You all know I have a Masters Degree, since that is required for me to get my license. What you may not all know is that I was in my 50s before that degree was conferred. I would be a liar if I said I knew from the age of 5 that I wanted to be a counselor. I started my freshman year of college with only very vague goals, and that is surely part of why it took me so long to complete even my Bachelor’s degree. Any excuse to drop out and I took it, until I didn’t.
I was 32 years old when I got my Bachelor of Arts Degree, and a divorce. Once I found a counselor I really liked (to process the divorce), I started thinking how much I would like to go into that same field. Then I quickly started un-thinking that, because I could not see my way clear to how I would ever pay tuition while I raised my child. I didn’t even tell anyone my goal; I just fumbled along the best I could with the generalized degree I had, working at jobs I didn’t much like but that I was pretty good at. There was also the one job I did like, self-employed, performing personalized singing telegrams. It required my creative side, which was what I loved about it.
Even after my son was fully grown, I would take stabs at figuring out how to finance graduate school, but I kept looking in the wrong places. It is especially curious that I never darkened the door of a college Financial Aid office. Now wouldn’t that seem like a logical place to go?
My mistake was simple: I thought I should be able to figure it out for myself, so I did very little asking for advice, even from experts. Blaming myself for not knowing what I had not been told, I just kept fumbling along without that degree. After enough years passed, I decided it just wasn’t in the stars. One favorite excuse? I won’t have enough working years left to justify the investment.
Then an opportunity pretty much smacked me in the face. I took it, started classes, and learned by Week 2 how most of my fellow students were funded: They had jobs in social service fields, with companies that paid for graduate school as an inducement. These were all companies I had been perfectly well qualified to work for; it just had never occurred to me to even try.
The point of this vignette is simple: Don’t follow my example. Had I swallowed my pride just the teensy amount it would take to ask questions, I would have either gotten into graduate school sooner or made an informed and rational decision to be content with the formal education I already had.
I doubt I would have started graduate school the minute the ink on my divorce papers was dry. Working full time while attending classes part time would mean I would miss out on too much of my child’s growing up. The years running the singing telegram company gave me plenty of latitude to be a more involved parent, for which I will always be grateful. But it would have been nice to have a plan for following a new career path when the time was right.
The short version of all this? Ask around. A lot. And read. And brainstorm, accepting even the worst ideas as ideas that may lead to better ones. There is no shame in not knowing, only in not bothering to learn. Whatever your age, you still have all the years ahead of you to change your path or just tweak the one you are on, to evaluate and re-evaluate your direction in life. The embarrassment of asking for advice and information pales next to the frustration of continuously thinking “If only.”
This pandemic has changed us all, and some of the changes will be permanent. In my own case, I am obsessively following the news, especially about COVID-19 and the political scene in general. Prior to this—and especially prior to the last administration—I didn’t much bother with following anything beyond the highlights.
Why the difference?
You are probably well aware that children who grow up in abusive homes tend to be hypervigilant. It is a matter of survival; they need to know what is coming their way in order to best protect themselves against it. My household is fine. But my I worry about my broader surroundings. When the Capitol building can become the site of a rioting crowd attempting to overthrow an election, I suspect a lot more of us are going through our days with our eyes wide open for whatever may happen next.
And of course there is the pandemic. I have been less impacted by it than many, and sometimes I think of it as “noise”. It is always lurking in the background, and I am always wondering who it will strike next. A few weeks ago, I had an appointment cancelled because the professional I was scheduled to see had just come down with COVID. I was quickly doing the math in my head to make sure I had not seen that person in over two weeks. (I hadn’t.) And of course I breathed a sigh of relief, because the timing working in my favor was purely a matter of dumb luck.
The disruptions this has created in the lives of so many, likely has led a number of people to re-think their life goals: career, friendships, possibly even spiritual and religious beliefs. Even those who are young enough to feel, under normal conditions, that their time is pretty much unlimited—are suddenly brought face to face with their own mortality. If they are extremely lucky, it is the cases they read or hear about in news reports. If they are not so lucky, it can be their grandfather, their sister, their uncle, their very best friend…And of course some among us have directly suffered from COVID-19, and many survivors report it is the worst thing they have ever experienced. Some even become “long haulers,” suffering aftereffects such as breathing problems and brain fog that may wind up lasting throughout their lives.
