From ‘Rock’ to Wreck
By Ronni Burns
From my small perch, as a coach, a colleague, a family member, a neighbor, a friend, a citizen and a college professor, I have seen sturdy, strong men and women, people others would call “rocks” become wrecks, in the last few months. Many didn’t initially recognize that it was the COVID-19 wall they had crashed into and left them feeling vulnerable and confused.
Vulnerability is scary. Many of us are accustomed to feeling empowered, in control. Our self-identity doesn’t allow for anxiety and depression. We fix things. Now, with our defenses lowered, our fortitude has been tested and everything troublesome, large and small, is magnified.
Many of my “rock” clients are struggling. Most are fortunate to still have jobs, food, nice homes and supportive families. So, what’s the problem? For some, it’s the blur between work and life with many now working 24/7. They’re juggling children, spouses, colleagues, bosses, and their own anxiety. Top performers in essential industries are understandably perhaps but irrationally convinced that they are about to be fired. When we tell ourselves scary stories, we get scared—and frighten the people who care for us, be they spouse, children, or others in our circles. This is another kind of virus.
“Rock” people love to set goals. We have 1-year, 5-year, 10-year plans, a retirement plan and lots of plans in between. For now, however, the time horizon for planning is necessarily reduced to what is happening in the present. All we need to be concerned with is the next small step. We have to learn how to function when there is no clear path for our lives, and far less predictability.
We’ve had to readjust cold turkey. Whether it’s learning how to Zoom, home schooling the kids, washing our hands constantly, wearing masks—, we did it. We are constantly faced with balancing “Is this safe?” with the ills of social isolation. With many of our old distractions gone we are left with our dark thoughts. Stripped of our usual routines, we find ourselves reassessing our values, relationships and priorities.
Many conclude we can make do with much less. With the loss of restaurants, vacations, movies, lectures, plays, friends, shopping, etc. we are faced with a new set of options that may be unfamiliar or were formerly a default choice. Yes, we are among the lucky and privileged to have these problems. Do we take time to feel grateful? Do we now feel more tenderness for the human race, and compassion for the trauma we are all facing? We are staring at a rise in homelessness, social inequity, political unrest, climate change, and economic consequences globally. We wonder, “When this is over, will things be different or it all revert back to where it was?”
I’ve spoken with people who are aware that they are too angry, frustrated and sad to make good decisions. I commend them for asking for help. I consider myself one of those rocks, and I just spent a month chasing down “symptoms,” with numerous doctors’ appointments and tests, leading to panic and catastrophizing while waiting for a diagnosis. Bottom line: physically I’m fine. After assessing all the test results there is one diagnosis: I was suffering from social isolation. I didn’t see it for what it was.
My heart goes out to kids of all ages. Their childhoods are being robbed. When I see the little ones with masks on it breaks my heart. When I see young girls outside practicing their gymnastics or kids endlessly kicking a soccer ball or shooting hoops, all in the hope of “someday” making the team or playing again, I’m flooded with sadness. When I hear about the kids who are hungry, who can’t get online, and the tradeoffs of school or no school, none of this seems okay.
As the COVID-19 can gets kicked down the road, and the goal posts keep moving, we are tasked to live as the Buddhists have suggested, “comfortably in the now.” By choosing the Middle Way and keeping an open mind we will be more able to handle uncertainty and ambiguity. We will be more inclined to notice (but not judge) the constant stream of negative thoughts and in that process discover a state of being where we do not have to automatically give in to our fears and projections.
Mercifully, when I hit a wall, I bounced back. Will you see yours coming? Do you have the support in place if you hit it hard? My suggestion—to myself as well—is to reach out more. Find people who will listen without judging you. Frustration, confusion, anxiety, hopelessness are the normal feelings we are all facing in this “novel” worldwide situation. Take comfort in the fact that you, we, all of us, are not alone. Reach out to help others too.
Ronni Burns is a Communications Professor at NYU/Stern, Consultant and Coach. Her website is ronniburns.com.