As I start to write this post, I actually have very little idea of what I’m going to say. I’ve struggled for weeks to figure out what I want to say about the year that is past or the year that is ahead. I have no words of wisdom, no reference point to help others understand something that I don’t understand myself, no insights to help me reframe my own situation let alone our collective experiences.
I generally pride myself on an ability to look at a situation, cast it in a different light, and find some way to structure my thoughts around it. Even the death of my parents did not challenge me to come up with a frame. I thought of it as, “What would a perfect day look like to them?”, if there was an afterlife and you got to live THAT moment forever in time when time was irrelevant.
Or about being a parent to Jacob and the experiences of the NICU, the angst, the worry, the stress, the joy, the love, all of it, I found it easy to know what to write about on my blog.
I have always been able to rely on this skill for work. I’ve done it for my HR guide, to help others understand the processes of competitions. And I’ve been doing it of late with astronomy stuff, helping people to understand how to think about different types of scopes or my specific scope.
I like doing it, and others often read my stuff and comment how, for the first time, they feel they actually “get” it. That I’ve presented it in a different way, with more accessible language, or a different structure or metaphor, and they came away feeling like they learned something. Even if I’m just regurgitating other people’s content, I put my own spin on it.
But this year is like no other year in my experience, no other event in my lifetime. I have no metaphor that will help me understand it. I have no reference point for comparison.
Of course it sucked, but not as much personally
It is easy to say it sucked. It blew chunks repeatedly. The death of a friend. The isolation from others. The fear, the loathing, the sense of helplessness with no obvious end in sight. And all of that despite the fact that I had buffers to prevent the majority of the effects from hitting my family.
My wife and I have great jobs, steady jobs with steady income. There was no change for us financially because of shutdowns, we transitioned to Work from Home, and we kept motoring along. Our son transitioned to virtual school. We’re actually probably better off financially as we had nowhere to go, no big purchases or debts looming.
We also had no major health impacts, which is surprising. In a household that would be classed as high-risk, the worst we dealt with all year was probably some normal dental surgery. We’re less mobile, less active, more sedentary than normal. But not permanently so.
Heck, we didn’t even get our flu shots this year until earlier today. Every time we were going to do it, the pharmacy was out of the shots completely or didn’t have dosages for kids. But a local pharmacy had some, and we did it this afternoon. They were barely even still set up, we had waited so long. Yet part of that wait was we never GO anywhere. Whereas in past years, we would have been out and about and made special trips to doctors or the pharmacy, we almost never go out as a family. I run errands, I come home. Jacob rarely goes anywhere, Andrea mostly for appointments.
For us, the worst has been the social isolation. I’m an introvert by nature, and even *I* find it challenging. I missed not being able to do star parties this year, for instance. Way back on March 12th, I made the call to cancel a telescope clinic that had been scheduled for Saturday March 14th. We didn’t know what was happening, or would be happening, but myself and two others all felt it wasn’t really worth the risk. Mind you, NOTHING had shut down at that point. At the time, lots of people thought we were over-reacting. But March 13th, everything changed for Ontario and our surrounding area, and in hindsight, it’s ludicrous to think we actually debated whether or not it should have been cancelled. Of COURSE it should have been cancelled. J has been separated from school friends, A has been separated from social outings.
We work, we study, we eat together. I’d love to say that it has been this whirlwind rejuvenation of close family ties, but it has been more frayed than that. Harsh words have been spoken at times, the harshest I’ve ever used in an adult relationship probably, both with A and J. We have all reached our limits at different times.
But it probably amounts to #FirstWorldProblems or the #BenefitsOfPrivilege.
So what do I tell myself?
The shortest description I have for the year is simple: trauma.
Unwanted, sustained, and uncontrolled / uncontrollable pressure over a period of time, with acute spikes throughout that can overwhelm your current level of resiliency, leaving you physically or emotionally vulnerable to whatever effects come through to lash at your body.
A friend regularly comments, if anyone talks about silver linings, that there can be no silver lining in a trauma. It’s just simply awful, you have to get through it, you have to survive. You can’t just make the best of it while it is happening, all you can do is find a way to stay on your feet and to keep fighting regardless of what damage is being inflicted on you.
One half of me finds that entirely logical. It resonates with me strongly. I want to embrace that metaphor, that this is a trauma to be endured. An outside event with a start and an end, and the only way “out” is “through”.
But the other half of me knows that one of the biggest “predictors” of future mental health, after a trauma, is how you interpreted the trauma while it was happening. What you told yourself. In essence, how you start “processing” the trauma before it even ends. There are countless stories of people in giant catastrophes, often front-page human tragedies, and there will be two people who had similar backgrounds, similar social supports, similar lives really, and yet have two totally different outcomes after the same trauma. One ends up catatonic, the other highly functional. Psychologists have no real idea why, although many like to latch on to concepts of resiliency, cumulative trauma management skills, etc. But one thing that often stands out is that the ones who emerge more stable afterwards, less in need of sustained supports, are those who pre-processed the trauma in some way. Such as those who talked to themselves in healthy ways while it was happening.
