Are We There Yet?

Remember as a kid, in the good old days when you didn’t have a calendar that must be obeyed? You might remember going someplace your parents decided the family needed to go. Might have been visiting Grandma or relatives or driving to the next town to go shopping. As a kid, you didn’t think in terms of how many miles we had to drive or how long it was going to take. Like it or not, you were along for the ride. You were in the backseat of the car getting antsy, waiting for the car to stop so you could be freed from the confinement of the seat belt and this unspecified time of someone else deciding what you needed to do.

If you’ve been a kid or if you are a parent, you’ve heard the question…Are we there yet?

Is this question still on your mind today? It seems that we have been on this long car ride, buckled in the backseat not knowing when this torture will be over. Welcome to life in the first half of 2020. We have limited choices about where we can go and restrictions related to following the distancing and hygiene rules to stop the spread of COVID19. It is safe to say, we don’t like it. It is impacting every aspect of our life. You can look into the eyes of the masked faces you see everywhere and find weariness. Perhaps it is occurring to us that this is our imposed lifestyle for the foreseeable future.

For me, the fear started January 24th, 2020 when I boarded a plane to San Francisco to go to a conference with the Couples Institute. I heard the reports of the virus spreading in other countries. San Francisco airport was on high alert for travelers who might bring the virus into the US. I was well supplied with masks and disinfectant wipes for my airplane ride. I gave everyone in my row a sanitizer wipe for the tray table. I couldn’t tell if they were alarmed or relieved to be offered the wipe, but everyone took part and humored me with a wipe down of their area. Remember, this was in the time before we had any guidance from the CDC and didn’t know what social distancing meant. Can you remember those days? Doesn’t it seem like forever since we have had freedom from worry and threat?

Seems like from the phone calls I’ve been getting at my counseling office that we are getting antsy and ready to break free from this long journey. We have exhausted our coping skills, our patience and our list of home improvement projects. We are faced with months, perhaps years of living this way until new vaccines can protect us and return us to the freedom we underappreciated just a few short months ago.

So, what do we do now? First, we practice patience. There are 4 phases to disaster management; mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. We are in stage 3 – response. We aren’t there yet and we won’t arrive for a long time. We are stuck in the backseat waiting for the car to stop. While we pass the time, there are things you can do.

  1. Practice patience.
  2. Appreciate what is working.
  3. Give yourself space and time to gather your coping skills.
  4. Apologize when you are irritable and disagreeable.
  5. Find outlets for your stress.
  6. Let you partner know you need support.
  7. Set small goals and celebrate your accomplishments.
  8. Consider the opportunity to thrive in threat.
  9. Reach out when you have exhausted your coping strategies.
  10. Write a letter to older, wiser self who lives through this and arrives at a place that is more satisfying than getting bogged down in struggle. What would thriving in threat look like?

Welcome to the Club Everyone! We are in this together. It is a wild ride. Hang on!

Tired of managing a disaster?

After writing yesterday’s blog about intensity and isolation, I needed a break. I was worn out from working this new way, fatigued by online meetings. While I don’t advocate my choice as the best strategy for relieving fatigue, I did go home and I watched a movie on HBO. It was an active choice to unplug, but here is the twist…

The movie that seemed appealing to me was “Out of Africa” with Meryl Streep. It is a story about a woman who moves to Africa and has an intense and isolating experience in her search for a different life than she anticipated had she stayed in Denmark in 1913. I watch the film for the gorgeous cinematography, the sublime musical score and the elegant story.

The film matches the intensity and isolation of how we are now living in the time of a pandemic. Streep’s character, Karen Blixen, endures hardship, danger, financial ruin and grief. From this experience, she invents a coping strategy. In one scene, 18 years after she arrived in Africa, she is sitting on a box in her empty house the night before she leaves to go back to Denmark. Her shoulders are slumped in failure after the entire investment in her farm has been lost, burned to the ground in a barn fire housing her crop and equipment. She relates her coping strategy in this statement; “When I think I can’t stand it, I go one moment more. And then I realize I can withstand anything”.