We have, all of us, been handed an opportunity—or maybe more like a mandate—to take our own lives seriously and think hard about the direction we want that life to follow. I hope for all of you that the mark you wish to leave in this world doesn’t leave out critical elements like friendships, and laughter, and lots of fun. We all deserve joy.
I was only five days old when my maternal grandfather died, the result of a heart attack he suffered while shoveling snow. During that era, women were presumed to be compromised by normal childbirth for at least a week and a half. Consequently, my father took my brothers to the funeral and left my mother home to take care of me. At that time, he was following standard medical advice. Today, I feel that was a very poor decision, likely making it more difficult for my mother to mourn her own father’s death.
Now that we have COVID getting in the way of standard mourning rituals, my mother’s missing of her father’s funeral seems like a trifle. Services and/or visiting hours, when held, present a major decision. Do you want to physically be there to support the bereaved? Is it more important to ensure you don’t risk exposing them (or yourself) to any possible contagion?
One thing I take comfort from, is a feeling that funerals are for the living, that we do not fail our deceased loved one by not attending. (We may, however, fail our surviving loved ones.). My maternal grandmother suffered a long illness, and when one of my mother’s sisters visited from out of state, she announced “I will not be here for the funeral. I feel it is more important for me to see her now.” Thank you, Aunt Mary; I have held that thought through all these intervening years.
My pandemic life has not managed to proceed without some people dying, though none so far were extremely close to me. Some of the things I have done, in no particular order, include posting to the person’s funeral home memorial page, sending a card—yes, an actual paper card, sending flowers, providing help while the person was failing…I have talked to random people about each death, though that is a far cry from joining the crowd and sharing memories. Were I the person who had just lost a very close loved one, I would certainly prefer those somewhat disjointed responses to the non-response that results when someone declares “I just don’t know what to do.”
When we no longer have to fear this for-now new disease, my hope is we will carry some of these lessons into our future. After all, even in the best of times, it will not always be possible to pay our respects and find out comfort in the most traditional ways. Dealing with others’ deaths, as we deal with our own lives, mostly means we just have to muddle through.
Who ever dreamed a year or so ago, that Mask Etiquette would be a thing? But here we are, and it matters a lot. You are probably already aware that I seldom see clients in my office these days, and when I do—well, the office is set up for maximum safety and minimum contagion. I have arranged seating so the client and I are over six feet apart, windows are open whenever weather permits, there is an air filter, and hand sanitizer is available in the event anyone chooses to utilize it. And I keep extra masks on hand in case a client forgets.
So that covers how things work in my office, where I have control. When I am out in public, though, the control is no longer mine. Not to worry, I am not out in public much these days, having decided that the best way to avoid exposure to COVID-19 is to just stay as isolated as possible. So far, so good.
Of course, no matter how I try to isolate myself, there are those times I wind up at a store or yes, even the occasional restaurant (but only those with plexiglas barriers), or even out walking the dog. Okay, technically I don’t need a mask when I walk the dog—at least provided I am in a location where the nearest person is a couple hundred feet away—but the times we are at OSU/Newark I mask because it is a rule on that campus and I intend to respect that.
Now that I am doing my share, at least to the best of my ability, I hope you can humor me while I crab about the “mask errors” that drive me to distraction.
One of the big ones is restaurants, where the Ohio Department of Health officially requires that people be masked except when they are eating or drinking. Somehow this gets translated to “As long as I am sitting down, I don’t need to mask.” So people will sit for a two-hour meal with no mask and somehow think there is no way they can share any virus. In my opinion, keeping a mask on at least until the server has brought your order is common courtesy. The mask is to protect the other person, after all, and servers need to be protected from an awful lot of people’s germs.
