Monday, March 30, 2020

An Emotional Survival Guide to Covid-19: Caring and Calm Amidst the Chaos



As the toll of Corvid-19 climbs alarmingly around the world, there are sights that can't be unseen and words that can't be unheard such as:


  • Crowds of shoppers battling in the aisles of big box stores for dwindling supplies of toilet paper and bottled water, oblivious to store managers calling for peace and civility 
  • Bare shelves stripped of sanitizers, cleaning supplies, paper products and bottled water.
  • Crowds of young people, feeling invulnerable to the virus or simply not caring, packing bars, pubs and restaurants in cities across the nation, offering an unparalleled opportunity for the virus to spread among these healthy young people to be carried on to the elderly and otherwise vulnerable.
  • Political and generational divisions spawning verbal ugliness -- from contentions that the virus is simply a media hoax to the belief that the virus' penchant for killing more older people is just punishment for those loathsome Boomers 
  • Wealthy people retreating to their doomsday shelters in old missile silos or to remote vacation homes
  • People buying guns in record numbers...to protect themselves from each other.


It's time to calm down and accept one central fact: we're all in this together.

People of all ages, ethnicities, professions and social standings have become ill from Covid-19. While the elderly and those with underlying health issues are most at risk for serious illness and death in this pandemic, Covid-19 affects us all in terms of health and loss, disruption of work, income and lifestyle. These are scary, trying, uncertain times.

It all makes me think of an earlier time when panic reigned: the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 when the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war and those of us in our teens feared we would never live to see young adulthood. People were hunkering down in backyard bomb shelters, hoarding canned goods and threatening to shoot anyone who intruded. It was my introduction to a very real sense of mortality and to the worst of humanity.

My Aunt Molly, a professional writer and award winning poet, wrote a poem back then about that "I've got mine, screw you!" bunker mentality that crisis inspired over half a century ago. Her poem was originally published in The Antioch Review.


You Can't Take It with You But You Can Always Bury It Alive

by

Elizabeth C. McCoy



Native rock and chemical toilet,
Air intake wary as a crone counting change
In an alien currency.

Dehydrated food and canned water
Sufficient for one for seven days.
$6.98 on special.
Mine.

And you needn't expect...
Well...see! You've smudged
That page I like to read over and over
All about Walden.

You've....shhhhh!
How can it be just a gopher?
Nothing can get through to you now
Except the faintest taste and smell of fear
If you hadn't forgotten the Air Wick.

If he comes,
If anyone comes,
Shoot.


All these years later, we can do better.

These are different times to be sure. The menace is a viral pandemic, unsparing and unstoppable. How can we begin to get a grip and to realize that, while life must change at least for now, we can find ways to be okay, to be happy, to be kind to each other despite our concerns?


1. Don't let your panic get in the way of compassion and reason. Those feral shoppers stripping shelves of necessities we all need have let panic and selfishness cloud their judgment. For all of our well-being, hand sanitizer should be available to all, not just a few who are hoarding a 20 year supply or have enough toilet paper to bequeath to great grandchildren. When Bob and I were making a regular supermarket trip the other day, finding that food supplies were still quite abundant though paper goods and bottled water shelves were bare, we saw a woman at the checkout counter with SIX shopping carts overflowing with everything imaginable --from cleaning supplies to cookies. She looked like she was headed for a 10-year hibernation. Cultivate a spirit of enough. What you have will be enough. Make supplies last. Stretch meals. Improvise. You'll be fine. Faced with the coronavirus, running low on toilet paper will be the least of your problems.

2. See lifestyle changes through a positive lens -- as an opportunity to learn and to grow. Most of us live hectic lives built around routines that keep us away from loved ones, hobbies and relaxation. Working from home and losing the commute, having more time with family and with pets can be a welcome change in your daily routine. If you're off work as a result of business shut downs, this time off can be worrisome indeed. However, this pause in your work life can also be an opportunity. One friend, who worked as a bartender, says that losing her job has been a blessing of sorts. "I hated my job so much!" she told me. "But I wouldn't have left anytime soon. The money was too good and I wasn't sure what I would do next. Now I have more time and incentive to consider what I really want to do with  my life and plan a way forward." 

3. Limit your anxiety time.  Switching off the constant drone of dire news, taking a break, is good for your mental health. Yes, the crisis is very real. But, as long as you have good and accurate information and are doing the best you can to protect yourself and your family, obsessing about the pandemic and binge watching 24 hour news isn't useful or healthy. Lose yourself in a novel or in some of your favorite music. Short meditations, deep breathing, exercise, thought stopping can all help to keep a balanced view of the situation and to review your alternatives with a clear mind. 

4. Embrace gratitude. Consider what you have rather than what you've lost. Be grateful for a home in which to cocoon and for the people you love -- those who are with you at home and those who keep in touch from a distance. Be grateful for the embrace of a partner when you're in the grip of fear and uncertainty. Be grateful for the warmth of your animal friends. My three-legged black cat Ollie has started lying on my chest, his front paws around my neck, purring loudly. It's an incredible comfort. Be grateful for your interests and passion that you now may have more time to pursue. And be grateful for your good health so far. Being healthy overall may help to protect you against the worst ravages of this pandemic. 

