On Dealing with Death (in the time of COVID)

Imagine this: I spent five weeks at a writing residency in rural Nebraska two years ago. It was the most isolated I’d ever felt. The residency was in the middle of a square plot of undeveloped land, surrounded by corn fields, harvesting machines, dirt roads.  

Fields forever.
It was cold. But beautiful!

I lived in a dilapidated house that was literally lopsided. The side of the house looked like a face, slanted and googley-eyed. I flew in and had to rely on residents who had a car to obtain groceries. There were several days when no one could take me out and I lived on eggs, ramen, and tea.  

It was cold in Nebraska, the temperatures dropping into the low forties many of the nights. The house had no insulation and you could feel every change in the wind. I was so cold for so long, I thought I would truly never get warm. 

One night, after one of my roommates and I learned the fire on the second floor was operational, brought in some cut wood and started a fire. Another of our roommates brought out some wine, and I celebrated by drinking some.  

My wonderful roommates in our googley-eyed house.

Nevermind that it was red wine. I thought my sulfite allergy would be fine – I only had a little. But four hours later, bundled in my room, I felt the telltale itch in my throat, the tightening that I’ve come to associate with an allergic reaction.  

Within twenty minutes, I was having trouble swallowing. 

Imagine it: me in bed. It was thirty-five degrees outside. Dark. The only roads out of town (to a hospital thirty miles away) were gutted – ruined by the rain that fell earlier this week, creating frost heaves that were practically undriveable. I knew what was going to happen – either I was going to dig six tablets of allergy medication out of the emergency medical supply downstairs or I was going to die on the way to the hospital.  

I threw the blankets off my legs and slipped into slippers. It was freezing and my breath misted in front of me. Heading down two flights of stairs, I fumbled around in the dark. In the emergency medical supply, I was able to piece together six allergy tablets. Two were expired. I chanced it and took all six of them.  

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This is how I am in emergency situations. I think, I move, I act. I try to ignore the severity of the situation and instead sit with the facts: here’s what I can do. Here are my choices. Here is the only path I have to take right now. 

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Obviously, I didn’t die. I struggled to breathe for about twenty minutes before the allergy medication kicked in. I stared up at the ceiling of my uninsulated room. An artist who lived here before me had drawn on the wall and I stared at the graphic.   

My room for five weeks. 

A friend of mine, Wesley, had died a few days earlier. He had been sick for several months. We were close; I had loved him.  

I thought about him then, as I often did during that time, wondering if he was watching over me. I liked to picture him the way I remembered him before the stroke, strong and handsome and spry. I liked to picture him happy, wherever he was.  

Not yet, bitch, I could hear him saying. You still have time to be fabulous. 

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In the beginning of the COVID scare, I wash my hands until they are dry and cracked. I sanitize my desk, my laptop, every surface in my tiny house. A friend of mine is immune compromised and I routinely prepare myself for the call, if it were to come. I prepare myself to step in and help. I prepare myself to do whatever is needed to keep her alive.  

For someone who is still reasonably young, I have escaped death many times in my life. I’ve had car accidents, an eating disorder that almost killed me and that continues to threaten my life to life day. I’ve tried to commit suicide twice.

But my soul is wily and determined. I survive.  

Wesley used to tell me, You’re gonna find someone, girl. He believed in my happiness, my continued existence, perhaps more than even me.  

My beloved Wesley (second from left). 

Wesley keeps coming back to me now, when we are all facing death and demise in a way that we’ve never collectively faced before. I don’t know what the world is going to look like in four weeks, much less in four days. Everything is changing all the time.  

But despite it all, I’d like to think that Wesley had hope. I’d like to think that humans are built to survive, even when they don’t. I’d like to think there is hope and beauty, even with so much chaos and terror surrounding us.   

Mental Health Tips for Global Emergencies

Hi all,

As this COVID-19 pandemic gets worse, I’ve seen a lot of folx struggling with changes in their mental health or new anxieties. As someone who has lived with severe anxiety for most of my life, I wanted to put together a small list of mental health tips and suggestions.