Another is people who pull the mask below their noses. You do know that air you breathe through your nose eventually winds up in the lungs, and vice versa, right? Between my teeth grinding and my eye rolling, it would be pretty nearly impossible for anyone to look my way and not realize I am way beyond annoyed at this total lack of concern about potential contagion.
Then there are the people who work in tiny settings where people come in from time to time, and you see the employees grab their masks when they see a customer enter. Better that than nothing, but…You do realize you breathe when there are no customers, and that those droplets don’t disappear in the mere seconds between your masking up and the customer entering the store.
For those among you who are doing your best to stop the spread of COVID—and I suspect most of us are—do you ever feel like you take precautions so others don’t have to? Yeah, so do I. Once this crisis has passed, I fear there will be friends and acquaintances I feel uneasy around and businesses I will prefer to avoid. When there is a crisis that threatens all our lives, I have a long memory.
On the flip side, I will always remember those who have gone out of their way to minimize any chance of sharing whatever viruses they could possibly be carrying.
COVID-19 has put such a dent in people’s plans for education. If I were currently the parent of a school age child, I would likely spend approximately 97.5 percent of my time being frantic. There are no good answers. Way back in the winter of 1977, the local schools closed for around a month due to fuel shortages, fearing they would be unable to keep the buildings heated. My recollection is that we didn’t act like the children would fail in life due to this time off. A lot of parents plopped their children in front of educational TV shows, likely in order to keep those brain cells functioning. Granted, it was a month and not the several months and counting that we are dealing with now. We did not have internet available then, so Zoom sessions were not an option. And those Zoom sessions, for all their advantages, contribute to a digital divide that could have lingering effects for those without internet access. What might be a viable alternative? Worksheets and/or being delivered to the students’ homes? Radio shows? Accessibility for all is so important. Many children are currently missing out on a lot of services that schools have been providing, including guidance counselors, school nurses, teachers seeing children physically so they can know and report if the child is being abused or neglected…. I didn’t mention food because so many are working so hard to fill that gap. And of course these children get lonely without the same-age friends they would come in contact with during a normal school day. Then there is college, which is attracting a lot of attention in the media these days. If someone contracts COVID while living on campus, many schools send them home. Worst thing to do, in my opinion, because you are now spreading the virus from campus to the student’s home location. I hope colleges start just quarantining these students. Many students are taking their courses online, which is of course better than nothing but often feels less than satisfactory. Labs, etc. cannot be conducted online. Plus there is the social experience of being a college student. I cannot fathom what it would have been like had this pandemic occurred when I was headed off for my freshman year. I do know I would not have been headed off anywhere, and would have spent the next several months arguing with my parents. But they were footing the bill and I was not on scholarship, so they had the power and they would have used it by informing me that there was no way their money was being used to send me into a highly infectious environment. It would have been a challenging “gap year.” Students paying their own way and/or on scholarship are another matter. What parent is willing to have their child lose a scholarship out of fear of infection? Again, I cannot imagine being in that position: No good answers here. If a student is paying their own way, they have the power to decide what risks to take. My own experience with students who pay their own way is, they are very measured in their decision making process. I would be curious to know how many of the self-payers forestall their education compared to those whose parents have agreed to foot the bill. Like probably about 110 percent of the population, I look forward to the day this is no longer an issue.
If you have read many of my former posts, you are already well aware that I am firm in my belief that when people come into my office, those with good support systems tend to fare better. Which is a not-so-roundabout way of stating that we all need one another. Some of us are more introverted, preferring a smaller social circle, while others cannot get enough of meeting new people and being in crowds.
Generally speaking, I would guess the introverts are faring better with the isolation that comes for many of us with this pandemic. But no one is unscathed. After all, the most introverted among us simply have a smaller circle; introversion is not an indication of wanting to be with no one. It is my guess that even total hermits need some outside contact, if only to have someone with whom to argue.
Sitting on the coffee table in front of me is a copy of Dr. Vivek Murthy’s recent book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World. Interesting that this book was published just as the COVID-19 pandemic was unleashing its damage in this country. The best defense we have is isolation, which will help us physically and hurt us mentally. People are using social media to help offset this, but we all realize it is not enough.