Generally speaking, saying you’re going to hunker down to weather the storm is not the healthiest of approaches for mental resiliency. Instead, it often reinforces that everything is happening TO you, that you have no control anywhere in your life, that you are flotsam and jetsam to be tossed about at the whim of external forces, that the Gods are playing dice with our lives.
So I have relied on some common tools that help me pre-process chaos.
Planning in chaos
Over the last 25 years, I have consistently set goals for myself for the coming year, New Year’s resolutions of sorts. They really have nothing to do with NY’s other than the timing. My birthday is in June, so the calendar year makes a good planning cycle with my birthday as the mid-year check-in. A big symbolic end-date and subsequent start-date.
Some years I go whole hog, all-in on planning, with literally dozens of goals for the year. I don’t expect to do them all, just to make progress on them. In the next few days, I’ll look back on 2020, and reflect on my “accomplishments” against my planned goals. And I’ll update my list and planning tools for 2021.
But tonight I’m more interested in the “game mechanics” of how I play, how I make moves, more so than the what or why.
One thing I did, which I have done before, is recognize that it is a terrible planning environment. I don’t have control of my game board. I can’t plot strategy if I don’t even know what borders are going to stay stable, or if some wild change is going to alter the rules from playing a nice game of checkers only to find out halfway through that the game is now Othello. Or that there’s been a coup, and pawns in chess now move like Queens.
Generally this means that I protect myself from myself. Whereas normally I might be a bit anal about tracking progress and berating myself that I wasn’t “doing more”, I had no standards to measure against, deliberately so. My colleague and I constantly joke at work about the term “baseline year”, the idea that if you keep changing your indicators every year, you never have to measure since every year you’re establishing a baseline. 2020 was definitely a baseline year. I generally threw my plan out the window up until mid-summer. Until I realized that knowing that no plan would survive engagement with the enemy that was the chaos of 2020 was not sufficient reason to have no plan at all. So I started planning again. With no sense that I would have to make progress on anything, just that I would try.
And overall, that’s probably the biggest single weapon in my arsenal. That I would try. In late summer, I started seeing it as “choice within chaos”, I still had daily choices I could make, even in the face of adversity. Some were simple choices about my website. Others were about safety and relationships with family. I needed to remind myself that I still had choices to make every day, and so I blogged about them (the Today I Choose series).
I would love to say I ended up racking up a series of impressive wins. I didn’t. I made progress on a serious reorg of our household contents; we have A in the office upstairs, J on the first floor, and me in the basement. There’s still a LOT to be done. Basement, first floor, garage. We have ideas about a pool next year perhaps. Or a trampoline and an observatory for me. Again, though, that’s the what, not the how.
For the “game mechanics”, so to speak, basically it is that my life is relatively unchanged at its core. I’m still employed. I’m still married. I’m still a father. I’m still an analytical introvert. I’m still me. And the way to talk to myself during this time, the way to help me through that trauma, to help me pre-process the effects, is to keep being me. The best version of me that I can be, if possible, given the circumstances.
So I planned. I blogged. I talked about it.
I feel what I feel
I mentioned above that it’s been a hard year, and sometimes my stress and emotions got the better of me. As the time increases, I find myself more emotional. I’d say more empathetic, but it’s almost the opposite of that, really. That’s kind of hard to explain.
So I’ll give two examples. First and foremost, I can cry easily at sad movies, and I don’t care who knows it. I cried at my wedding, I cried when my parents died, I cry at sappy commercials for Christmas. I’m comfortable with feeling those emotions, I don’t wallow in them or anything, but I’m fine for J to see me cry and to know that it’s okay for a man to do that. If anyone has a problem with that, they can take a flying f*** on a rolling doughnut. 🙂
And I find myself more weepy than normal when watching TV. Some of it is lowered resilience, some of it is fatigue, some of it is just the duration of the isolation and its cumulative effects. But I’ve bingewatched a bunch of shows, and sad scenes where people are saying goodbye to each other can wipe me out easily. Even tension between love interests can have me reaching for tissues. If there’s a sad death in the show, as opposed to a Jurassic Park snackfest? Yeah, I’m likely toast.
Normally, my first instinct would be to think of it as a heightened sense of empathy. That somehow, on an emotional level, I am bonding with the characters, that I’m feeling their pain. But I’m not. In effect, what I’m feeling is my own loss. Characters I’ve invested in for repeated shows, a show I like, and it’s “over”. I’m not ready for it to end. It’s not their loss I’m feeling, it’s my own. On top of other losses of other kinds in real life.
