A month or so ago our lives were coasting on autopilot. We completed our daily checklists and routines without a second thought and moved through the motions of life seamlessly.
Then came the outbreak of COVID-19.
Over the course of the last few weeks our lives have been radically altered. We can no longer shop, visit family or say hello too close to our friends and neighbors. Our local governments dictate whether we should work and whether or not our children will attend school. As the days unfold we may lose jobs, watch companies crumble or find ourselves infected with a potentially deadly disease.
As humans we tend to gravitate towards harmony, order and certainty, but right now the world is greatly unsettled. On a normal day-to-day basis our efforts and decisions impact our successes and failures, but today we seem to have much less control over our lives.
This may be a unique moment in history, but in reality life is full of events that we cannot control. With or without a pandemic we may face unexpected job losses, illnesses, heartaches and the deaths of those we love.
While we cannot remove these obstacles and hardships we can choose how to respond to them. Our control lies not in changing these situations, but in figuring out how to get through them.
Ask me how I know…
Lack of Control
Last March my seventy-year-old father called me in a state of panic. My mom had been rushed to the emergency room, diagnosed with an obstructed bowel and intubated with a nasogastric tube.
Despite the doctors calm demeanor something seemed terribly wrong. My mom was prescribed the most powerful narcotics available, but she was still screaming in agony. As the days progressed her liver enzymes and white blood count, (which all appeared normal on the first day in the ER), were rapidly climbing.
My family and I recognized the gravity of the situation and begged the medical staff to move my mom to a nearby facility with world-class experts, but the hospital repeatedly denied our requests.
Five days after arriving in the emergency room the doctors finally rushed my mom into surgery. On the operating table they discovered their error. My mom didn’t have a twisted bowel. She had a punctured intestine, which had been leaking fecal material into her abdomen for almost a week!
My mom didn’t get better after that initial surgery and the nightmare continued for months on end. We pleaded with the medical staff to move her to a larger hospital, but our words fell on deaf ears.
Surrendering in the Depths of Despair
For weeks I pushed against the hospital bureaucracy while simultaneously watching my mom’s health decline. One afternoon, after a particularly heated debate with a patient advocate, I left the hospital shaking.
I climbed into my car, gripped the steering wheel with all my might and screamed. Then I took a deep breath and sobbed. You know the type of cry that makes it difficult to catch your breath? The kind that gives you a pounding headache the minute it ends.
I have no idea how long I sat there, but I wept until I exhausted myself. Then I rested my head against the back of my seat and stared out over the hillside.
Take Control of Your Life
COVID-19 is creating a similar sense of exhaustion for many of us. Fear, anxiety and frustration are overwhelming our thoughts. We want to control the course of our lives, but there are so many unknowns out there and so many roadblocks.
I understand these emotions. I have felt them before. For weeks I struggled with fear and worry over my mom’s health, but in that moment in the front seat of my car I finally admitted defeat. I could not control my mom’s fate and a strange sense of peace came over me.
In the parking lot of that hospital I released myself from the heavy burdens I had been carrying. I could not heal my mom or get her moved to a different facility. I gave up. I surrendered and in doing so I freed myself from the burden of trying to change things that were entirely out of my control.
I’ve faced my fair share of medical mysteries, layoffs and relationship failures. In the heat of those moments I dwell on my negativity. “Life is unfair!” I’ve shouted on more than one occasion. I don’t want to accept my fate and I actively resist the truth that stands before me.
I convince myself that I only need to exert more force to remove the barriers in front of me, but no matter how hard I try they will not budge.
Hitting Rock Bottom
Only in the depths of despair can I recognize the truth, no matter how much I hate it some aspects of life are simply out of my control. I must acknowledge the pain I feel and accept the horrible situation for what it is. Don’t get me wrong, acceptance isn’t easy, but at some point I surrender, because pushing won’t move me along any farther.
I cry, kick, scream and exhaust myself with anger, sadness and worry, but eventually I acknowledge the event in a way that will help me move forward.
In the midst of chaos I seek peace. Over the years I’ve learned to refocus my thoughts on what I can control. Even though, sometimes, it feels as though I cannot control anything at all.
Where do I begin?
1. Search for the Good
I begin by accepting the moment for exactly what it is, a small blip in time, even though it doesn’t feel that way right now. I try not to waste too much time ruminating on the decisions of my past or the broken hopes of my future, instead I focus on what is happening in this very moment.
The goal is not to dwell on the negative, but to find a way to make life better from this point forward. I remind myself that my life circumstances do not define me, but my reactions to those events will.