I keep thinking, if we had a timeline for this it would be so much easier. Even if we knew it would go one for another year or two, it would be a known instead of an unknown. But here we are, all of us fumbling along and doing the best we can.
One of the things that has grabbed my attention is the way it has spread through nursing homes and assisted living centers. We do have one assisted living center nearby that has had zero COVID-19 cases to date, partly due to some of their staff literally living there for a little over two months so as to not bring the virus into the facility. Despite their heroics, we cannot be sure this can go on forever—though I did say “If I ever have to go into assisted living, that is where I want to be.”
Assisted living in general has been quite successful financially. I have personally resisted the concept because it appears to me they are charging higher and higher fees to put people into smaller and smaller spaces. It is meeting a big demand, though: Community. As people age (and yes, I am in that age group, though on the lower end), there are a lot of losses: friends, spouses, professional connections…and we do get tired of having to go to so much effort to make new connections. With assisted living, it is more or less built in.
Here is the rub: These places can easily become petri dishes for a pandemic. I am guessing their popularity will decline drastically as a result of COVID. I know that I, for one, am trying to figure out what my backup plan is in the event I lose my spouse and/or my health. I will definitely use my phone and social media. And I have an extremely good support system, so I will be okay. But what of the people who are struggling in that area already?
The questions are clear. The answers? It will be an adventure. That is the one and only certainty.
The shortages we are dealing with during this pandemic are definitely interesting. They do not compare to times like World War II when rationing controlled so much. I remember a friend telling me how she and her husband were able, unlike most people, to make pan of fudge once a month because they did not have children and that left them with enough sugar rations. In this pandemic, the supplies generally exist, but supply chains have been interrupted and some things have just been in such elevated demand that the manufacturers have yet to be able to keep up.
Toilet paper: I hear that one is getting better; I can at least pass the aisle in the grocery store and see it not be completely empty. At first I was baffled, because the shortages seemed beyond what would be created by hoarders. And I was right. Turns out there are two different supply chains, one for home use and one for commercial/industrial use—you know, the kind that comes in huge rolls and shows up in restaurants, gas stations, and many workplaces. The demand for the kind for home use jumped by about 40 percent, and the suppliers weren’t prepared. Beats me why the stores didn’t just add some of the commercial quality to their stock; people were surely desperate enough to buy that.
Soup: I still have trouble getting most of the soups we like. That one baffled me till I started thinking, lots of people now have kids at home and soup is a great go-to that saves money. I was baffled because it is canned and keeps forever, but there is a limit to how much backup supply warehouses will make room for.
Sidewalk chalk: I stumbled on this when I was thinking about how kids are bored and chalking on sidewalks is one good activity. (My mother used to encourage all the neighborhood kids to draw chalk pictures on her sidewalk.) You can still find chalk, but the really good stuff is out of stock everywhere I have looked.
Jigsaw puzzles: Who knew? Suddenly now that so many people have extra time on their hands, they are buying up these puzzles. How do I know? I tried to find one, and about the first ten or so I was interested in, could not be purchased in-store or online. I felt this urge to do a jigsaw puzzle, when the last time I did that was 1995.
Quilting fabric: Long-time quilters have hit the motherlode. Suddenly we all need masks, and quilting fabric is the best thing to make them from. I thought I would make a couple masks, and it was like the jigsaw puzzles. The remaining fabrics were in very short supply.
Hand sanitizer: We all know why that keeps selling out.
Rescue dogs: My dog died in January, and I wanted a little time before picking out another one, and I do like the idea that it’s a rescue. Enough things happened that by the time we started looking it was late March. Humane societies were emptying out. Who could have predicted that one? Family after family decided that now they had the time to properly train an animal…and having pets is also good for anxiety. Which is pretty abundant these days.
It is quite a change from every other time I was looking for a pet; most of the dogs I have had in my life have been offered to me before I had a chance to start looking. One even found me by following my car down the driveway to the street. The problem back then was being able to turn down the excess offers.
