Pushing through the opacity
Note: I wrote this entry two weeks ago, over the course of several days. Like trains of thought, it doesn't necessarily follow a logical order or reflect how I am currently feeling.
May 4, 2020
Not sure what to write today. Or feel, or think. I'm kind of just making this up as I go along...which is what everyone has been doing, anyway, so what does it matter?
When the pandemic first started, I was doing fine. Great, in fact. I had energy and motivation every morning going into work; I felt creative, and busted out several art pieces within a matter of days; I went on a 3-week, salad-for-lunch streak that made me feel all kinds of organic-y goodness. Despite a shocking public health threat and an economy beginning to crumble, I was kind of on top of things for once.
I'm not sure at what point that changed. All I know is that I have tanked these last few weeks.
I feel so many things at once, and, at the same time, nothing at all. I feel frustrated. Drained of optimism. Uninterested in everything. I feel like my wheels are mucky and stuck in sludge--not turning, not going anywhere. I feel like there are no windows to the future, just opaque walls without texture or color. I feel like I have nothing good left in me, and that everything has been replaced with this giant, toxic mixture of bored restlessness and dread. I'm angry at humanity and sad for it, too. And I don't want to do shit.
I am just one of millions feeling these things. And I am very "behind the ball" in this, too. As I type, my inner voice says, This sounds sooo two months ago.
Remember when this first started, and all those social media posts and newspaper articles saying, "check on your friends, this is a difficult time, mental health is declining"? Maybe it's just me, but I don't see those anymore. Perceiving myself to be alone in the struggle right now just adds to my glum.
Perhaps the reason this poor cognitive state hasn't surfaced earlier is that I still go into work every day. As the weeks of the "Stay Home, Stay Safe" executive order dragged on, I kept seeing the same conversations--How are you spending quarantine? What new hobby have you picked up? I'm going stir crazy. This isn't normal!--when in reality, not much changed for me. It's almost like life has reverted back to when I first moved up north, spending every waking moment alone besides the 40 hours with coworkers, except now I can't see any of their faces.
Take temp, down coffee, mask up. Repeat. The phrase "keep calm and carry on" has never aligned more perfectly.
Actually, my emotional response system tends to favor that reaction. Whether through genetic inheritance or learned coping responses, I've developed the ability to power through traumatic and stressful events without seeming phased at all. Whenever I witness or experience a significant moment--someone else is badly injured or passes out, I'm mistreated, someone dies--my instinctual response is to continue like normal, sometimes even blocking out the stressor.
Here's the example I use all the time: my dad used to play slow-pitch softball with his brothers and friends. At an annual tournament in Clarksville, my family sat in the stands and watched him play outfield. The batter swung, PING, and the ball went flying between left and center field. Well, my dad was left field, and my uncle was center. And they can both be stubborn and competitive in sports.
You could hear the loud crack of their skulls ramming together from the concession stand.
In a flurry of moving bodies, everyone rushed into the field to assess the damage. My dad, hit square in the forehead, was bleeding and knocked completely unconscious. My uncle, hit at his right (or left) temple, was also bleeding and immediately given two black eyes. An ambulance rushed to the scene to take my dad away, while my aunt attempted to drive my uncle to the hospital in her van.
Long story short, it was a very serious situation but everyone turned out fine--and it made for a killer campfire anecdote just a couple days later. But the point I'm trying to make is that, at the moment of incidence--the smash, the crowd, the panic, the disarray--I remember feeling nothing out of the ordinary. Family friends came over to "comfort" us as it was happening, asking if we were okay and if we needed anything. I found it really awkward and unneeded. However, nearly a half-hour later something finally clicked within me, and I started to shake and get teary-eyed.
This is not the only example I have of my strange, delayed reaction. It happened often enough that I had soon convinced myself of being a "slow processor," that something was wrong with me and I should be ashamed of it. Since becoming more educated and talking with a therapist, I've realized that these instances of something "not registering" was an emergency response state. By continuing on as normal and essentially blocking out the danger, my brain was trying to protect me.
Everyone has heard of the natural, "fight or flight" responses to danger, but realistic responses can be a lot more complicated than that. You can freeze and fawn as well, or act in a combination. According to BetterHelp, there are common hybrid patterns that include:
Fawn-fight: controlling threats in coercive and manipulative ways
Fawn-flight: avoiding the threat by becoming invaluable in the situation
Fawn-freeze: surrendering to the threat by taking on the victim role
Flight-freeze: avoiding threats by focusing on other situations
I found these descriptions to be really accurate, and often see myself taking on the latter three. The April 30 article by Kirby explains that, no matter what pattern you exhibit, "your underlying goal is to minimize, end, or avoid the danger and return to a feeling of calm and control."
While in this "emergency response state," my brain is unable to pin down exactly what I'm upset about, or should be upset about. The fact is, my trauma brain is blocking out the stressful feelings and is just having me go through the motions of daily life. Until I can fully process the enormous depth of my thoughts and feelings, I struggle to answer questions like "Are you okay?" and "How are you doing?"
As you can probably infer, most of us are in an understated emergency response mode because of COVID-19, and have been for months now. And everyone should know by now that long-term stress, even on a subdued level, has negative impacts on health. It will be interesting to analyze public health statistics after this wave has passed; that will most definitely be another topic I write about.
There's not really an end to this babbling narrative at the moment. By writing this I'm just trying to push through the opacity that has cemented my bones into something vastly different than my usual self. Writing is a reliable means for catharsis for me, and it seems to be the only form of consistency I want right now.
The good news is that I'm in a much better frame of mind compared to when I originally wanted to post this. I hope to continue writing through the pandemic, hopefully about some more concrete topics that I can actually put some academic thought and research behind. Thanks for sticking with me through this process, and I wish you luck on whatever yours looks like.