For example, at the age of twenty-seven I began a lifelong battle with chronic pain. When my body hurts and my heart aches I muster the strength to focus on the good things in my life. I am eternally grateful for the continuing love and support of my husband who looks past my ailments and assists our kids when I don’t have the energy to help them.
2. Acknowledge Your Pain
In the midst of this current world crisis you may feel angry, bitter and overwhelmed. Right now it may seem utterly impossible to find any good in the world. That’s totally understandable. It took months to accept my lack of control over my mom’s situation and even longer to come to grips with my own pain.
If you feel hopeless and despondent take the time to grieve. Feel the weight of your emotions, because you must acknowledge them before moving on.
3. Focus on the Moment
Live life minute by minute. While you cook dinner think about chopping vegetables and listening to the sound of the skillet.
Don’t think about the bills you have to pay or how stable your job is at that very moment. Set aside time to review your finances, look over your job prospects or apply for unemployment, but don’t let those thoughts seep into your subconscious throughout the day.
Focus only on the task at hand and be present and mindful as you complete them.
4. Set Aside Time to Worry
When I was dealing with my mom’s medical issues a friend told me to set aside time to worry. It sounds absolutely ridiculous, but I swear it worked for me. I set a timer, sat at my desk, grabbed a pen and wrote down all of my thoughts. Then I shared them with my husband.
Over the years I’ve found that voicing my concerns does wonders for my mental health. My husband can’t fix my worries, but simply saying them out loud releases me from the burden of them.
Find someone you can talk to about your concerns. Let that person guide you if you want, but primarily just ask them to listen.
5. Make Forward Progress
When a crisis comes it helps to have the rest of your life in order. So maybe you can’t stop your impending lay-off or completely avoid COVID-19, but there are still things you can do to feel better.
In times of crisis we reflect on all of the things we can’t do, but remember there are still many aspects of life that you can take control of.
You may not have the time to complete a lot of tasks, but think about one goal you can accomplish and take action towards it.
It doesn’t have to be a huge goal either. Set a goal to call your best friend once a week or to clear the dishes every night before going to bed. As you check some items off the list add new ones.
Find purpose, meaning and pleasure in your accomplishments. Sometimes the goals are small. If everyone is successfully fed and showered that may be enough for the day.
6. Create a Calm Home Environment
Some of us live in calm, comforting homes while others live in chaotic ones. Now is the time to settle your home life and learn to make peace with your spouse, children and extended love ones.
If you can, set aside time to talk to your family and eat meals together. Put away technology as often as possible and find ways to enjoy each other’s company.
To feel at peace we must create a peaceful environment for ourselves. Take time to clear away the clutter, bag up your unwanted possessions and prepare them for donation.
Make one room in your home a small sanctuary where you can go to escape the chaos and madness.
7. Focus On Your Relationships
When the world feels out of control it’s important to find those who can guide us.
While my mom was in the operating room my friend M called to chat with me. I didn’t know if my mom would live or die, but I knew that M would have a hug waiting for me either way.
Sometimes we just need someone to say, “I’ve been there and I’m sorry you have to go through this too.” When we are overwhelmed with our emotions we need a voice like M’s to keep us tethered and grounded.
If your life is feeling out of control reach out and reconnect with friends and family members. Figure out who you can depend on in times of strife and learn to be a pillar so that others can lean on you too.
Take the time to mend broken relationships and become a source of comfort to those who are struggling.
8. See the Collective Good
Most of us will go through rough patches at some point in our lives, but humanity rarely experiences these events all at once and all together. Try to find comfort in the fact that you are experiencing this downturn along with your friends and neighbors.
Seek comfort in the collective nature of this pandemic and know that you are not alone. If you feel alone reach out to someone who can help you.
9. Take Care of Yourself
We all know that life is fragile. Yet we don’t always take care of our physical health. During this time search for different ways to clear your mind. I’ve found it helpful to meditate and use a gratitude journal. I also try to go outside when I can, so I can exercise and rejuvenate my body.
10. Focus on the Things That Matter
Life has thrown its fair share of heavy burdens onto my path and acceptance has been far from easy. After that heavy cry in the hospital parking lot I stopped asking the hospital staff to move my mom to another facility. I also turned my attention away from the Internet and Dr. Google.
Instead I brought my mom flowers, comfortable blankets and moisturizer. I filled up an old iPod with inspirational music and left albums full of songs for her.
I don’t know if any of these things helped, but they made me feel like I was helping and that was all that mattered.
Most importantly I held my mom’s hands and told her how much I loved her. I told her what an amazing mom she’d been and how fortunate I was to be her daughter. Of course I wanted to do more, but in the end I found solace in just being there for her.