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Has It Been A Year Already?

Well, happy anniversary everyone! We are now officially past the year mark since the W.H.O. declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. And it’s been a year like no other.

Back on March 11, 2020, we couldn’t have imagined what we were in for. COVID-19 was a mystery, and we had no idea what to expect. The phrase “new normal” suddenly became popular.

Our initial reaction to the big shut down was positive, sometimes comical. We can DO this! We hoarded toilet paper. We baked bread, made Quarantinis, and we stood outside every evening at 6pm and banged our pots and pans to honour our health care workers. We laughingly wore pajama pants during video calls. We put hearts and signs of support in our windows for our front line workers, and donated money to local charities like Rapid Relief.

Businesses that sold them, ran out of hot tubs. Gardens flourished, home renovations abounded. We found heroes in people like Dr. Bonnie Henry, whose calm and compassion gave us much comfort. A global pandemic wasn’t going to keep US down!

Then reality kicked at us a little harder. The novelty began to wear off. Day after day we somberly donned our masks, washed our hands, and kept our distance from each other. Well some of us did. Others screamed in protest. Tempers flared. And all the while, more and more people were getting sick or dying.

Our hair grew long, beards became unruly. Zoom calls that started out as great fun, began to wear on us. Living and working and learning at home got more and more boring and intolerable for many. Not being able to see or hug our family and friends was depressing us. In fact, anxiety and depression was on the rise in all age groups, but especially in young people. We were exhausted. And all of this happened before winter had even hit.

As we said goodbye with great relief to 2020, COVID continued its ominous advance. New cases and new variants sprang up everywhere when a second wave hit. Long, dark days with no end to this pandemic in sight, left us mourning and miserable.

But there were some small hints of hope. Pharmaceutical companies around the world who had been working around the clock to come up with a vaccine, started to have some success. A few countries that were initially hit hard by the pandemic, were beginning to see their COVID numbers level off, or even come down as a result of shut downs. There was just a little bit of light appearing at the end of that very long tunnel.

And now spring is almost here. As of March 12th, almost 3 million vaccines have been administered in Canada. We have, most of us, adapted to this new reality, to the shut downs, the social distancing, and the masks. Handwashing and sanitizing is more habitual. But we are so looking forward to the day when we can actually spend time together in person again, and that day comes ever closer. Still, as the expression goes, the last few miles of a marathon are the hardest.

I know, I know. Kilometers.

So what have we learned from this past year so far? I would venture to guess it will take a long time to completely assess that. Businesses, governments and communities will gather their list of lessons learned. As individuals, we will each write our own epilogues. Ultimately, you might say that we are forever changed.

But in spite of it all, babies were still being born and people were still marking milestones. All this time, life was forging ahead and hopeful. And now, here on the west coast, the trees are starting to burst new buds, robins are laying their eggs, and cherry blossoms are blooming.

And vaccines are here. At long last. Ah, spring.

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You Are Not Alone

This has been a more difficult post to write because, usually, I try to be light about everything. Sometimes it’s not so easy. There have certainly been enough opinion pieces, news, and statistics about anxiety and depression these days because of the pandemic we are experiencing, so who needs more of that? But there is light at the end of the tunnel. I promise.

I didn’t get on an airplane for many years because of my fear of flying. It’s called aerophobia. It started after a flight back from Hawaii on our honeymoon. We hit a bumpy patch during the flight, as often happens, but I was on my way back to my seat from the washroom during one of those drops, and almost got knocked off my feet. Of course, we landed just fine and I didn’t think anything more of it.

What happened in the following months, however, was that I started to have nightmares about planes crashing. Over, and over and over. And I convinced myself that it might be some kind of premonition, so I decided I would no longer set foot on a plane.

And I didn’t. For 20 years. One time I even had the opportunity to go on a free trip to Hawaii. I didn’t go. Instead I got really mad at myself for being so scared. What the heck was the matter with me?

I started to research it a little bit, first of all realizing that a LOT of people have the same fear. Many people take anti-anxiety medications before they fly to counteract it. Some have other forms of treatment like cognitive therapy. And then there are those who never get over it, and stop flying all together.

