Guest article contributed by Michelle Ryan: engineer, food lover, and AMAZING human.
This is another article about the pandemic and mental health. If you’re reading this thirty years from now, I hope you’re (socially) distant from the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 and the social and economic chaos that followed. If you’re reading this while we’re living it, I hope you’re hanging in there. My mental health over the past few months was not — and continues not to be — the blog-friendly kind. And it is for that reason that I would like to share it. It’s easy to talk about our reactions to social isolation on a surface and solution-oriented level: how to feel less isolated, how to use technology to stay connected, lists of decent virtual happy hour games. Swipe up for the best banana bread recipe and check out the link in bio for more work from home hacks. For me, a type-A planner, a shelter in place order was another character builder. Just another obstacle for a woman in STEM, for someone who moved 3,000 miles away from their family and friends. I planned on navigating these “unprecedented times” with the same indifference I had towards other turbulent moments I’d already faced. I treated every conflict, sexist, ageist coworker, unreasonably heavy workload with the same emotionally void reaction: find the root cause, work harder to fix it. So, when my company transitioned to work from home, I meticulously planned out every hour. Wake up at 7:30, stretch, act out a fake commute to my living room setup. Schedule in coffee breaks, reach out to coworkers, call my distant friends. Eat lunch, attend meetings, cut off work strictly at 5:00 PM. Do some yoga, text my friends, have a stay at home date night. Rinse, repeat. This was the Buzzfeed, New York Times, work from home expert solution. But it didn’t work. Here I was, an extrovert, and a brief conversation with anyone was wearing me out. Why was showering so hard? I increased my dose of bubble baths and virtual movie nights. Does picking a movie usually take two hours? My to-do list started to pull me down into my bed every morning, anchoring me to a day full of only necessary engagements and doom scrolling on my phone. As case numbers rose, my lagging brain started to work overtime in correlation. I started to contemplate everything that had ever hit a nerve in the past twenty years from my work from home office-table. Wake up, drink tea. Consider making apologies that were long overdue — was it weird to reach out? In between Zoom happy hours, I contemplated what life would be like if I got COVID. Did that girl from 7th grade still hate me? What was her name again? Everything else in my world slowed down, but the energy I had used in my 'normal life', refusing to be destroyed, entered my conscious and subconscious, giving itself a new purpose in crippling my basic thoughts. Desperate, I tried it all: books on rest, more meditation, healthier eating, a new therapist, different meditation, more yoga, less yoga. But the more I strained to feel better, the faster my gears turned. The whirring was now accompanied by guilt around my failure to get better. If I had just made more smoothies, sourdough, attended another game night. Eventually, I hit bottom. That day, incapable of sticking to any kind of professional demeanor, I called off work. I submitted my request, resigned to a day of couch rest and YouTube videos, finally accepting defeat in the form of mozzarella sticks and intermittent waves of crying and apathy. And that’s where the magic happened. I had always spent my adult life working on the next thing, living 'mindfully', hitting mark after mark, refusing to compromise, double tapping Instagram posts about side hustles and self love. This was the first day of rest I’d had since college. Nothing to do, nothing to follow up on, no healthy regimen to follow. It was a completely foreign concept, and I was wildly uncomfortable, but too paralyzed by anxiety and exhaustion to get back on my 'grind'. As I took more rest, I systematically processed every trauma, worry, minor irritant. I gave each monster center stage and let it perform its scariest rendition of 'worst case scenario'. But miraculously, in the absence of the to-do lists I had been clinging to for the past ten years, I started to let things go. Anxiety about COVID and my historic hypochondria was the tip of my anxiety pyramid, and I was finally able to address things I was always 'too busy' to process. So where am I now? Well, I’m still #safeathome. I’m still doing yoga, but because I feel like it. I don’t read as many articles, and I don’t do as many happy hours, but I feel connected to what I actually want for the first time in years. Is this the end of my 'journey'? Of course not, I’ve only just started understanding what my burnout feels like. But as I finally take the rest I refused in my early twenties, I’m starting to grapple with what relaxation and self-care really means. That Pinterest definition of self-care is where my fatigue buildup came from. If I painted my nails twice a month, then I would not have to grieve the loss of my weekly Pilates class with a best friend. Eating more kale would make me immune to imposter syndrome. But that’s simply not true. Maybe instead, self-care is allowing yourself as much time as you need to be whatever you need to be. Empathy for yourself when you’re enraged by injustice or feeling powerless in your current situation. Celebrating yourself in more than a dinner or twenty minute phone call. A full range of emotions may not be lavender scented, but it is productive in the most authentic way. And my new goal is to reject the idea of 'earning rest', even when it means actually taking my PTO.