The Tale of the Clumsy Flamingo
R.E.M.’s classic song, “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” is halfway spot-on. Life, the way we lived it and recognized it in January or February 2020, was picked up, shaken, and put back in no particular, constantly-changing order. It feels like someone unfamiliar with my kitchen emptied the dishwasher. It’s just off-kilter enough that it causes uncertainty, frustration, and nostalgia for “the old days” of 2019. And that’s a result of events outside my front door, out in the world.
For all of us, though, life continued within the walls of our homes, which saw more of us during quarantine than in the past five years combined. For me, the global and national events of 2020 (thus far) mirror the uncertainty and frustration inside my home, inside my family. I haven’t written anything about my personal 2020 experiences until now. But as the year trudges on, and I hear more about the latest cultural catchphrase, “the new normal,” on the news and online, it was important to me to open up and share my experiences of right now. Because there is no new normal. There is no normal at all. That lack of normalcy inspired me to focus on myself – personally and professionally – and my family, to create a status quo with which we are more comfortable and familiar. And just like the topsy-turvy world outside my front door, this status quo can change at any time.
Here’s What Happened
According to an online survey administered by Qualtrics, “during June 24–30, 2020, U.S. adults reported considerably elevated adverse mental health conditions associated with COVID-19. Younger adults, racial/ethnic minorities, essential workers, and unpaid adult caregivers reported having experienced disproportionately worse mental health outcomes” (Czeisler et al., 2020). Our family was hit especially hard by this trend. My daughter, who had been contending with anxiety and displaying the early signs of an eating disorder prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, went into a full-fledged tailspin, losing an immense amount of weight and experiencing the associated mental and physical effects of anorexia nervosa. As her parent, I watched my child suffer, starving herself, wasting away. I tried to find treatment for her outside of an inpatient setting while working full-time, on-site at work in a hospital an hour from home, during the first surge of an unknown virus. Eventually, I realized she couldn’t be helped at home, despite my most valiant efforts. She was admitted to the eating disorder clinic, dangerously underweight, and defeated.
While she was an inpatient, I’d work during the day and travel hours round-trip visit her in the evenings. I was intentional about spending time with my younger child, my son, who struggles to function in a world that doesn’t comprehend his behaviors much of the time, due to his Autism and ADHD diagnoses. As anyone who is familiar with these diagnoses knows that change in routine is incredibly, especially difficult. When I wasn’t connecting with my son or cheerleading my daughter, I was completing work for my master’s degree.
This is not intended to be a sob story. My words here are meant to describe the upheaval in every corner of my day-to-day function. It was easy, during this time, to lose myself. I didn’t recognize my personality; I was frustrated, angry, and stretched thin. I couldn’t identify a purpose for myself, beyond work goals and caregiving. I gained weight. I was not myself. And I was miserable.
After about a month of inpatient programming, my daughter was discharged and admitted to an intensive outpatient program in the same facility. This translated to four hours daily, transporting her to the hospital for outpatient treatment. I took a leave of absence from work to understand my daughter’s daily needs and ensure her recovery continued. I also needed to spend time supporting my son, who, by this time, was struggling to successfully navigate virtual, at-home learning in a COVID-19 world. During this leave, which I anticipated to initially be only a couple of weeks, I vowed to also focus on myself. I had the opportunity to rediscover who I am and what I want; this was a gift I would not squander.
I’m Not a Flamingo, But I Found Some Balance
A two-week leave of absence turned into a leave of nearly three months. Taking control of an eating disorder is a life-long endeavor, and during these weeks, we took our first steps on the journey. For my daughter and me, her return was a relief, a thin veil covering excruciatingly meticulous meal planning and physically and emotionally exhausting interactions. It drained the life out of both of us. Nothing could prepare me for the work – physical, mental, and emotional – that comes with caregiving this way for a loved one. My son was floundering in school but having some time between my daughter’s life-sustaining meals and snacks allowed me to sit with him to ensure he attended class and submitted his assignments. I was grateful that I could center my life on my children and understand and adjust to their personalities and needs more clearly.
I was – and still am – grateful for this time, which also allowed me to look inward. To explore my perceived strengths and weaknesses, my aspirations and disappointments. I realized I’d been too busy in the past few years to be mindful. Of anything. I was going, going, going all the time. I was doing good work; I was striving to do for others. I didn’t slow down for a moment, though, to look around, to listen to my own mind and body. I knew and understood everyone else, but not myself. By focusing on mindfulness, I could begin to re-align my life, which had splayed itself on the floor like a fresh Jackson Pollock painting taking a nose-dive off the easel.