Me? I turned to one thing I thought might help. I got back into mindful meditation and practiced it as much as I could. Ommmm…

A couple of years later, we took the chance that I might be able to handle a flight, and booked a trip back to Hawaii. It was a celebration of my daughter’s graduation from high school. This would be my big test. Leading up to the trip, I worked really hard to not let those anxious thoughts overwhelm me. It didn’t always work, but I kept at it.

On the day of our flight, I sat in the airport lounge and did a lot of deep breathing and tried to stay calm. I remember the walk onto the ramp and into the plane, trying not to panic. Strapping myself into the seat, I wondered how I would keep myself from screaming for them to let me get off.

On the taxi down the runway, I grabbed my daughter’s hand and clung to it. We finally took off into the clouds. Over the next while, I tried to relax a little bit. It took a couple of hours, but eventually I could smile a little and looked out at the puffs of clouds and the blue water below.

I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to finally walk barefoot on the sands of Waikiki. The picture you see here is from that first moment. I’m not saying that I overcame my aerophobia in one trip. It took many. But I have had lots of successful, anxious-free flights since.

I’ve been anxious about many things in my life, but that was a major one.

And now anxiety has reared its ugly head again, as it has with so many others during this pandemic. I started worrying about getting sick. Not just from COVID-19, but pretty much anything. Any time I felt a twinge of pain or an upset stomach, I “catastrophized” it, convinced it was a serious illness.

After weeks of this, I decided to tell my immediate family about it, and they have all been wonderful. My daughters have both dealt with anxiety too, and know what it can do to you.

I’ve gotten back into my meditation. I take frequent walks outdoors when I can and remind myself of the “okay” moments. Hey, right now, I’m okay! I tried CBD, or cannabidiol, which is derived from the hemp plant, to help me sleep. Sometimes it works. I have a pretty healthy diet, but apparently certain foods can help with anxiety too, as can staying away from others.

I don’t let myself get sucked into all the negative stuff as much, especially online. Realizing how many stupid people there are out there can drive you crazy! And keeping track of COVID-19 numbers is not a great idea either.

Ultimately, I try to talk about my anxiety more, which is why I’m writing this.

I know there are many, many of you out there going through the same and much worse. Don’t be afraid to tell others. Be gentle with and forgive yourself. Don’t feel guilty or embarrassed. Talk about it. It’s been a long, long haul for all of us but we’ll get there. And you are not alone.

(For those of you in the Island Health region, if you need help or you are in crisis, please call 1-888-494-3888 or 1-800-588-8717, any time day or night.)

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Maybe Later

Never do today what you can put off until tomorrow. That has pretty much been my mantra most of my life. When I was little, my Dad said I was lazy. But I think a lot of kids are told that. When you’re a child you’re caught up in whatever is fascinating you at the moment. Cleaning your room is not very fascinating.

Here I am, many, many years later, sitting down to write a blog because I don’t feel like cleaning my house. Some things never change.

We procrastinate for many reasons. Or excuses. Sometimes it’s because we just don’t want to face something. Like doing your taxes. Who wants to do that? And cleaning the toilet. Blech.

Procrastination can also be a sign of anxiety or depression, according to the experts. In that case, I imagine a lot of us are procrastinating right now, in spite of having more time on our hands. Being locked in your house with not much to look forward to, can do that to you. And there goes the excuse that things aren’t getting done because you don’t have enough time.

Not only that, procrastination can actually CAUSE anxiety and depression. Putting off the inevitable for any length of time allows it to hang over us and make us more miserable. And that, in turn, makes us even less likely to do what we need to. It’s a vicious cycle.

But under “normal” circumstances, what causes us to procrastinate? I’ll leave it up to the experts to go into more detail, but to make a long story short, it’s because we’re wired for instant gratification. I can either eat that donut now, or wait and reward myself after I lose 10 pounds. Hmmm.

I married someone who’s a “let’s get ‘er done” kind of guy, so we’ve had some obvious conflicts from time to time over the years. He told me a story about a fellow he worked with early on in his career who would always take the bull by the horns and get things done immediately. My husband respected that determination, so he tried to emulate it, and of course, attempted to get his wife and children to do the same.

And over time, wouldn’t you know? I have become more and more like that too. But not always.

