It’s normal to NOT be okay during COVID-19.

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It’s normal to NOT be okay during COVID-19.

Reflecting on how the reality of COVID-19 challenged my mental health and how sharing my feelings with others brought reassurance that I was not alone.

Calm Before The Storm.

For the past year or so, I found myself content with the idea that I had found a perfect balance between work, fitness, and leisure Playing mas was that something I had to look forward to several times a year as a means to shed rigid limits of military service and other life stressors.  Negative situations could come and go, but as long as I had something on the horizon, I knew I could get through pretty much anything. Besides, having something to look forward was a foundation of behavioral health therapy and a principle of many resiliency techniques.    Discussions about COVID-19 became more prevalent on social media.  I even made a post about how I was not even worried about the virus whatsoever. But shortly after Trinidad Carnival, the reality of COVID-19 began to rear its ugly head, but I continued to shake it off as most people did not think it would evolve into a pandemic that would ultimately end up even the most remote areas of the United States, and completely change our way of living in a matter of hours.

Dissolution of Normalcy.

I tried to stay optimistic about Jamaica, but it was postponed until October. I was still optimistic that this was a minor inconvenience and by implementing the the right measures it would be gone as quickly as it came.  But then other events began to fall like dominoes.  I began to notice a pattern: bands and promoters withdrawing from events before they were canceled. I had eight jumps scheduled along with UberSoca Cruise with plans to not only have fun and create/solidify bonds but to produce some amazing content that would propel the Caribbean Carnival Culture forward.  But As every hour passed, I watched all of my plans for 2020 completely change. I started considering jumps in other locations that were cancelled as fast as the thought even came to me. Will Miami even happen and will the new Jamaica date even come to fruition?  UberSoca Cruise ain’t looking good right now… Oh, wait… St. Kitts Carnival for New Year is starting to sound good right about now… but I felt my optimism waning.

Where is my stress relief?  I started asking myself how am I going to get by not having something to look forward to? I am currently restricted to a 35-mile radius for an unforeseen amount of time and live IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE. How do you balance yourself, release and reset when you can’t go anywhere with no glimmer of hope toward normalcy, let alone time on the road?

For the first four weeks, I tried to stay afloat by practicing makeup skills, participating in “don’t rush” challenges, and spreading optimism on my platform. I thought being an essential employee would be useful as I couldn’t imagine being forced to stay at home all day.  I HAVE TO HAVE SOMETHING TO DO.  But, I honored my instinct to nurture others by acts of kindness behind the scenes. All these things kept me distracted but ultimately could not keep me going for much longer.

I remember calling a friend in Brooklyn.  His hair and beard had lengthened in the past few weeks. We talked about how much we couldn’t wait to just hug someone or have a conversation with a friend outside, or see each other face-to-face again. We took time to think about the things that were so simple but now meant so much more, and promised to cherish even the smallest cracks on the sidewalk when we could move freely again.

Compartmentalizing.

I remember a FaceTime call with my sister; tears rolling down her face as she spoke of wishing she could go back home to NYC.  One of our uncles had been hospitalized due to COVID-19.  Four people she knew had perished, and we mutually worried about our stubborn mother with COPD.  And I found myself irritable on the inside, but on the outside, listening to her and trying to find the right words to give her comfort.

When I finished the call I found myself really bothered by this experience. How could I feel like that as she was hurting? Was there something wrong with me? Has almost 18 years of service really desensitized me that much?  I thought on this for several hours to only realize that it was my own defense mechanism to keep me from feeling what she was going through.  I’m still in the clinic seeing patients at that point, and the officer in charge— I could NOT afford to let people see me in the slightest be emotionally disturbed. But It was also at that point that I realized that I TOO WAS STRUGGLING TO HOLD MYSELF TOGETHER. I was compartmentalizing everything to continue to be a service to others and not acknowledging how everything was making me feel.

Forced to Confront my Emotions.

My personal Instagram and Facebook are littered with pets, comics, memes, and inspirational quote pages. I interact with more people through AWM than I do in my personal life.  Through AWM I witnessed people on social media bringing up old conflicts probably because there was nothing else better to do.  People and their challenge videos brought to slaughter over questions about their nationality and the flag they were wearing. I was personally attacked over something as simple as a WHINE vs. WINE. A handful of disgruntled followers in my DM because they didn’t win my giveaway, gathering the nerve to question HOW I DETERMINED THE WINNER.  Meanwhile, people were dying left and right. There are people that don’t know how they are going to feed their families. People that had lost their jobs. Small businesses on the brink of bankruptcy.   The COVID-19 graph continued to rise, and I for the life of me could not understand how in the midst of something that was impacting everyone on a global scale that had people the time or energy to be ugly, let alone FIGHT with people they can’t see. Everyone was hurting, and this is how we treat each other? I began to really dislike the human race as a whole and started asking myself a lot of spiritual and philosophical questions.  Mainly… is this really humanity at its core?