Anxiety: No, that is not in short supply; that underlies everything. Don’t know about you, but I feel like I am an actor in a bad movie and I don’t know my lines or anyone else’s or what will happen next or how it will end. I do know that I have good emotional resources, and I do see this bringing out the best in a lot of people. One thing I am certain of: There is and always will be a high degree of kindness in the human race. Hopefully we can all focus on that part, to help us live with the uncertainty.
It is Day 47, and Governor DeWine has announced a slow opening up of Ohio’s businesses. It is really not clear to me whether my office is considered one that can re-open yet, but I am thinking not, because the Board’s web page indicates the Stay at Home orders are extended through May 29. The advantage of self-employment is that, while I do not have the option of bringing clients in before the state allows that, I do have the option of waiting a little longer. I keep hearing from various sources that it really is not a good idea to open up before there has been a two-week period of COVID-19 hospital admissions going down in number. That has not happened yet.
Meantime, I do not want to leave people in the lurch. This is a time of increased mental health challenges, after all. If you tell me that this whole pandemic scenario does not bother you, you are either unbelievably resilient or you are lying. I am going to vote for the latter, because everyone has their limits.
Front-line workers are especially vulnerable. They go into the field in order to help others, and from what I am reading and hearing, these situations are so intense that they often leave the front-line worker instead feeling helpless. I have already read of a couple of suicides of these workers in the crush of this pandemic. This is horrific, and I am so sorry, for the loss of these lives and for the impact their suicides are having and will continue to have on their entire communities, especially those who worked alongside them and those who knew and loved them in their personal lives.
At the moment, I remain open to connecting with clients via phone, e-mail, and internet. At the same time, I realize that I might just tough it out if I were the one needing to talk to a counselor. I am personally a huge proponent of the face to face, and of course that is just not tenable right now. Even without state restrictions, I would not advocate that someone risk this disease in order to talk with me face to face. It is difficult, especially without widespread testing, to even assess what the risk is to any individual. I could be an asymptomatic carrier for all I know; any of us could.
Bottom line: This is scary, and it will continue to be. People are showing huge courage in its face every day: Young people, older people, and those in between. People living with families they adore, people living alone, and people in abusive situations. My greatest prayers go out to those living with abuse, as it gets far worse in isolation.
As a people, we are going to survive this. As a people. As individuals, some of us will succumb, and that is a huge loss.
What kind of world will we emerge into? Things are going to change, probably some for the better and some for the worse. And we won’t all agree about what is better and what is worse. But it will definitely be different. This is not the kind of crisis that leaves anyone untouched. This is a time when we will learn a lot about resilience, when those of us with the best support systems will be able to pass that support along, to give others a hand up.
I have joked that I have to survive this because I want to see how it ends. Hopefully, we can both give and receive emotional support within our communities in the meantime. No one should be expected to navigate this alone.
Funny I should have written my most recent blog about First You Adjust, Then You Readjust, Then You Maladjust. I clearly had no idea what was just over the horizon. Last week, I received a phone call on Tuesday from one of my very best friends, telling me her mother was in hospice. Then on Wednesday, I went with her to see her mother, and as my friend and her sister and I were talking, we heard background noise on TV about the coronavirus pandemic, causing COVID-19. This wasn’t the first I had heard about the pandemic, but in my mind it brought this issue marginally closer to my actual life. It was affecting people in Europe, and people on cruise ships. And we casually speculated as to why it got its start in China. The next day, Thursday, my friend’s mother passed away, and news of the pandemic had already sped up to the point where I was unsure if it would be wise to attend her service that was scheduled eight days off. That Sunday, my husband and I went for a late breakfast at our local Tee Jaye’s and were met with a bunch of teary-eyed waitstaff who had just been informed that all restaurants were closing at 9:00 that evening. Kind of a shock when less than a week prior, everything looked pretty normal. In regards to my business, I have switched to offering to counsel my clients by phone or FaceTime, and may also look to internet sites that are HIPAA-compliant. While it is good to have alternatives to face to face counseling, I do not see these as adequate substitutes. I have spoken out before about the importance of face to face counseling, except