For instance, I’m still sitting here rather than doing the housework. So I’m looking at the clock and giving myself 10 more minutes. I have ten more minutes to do what I enjoy before I have to go and do what I don’t.

Okay 20. Maybe 20 minutes.

As it turns out, we procrastinators are in good company. Leonardo Da Vinci was apparently someone who had trouble staying “focused”. You wouldn’t know it from the body of work he produced. But the story goes that it took him 16 years to finish the Mona Lisa.

I’ve seen the Mona Lisa painting in person and it’s not very big. 16 years?

And Margaret Atwood, whom we all know for her many novels, short stories and poetry, actually has trouble sitting down to write too. It usually takes her until 3 o’clock in the afternoon to get to it. She does that on purpose, apparently. So far, I’d say it’s working.

Which is why I’ve decided I’m waiting until 3pm this afternoon to get my house cleaning done.

Oh, shoot. It’s already after 4. Guess it won’t be today. Now, where’s that donut?

Happiness Is Over-rated

A smiley by Pumbaa, drawn using a text editor.Image via Wikipedia

A good friend of mine writes a weekly column in our local newspaper and over the last couple of weeks he has been focusing on the topic of happiness. We are, many of us, often consumed with the desire to be happy, and look for it in the wrong places (or in the wrong things, whichever the case may be). He includes a number of lists written by others, including psychologists, of things you can do to improve your happiness quotient.

While I agree with most of the points in those lists, like fostering a positive attitude and stopping to smell the roses, so to speak, I think there’s another underlying factor at work. 

Sometimes we try to pop a “happiness pill” when we are clearly not. And when we try to sweep our misery under the carpet instead of addressing it and then letting it go…all of the happy pills we take won’t work.

In other words, trying to be happy can sometimes be more about going into denial and can only make things worse. I’m not saying that we should wear our misery on our sleeve and making everyone else around us miserable too. But when there are underlying problems, pushing them aside won’t help.

I say this because I have dealt with depression myself and have family members who have experienced clinical depression and even worse, bi-polar disorder. In the latter case, it can only be treated with medication, which truly is like popping a “happiness pill”. But depression can’t be overcome simply by happy thoughts alone.

Outside of a serious or clinical case of depression, I think people are often contributing to their own unhappiness because of their expectations and the feelings of entitlement. Happy is what we “should” be and when we aren’t, then something is terribly wrong.

The fact is that even in the course of a day, you can easily bound from sadness to happiness and back again…and this is completely natural. If you expect to be deliriously happy all of the time, you are truly kidding yourself, and you will ultimately be disappointed. Buddhists say that the real problem is not the state of happiness or unhappiness, but clinging to one or the other.

Trying to cling to a happy state seems obvious, but why would we want to be miserable?

Actually, we often LOVE being miserable even though that seems an oxymoron. We love going over and over unhappy events in our minds, perhaps mentally punishing someone for some past hurt. Self-pity can itself be rather addictive.

I think the word “happiness” itself has probably been used to death and sort of comes with its own baggage now; perhaps “contented” or “at ease” are closer to what we can achieve.

Have you ever felt contentment about something? It is not a “high”, but rather a quietening of the mind and completely relaxing. If the whole world could simultaneously experience even five minutes of contentment in the true sense of the word, I’d bet you that after the five minutes was up, much of the hate, anger, violence, desire and greed would be alleviated for the following five hours. Can you imagine? Just five hours of world peace.

So here is my list for ways to achieve contentment:

  1. Feel and experience an emotion completely, then let it go. If you pay attention to the natural process of any type of emotion, it ebbs and flows. So let it.
  2. Just sit and breathe, and think of nothing but breathing
  3. Be in the moment, and if you’re having trouble doing that where you are, go for a walk and pay rapt attention to every thing you see, hear and physically feel. Do everything with rapt attention.
  4. Take a nap…naps are very refreshing
  5. Follow the serenity prayer; change the things you can, don’t try to change something you cannot, and learn the difference

These are just five points, I’m sure I could think of more over time. Each of them has given me a sense of peace and contentment in past, but it does take effort to remember and apply them. Even if only one of them stands out or works for you, keep using it and I know it’ll help you to relieve some of the misery and stress of your daily life.

Most of all, stop expecting to be happy, and ironically, you’ll probably start to!


IJ

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