It’s hard to fathom the rate at which our lives have changed over the past week due to the coronavirus. Last week I was debating whether or not it was safe for me to go on a planned trip to Europe and four days later I was self quarantined in my home. The loss of freedom, social interaction and peace of mind has been lightning quick and leaves my head spinning. I’ve taken measures to keep my mind and body from being in a constant state of high anxiety like limiting the amount of news I consume and doing more yoga and meditation. When I stopped long enough to sit still with my emotions and reactions to these events, I realized this situation feels very familiar. In many ways it mirrors my experience of life when I had a mental breakdown.
When I suffered a mental and physical breakdown four years ago, my life felt as though it changed in an instant. I lost control over my mind and my body and I had no idea how long I would be in that state of mental and physical stillness. Much like today, plans had to be canceled, I had little social interaction because I wasn’t up for it, and I was confined to my home because I didn’t have the strength or energy to move. I was in a state of self quarantine for the purpose of healing my mind and body. Today I’m in a state of quarantine to attempt to stay healthy and not make others sick.
I call that period of time in my life a breakdown, but really it was more accurately a breaking open. I opened up to the emotions I’d been repressing for years and in return, my heart opened up to new experiences and new ways of being in the world. I feel this time of uncertainty will be a similar experience of breaking open and that it will likely hold many gifts just as my breakdown did, including the chance to reassess and rebuild my life according to the lessons I learn from this time. I’m already learning to live with fewer trips to the store and being mindful that I can use everything in the cupboards and refrigerator before I restock. We’re learning to conserve food and not be so quick to throw things away that we may potentially need in the future. We’re taking time to go on walks together as a family and we’re playing tennis in 40 degree weather because it offers us the chance to get fresh air and exercise outside of the house while maintaining a safe social distance. We never would have thought about playing tennis in this kind of weather before the quarantine, but we’re finding many benefits including not overheating! We’re often not the only ones playing tennis either, so it’s great to see that other people are finding new ways to be human during this difficult time. I’m hopeful this time will give us as a community the chance to check the ways we’ve been living and determine if there are changes we can make when life returns to some form of a new normal that will help us live more simply, compassionately and humanely.
I recall from my breakdown that I had to be gentle with myself and accept that my emotions would ebb and flow, much like they are doing now. Even when I’m feeling calm, I can feel fear lurking at the edge of my consciousness. I’m spending more time meditating these days and learning the ways fear moves through my body: shallow breathing, tightness in my chest, racing thoughts, difficulty focusing, fidgeting, and extreme difficulty in staying present. I know that I have no control over what happens outside of my own body and if I sit with my emotions and allow myself to feel them, then they have less control over me. By giving up control, I gain control and some semblance of peace. I know from experience that from letting myself fully feel pain, then I can also fully feel joy and that knowledge keeps me going through these difficult times.
I know there will be tough days like yesterday was for me, when I felt overcome with fear in the morning and then felt peace by evening. I know that this time is likely to be a rollercoaster of emotion from moment to moment, which can easily be intensified if we feed into the collective fear and anxiety of being part of a globally affected community. If we practice self compassion and don’t admonish ourselves for the wide range of emotions we are likely to feel from moment to moment, I think we’ll find that this time will be full of gifts and lessons if we sit with the difficult emotions and allow ourselves to break open.