The Best of Times, the Worst of Times, the Quarantimes: Self-Care in the Time of Corona

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Corona inspired Soul Collages

I’d like to start this post out by acknowledging the privilege of my quarantine. I have no dependents aside from myself, I’m a white, able-bodied, cisgender person in a financial, emotional, physical and mental position that allows me to have what I imagine is quite an uncommon experience of this time. 

Holy moly. What a moment in time we are all experiencing, huh? In some ways it feels like time reset when the quarantine began, and it feels both like the world before social distancing was just a moment ago and also a lifetime. My experience of the quarantine has been so many things. More than anything else, though, it has been a petri dish of opportunity for me to practice all of the tools I have been learning in life and in therapy school, over the last (nearly) twenty-nine years.

At the beginning of quarantine the company I’ve worked for over the last four plus years was forced to shut down. Vantigo has been my home and my family for such a long time at this point, and has helped me grow into myself in such unexpected ways, that this sudden loss felt much like the death of a beloved person for me. My gratitude for Vantigo extended even into its sudden departure of my life. Historically I would have reacted to the news that the company and my job were over (at least for now) by dissociating from my feelings and binge eating. In this moment, however, I called upon my mindfulness practice and the baby therapist part of me that has been developing over the last two years to make a different choice. As I felt the sadness welling up inside of me I heard part of me say, “this is an opportunity, let it come.” So I went with it. I put on the Jeff Buckley cover of Hallelujah,  got in the shower, and cried it out hard. As I surfed the waves of grief, I allowed myself to fully feel them. And hot damn, did they hurt. I felt a kind of primal grief rise up in me as I wailed, while at the same time another part of me comforted myself. “There, there, just like that, this is exactly what you need right now,” I crooned, like a mother to a child. I called my old boss, who started Vantigo, and cried with him too. That evening I wrote about my experience for about twenty minutes, giving my brain an opportunity to begin integrating what had happened. By the morning, I felt light and free. By fully embracing the grieving process, I avoided what could have been weeks of anxious and overwhelming feelings hiding beneath avoidant binge eating. I was able to realize through this experience that I’ve been avoiding processing my parent’s mortality- something that seemed to be coming up a lot for my peer group at the beginning of all of this. Channelling this initial grief allowed me to access the realization that by confronting their mortality now, I can more fully embrace the time I do still have with them, instead of taking it for granted.

Holy moly batman, personal growth is so cool.

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The start of a run

This experience also set the stage for how I’ve worked with my parts and processed my feelings throughout quarantine. Earlier this year I attended an Internal Family Systems workshop, where I learned technical descriptions for carrying out the self-loving parts work that has become a fundamental part of my personal growth in the last six years. Sometimes what this looks like for me is getting underneath my weighted blanket with a few pillows under my knees and saying to myself, “okay, who needs to be heard?” Sometimes I cry, sometimes I laugh. Sometimes it is easier to ask myself this prompt and then type my responses into my journal instead of trying to keep track of them in my head. I often feel much lighter once I’ve done this, and more often than not any urges to binge eat are released.

I’ve noticed that if I try to do parts work with the intention of feeling my feelings so that the hard ones will go away, it doesn’t work. Our parts are smarter than us, and they need to be allowed to express what they are feeling in their own time, with no agenda. Doing this parts work has helped me to see and understand what I needed to do for self-care in this time, and ultimately come to understand what I will need to do to truly care for myself throughout my career as a therapist (which I’m sure will continue to evolve).

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Giant snowflakes make great privacy screens

The predominant theme of my self-care practices have been, how can I best take care of my inner child, so that she can stay vulnerable and access the play that she needs to thrive and experience joy?

My self-care activities have included:

  • Starting my mornings by turning on classical music and drinking water before getting out of bed, making coffee and meditating
  • Dancing and singing in my room
  • Nesting in my apartment
  • Channelling my creative energy into crafting
  • Zoom calls with friends where we do Soul Collage (an expressive arts therapy type activity)
  • Giving myself permission to do nothing
  • Giving myself self-compassion when I’ve turned to ice cream or chocolate for self-soothing
  • Watching the sunset from the 16th street steps while social distancing with Franny
  • Caring for my body and mind through yoga, running, and other kinds of exercise
  • Cooking creative meals
  • Talking to my parents, grandparents, friends and siblings (shout out to my dad saying, “call me on the television phone,” in reference to facetime)
  • Allowing hard feelings to flow
  • Being gentle with myself when it has been incredibly difficult to focus or get homework done
  • Allowing myself to be present, take things one day at a time, and embrace uncertainty in a beautiful way for the first time (possibly ever)
  • Journalling
  • Reading and listening to audiobooks while knitting
  • Accessing gratitude
  • Bonding with my new & old housemates
  • Playing games
  • Watching movies
  • Riding my bicycle
  • Sharing silly childhood photos and music on instagram stories with my friends
  • Volunteering at the food bank and delivering burritos to folks in need through the burrito project with Anthony
  • Allowing myself the opportunity to craft during my graduate school Zoom classes (which has done wonder for my ADHD)
  • Being vulnerable
  • Putting trader joe’s everything bagel seasoning on greek yogurt 🙂
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So grateful to live two blocks from Golden Gate Park

In some ways this time has brought me back to childhood. The feeling I used to get at the beginning of summer vacation, like this endless expanse of time that I can fill with whatever my heart pleases. A few other elements have added an element of summer camp vibes to my quarantine, particularly spending three days a week volunteering at the food bank. Finding a new community of friends who come together to laugh, dance, and sing as we package boxes of food for seniors, build cardboard castles out of boxes meant for apples, and support one another throughout this time has been such an unexpected joy and gift.

I don’t quite know where or how to include this, but the other most protective factor for me during this time has been my friend Anthony. We met through volunteering a few weeks before quarantine started. Given that my three housemates were going to be gone for the first month of quarantine, I made a personal decision for my mental health to social distance with Anthony. I’ve joked to him that when I write the novella about us after all this is over it’ll be called, “A Friend at the End of the World.” This quarantine would have been entirely different without him, and my inner child couldn’t be more delighted to have found the childhood best friend I never knew existed. Throughout the time I’ve spent with Anthony, I’ve had the opportunity to observe patterns in myself, practice boundaries, and keep growing through some of my biggest personal challenges. Needless to say, grateful is putting it lightly.

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When I look back on this moment of my life, I hope the thing that shines the most brightly is the realization that I was benefitting from having a new kind of partnership with myself. One that I have been working on since I started going to therapy at age 23 with the expressed goal of learning how to take care of myself. Falling in love with me is possibly the most amazing experience I’ve ever had, and I can deeply sense just how different the rest of my life is going to be because of that.

 

My Friend Atticus

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It was about this time last year that I noticed the perfectly preserved Monarch butterfly that had chosen my bedroom curtain as its final resting place. I would come to spend many hours studying this beautiful specimen- as exquisite in death as it was in life. My friend Atticus was in the final months of tirelessly fighting brain cancer, and I was having trouble parsing out the reality of the situation. Every week I called my best friend Lina, Atticus’ partner of eight years, doing my best to be present with the great weight of what we both knew, on some level, was imminent. Most 26 year-olds are having existential crises about what to do with the rest of their lives. Atticus, incredibly, never seemed to be in crisis. Not during his first diagnosis during our junior year of college, nor in the last two years of his life. Each time I flew to LA to visit him and Lina our time together was spent doing beautifully ordinary things. Living life. Walking their dog, Boo, around their Silver Lake neighborhood, camping in Ojai, deciding to buy both kinds of ice cream bars at the corner store because- hey, life is short, right? Atticus never wanted people to treat him any differently for being sick, including himself, and few people knew the reality of the situation until the very end.

The day before Atticus died a huge rainbow appeared in Malibu Canyon, ending right where Atticus lay in bed. We gathered together there, a small group of friends and family, making our final jokes with Atticus, reflecting on all of the adventures we’d had together, and folding paper cranes. I laughed through my tears as I recounted the time he brought Lina a laundry bag with straps to use (in addition to the real hiking pack he’d acquired) for what we did not realize was (in total) a 22 mile hike. The straps broke immediately, and Atticus and Ryan ended up trading off carrying the bag for the duration of the hike. Five miles in, Lina’s knees were giving out. Atticus took her pack from her, carrying it on his back with the laundry bag in his arms for the next 6 miles until we reached our final destination. “You are incredible,” I said to Atticus. “You know,” he said calmly, “Any time I can come to Lina’s rescue, that is a great day for me.”