So, perhaps this strategy is workable today. The pandemic, while novel in its application worldwide, even so, is falling into the 4 predictable phases of disaster management:

  1. Mitigation
    • Phase 1 – Mitigation was going on in government and scientific communities decades before this virus exploded as a world wide pandemic. This virus has been predicted for years. Check out the Ted Talk from Bill Gates on YouTube from April 2015. Read The End of October, the medical thriller novel by Lawrence Wright, to see how the “fantasy” spin in a fiction novel has become our reality.
  2. Preparedness
    • For most of us, the Preparedness phase occurred during the few weeks while Public Health and Government officials tried to devise a strategy to deal with the virus. We stockpiled toilet paper, cleaning supplies, and groceries. We made plans to work from home. Our IT departments pulled a rabbit out of their hat getting employees set up at home so quickly! The inventors of the Zoom platform went into overdrive getting ready for an explosion of traffic using their product. Hospitals rearranged their business model to accommodate the influx of COVID-19 patients. Businesses shut their doors, restaurants bought take out containers, teachers reinvented their classrooms to online learning. Treatment centers converted therapy groups to online experiences. This list goes on, and on, and on. The domino effect of things that stopped happening was rapid and stunning.
  3. Response
    • In Phase 3, we waited at home. We did not know how to protect ourselves beyond washing our hands and not going anywhere. As we learned more about the virus, we made new adaptations to how we could live with this threat to our health. We responded with flexibility, creativity, worry and being upset. We are still in Phase 3 – Response. Until a vaccine can give assurance that we have a level of protection, we will be living with the COVID-19 threat. It seems like we are adapting and perhaps even inventing the “new normal”.
  4. Recovery
    • It is difficult to imagine what the Phase 4 – Recovery looks like just yet. When will the lead story on the news be about something other than how many people died today? When will we stop worrying about wearing a mask, touching your face, hugging someone or going to the work without a hazmat suit and jugs of hand sanitizer? You can expect it to be longer than anticipated. Think of your last home remodel project. Didn’t that project take twice as long as you thought it should? Disaster recovery is no different.
    • We know our recovery timeline from a Red River Valley flood has a 10 year recovery time attached. Financial recovery, emotional recovery, spiritual recovery, physical recovery and social recovery are examples of what we need to focus on to regain wellness and health in its many forms.

So, while we are certainly tired of managing this disaster, we can learn from Karen Blixen in “Out of Africa” and borrow her line in the script…

“When I think I can’t stand it, I go one moment more. And then I realize I can withstand anything”.

Karen Blixen, a character in the movie “Out of Africaportrayed by Meryl Streep .

Intensity and Isolation

There is a strange new combination of pressures that come with this disaster of the COVID19 pandemic. Are you feeling the intensity of every decision? No wonder we are exhausted! Just thinking through the plan for the day, the many choices and options that may involve threat, the discombobulation of learning new technology platforms and reorienting your life to comply with the public health decrees… is intense!

Then, add isolation to this already strange formula of new behaviors and we have a perfect storm of trouble getting in the way of our well being. I used to feel like a vibrant part of my neighborhood, my work group, my family and friend groups. Now, it all feels like so much work and so many complaining conversations about the constraints we are under. I worry about those of us who are most vulnerable to isolation and rumination that is uninterrupted by our normal distractions – running to the store, coffee with a friend, going out to eat, blowing off some steam by shopping for new towels.

My hope in naming the problems as intensity and isolation, we can now learn to identify and manage accordingly. This will be a different experience for each of us as we try to call out the things that feel intense and the contributing factors to your unique feelings of isolation. Maybe, by naming them we can start to tame them?

What’s next?

I’ve just spent the last hour on the CDC website for updates on the pandemic. As a mental health provider, I need to be tuned in to the trends that are happening in harder hit parts of the country as our Midwest section has had more time to prepare for the virus invasion. I want to know more about what’s next for us in North Dakota.

What I’m learning is both good and bad. Since the virus has taken longer to arrive here in North Dakota, I have been able to watch our trends bend to the pressure of what is approaching. The good news is that we have had time to get ready. We have a proactive Governor and healthcare system that is mobilizing resources. While the West and East Coast had to live through getting clobbered by the virus, we have watched it arrive at our border in slow motion.

Currently, North Dakota has 644 positive cases from the 15,000 people tested, 54 people have been hospitalized and 13 people have died. Sadly, these numbers are outdated even as I write them. The number missing is the number of people who are experiencing higher intensity of stress and anxiety. With all that is disrupted, we would expect to see higher rates of job and financial insecurity, substance abuse, domestic violence, and PTSD. When it all gets to be overwhelming, the brain can manifest thoughts of suicide. Calls to Suicide Hotlines are rising. Relationships are strained, children are bored and we are all missing our daily routines. So, what’s next?

We need to keep focused on the goal: Maintaining Health. We need to guard our mental health and seek support. We need to reach out and create community with friends, family, neighbors, coworkers and elders. We need to keep vigilant about our protective practices like face masks and hand washing. We need to be resourceful for our finances, our adaptive coping strategies and our well being. This problem is a long way from being solved, we need to keep focused on long term strategies to deal with catastrophic changes imposed by this virus. I’m here for you if you need to invent a way through this difficult journey. Call Journey Counseling for an appointment today. 701-356-5544. You can also book online at