when there is no other option. The alternatives are less problematic once a relationship has been established, but they still fall short. A very trite expression keeps running through my mind: Buckle up, Buttercup! We are about to go through some very interesting times. And it may be rough on the state of our mental health. To date, most of my clients have opted to reschedule appointments for later, partly because this crisis has created such havoc in their own schedules that they cannot keep their original appointments anyway. But my feelings will not get hurt if someone says “I will just wait till you are ready to see me face to face again, Thank you.” After all, that personal touch has been a point of pride for me. I realize that there is as yet no order for mental health facilities to close down. This is a personal decision, based partly on having a spouse who could suffer horribly if he became infected, and partly on my learning over the years that when we vaccinate or take other similar measures, it is not just ourselves we are protecting: It is for the benefit of anyone who may come in contact with us. What to do with this extended crisis time? Some among us will be working about five times more and harder than usual—medical personnel, delivery people, policy makers…while many others will have unexpected time on our hands. Everyone needs to come to their own conclusions, but I will share one thing that helped me several years ago during an extended period of unemployment. First, every day, I had a time set to get up whether I needed to or not, to reinforce the importance of a schedule. And secondly, every day I had a goal. It could be unbelievably trivial, such as Make sure there is enough orange juice. But it was important to me that when I went to bed one night, I had some goal in mind for the following day. We do, after all, need to feel we matter, that there is significance to what we do. Some of you will journal, some of you will blog, some of you will keep your thoughts to yourselves. But once we get to the other side of this, I will be curious to hear what works for many of you. I will be curious to hear what best sustained your mental health through what promises to be a rather drawn-out crisis.
First you adjust, then you readjust, then you maladjust. This is a phrase I heard often during my Al-Anon years, when I was attending that group in order to cope with my then-situation of having a spouse who drank too much. That phrase has stuck with me through the years and throughout numerous situations. It does not apply only to living with or loving an alcoholic. It also applies to abusive situations, and to many of the frustrating situations that life just has a habit of doling out. When it comes to abuse, a common pattern is that things get worse by inches. First might be a dirty look when you speak a little too freely for the other person’s taste. Next might be the person “forgetting” things that matter to you, followed by a complete discounting. No one ever say “Gee, I think I’ll find someone to smash my face into the wall,” but anyone familiar with the dynamics of domestic abuse is well aware that this is a common outcome after a gradual escalation of disrespectful behaviors. This also applies if you have a job situation that has turned sour. Many jobs start out well, till the company gets bought out and/or a new boss gets brought in. Or maybe it’s just a change in staff over time. It is confusing to think this same place you loved to show up at in the morning has become a place you dread. And figuring out exactly when that changed can be difficult, but with enough hindsight it can usually be done. Or, maybe you are living in a neighborhood you love, where your children grew up and you have many fond memories. Maybe this neighborhood is held together by the large number of retired couples who live there. They always opened their doors to you and your children, and you cannot imagine ever leaving. Then one of these retired couples moves into assisted living, the widow next door dies…and on it goes till these people who were the backbone of the neighborhood have mostly disappeared. Next thing you know, some of the places have boarded-up windows, and you feel more like you just woke up in a foreign country. You could choose to readjust by sticking around and working hard toward bringing the neighborhood back to a home you are proud to claim. Or you could decide to leave, to cut your losses. Or maybe you keep hanging on in hopes something will magically happen to improve things. Meantime, there is a risk you may maladjust, in the sense of getting used to a bad situation even though it could be changed. Of the three, the maladjustment seems most tempting, because there is no effort involved. However, it is not very rewarding. Facing these decisions is never easy. Sometimes there is nothing we can do in an adverse situation besides cope. You may find a way to continue a relationship with an abuser because your life will be even worse if you don’t; maybe you stick it out with the job that has turned sour because other options are worse; or your attachments to the neighborhood make it worth putting up with the deterioration. The problem comes when you accept these situations as normal, not when you take a hard look and decide to stick it out. Acceptance of the unacceptable is one definition of maladjustment.