My friend Atticus never sweat the small stuff, always had a silly joke ready, made the best bacon and eggs, and loved Lina with his whole entire heart. As cliche as it feels to write, seeing him off on his departure from this world has really shown me that life is short. In an incredible way, risks that used to terrify me now seem like obvious choices.

After Atticus left I went to Hawaii for a month, to grieve in my own way, while working on a farm. I decided to move through my fear of rejection and apply to graduate school. I’m now in my sixth week of getting my Masters in Counseling Psychology, on my way to becoming a Marriage and Family Therapist. When I got back from Hawaii, the Monarch was gone.

I think back on the first moment I contemplated the Monarch, wondering if the universe sent it to me to help me see the beauty in death. As we’ve studied existential psychotherapy in school, I’ve been contemplating my thoughts and feelings around death and grieving, something that is rarely mentioned in my age group. All I know is that I see Atticus in the future clients I work with, in Lina’s decision to become an acupuncturist, in each Gibraltar I order, and every piece of perfectly cooked bacon I eat.

My friend Atticus was a rad human, who left an incredible lesson with my soul. Wherever he is now, I’m sending eternal gratitude his way.

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Under consideration

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Where do we draw the line between expectation and aspiration?

How do we find it within ourselves to cling to hopes and dreams that are rooted not in reality, but in the psyche?

What does it take to rectify the experiences that divide us into the camps of realistic, idealistic, optimistic and pessimistic?

Why is it so hard to choose between the risk of accepting the things we already have, and the risk of venturing out into the world and taking a chance on what we might discover within ourselves?

When will I learn how to balance my emotional intuition with my logical analysis?

Does true adulthood arrive with accepting that these and so many of life’s great questions may never be answered?

Weekly inspiration.

 

Lowercase grief

When the big, existentially sad thing happened, capital letter emotions came with it. CONFUSION. SADNESS. ANGER. GRIEF. They stuck around for a while, sitting shiva with the heart. The world continued turning, and the limited number of capital letters moved on to fulfill other duties. One day little lowercase grief arrived to stay, quietly setting up camp next door to the heart. “Why hello there, how can I help you?” asked the brain, noticing the new arrival, but the responses given by little grief were unintelligible. The brain shrugged to the heart and went about its business. The heart, on the other hand, sat down on the ground next to little grief and waited. After a few days little grief crawled into the hearts lap, and the heart began to gently rock it. They quietly stayed this way while the brain stayed busy, keeping the legs running and the hands moving.

Weeks passed, and the heart waited.

The brain projected and stressed, searching for distractions and answers to where little grief had come from, and how to send it back. The teeth gnashed and the fingers scratched. The stomach showed up to help with a familiar coping mechanism. “How wonderful!” it thought, “I almost thought this one was history.” And still the heart waited, cradling little grief, rocking it back and forth.

Finally the brain tired itself out. It came back to the heart, and this time it listened patiently to the mumbled noises of little grief. To the brain’s surprise, the mumbles began to change into intelligible sentences. “My name is grief, and I’m here to stay,” said little grief. “I am here to remind everyone that life is finite, but love is infinite. If you give me regular acknowledgment and honor my purpose your existence will benefit. If you ignore me or try to fight me, I will simply transform and show up in bigger, badder places.” The heart, still rocking, nodded quietly in agreement. The brain went for a long walk to consider little grief’s words.

On Paying Attention to Intention

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In the last few months I’ve felt better overall than I have in a long time. My current combination of self-care practices seem to be working well for the most part, and it feels good when I’m able to maintain a feeling of balance for extended periods of time. My main struggle continues to be meeting the sense of losing balance with stress and frustration. After a wonderful Sunday of biking around the city, lounging in the rose garden in Golden Gate Park, and hanging out with friends, I woke up feeling anxious and stressed on Monday (primarily related to pending housing uncertainties). My inner dialogue starts up the anxious thoughts of, “Ugh, but I was doing so well yesterday!” and, “I must immediately figure out a plan! That’s the only way to get out of this stress!” When I allow myself to fuel these thoughts with similar ones like them, the fire spreads, and I have a much harder time remembering the tactics that help me maintain balance.

Part of the issue here is the false narrative that because I was “doing so well yesterday” (read: feeling happy) the reappearance of stress or anxiety signals that I’m no longer “doing well”. Feeling balanced, like anything in life, is not a linear trajectory, which is extremely hard to remember in moments that feel anything like a setback or a failure. I try to remind myself that the movement above and below the state of balance is a cycle. Unfortunately I still forget this, and worry when the lower feelings surface or catch me by surprise.

