By Esther Mann

 

Dear Esther,

When the pandemic started, I was very concerned. I was probably the first person to wear a mask and get with the program. Like most people, I was worried about the seriousness of the situation and “doing the right thing.” Little by little, my world started getting smaller and smaller.

In all honesty, I was never the most outgoing person in the world. I always had my few good friends with whom I kept up regularly. We often used to meet for dinner during the week or for brunch on Sunday. My sisters and I would sometimes get together for Shabbos meals. And of course there was always work that got me out of the house daily. Aside from my “keeping up” errands, I otherwise didn’t have such a complicated life. I’ve always enjoyed my own company and I had no problem spending time alone reading or watching TV.

But as everyone started taking COVID much more seriously, my life started seriously shrinking. My office closed and we were forced to work from home. I told family and friends that I was not planning on socializing anymore and basically began a new life with entirely new rules. It was stressful at first and took some adjusting. But after a short time, I started getting comfortable with my new normal. I had my routine, which was actually much closer to no routine at all! I did most of my shopping online and barely left the house. I found myself sleeping erratically and later than usual, staying in my nightgown all day, eating whenever and whatever I felt like rather than having set meals, and binge-watching until all hours (particularly if I was into a great series, I could stay up all night). Even my personal care, I’m embarrassed to say, was sketchy.

I was still worried about COVID, but I was in my own little bubble that felt somewhat safe and secure. I suddenly didn’t feel compelled to adhere to any “have to’s” aside from getting my work done. And so my life has been rolling along for the past eight months.

When I heard that the vaccine is coming out within a few weeks and that our lives would be returning to normal by May, according to many experts, I suddenly started to panic. For the first time in ages, I began to take stock. I tried on some clothing from my past life, and it was immediately obvious that I had gained a ton of weight. I wasn’t surprised by that, since my eating habits have been so bad, but I was taken aback by just how much weight I actually put on. I started thinking about the fact that I haven’t gotten a haircut or a manicure in ages. And my energy level is shot. Just going through my closet and trying things on was exhausting. I spend most of my days sitting by my computer or in bed. I’ve been getting no exercise in eight months and I feel much older.

It’s not that I want the pandemic to continue, G-d forbid, but I’ve gotten so used to my present life that I don’t see how I can transition back to how I used to live. The thought of getting up early, commuting by train to work, putting in an eight-hour day, five days a week, etc., is more than I can imagine. Plus, I’m embarrassed for anyone to see me in my present condition. I really feel like I can’t do this and don’t know how I’m going to get it together. I actually want to stay in my nice, safe, comfortable bubble forever!

I don’t see a way back, and I’m feeling helpless and hopeless. Now what?

Helpless

Dear Helpless,

One of the most amazing things about human beings is our ability to adapt. Often it is this incredible blessing that allows us to survive parts of our lives that may appear to others as insurmountable. Most people can look back on specific challenges and, from a position of having survived, truly wonder how they made it through. Sadly, there are those people who find that their lives are just one challenge after another, with barely a moment to catch their breaths for very long before the next shoe drops. The survivors among us find the tools to endure and keep trucking along. But not everyone is a survivor and not everyone finds the wherewithal to accept and adapt to life’s miseries.

The pandemic is unique in that it is a worldwide threat, a total game-changer, affecting young and old, rich and poor, leveling the playing field for everyone. We have all been trying to come up with strategies that will allow us to survive and even thrive during this most unique and demanding time in history. But make no mistake — for most of us, it does feel as though we are living in an altered universe. The successful individuals among us — perhaps one might even say the lucky ones among us — can actually find areas of their lives for which they feel tremendous gratitude, through it all and despite it all.

Some people have not done very well in terms of figuring out how to adapt. Those are the people who have found themselves depressed and anxious, often turning to dangerous addictions to help them get through the day. Tragically, we’ve all heard of crumbling marriages, failing businesses, and even suicides. Not everyone has been blessed with an ability to figure it out, adjust, and roll with the punches.

From the outset, it would seem as though you have adapted very well. You are staying safe and secure, keeping up with your work, and taking care of your basic needs. Yet in an insidious way, you have actually paid somewhat of a price in order to maintain your “bubble.” You have created for yourself a reality that cannot be sustained forever. Even if there weren’t talk about a vaccine, you seem to have numbed yourself from remembering what it feels like to live a fuller, more successful life. You are neglecting yourself to a degree that sounds unhealthy, you have cut off your connections that used to exist in “real time,” and you have given up on the structure and order that once served as a foundation in your daily life.

I believe humans need all of the above. First and foremost, we need to take care of ourselves, from basic hygiene to simple exercise and feeling like a mensch. Unless we are literally hermits, we need some meaningful connections with others to feel connected and secure. Finally, we do our best and thrive most efficiently when we live with purpose and order.

It sounds like the idea of going back to a pre-COVID life seems impossible for you to imagine. I’m here to tell you that you can get there. You’ve done it before and you can do it again. Nothing is happening tomorrow. Therefore, you have a good six months to plan your reemergence into society and your former life. But you have to start today! You have to create order in your days immediately, as if your life depended on it—because your life does depend on it.

The hard work must begin immediately, but start slow and work your way up. I know it won’t be easy, and with no one breathing down your neck, it’s tempting to live erratically, with no structure. Therefore, you may want to consider connecting with a coach who can help motivate you daily to stay on task if you are feeling too overwhelmed to shake things up on your own. Accountability is key. If not to yourself, then be accountable to someone else.

It might be helpful to remember the following. If I had said to you one year ago that this is what your life would presently look like and that you would adapt to it, you probably would have told me that I was out of my mind to say such a thing. But here you are, having gotten through eight months of a pandemic, and though you’ve paid a price, you’re still standing. Your ability to rearrange your lifestyle again is still within your power. You’ve proven to yourself that you are a survivor, and you can tap into those instincts once again.

You have some months to reemerge from your cocoon better than ever. Let the work begin!

Esther

Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals, couples, and families. Esther is presently offering phone, Zoom, and FaceTime sessions. She can be reached at mindbiz44@aol.com or 516-314-2295.

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