The Tip of the Iceberg
Victor Frankl is quoted as saying that “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.” This can certainly be said about the current world that we live in where our entire lives have been upended due to the global COVID pandemic. How we cope with these additional stressors ranges from the healthy to the destructive. In any case, what we have seen so far is simply the tip of the iceberg for what will certainly be long term mental health effects.
Time Limits Matter
There is an exercise called the “plank” where a person holds their weight between their elbows/forearms and their toes – holding their body as near straight as possible. This is a great core exercise but is also something that needs to be worked up to doing well. The goal is to hold it for longer and longer periods until the person reaches their desired time limit. Then the exercise is performed several times per week or even per day.
So the interesting part about this exercise is that if I told you that you had to hold your plank for an indefinite amount of time and then just left you alone, you would drop at whatever time your body and mind would give up at. But if I said to hold it for 20 seconds, and I gave you a countdown, you are more likely to achieve that goal. This is how motivational personal trainers work.
Mental health and life are no different. We can survive very difficult and traumatic events if we have a finish line in sight – if we know that it is a temporary condition – and we have positive reinforcement coaching us along. But what happens when that finish line keeps moving farther away – and our coaches are in just as much misery as we are? We have no idea how long this will last and when it will end (anxiety) – so we might as well give up now and just get it over with (depression). See what I mean?
How it Progresses
Recent surveys have found that the COVID pandemic has shifted the numbers of people with a mental health issue from one in five Americans to one in three – and there is a corresponding percentage increase in substance use issues. I find this completely unsurprising. But it also is something that we need to understand and be aware of.
I recently read an article about supplemental substance use during the pandemic. Alcohol, Xanax, and marijuana were specifically cited. The substances were being used to decrease stress at the end of the workday and to provide that definite line between “work” and “home” when in reality work and home were occurring in the same place due to telework. Let me be clear: there is absolutely nothing wrong with using a substance to cause pleasure, decrease stress, or anything else. Trust me, I take four “psychotropic” medications a day – with the specific intent of changing my brain chemistry. The difference between what I do and what I am talking about here is what can become long term impacts.
See, using alcohol and substances as a short-term coping mechanism is fine (although I can certainly argue there are much healthier ways of coping). But what happens when that stressor keeps stretching out and has no time limit or end in sight? It works like this: I drank because I liked it, it did what it was supposed to – it made me feel better. Then I did it enough that it became a habit – something I would always do at a certain time in a certain way. Those reinforced habits then became a compulsion – I have to have this in order to feel better or to enjoy something. Then I sought the compulsion over all else – and that is the definition of addiction: “continued behavior despite adverse effects.” This is the difference between using sometimes and always having to use. One is a choice, and one is an undeniable compulsion.
With no End in Sight
As it stands right now, in October of 2020, there is no clear end in sight for this pandemic and its restrictions. Our critical social interactions have been severely limited or completely destroyed. The boundaries that kept us from going off the rails have been removed. Our external controls that kept our mental health issues in check have disappeared – leaving us to our own devices and with limited resources to cope.
How long can you hold a plank without a predetermined time limit goal? It becomes much more difficult to mentally endure something that seems like it has no end. But here’s the thing: you don’t have to think that way. In my early recovery many of my days were just about “chasing midnight” – finding a way to make it to midnight because then it’s the end of the day and I made it to tomorrow. Now I chase 9 o’clock PM which is when I take my meds and start winding my day down (I end up crashing out about an hour and a half after my meds since I take a sleep aid). So to me, 9 o’clock is all I have to get to every day. I’ll figure out what I’m going to do tomorrow when I wake up. It hasn’t happened yet so it doesn’t matter. That is how I keep an end in sight.
Human beings are resilient. We have survived countless horrors and events and have still managed to grow and arguably even overpopulate the planet. Contrary to the adage that “you are special” is what I like to remind myself and others about: “you are not special.” See, there are a lot of people that are going through what you are going through – you just need to look outward instead of inward. That is what Unonymous is about – we are everywhere and we are not unique in our suffering. The coolest thing about walking into a recovery meeting or into the waiting area at my psychologist’s office is that when I see the people there, I know that I am not alone. Just start talking about it.
Positivity is a decision. There are good things that have come out of this pandemic for many folks – if we are willing to look for them. For me, I truly miss the human interaction of in-person self-help groups and the before and after meeting discussions with close companions. I miss sitting in my psychologist’s office for bi-weekly sessions. But on the flip side – I no longer have to reschedule my therapy sessions or find meeting substitutes for when I travel. It’s all on Zoom or other online platforms. I can get to anyone from anywhere for conversations and discussions on mental health and recovery. If I didn’t have those options, life would be a whole lot harder for me and my mental health issues than it already is.
You don’t need to find hope for tomorrow, next week, next month, or next year. You just need to hold your plank for that 20-second countdown – you just need to find enough to make it to your pillow tonight. Because when you go to sleep and wake up, you’ve made it through another day.