Fortunately, the more awareness I have (depending on the levels of self-care being maintained), the better able I am to disconnect with stress becoming all consuming and eventually somewhat apocalyptic. I strengthen my awareness through meditation, and setting intentions. The following four (and a half) intentions have become the base of my practice, and seem to work well at helping me achieve the balance I need to feel calm and collected throughout my days. I try to pick one to focus on each day, though ideally they’d all be in practice at once!

1. Focus on now, not yesterday, and not tomorrow. This intention is my foundation. As a planner, I tend to channel my anxiety into try to create stability by planning everything out. (Spoiler: it ends up making me more anxious). By reminding myself that I don’t need to worry about what is going to happen in the future, or even in more than a few hours from now, I take the weight of trying to predict the future off my shoulders. Not getting caught up in thinking about / worrying / analyzing past is equally as distracting and unhelpful. It’s over, there’s nothing else I can do about it, just let it go, (as much as this is easier said than done).

1.5 Do one thing at a time. This is closely linked to the foundation intention, but I figured it deserved its own half bullet. Like planning, multitasking is something I do when I’m stressed. The idea becomes something along the lines of, “If I can get everything done, then I can relax,” but ultimately gets more stressful as I’m not fully present with anything. When I am fully present with each task I have the headspace to say, “huh- I may not have time to complete my whole to-do list right now- that’s totally okay.” This is extremely freeing, and without being present intentionally it is so much harder to be aware of the world and people (and their thoughts and feelings) around me.

2. Remember self-love/care/support. There’s a part in my meditation packs that asks you to remind yourself why you’re doing the meditation and then think about the people it will benefit. I always start with, “because I love myself, and I’m here to support myself,” which always brings the biggest smile to my face. When I’m focusing on self-love I take time to do nice things for myself like getting a massage, buying myself a kombucha, noticing how happy I feel when I’m cozy on the couch with a book and my slippers on, calling my grandparents, watching the sunrise, etc. Exercise is an important daily self-care ritual for me, but I’ve learned that it must be kept in the context of, “I am doing this because it will make my body and mind feel good,” and if it starts to feel like something I must do instead of something I want to do, that’s a sign my body needs to rest.

3. Engage with the world. When I’m aware of my surroundings I’m able to disengage with my inner dialogue and interact with the outside world in a positive manner. Smiling at fellow humans when crossing paths, saying “bless you” to someone who sneezes on the bus, offering assistance to someone clearly confused or needing it, asking how the bus driver is doing- all of these kinds of interactions prove to increase my optimism in humanity, and as a bonus, make me feel better in turn. Remembering that everyone is fighting their own battle and dealing with their own plethora of thoughts and feelings is another way to lessen feelings of isolation. We really are all in this together.

4. Appreciate and give thanks. A few Thanksgivings ago my Mother hung a banner that said “give thanks” spelled out in a bunting style with metal letters over our table. She let me keep the banner and it now hangs in my room next to my bed, a reminder to give thanks every day. When I focus on being grateful I am often filled with amazement at the beauty of my life. I am surrounded and supported by so many wonderful friends, family members, and coworkers. I live in one of the most beautiful cities on the planet that gives me access to clean drinking water and clean air. The days I focus on gratitude I go to extra lengths to call, write, and connect with the people I love.

4.5 Nurture my family as people. I’m not sure why it took me so long to really connect with the idea that my family members are people too, but I’m glad it’s something I figured out sooner than later. I make a lot of effort to nurture my friendships, and know my friends very well, but this year I’ve been working on applying that to my family members as well. Getting to know my parents as people gives me a better understanding of them and myself. Finding out common interests I share with my grandparents has allowed my relationship with them, one I always took for granted, to become a source of deep enjoyment on both parts. Becoming fully aware that my extended family members are all individually complex, interesting people, who love me to boot, has been a wonderful realization (albeit a kind of, “well duh” one), and allowed me to focus time and effort on getting to know them in a way I wasn’t able to as a child and teenager. This is something I feel incredible gratitude for, and brings me joy in the moments when I feel the most alone. Through therapy I was about to let go of the ideas I held about what a “perfect” family was, and realize what incredible love and support my family gives me. I released the fantasy, let go over the disappointments, and discovered so much more. Leave the gun, take the cannoli. You won’t be disappointed. 

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