” and is ready to explore “Being”. Who am “I” without all the business and trappings of a material centered life?

    I never really hit the wall because I’ve been on this ramp to know my Spiritual Self, my Soul and its relationship to the Universe for decades.

    I feel blessed to have the time for silence, meditation, reading the writings of great sages. It took a little while to allow the mail to pile up on the floor next to my study chair. But I have been victorious! – and I am loving it.

    To try to return to “what was” is not the best use of this special time we have been granted.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Very timely and well written, as always. Thanks Carolyn.

    I too, figured that dealing with long term heart issues I knew all the tricks to “soldier on” in good form, it worked until about 10 days ago, getting much tougher and I need to go back to school, so to speak, for some refreshers!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing that perspective, Lauren – I too had the same early reaction. It seemed to work pretty well until -boom! – it suddenly seemed to stop! Now that shock seems to have shifted to rage at the videos I’m seeing of idiots partying out there in huge numbers!

      Stay safe… ♥

      Like

  7. About to turn 79 on Friday, much more likely today than a year ago, living in an independent apartment … well all kinds of details important to me but not the world.

    My point is I have mixed feelings about hunkering down and the like ending. Of course, I want fewer people dying, including myself. But I like these days with fewer if any meetings and obligations, even fewer programs designed for our enjoyment.

    I write this as the Chair of the Entertainment Committee, a retired US Diplomat: Cultural Attache, of course! I like the slowing down. In my power chair I roll around the pond on our grounds, which I haven’t left in three months, daily, seeing things I had never seen. I watch an amazing mix of movies on TCM. Maybe for the first time in my life, I am able to get all the rest I need and want.

    (I do work on letting go of internalizing the hatred of a leadership that kills, armed anti-maskers and others as dangerous if not more than any virus, as I work, from my computer mostly, to bring about change).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. First, Happy Birthday to you on Friday!
      Second, thank you for that reminder that is very true for so many (i.e. this ‘slowing down’ that would never have happened without the intrusion of a global pandemic!)

      In fact, it would have been unimaginable that we could simply stop being “busy”. I share your despair re inadequate leadership and those armed anti-maskers (!!??!!) We cannot change that kind of mentality; we can only change our own behaviours and attitudes. Thanks for weighing in here…

      Stay safe… ♥

      Like

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