I am not a therapist, but I have been through many, many years of therapy and spent a lot of money reading, learning, and talking with licensed metal health practitioners about how to deal with my (sometimes crippling) anxiety. Some mental health tips that are helping me deal with the pandemic are outlined below.

  1. Take social media breaks. It’s good to be informed; it’s hard to stay calm if we interact with social media 24/7. There is a huge difference between being informed and allowing ourselves to become obsessive about the news. Block accounts that induce panic. Try to only read reports/news that have been shared by experts in the field. For example: I have a friend who is a Distinguished Professor of Genetics – I trust the information she puts online because she has the background and education to filter out incorrect articles. She also posts funny things about wine and her kids. It’s important to follow those kinds of people in a pandemic, too.
  2. Gain levity. Those Facebook accounts that are funny and uplifting? Those are important. We can’t be constantly alert, tense, or anxious. Moments of laughter and levity make life beautiful.
  3. Go outside. Outside is free. Outside can ground you. Focus on what you see (trees, leaves), what you hear (birds), what you feel (the sun). Being outside can help you ground yourself in the present moment.
  4. Focus on living one day at a time. For many of us, anxiety comes when we look too far in the future. It’s good to be prepared and have contingency plans, but once you have them, focus on the present moment as much as possible. Are you safe right now? Are you full? Are you comfortable? Allow your mind to rest in your current sensations, especially if your mind is consistently racing to the future.
  5. Remember gratitude and positivity. I used to hate people who told me that gratitude and positivity could change the world. And while I know positivity will not stop a virus from killing me, it can change my reaction to what’s happening around me, how I perceive others, how I experience my current situation, and my overall satisfaction with life.
    • Side story: I used to be a negative Nelly. I saw only the worst in other people and was constantly lamenting my situation and the bad things that were happening to me. As I’ve matured and been able to use the tools my therapists have given me, I’ve found that the practice of gratitude has really been life-changing.
    • My practice:
      1. Wake up in the morning and name three things you’re thankful for. It can be small – I slept through the night! No night terrors! I am in a comfy bed. I have a roof over my head. It’s the weekend, etc. Starting a practice as soon as you wake up can rewire your habits and the way you think about things.
      2. Look for what you can learn from challenges. I have spent most of my life looking for a partner. As the COVID-19 pandemic became worse, I worried about being quarantined alone. What I’ve recently realized is that by being on my own for so long, I am prepared to shelter in place by myself for a long time, if necessary.
      3. Ground yourself in gratitude when you begin to feel overwhelmed. Name one thing you are thankful for in the present moment. For example: a neighbor of mine is currently practicing the ukulele. I am thankful to get a free, impromptu concert.
  6. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Help can mean lots of different things. For me, a text from a friend can make an extraordinary difference in my day. Don’t be afraid to ask for things as the pandemic wears on. Ask for regular phone calls with loved ones. Set up Skype or Facetime check-ins. Your loved ones may not always be able to meet your needs, but they won’t meet ANY of them if you don’t ask.
  7. Feel your feelings. The best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten is to get through my feelings instead of focusing on pushing them away. Cry, if you have to. Yell. Run. Punch a pillow. COVID-19 is scary and it’s normal to have intense feelings about it. If you can feel those feelings (as scary as they might be), you will be a whole lot happier and healthier. 

It seems strange to be thankful for a mental health disorder, but over the last week or so I have become incredibly grateful for the strategies and coping mechanisms I’ve learned because of my anxiety. To be very clear – I still have worries. I worry about my job security. I worry about having enough food and not being able to pay rent. But I also know I am capable of dealing with challenges as they arise, and I can trust myself to make good decisions when I need to. In addition, I have deep faith that my community and loved ones will show up when I need them most. I am hopeful that most of us can say the same.

Sending light and love to everyone.

Chels

Mental Health Instagram accounts to follow during the COVID-19 pandemic:

(These people are licensed professionals!)

  • @lizlistens
  • @dr.marielbuque
  • @nataliegutierrezlmft
  • @lisaoliveratherapy
  • @millennial.therapist