Ladies, it’s been a year. The long-haul emotional effects of the pandemic are haunting us all, and it is rare to meet anyone who would consider themselves “flourishing.”
This month’s edition of Normalize This focuses on a topic that is both raw and deeply relevant — mental health. May is Mental Health Awareness month. One silver lining of the past year is that, culturally speaking, we seem more open to acknowledging our mental health and to see it as a valid and critical part of our overall well being.
What is mental health?
Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, how we relate to others, and our ability to make healthy choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, and especially for women as we age, powerful hormonal shifts of pregnancy, postpartum, perimenopause, menopause, etc. can deeply affect how we feel and cope with life’s changes.
The pressures, stresses, grief, anxiety, and isolation of life during the pandemic have undoubtedly taken a toll on our emotional wellness. In some cases, this damage is situational and temporary, and other times it may be something that requires longer term treatment or attention. Like so many other things we have experienced in the past year (from police brutality, to mass shootings, to bi-partisan feuds), the pandemic has exposed and/or exacerbated dangerous underlying conditions. The same can be said about our mental health conditions — for some of us, the pandemic has surfaced issues that we may have been ignoring for years.
We believe, as with anything, progress around our individual and collective mental health starts with openness and awareness. This month, to foster that awareness, we hosted a round table for a handful of women within our community to discuss what tending to their mental health means for them. We’ve captured some of their responses below and are grateful to be able to share them with you as part of this month’s Normalize This installment. We hope these stories will move you to prioritize your own mental and emotional well-being, and to encourage those you love to do the same.
It’s okay to not be ok.
“It’s hard to see others look like they are back to life as normal. I’m having a lot of trouble moving on. We lost people this past year. People who I never got to say goodbye to, never got to grieve at their funeral. I want things to go back to normal, but I’m also just too scared and anxious still. I live by myself and don’t know how day-to-day life is for others. I see family vacations and restaurant dinners on Facebook, but I’m just not ready. My therapist told me to take it slow, and to pick one “new” thing to try. He says that actions build confidence and that’s how you build readiness, and so I’m working my way to feeling more ready one step at a time. It’s an experiment he says, not an exam.”
Social isolation is a slippery slope.
“I still remember when the zooms began. “Let’s do a zoom!” they said. It was awkward and only made me feel more lonely. So I started declining invitations. I thought it was self care, choosing not to do things that made me feel sad in order to preserve my dwindling sanity. But the anxiety spiralled and I slipped into deeper and deeper isolation. The longer I was “away” from my friends and family, the more of a big deal it felt like to answer the daunting questions of “so how are you doing?” I dreaded answering that question. How do you answer that? So I cut people out. But the isolation swallowed me.
One day I decided to bake. I found boxed muffin mix in the pantry and I made blueberry muffins. I kept six, and for whatever reason, I wrapped up six for my neighbor and left it on her doorstep. I dared not ring the doorbell, for fear of small talk, but just left them there. She texted me the next day with a heartfelt thank you, and left some flowers on my doorstep later that week. I felt a familiar rush. After months of silently slipping into invisibility, I felt seen. Showing up online felt soul-sucking, but showing up for others, in person, helped me feel more visible. I started baking more and leaving treats for others. As the weather warmed up, I would make myself more available by lingering in my front lawn, catching moments of casual human contact. Since getting vaccinated, I’ve been meeting neighbors outside with frequency. I think back on those dark days, and realize how close I came to losing my way.”
Set boundaries to protect your health and wellness.
“When the pandemic hit, my daughter needed my help. The kids were out of school and she and her husband were struggling to work from home while taking care of the kids and ushering through online schooling. I stepped in to help, but soon felt in over my head. I was exhausted and drained and feeling myself run ragged. It was a hard thing to do, but I had to be honest with my daughter and tell her that it was too much. I had to carve out time when I was not available for them. And it’s a good thing that I did that, because this pandemic lasted a lot longer than any of us imagined. Though there has been strain on our relationship from time to time, it is still in a good place because I spoke up.”
“It’s been eye opening to see how some people reacted to the safety protocols of the pandemic. Some of my close friends had different levels of Covid-safetly and I’d feel awful when they’d invite me to do something. I felt embarrassed that I wasn’t comfortable, and I used to make excuses, but then my husband and I just decided to make the rules clear. If the get-together was inside, we weren’t going. If someone wasn’t willing to wear a mask, we’d leave. I worried at the time that people were judging me, or that they thought I was judging them, but once we made those decisions, I felt relief.”