While struggling to remain optimistic, I also felt started to guilty for my blessings. I found it difficult to want to talk to anybody about what I was feeling because I knew I didn’t have it as bad as many.  This was something that was impacting everyone, and I felt it selfish to try to vent to someone that possibly didn’t have the emotional space to take on my issues on top of their own, and I didn’t want what I was feeling to be dismissed because it wasn’t as severe as others.

But the death of a non-commissioned officer (NCO)  I deployed with to Iraq broke me down.  Sergeant First Class (SFC) Laird had recently retired, and with me and a lot of others— survived a 15 month deployment to Iraq in 2007 during what we called “the surge”.  We survived mortar rounds and rocket attacks for 15 months.  He was a free-spirited man in uniform, charismatic and fearless.  But SFC Laird died alone in his home due to the COVID-19.

It was that very moment of learning of his passing that I became energetically and emotionally overwhelmed. Almost 18 years of service has taught me a certain level of mental toughness and resiliency, but I knew that there’s a fragile side of myself that had to be honored. Otherwise, I would have probably ended up having a meltdown at work, and that was NOT ABOUT TO HAPPEN, especially in uniform. I first decided to filter myself from as much negativity as possible.  I was already not watching TV at all, so the next step was to unplug from social media to invite some reflection and meditation.  I deleted FB and IG and downloaded the Calm app at the recommendation of a friend.

During my social media downtime, I found myself sitting at work at times feeling like I was choking, or having difficulties swallowing.  Initially, I started to examine and self-diagnose. My thyroid didn’t feel enlarged, my labs were normal.  I found out on the same day that my uncle was released from the hospital but an Aunt had been admitted.  While speaking on my phone with my father (an essential employee),  I learned that the masks that he had weren’t adequate and started to panic. My throat began to get tighter, and that’s when I noticed a pattern and realized I was experiencing was a rare symptom of anxiety. Realizing this made tears well up in my eyes I went through a crazy emotional cycle in my office:  I got angry at myself for even experiencing this anxiety let alone being the person who was about to cry in my own damn office with Soldiers that expected me to lead them behind that closed door. I was afraid to let anyone see me get emotional and embarrassed at the thought of someone possibly seeing my eyes red and my face puffy.

When Pain is Your Professor.

The first thing I had to face and accept was how people react during uncertain times as these.  Ugliness is a natural HUMAN response. Hurt people will hurt people. Humanity is as beautiful as it is ugly and this is no different. It should not make me angry, and I should not take the ugliness to heart.

The second thing I realized that to compartmentalize chronically is spiritually toxic.  In my line of work it’s very necessary, but to figure out how to diffuse more consistently is important. I realize that I need to take more time to reflect on how adverse events make me feel.  The challenge, however, is figuring out how to do this when you can’t escape the confines of your living quarters or partake in the things that make you happy.  In the midst of all the life changes, I abandoned some of the things that were still accessible to me. My exercise equipment was collecting dust and I had completely abandoned my healthier eating habits.  I decided to go back to the things that I could do to keep me balanced.

Loss of personal power, and a sense of inadequacy in my relationships/interactions with people, is a source of my anxiety.  I’m so used to being a fixer, a nurturer, a person of action. As of late, I face a daily frustration of explaining to my patients there is nothing else that I can do over the phone but provide symptomatic care until I can see them again in the clinic. I refill medications and extend activity limitations over the phone.  I feel powerless as a healthcare provider.  My friends are losing people they love, their jobs, their financial stability. I can’t go over their houses with a bottle of wine to make them feel better or offer them a place to stay. I’ve had 2 family members in the hospital and I can’t go home. I lost an extended family member and couldn’t visit the family and attend the memorial service.  I am completely stripped of my ability to serve and be there others which is part of what makes me feel whole.  But this forces me to focus on serving myself. I need the same care that I provide for others.

I also realized that I needed to stop invalidating how this whole situation made me feel on the merit of another person’s level of suffering.  Everyone is facing some sort of struggle,  I needed to take more time to honor my own emotions to support balance.  While sitting in my office, I reminded myself that regardless of the fact that everyone is experiencing different hardships, it doesn’t mean that I should not acknowledge how my life has been impacted.  I owe it to myself to evaluate my hardships and how they make me feel.  

Opening up to Others.

I sat in my office throat tightening again after finding out my aunt was in the hospital.   Trying to hold back tears clouding my vision over emotions I was having a hard time coming to grips with.  I found myself desperate for words of advice.  Feeling very vulnerable at this point, I went into a very small GroupMe chat, and I asked how everyone was coping. I told them I was struggling and wanted to know how everyone was getting by.  Maybe there was something I was missing or not doing. And guess what happened?