5. Strengthen community and familial ties. Offer to help, keep in touch, check up on others, tap your inner kindness and compassion. You may realize how much nearby others mean. I've come to appreciate that in advance of the pandemic through my disability in the wake of my January accident when neighbors like Marsha, Vicki and Kelly brought meals over, when my neighbor Sherry dropped by with warm encouragement and just now, when Kelly appeared at our front door, keeping a safe distance, and handing us a bag of chocolate chip cookies warm from the oven. And I recently got a call from the wife of a young client of mine asking if she could do grocery shopping, pick up prescriptions for us or do anything else that would help to keep us safe. My brother Mike sends funny, insightful and loving messages from afar. My friend Georgie in Tennessee sent me a painting she imagined (correctly!) would cheer me up and keeps in touch with frequent messages. My friend Tim keeps me smiling with sweet emails, pictures, jokes and warm reassurance. His daughter Mary Kate calls with words of encouragement and love. My friend Mary, sidelined with her own disabling injuries and in a care facility for at least another month, sends me messages that are often as simple as "I love you!" Think about your own circles of family and friends. Whose day could you brighten with a call or text? What would you like to say to those you love most right now? Reach out now. Say what you would like to say...maybe something you've never said before.

6. Rediscover old pleasures.  Bring out the board games and jigsaw puzzles. Try song fests in the living room, the shower or out the window(see Italy!). Write letters to those you love. Take time to journal. Rediscover the joy of gardening or the simple pleasure of tidying up. Get creative and make some meals from scratch, enjoying the deliciousness of old recipes.

7. Express love fully -- and often. Tell others how you feel in writing, online, over the phone, with warm hugs. I've had the joy in the past few days to hear from a variety of people in my life -- from my brother Mike who speculates that the Tooth Fairy let his daughter down the other night -- possibly due to self-isolating or due to needing a federal bailout. And he added "I love you" to his text; from my lifelong friend Sister Rita McCormack, who befriended my brother and me when we were young, scared and abused, and who called to say she loved us still and always; fun and loving emails from my friends Tim and Mary; and a call from Tim's wonderful daughter Mary Kate, full of warm encouragement, affirmation of life's wonders and loving admonitions to be careful.

Think about the people who matter to you. This crisis is an opportunity to say what you've always wanted to say to those you love, to remember the important people from your life whom you may not see or hear from regularly, to reach out over the chasm of social distancing to touch another's heart.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

A Wild Saturday Night in Sun City (And What Came After)



                                                               
With Ryan (red shirt) and Michael the morning after

At the dawn of 2020, my husband Bob and I marveled at the fact that, despite being in our mid-seventies, we were healthy, strong and active.

Bob recently discovered bicycling and was doing miles a day in addition to reading voraciously, studying ASL and discovering the intricacies of Wagner's operas. He is slim, fit and strong for his age -- or any age. 

I was swimming laps for an hour a day, nudging my diet in the Mediterranean direction, determined to get my weight to a healthier level and was delighted with the rapid growth of my new psychotherapy private practice.

We agreed that we were grateful for this extended healthy, happy time in our lives.

"This won't last, of course," Bob said quietly, thinking of the recent deaths of several friends and the downward spiral in health for another.

"But every day that we're healthy is a blessing," I said. "I'm grateful for every day of our healthy, active lives."

We smiled as we talked about the upcoming visit of Ryan Grady and his husband Michael Collum, flying in from Los Angeles for the extended Martin Luther King weekend.

We call Ryan "the son of our hearts." He came into our lives as Bob's Little Brother in the Big Brothers Program in Los Angeles. He was a quirky, bright, funny 9 year old then, who regaled Bob with a full throated rendition of "The Glory of Love" in the car, only minutes after they first met. Ryan quickly became dear to us, the son we would have been proud to have. (And we marveled at how his parents had produced not one, but two marvelous kids, as Ryan's older sister Kelly captured our hearts as well.)

As a young teenager, Ryan helped me to study for my oral licensing exam as a therapist and said "I want to do this, too!" And he did, becoming a licensed clinical social worker, seeing therapy clients and working as an administrator in an agency serving veterans. He's 36 now and when he married Michael in 2017, Bob was his Best Man. We've come to love Michael, too. Michael is an attorney by day and pianist by night. We could talk with them for hours -- and do.

This time, we were looking forward to showing Ryan and Michael just how vital and fit we were despite our advancing ages.

Pride before the fall.

The first sign of trouble was subtle. A patient came to see me, curling up on the couch in abject misery, coughing and sniffling through her session. I felt bad for her as well as a fleeting fear I quickly dismissed. After all, I hadn't been ill in years. And, as usual, I got a high intensity flu shot. I would be fine, but still....why hadn't she stayed home? I asked her if she really felt well enough to continue the session. She did and left at the end of the hour with my admonitions to go home, stay home, drink lots of liquids and rest.