How do I know? Because of a second factor. I’m not sure how to word this nicely, or to not feel like a complete a**hole as I say it, but I feel like I’m out of f***s to give. It’s not depression, I know what that feels and looks like. This is something different.
Battle fatigue is probably closest to it. Or trauma fatigue. It’s gone on so long, and there’s been so much devastation, I feel numb. BLM. Thousands of COVID deaths. Financial ruin. People losing jobs or their businesses. Families getting destroyed.
In an abstract sense, I care. Of course I do. I’m still me. I still have my principles, my sense of injustice, I want to rail at systems, people, the universe. But when everything you see is an injustice, it’s hard to keep feeling the injustice very deeply each time.
In business management, the frequently recommended reaction to a giant temporary crisis was to “stick to the knitting”. It was said that it was not time to branch out, not time to innovate in new areas, unless your survival is threatened. It literally advised in the past to batten down the hatches and weather the storm.
Mentally, I feel like I have. If my wife and son are safe, then my priorities are met. Anything after that is gravy.
I see myself doing it frequently. I find myself reading a story about a horrendous black swan of circumstances swamping someone’s personal boat in the storm, and yet instead of being moved by their situation, I end up looking for lessons learned to further reinforce my own situation.
Should I do more? Should I reach out more? How do I help?
The boy in the plastic bubble
Way back when I was young, there was a TV show about the “boy in the plastic bubble”. I don’t remember the exact details, a kid who had some sort of immune deficiency and thus lived within a sterile plastic environment, so that was his life. It was all his body could handle.
At the end of each day, the reality is I often feel like I’m barely keeping my head above the emotional and mental waterline. Even with greater self-awareness and greater attention to how I talk to myself amid chaos, I have no extra energy reserves to expend.
I love my sister S and used to call regularly. Every few months. If I was in Peterborough, I’d visit. Equally, my brother D lives alone, and I sat with him back in the summer for a socially distanced lunch on his front porch. But months have gone by and I haven’t reached out further. It’s not that I don’t care, or simply that they’re not on Facebook, but that I don’t have the energy reserve to expend on reaching out. I don’t remember, it just brushes past and is gone. Another example? We ALWAYS talk on Christmas day. None of us called, in fact it was today before I remembered mid-afternoon to call. Normally when I remember it’s after midnight, long past her bedtime. I’m still playing tag with my brother.
How have I connected with others? Mostly through FB. I can time shift it to later at night when it is less “urgent”, less “time intensive”, less likely to respond to something off the cuff and not nuance it properly. I have hosted trivia nights a few times, I’ve kept a reading group going.
Over the course of the fall, I “gave back” by taking on major duties for our workplace charitable campaign. It was “doable”, it was “controllable”, and it was “productive”, at a time when I wanted all three.
I’ve also spent a bit of time online helping people. A woman who was looking to buy a telescope for Christmas and just needed someone knowledgeable to help her through the decision tree to what she wanted. If it wasn’t for COVID, she could have gone to a local star party and solved her questions in minutes. Instead, we had long conversations over messenger. I’m more active in astronomy forums in general, in multiple places, helping newbies figure things out.
I’m more active in a group dealing with Cerebral Palsy, timeshifting my responses into the wee hours of the morning, openly sharing my experiences and emotions, in the hopes that it will resonate with the recipient whose Qs often show up in the group as raw, emotional, stressed.
I’m still being me
In the end, I guess what I’m trying to say is that I feel like I’m still me, I’m still trying to be empathetic, I’m still trying to be supportive of others in my universe, but it is a bit more structured. In ways that prevent me from being overwhelmed myself.
In some ways, I feel like I’m the boy in the bubble. I experience life, but it has to be on much more narrowly defined terms these days. Each day comes with new questions, each day comes with new opportunities and challenges.
Each day comes with choice. I know that. I tell myself. There is trauma overall but there’s still choice.
It sucks. It overwhelms. There is no “silver lining” to be embraced, no positive benefit that outweighs the overwhelming cost. There are some benefits that mitigate the cost (“Yay, no more commuting!”), but that is far from the same thing.
So tonight, as the year turned from 2020 to 2021, I hugged J for the last time of 2020 and the first snuggle of 2021. I am so relieved that the year is over, that we are hopefully turning a corner towards a symbolic year of hope and light over despair and darkness.
J thought at first that I was laughing during the hug. I wasn’t. The tears were flowing, as they are again now as I write this. The rawness remains.
I am me. I exist. I cannot say that I am living.
Maybe the year 2020 will have been a chrysalis that leads to emergence in 2021.
More likely it is and has been a mere hibernation leading to a Spring awakening on a radically different world than the one before Winter fell.
Either way, I hope you and yours have a happy and safe new year.