How can we be our most thriving selves when life seems more a bed of thorns than of roses? One key is awareness, not only of the outside world but also our interior landscapes. That awareness can help us understand when we need extra help, and find the courage and faith to reach out.
I didn’t sleep much last night, even though I was tired after a long hike through snowy woods, and I was quite warm and cozy in my auxiliary bed — ie, the sofa. On nights when I toss and turn in my own bed, next to my beleaguered husband whose slightest sleeping sound or movement is somehow exponentially magnified, I often grab my pillow and a couple of blankets and head to the living room. The sofa is actually quite comfortable, and this change of venue usually works.
But lately, I am carrying something else with me from bed-to-bed: anxiety. It was anxiety that kept me awake most of the night, despite trying multiple meditative breaths and other relaxation techniques. Anxiety over the ways Covid is impacting my family kept coursing through my veins and nagging at my tired mind. I understood what was happening, and my rational brain had all kinds of sensible answers for anxiety’s frightening suggestions — but mostly, anxiety won and sleep lost.
Last night was just one more sign that anxiety is getting the best of me. I need help.
Covid hasn’t hit my family directly, but we are definitely caught up in the pandemic’s mental health crisis. I have never experienced problematic anxiety before, but then again, I’ve never lived through a worldwide pandemic either. I’ve heard about this very serious and widespread crisis from friends who are therapists on the front line. I’ve read post after post on Facebook and serious articles in The New York Times and The Washington Post. And I’ve heard extensive coverage on National Public Radio and Vermont Public Radio. Just a few days ago, VPR reported that nearly half of all Vermonters say they are now suffering from anxiety and/or depression. Alas, that includes me.
Given my life’s emphasis on cultivating happiness, I sort of feel like the “happiness gods” are testing me. “Whaddaya got now, happiness lady???” I’ve got resilience, yes, but also mindfulness and discretion. Genuine well-being must be grounded in reality, which sometimes — putting it indelicately — sucks. I may have a full happiness toolbox, but like everybody else, I sometimes need tools from somebody else’s toolbox. That could be a retinal special for a physical ailment, or a mental health counselor who knows a lot more than me about how to cope with anxiety.
I’ve been thinking about a dinner party more than a decade ago, when another guest practically assaulted me with this verbal arrow: “You’ve got two kids, right? What if they both went to a concert tonight and got killed in an accident on the way home? How happy would you be then, huh???” I mean, what kind of human do you take me for? I, too, am susceptible to pain.
Also, in case you missed it, one reason to build your happiness muscles when life is easier is to be better prepared when the going gets rough. I will always remember one of my meditation students who lost a loved one to suicide. The student thanked me for giving her tools that helped her get through that painful time.
I do think the happiness muscles I’ve built through years of practice have served me well during Covid times. I still meditate and practice gratitude. I exercise, especially by taking long walks in nature. I try to be kind, serve others, and keep my brain engaged with daily online Spanish lessons. Plus I know from previous experience that everything is temporary, including the bad stuff. All of that served to bolster my equanimity through more than a year of Covid, with all its death and disruptions (including within my own home). It has also been a bulwark against years of constant and horrifying political turmoil.
But now, I feel flattened. Just hammered.
The good news is, I have finally found a therapist! I say finally because here, too, there seems to be a “supply chain” problem. In Vermont at least, with overwhelming need, there just aren’t enough mental health providers to go around. I went through several rounds of getting therapist recommendations from friends, calling those names, and usually not even getting a return call. The one person who called me back couldn’t accept my insurance.
But finally, finally, I have an appointment. I am so relieved! I like sleep. I like happiness. I hope to have more of both in the not-too-distant future. And for all of you who are similarly struggling, I wish you perseverance in getting help. I send you my love. Pandemic or no, may we all find our way back to happier times.