Back to Basics
I needed to reacquaint myself with myself. I would accomplish this through intensified (in this case, existent) mindfulness.
Noticing. Throughout the course of my days, in small breaks between painstakingly-planned meals for my daughter and re-living middle school math with my son, I would look around me. Really notice my surroundings. I would close my eyes and think about how my body felt, inside and out. How did my arms and legs feel? My neck? Were they tense? Why? Was my heart pounding? Had I exhaled lately? (When I am stressed, I neglect this essential part of the breathing process.) These moments, which were just that, a few mere seconds, helped me to re-center. Merely acknowledging how I felt allowed my body to recover from some of the stress.
Reflection. While I love to write, I have never been someone to journal regularly. I have no stack of diaries gathering dust in a dark corner of my closet, a testament to years gone by. What I did do during my leave of absence was read. I kept up with my schoolwork, but I also made time to listen to audiobooks on treks to and from my daughter’s outpatient program. Those books brought to the fore the elements of my life that needed work. They helped me recognize my part in the stress and interact with others to minimize external tensions over which I had no control. I was inspired. Brené Brown was especially helpful – her work changed my life, actually. I greedily listened to many of her books, understanding more about the importance of vulnerability, authenticity, positive intent, S.F.D.s, chandeliering, and so many more concepts that I have since internalized. I am now better at recognizing these behaviors and practicing her recommendations, which allows me to manage a situation more constructively and with less stress and frustration.
Inspiration and Aspiration. Those four hours of audiobook listening each day were my time. They were my hours to reflect and consider; my moments to work on who I wanted to be as a person. While I read for school and worked on assignments, I immersed myself, knowing I was working towards achieving my vision of my professional self. I read about the lives and inspiration of organizational development theorists and the founders of Gestalt practice; I collaborated with student colleagues who were working towards their own professional goals while working within the constraints of their own challenges. When I came across a quote that resonated with me, I wrote it down on a post-it note and stuck it to my wall. Every book, every project, and every quote helped me clarify my values and goals, personally and professionally. Finding inspiration in the work and experience of others brought what I desired for myself into focus.
I’m (Working on) Feeling Fine
We are, by no means, out of the woods. In the United States, COVID-19 has shut down universities and grade schools in a matter of days, though planning for their openings took months. Racial, political, and socioeconomic chasms grow wider, more prominent. Some European countries are reverting to modified lockdowns as their second surges of coronavirus begin.
At home, my daughter grapples daily with her eating disorder. Some days are better than others. School has started, virtually, for both of my children. While my daughter is an excellent student, my son stumbles from link to link, class to class, confused about what is due when, and even how to submit the assignments he’s completed. I am in the office full-time, working harder and faster than ever before, and exhausted when I get home — when it’s time to put on the Mom Hat.
In some ways, the more things changed, the more they’ve stayed the same. The picture I paint above sounds like the one I was living before my leave of absence. But I am different now. My life is now is more dimensional, colorful. The time I took while caring for my children gave me time to care for myself, too. I now see my work, my children, and myself as three distinct works of art, superimposed onto one another to create a beautiful mural of my life. And though they’re connected, I can now identify where one ends and another begins. I recognize when I need to spend time working on one more than the others. And I don’t feel (as) guilty about it. My life still is not (and never will be) a Norman Rockwell painting. But it is becoming the work of art that I want it to be.
Every day I strive to make the second part of the title of R.E.M.’s song a reality. I am starting to feel fine (or, at least, better) about my journey back to myself, my center. Not everyone has the luxury of taking a leave of absence. But now that I am back at work and caregiving, I realize the simple steps I took to begin my journey can be made in small moments: between meetings, as I make dinner, when I am sitting at a red light. They don’t require me to carve weeks out of my life.
As long as I maintain my cognition, I will consciously make an effort to continue my mindfulness practice – to ensure I remain the clumsy flamingo, contentedly and precariously balancing all of my works of art.
Czeisler, M. É, Lane, R. I., Petrosky, E., Wiley, J. F., Christensen, A., Njai, R., . . . Rajaratnam, S. M. (2020, August 13). Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic – United States, June 24–30, 2020. Retrieved September 27, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6932a1.htm
Thank you to Heather Davis and Cicy George, two women who inspired me more in 2020 than they know!