I Live in Kirkland
[Author’s note: I really thought about entitling this post “Love in the Time of Coronavirus,” but that is low-hanging fruit at this point. Besides, the topic of love will be covered in a later post.]
Less than a month ago (but what feels more like a year), everyone in America outside the Pacific Northwest identified “Kirkland” as a certain monster warehouse retailer’s in-house brand of goods. Unfortunately, now everyone knows that Kirkland, Washington is an actual place because it made national headlines as the epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak in the United States.
It’s not the ideal way to become a household name, obviously. And now, just a few weeks later, cities like New York have become epicenters of their own, with more cities likely to follow before things improve (and they will improve, eventually - it’s easy to forget that). In the big scheme of things, Kirkland being “first” doesn't matter in the slightest when it comes to this pandemic.
But it did matter to me until just recently.
For the first two weeks I stayed at home (I'm approaching four weeks total now), I wanted to be anywhere but Kirkland, but it wasn’t wise or responsible to go anywhere else. I didn’t want to think about being at the so-called “ground zero” of America’s stage in the growing global pandemic. I was keenly aware that the senior living facility where the outbreak started sits just a few blocks from my home. I woke up to that awareness every morning, remembered it during online Zoom meetings for work, and avoided it with reruns of The Office. But I couldn’t escape the knowledge that so many people in my neighborhood had, most likely, come into contact with the virus and had helped spread it. It was entirely possible I’d carried it. I could get sick. I felt trapped and helpless.
That kicked off the dreaded (and completely counterproductive) “what if” questions - what if I picked it up from the supermarket? What if my phone picked it up from a Starbucks table? Or what if it was on my clothes? What if house guests smeared virus unwittingly on my couch? Am I strong enough to survive it? Would the hospitals be full and unable to help me? How would I let my friends and family all over the country know? What if the worst happened? What if….
But What Ifs don’t do anything. Well, they do - they just don’t do anything good.
In times of acute stress where I feel I am not in control of something, I can default into frenetic information gathering. Being informed is good, of course, but I can go too far with it. What creeps in when I do is an obsessive pursuit for information that results in an Assumption Chain of Death: The more information I gather → the more I will know → The more I know, the more I’ll feel in control → The more I control things, the more I’ll feel safe → The more I feel safe, the more I’ll be able to function → The more I am able to function, the less I’ll have to worry (which leads me, if you notice, right back to my starting point). It’s a vicious chained circle that eventually weighs me down and spirals me.
Information overload doesn’t address the real problem. The external world is challenging and uncontrollable all of the time - it’s the internal world, inside me - that needs addressing, and is really the only thing I can change anyway. In the midst of my futile desire to flee Kirkland, I’d forgotten the tools I’ve developed unevenly but steadily over the past decade or so. Sitting in my Kirkland condo, I found myself back in a mental space where, once upon a time, I would’ve numbed myself completely from this kind of upheaval with substances, behaviors, or people. I don’t do that anymore, but in this case I wasn’t really doing anything positive or negative. I was frozen in place.
I wasn’t solution oriented. I wasn’t even problem-oriented. I was catastrophe-oriented. I was stuck in the illusory confidence that if I could anticipate what might happen, I could somehow stave it off entirely or, at minimum, deflect the emotional blow or minimize the pain.
There is no correlation or causation between how much I worry about something and how it turns out. Worrying is not preparing. Worry-based What Ifs only bring about the worst-case scenarios and, as a result, the worst feelings imaginable. These, then, keep me from getting out of my own way and refocusing on 1) what is actually happening to me, 2) what I can actually control, and 3) how I want to approach it with the best of what I can offer myself and others.
So how did I turn that corner? As with so many things in life, what I did was simple in concept, but difficult in execution.
I went back to what works, to what I've done before.
I needed to regulate the three sides of the “triangle” of my sense of self - the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual and then integrate this restored internal balance with the external stressors coming at me. I had to get back to the actions and practices that I’d been using before the pandemic hit, and they are fairly basic:
Recommit to my successful morning routine - wake up at the same time after 7-8 hours of sleep, do my morning prayers and meditations and readings over my coffee, journal, and set my goals for the day. Shower. Make my bed. Start my laundry. Get dressed for work like I would if I were driving there (I’m not staying in pajamas all day - I feel my brains and emotional awareness turn to mush). Do my work day with gratitude, as I am very blessed to still have one. Make healthy meals. Exercise. Write. Read. Connect with friends and family.
Rinse and repeat.
All of those things undergird the spiritual side of my life - not just beliefs, but actions and attitudes that expand my bandwidth. That’s where reestablishing my equilibrium starts. My spiritual health connects directly to my physical, so I have to start there.
I then had to start making deliberate choices to balance my physical and emotional health. I’ve trimmed back on news consumption to timed reviews in the morning and evening. In between, I go about my day. I also hit up websites that help me with keeping perspective instead of obsessing over the news. These days, I spend time with Mark Manson (Thank you @IAmMarkManson ), Brene Brown (If you don’t follow @BreneBrown you should) , Daily Calm , and the Daily Stoic. These remind me that while situations change, I get to choose how to show up for them. It’s liberating when I remember that - and act on it.
Rebalancing the three sides of my “triangle” turned my lights back on. I rejoined the human race (from appropriate social distance). I reconnected more authentically with my friends and family, got more quality writing done, and enjoyed myself more than I had in awhile. Having reestablished positive habits and boundaries, everything else I needed then followed. I began to limit the amount of headspace and heartspace I gave this ongoing crisis. My life is not this crisis - it’s mine regardless of what is going on around it.
If you are still wrestling with this new reality to the point I was, I get how hard it is to regain equilibrium. Keep at it. Go back to the basics of what makes you feel at your best. Start small and add to it daily. Reconnect with the basic truths we know we should cultivate these days - decency to others, consideration, sacrificing comforts and some security for better public health, and cultivating positive changes in ourselves. To borrow from Marianne Williamsson, rather than endlessly search the “dark” of cascading bad news for control of the uncontrollable, step into the “light” and watch how quickly you pull yourself together and contribute to helping others.
I got so lost in my fear and uncertainty that I forgot I can - and have a responsibility to - give to others. This post, and others to come, are part of that. What are the things you can do? As one of my all-time favorite songs - and one that is definitely appropriate for these times - croons, “One life, you’ve got to do what you should." For me, that "should" is seeking, and then acting on, the Next Indicated Step (NIS). I’ve written about it before here, and it continues to serve me when I stay focused and keep my triangle balanced.
So what’s my NIS today?
It is to be more present, more visible, and to actively build this online community. It’s to work on my podcast and push ahead on publishing my novel. It’s to keep developing the relationships I care most about. It's to live One Day at a Time while reminding myself that this crisis will end.
I can be my own worst enemy, but I am also my best asset; The gifts of grace and connection follow once I get my shit out of my own way. I’ll need to adjust now and then, and I’ll keep sharing what that looks like.
I’ll be back in this space soon. In the meantime, whether you live in a COVID-19 hotspot like me, or far from one at the moment, please stay safe and healthy….
….And stay the f*&% at home.
Chins Up, Everyone.