Several people told me about how they weren’t okay either.  

For a good half an hour or so, at least three people shared with me what they were struggling with.  This GroupMe chat turned into a brief group therapy session where we didn’t necessarily have the solution for one another but felt relief in the fact that we were finally able to talk about how we were in fact NOT okay.  We exchanged familiarities,  words of encouragement, and condolences.  

Social media sells a fantasy, snapping small snippets of our lives that look the best, but we never truly see the dim side of life. Everyone has been trying to keep this happy face online, but deep down inside, they are struggling. 

Relief.

And so… in my office with my door closed… I took some breaths and allowed myself to FINALLY acknowledge that I am scared for the health of my family in NYC.  I’m devastated that SFC Laird died.  It hurt me to see my sister crying.  I’m angry because I feel powerless. I’m frustrated because I am feeling inadequate because I can do so little for my patients. I feel inadequate because I can’t be there for my friends and family.  I’m depressed I can’t travel. I miss my freedom. I miss playing mas and I feel weak for saying I NEED to have those things in my life to feel strong. I told myself to let go of the things I could not change about this, and focus on the things I could do. That’s where my power is!  I know these changes are not permanent. I reminded myself of all those things. And after a short while, the vice grip around my throat began to lessen and I felt a bit better and more focused.

Forward Thinking.

This whole COVID-19 reality is surreal.  We feel so alone in our experiences and yet we are not because we are all hurting in some way.  Although we can’t make what’s happening in the world feel better, there was some solace in knowing that there are a lot of us that weren’t okay… and it was totally okay to not be.

COVID-19 is definitely stressing our mental health and resiliency, but there is so much fear in discussing it. Societal norms and expectations are toxic, especially during times such as these.  Having said that, I really want people to understand that there are a lot more people hurting than you think and it is perfectly alright to feel vulnerable even as everyone’s hardship varies. It’s okay to admit you’re not okay and even talk amongst people you know about how they’re coping or holding up.  It is also perfectly okay to seek counseling to help you process what you’re feeling in a healthy way and arm you with tools necessary to cope.

Resources.

Below is a list of useful apps and resources currently available that I have used, am currently using, or comes highly recommended from a network of professionals. This list is not all encompassing and places emphasis on low-cost.

I hope that sharing my experience to you all encourages to you to acknowledge that you are not alone, and to seek the self-care that you need.

National Services

National Suicide Lifeline: http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org 1-800-273-8255. ONLINE CHAT AVAILABLE.

We can all help prevent suicide. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.

National Domestic Violence Hotline: https://www.thehotline.org/

1−800−799−7233 ONLINE CHAT AVAILABLE.

We answer the call to support and shift power back to those affected by relationship abuse.

Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) Provides nation-wide database on access to low-cost behavioral health services along with essential guidance on how to obtain therapy and medication on a tight budget  https://adaa.org/finding-help/treatment/low-cost-treatment

Military Crisis Line: https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/get-help/military-crisis-line

800-273-8255, Press 1.  Online Chat is available.

The Military Crisis Line, text messaging service, and online chat provide free VA support for all Service members, including members of the National Guard and Reserve, and all Veterans, even if they are not registered with VA or enrolled in VA health care. This confidential, immediate help is available 24/7 at no cost to active-duty, Guard and reserve members, their families, and friends.

US Department of Health and Human Resources https://findahealthcenter.hrsa.gov/.

Federally Qualified Health Centers are federally funded health care providers that offer mental health and other treatment services to underserved areas on a sliding fee scale, including free services for those on Medicaid or unable to pay anything. The link provides a directory on the Health Resources and Services Administration’s site — just check with an individual center to see if they provide mental health services.

Apps (Iphone and/or Andriod)

Shine  Subscription 11.99/month: Learn a new self-care strategy every day, get support from a diverse community, and explore an audio library of over 500+ original meditations, bedtime stories, and ambient music to help you shift your mindset or mood.

Mindfulness Subscription 9.99/month: Start your journey to a more relaxed and healthier state of mind with The Mindfulness App. Whether you are just starting out or experienced in meditation, The Mindfulness App will help you to become more present in your daily life.

Calm (AWM FAVORITE)  Subscription 14.99/month or 59.00/year.  Free trial. Calm is the #1 app for Sleep, Meditation and Relaxation. Join the millions experiencing better sleep, lower stress, and less anxiety with our guided meditations, Sleep Stories, breathing programs, stretching exercises, and relaxing music. Calm is recommended by top psychologists, therapists, and mental health experts.

#selfcare (AWM FAVORITE) #SelfCare is a free, simple, and beautiful AI companion for joy and self-connection. We’re not a game nor an app. We’re more like a friend in your phone. With us, there’s no score, no winning, no failure. No ads, no difficulty, no notifications. There’s just us and our feelings 

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