My throat started feeling scratchy two days later, the day that Ryan and Michael arrived, We went out for dinner. I started feeling worse. Saturday morning, I woke up with a wracking cough, a fever and a painful earache, something I hadn't had since childhood. I went to the local ER where a doctor said the ear infection was bad and gave me a prescription for antibiotics.

I opted out of the festivities that day....and out of lunch and dinner, too. My fever climbed, my infected ear -- my good ear -- was completely blocked. I could barely hear. I crawled into bed early and fell into a feverish sleep.

"Help me! Help me!"

In the dark of 2 a.m., I startled from a deep sleep to the sound of screaming from the bathroom. I jumped out of bed and raced to the master bathroom where Bob lay in the aftermath of a grand mal seizure. Bob's epilepsy is well controlled by medication. Seizures are few and far between, but when they happen, they're serious. Rushing to his side, I felt suddenly faint, passing out beside him. It was pain that brought me back to consciousness. My left foot had twisted and I had fallen on it. The pain was intense, the swelling immediate. Neither of us could move. My cell phone was charging on the bathroom counter. I pulled it down and texted Ryan who, with Michael, was asleep in the casita guest house in front of our home.

Michael and Ryan rushed in to help: Michael took charge of Bob, who simply needed to rest, and Ryan rushed me back to the local ER. The receptionist smiled with recognition as we came in. "Oh," she said. "Today you have company! Your sweet grandson brought you in!"

Ryan and I looked at each other and smiled. "Actually," he said. "Kathy and I are special friends, though I'd say we do have something of a mother-son vibe going on...." And we chuckled.

After studying my x-rays, the ER physician shrugged. "It's suspicious for a fracture, maybe a little bone chip"  he said, giving me an orthopedic boot and telling me to follow up with my primary physician.

My primary sent me to a podiatrist who gasped when he saw the foot and took more x-rays and ordered a CAT scan. "This is very serious," he said. "This is a lisfranc fracture involving a number of bones in your foot and all three tendons that hold the bones together have torn. You need surgery as soon as possible! We have a narrow window of opportunity to fix the foot. The recovery time for this injury is at least a year."

He sent me to a surgeon who confirmed the diagnosis and the urgency, telling me that the surgery would involve rebuilding the foot with metal plates, pins and screws, that I would be in a cast for three months, a rigid boot for three more months and a modified boot for some months thereafter -- and in a wheelchair unable to put any weight at all on the foot during all that time.

There was only one impediment to surgery: my respiratory infection and cough.The surgery has been scheduled and canceled several times now. The window of opportunity for an optimal healing result has come and gone. I may always limp. Or need a cane. But anything would be an improvement.

Life with limited mobility is a humbling thing. I'm in a wheelchair. I need help going to the bathroom and bathing and dressing. Always fiercely independent, I've had to learn to depend on Bob, to ask for help, to rely on him for everything.

And now another development: I've lost my voice in the wake of weeks of violent coughing. And I'm watching another surgery date approach, hoping this one won't pass me by.

In the meantime, life keeps happening. During a routine echocardiogram two weeks ago, a mass was discovered on Bob's thyroid. He had a CAT scan and the result was "highly suspicious for malignancy." He is awaiting a biopsy. And someone very close to me, who prefers anonymity, was just diagnosed with kidney cancer. And a college friend of mine passed away last week.

It's all so fragile -- our health, our lives. In only an instant, everything can change.

Bob and I both are struggling to imagine what would happen if both of us end up needing surgery and recovery time in the weeks to come. The most routine tasks might become major challenges.

In the meantime, our home decor has taken a small but definite shift toward geriatric -- with wheelchair, walker, extended shower bench.

The cats were initially puzzled by my sudden disability but Sweet Pea and Hamish already have settled into quiet indifference. Maggie gives me extra affection. And my three-legged cat Ollie, convinced somehow that I'm being held prisoner in this chair, springs to attention every time I move, running circles around the chair, pouncing the wheels and lying down in front of it, blocking the way. Every journey is a perilous one as I learn to take evasive action to avoid running over my beloved feline companion.

Family and friends at a distance worry, wondering how they can help and express their love and concern. And friends here make heartfelt offers to help.

I'm immensely grateful.

I'm grateful to Bob for his patience and resourcefulness as a caregiver.

I'm grateful to my brother Mike and special friends - Tim, Mary, Pat, Georgia, Mary Kate, and Marsha -- for helping to lift my spirits in so many ways.

I'm grateful that when my accident happened, Ryan and Michael were here to lend physical and emotional help. It was not exactly the way we thought the weekend would go, but both Bob and I felt blessed by their presence nonetheless.

 I'm grateful for my private practice and the wonderful clients who have hung in there through the uncertainties of the past few weeks. I look forward to getting past surgery and back to being fully present for them.

I'm grateful that my injury is somewhat fixable, that my time in a wheelchair may be long, but far from permanent. I feel hopeful for Bob's health and for my anonymous loved one's prognosis.

And I feel grateful for every day -- whether healthy or not.