Yes, psychologists feel like crap, too: Corona-coping along with my patients

Last week, I was speaking with one of my patients with two young children. She confessed that she has been nothing but miserable during the pandemic and doesn’t believe others are as unhappy as she is. I assured her that many, many others are as unhappy as she is, but she remained unconvinced. She eventually asked me, “Well, what about you? I mean, your job is to make people feel better. Are you unhappy right now?”

Let me pause here to note that patients don’t typically ask me personal questions about my own emotions. But then, these aren’t typical times. For the first time since I started my career, my patients know exactly what’s going on in my life. It’s uncharted territory for all psychologists: we’ve never before experienced the exact same thing our patients are experiencing, at the exact same time.

I think it goes without saying that like everyone else, yes, I am frequently unhappy these days. Because like everyone else, I’m hearing the same tragic news, and cannot begin to contemplate the horrors: so many people dying; the underprivileged suffering disproportionately; children not having enough food to eat; first responders working around the clock under nightmarish conditions.

And like everyone else, I’m also dealing with small personal losses. For example, I poured a year and a half of my life into writing a book that was supposed to come out this summer. Its publication has now been delayed to May 2021 (yes, a full year from now). I feel alternately crushed with disappointment about this and incredibly guilty for even thinking about this at all, when so many people have suffered exponentially greater losses.

The coronavirus shutdown has also robbed me of time and space in which to write new material. Writing is my passion and my release, but I’ve found it virtually impossible to make it happen while my kids are home with me. I wrote this piece in about 25 sittings in no fewer than 7 different locations in my house (most notably, in my son’s toddler “anywhere chair,” a literal and figurative low point). I kept getting distracted, by my kids asking for food or my husband on a work Zoom meeting talking about financial projections.

And then there is my sadness about the losses my kids are having to endure. It’s my older son’s last year at his beloved school, and it’s a real possibility that he’s never going to go back there again. Which means he’s never going to get to experience the celebratory “clap out” he’s been waiting for, among many other things. He can’t play baseball this spring and maybe won’t be able to go to his amazing day camp this summer. I know that my son’s losses are relatively minor. But my son doesn’t know this. He’s crushed, and when he comes to me crying about how sad and lonely he is right now, it breaks my heart.

So yes, as I assured my patient, I am frequently unhappy these days. Upon hearing this, she immediately responded, “Okay, so what do you do when you feel awful?”

Again, a question I’ve never been asked by a patient before.

But I answered it. Fortunately I do tend to practice what I preach, so I’d already shared many of these coping strategies with my patient.

In no particular order, here’s a 100% honest account of what I’ve been doing to manage my emotions, occupy my mind, and help my kids (I’ve written longer pieces on lots of these points, so check out the links below):

  1. Exercise
  2. Show my kids how I feel: No, I don’t let my kids see me panic. But when my sons noticed I was grumpy yesterday and asked me what was wrong, I told them. I explained that I miss work, like they miss school. My hope is that sharing things like this with them will help them see that feeling bad about this pandemic is absolutely normal and appropriate.
  3. Set (very loose) schedules and create structure: I stress “very loose” here. But we do try to follow the same routine on weekdays, at least as far as schoolwork is concerned. We also do (a lot of) screen time at the end of each day, so the kids know when to expect it. This means they don’t beg for it every 5 minutes throughout the day. It also provides them with something exciting to work towards as they’re doing schoolwork (and gives me and my husband guaranteed kid-free time).
  4. Think one day ahead: I plan the night before for the next day. And only the next day. Because who knows what two days from now will look like? While I’m doing this, I try think of one positive thing I can look forward to the next day (and full disclosure–it usually involves baked goods or TV).
  5. Work through crossword puzzles: I hijacked a crossword puzzle book of my husband’s and now we’re doing crosswords together. I find it difficult to concentrate on reading fiction these days, but crossword puzzles occupy my brain. Plus my husband and I enjoy having a shared activity we can do together. I sorely miss having alone time just with him.
  6. Avoid the news whenever humanly possible
  7. Vent, cry, curse the universe, etc etc.
  8. Make monetary donations, and wish I was doing more: I’ve been donating to lots of Coronavirus-related causes, which helps me feel like I’m doing something to help. At the same time, I have incredible neighbors who are doing things like collecting food to take to front-liners. I feel very guilty that I’m not doing things like this right now (But I also recognize that I don’t have the bandwidth for doing things like this right now.)
  9. Watch lots of comedies I have watched many times before: I really tried to get through Succession, but I found that seeing awful people being awful to each other in the modern world was too much for me to bear. So I’ve turned to my old staples: 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, and Schitt’s Creek. The hour and a half I spent watching the Schitt’s Creek finale was the longest amount of time I’ve gone without thinking about the virus since this whole thing started. Which was no small thing.
  10. Call my family…or not: I love my siblings and parents and in-laws a whole lot. But I do not always want to be on the phone or face time. This is partly because I now talk to people on the computer for work, so I want a break from doing this when I’m not working. And partly because there are times when I don’t really feel like talking to anyone.

As I told my patient, I am not always successful with these strategies. Clearly I am contending with a lot of guilt. But my life does feel reasonably structured and I do feel like I’m able to take some semblance of care of myself and take reasonable care of my kids, which I think is all we can ask for during these times.

I hope there will be a time in the not-too-distant future when we will all stop feeling like crap. In the meantime, know that even those of us who help others process their emotions are struggling to process our own. We truly are all in this together.

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