Don’t ration joy.
“A girlfriend told me about this show ‘Jane the Virgin’, and it was just so light, dramatic, and fun. It reminded me of the old telenovelas. It felt so good to lose myself in that tv show, and I found myself waiting till the next day to watch the next episode. But then I thought to myself, who cares! I let myself sit and watch one after another. And you know what? It felt good to feel good.”
“I still remember talking to my cousin on the phone, and after a little while, I said out of habit, “ok then, I’ll let you go,” wrapping up the conversation, and she said, “Go where?! I have nowhere else to be and nothing else to do!” We laughed so hard. It was true! So we stayed on the phone, and ended up chatting for hours, reminiscing about the past, trading ‘remember when’ stories of our youth, catching up on how other people we knew were doing, talking about what we hoped for the year to come. What started out as a call, ended up feeling like a real visit. I got off the phone and my face was tired from smiling, and my body felt good-tired from laughing. What a gift.”
Self care is critical, but it may not be enough.
“I feel like I’ve spent the past year and a half tackling one crisis after another, one heartbreak after another. There were good times too, but they were fleeting. In the beginning my friends and I would share openly about “how crazy things are”, but after a while the “crazy” felt too triggering. Hearing what others were dealing with didn’t make me feel better, it overwhelmed me more. My problems were hard enough, hearing about theirs was just too much. And after that, I internalized a lot. Everyone was (and still is) going through a lot right now. How can you ask those around you to be your shoulder to cry on, when they themselves are struggling? I sought out a therapist, which helped a lot. I try and carve out time to do things that feel restorative, like going for walks or taking long hot showers, but all those things feel like a little pat on the back, and what I really need is a bear hug. I feel like I’ve been treading water for so long that I dream about what a relief it would be to just stop and slip under the water. I know that sounds like I’m suicidal, but I don’t mean it that way. I just mean I’m too tired. I’m so tired of everything being so hard. I’m ready to talk to my therapist about going on medication. I’ve been on antidepressants before, about 15 years ago, and I remember feeling like it gave me a fighting chance to deal with what life was throwing at me back then. I feel like I need that again. I need someone to throw me a floatie, because I’m tired of being out at sea alone. I’m ready to start swimming to shore.”
So really, how are you doing?
Check in with yourself, and answer honestly. Allow yourself to explore what your response to this question might mean, and what might be the best way to support where you’re at.
Below are a few resources that we hope you might find useful:
- At Harvard’s Human Flourishing Program, Tyler J. VanderWeele uses this quiz to gauge a person’s overall physical, mental and emotional well-being. While he says there’s no specific score to determine someone’s well being, the higher the score, the better. Just taking the quiz, and reflecting on the questions, can put you on a path to making positive changes. And comparing yourself to the national average — it was about 70 before the pandemic and 65 in June 2020 — can give you a sense of where you stand.
- Strong social connections are central to our physical and mental well-being. AARP Foundation spearheaded Connect2Affect to be a resource for anyone who is isolated or lonely, and to help build the social connections older adults need to thrive. They’ve developed a three-minute online assessment to help people understand their social isolation risk level and provide helpful information and recommendations based on your results.
- The wait for therapy can be brutally long right now, as we as a society reach out for professional help in the wake of the pandemic. For immediate help, you may want to check out some of the many mental health apps available. Prevention.com has compiled what they consider to be the best mental health apps. However, they caution that finding the right wellness app requires a bit of trial and error, as what works for some might not work for others. Keep in mind that costs can add up quickly, especially if they’re not covered by insurance, and more traditional professional intervention might be key to your recovery. Lastly, you should also review every app’s FAQ page to learn about confidentiality agreements and counselor credentials.
- Here at Attn: Grace, we’ve often looked to these women for wellness wisdom:
- Minaa B., Writer, Therapist, Wellness Coach, and Mental Health Educator. On her website, she offers simple-but-powerful reflective journaling exercises (on setting boundaries, and on easing anxiety) that can be downloaded for free.
- Libby DeLana sparks wonder with her radically simple creative practice of documenting her daily morning walks. Seeing the world through her eyes is a gift, and each caption is like a meditation in and of itself. She’s just written her first book, Do Walk: Navigate earth, mind and body. Step by step.
Want more on wellness?
More from our Normalize This Series