I was reading an article about the deteriorating mental health of young people during the pandemic. It was depressing. Psychiatrists believe the incidence of depression and anxiety is so severe among youth right now, that a mental health pandemic is occurring parallel to the virus. I can’t say I was surprised by what I read, but still, I’d like to think things are going to turn out alright in the end. But then I considered all the times in the past year that things didn’t seem like they’d turn out at all.
COVID is an undercurrent to literally everything we do nowadays; it wears on you in obvious ways, yes, but many insidious ones as well. It chips away at your identity, the life you once had, pre-pandemic. It makes you question every interaction, every lump in your throat. You rearrange your whole life because of it. And since it’s been so long, you get used to it — without realizing it’s eating you alive.
A week or so ago, I was driving home from skiing. It had been a rough day. Conditions on the pass leading to the mountain were snowy and icy, forcing me to white-knuckle my way down with an absolute stream of cars behind me. Upon arrival, I discovered how brutally windy it was outside. I spent the day in packed lift lines, as the mountain had to close many lifts due to the high winds. The lifts that remained open were sketchy, to say the least. Huge gusts made the gondola cars sway back and forth precariously.
I spent a good deal of time trying to catch up with a former roommate, only to find that we were trapped on different sides of the mountain. On my final run, I wiped out inexplicably, the first time this season. I was skiing one second, tumbling down the slope the next. Skiers whizzed by me, and I began to regret every time I had ever passed someone who had yard-saled in front of me before. I was cold and shaken up and just wanted to go home.
I got back in the car and the weather was mercifully agreeable. I was stuck in traffic, as always, but I caught up with folks on the phone, listened to podcasts and music. Once I hit I-25 in Denver, though, I felt exhausted. I needed coffee. “Hey Siri, is there a Dunkin’ on the way home?”
She brought me to a Dunkin’ that was five miles off the highway. The diversion added not only 30 minutes to the drive, but also more frustration. The sun was so bright (“Curse 300 days of sun!” said no one ever) and I was overheated in my ski coat and the Dunkin’ restrooms were closed. When I got back to I-25, I decided the only cure was a little Ben Folds.
I put on his 2008 album, Way to Normal. I had downloaded it a while ago, but still hadn’t given it a listen all the way through. I found myself cheering up a touch, recognizing some songs, laughing at some irreverent new ones, sipping my pink velvet Valentine’s macchiato. And then this song “Cologne” came on. And I was transported.
It was nearly a year ago. March 4. One of the most terrible days. The day after our dog, Millie, was put to sleep.
I couldn’t sleep the night before. I had wept inconsolably for hours over her. I woke at 4, opened my laptop, started checking email just to distract myself. I explained the situation via email to my supervisor. I cried some more. Eventually, I dragged myself out of bed, packed my bag and breakfast, and went to the office. I dropped my stuff, I stepped outside, and I went running. And I ran and I cried and I ran and I cried and I listened to Ben Folds. And I listened to “Cologne.”
In that moment in the car, I was suddenly overcome. Sobbing, all of the frustration over the ski day, the last month, the last 12 months, came flooding out. I missed my family. I missed my old life. I missed Millie. I missed everything.
As awful as the moment felt, it needed to happen. Like COVID, these emotions are a constant undercurrent — until that current turns into a tidal wave. We all would do well to manage these emotions during low tide, before getting washed up in the surf.
So, in the spirit of managing emotions, here are some emotional realizations I’ve had over the last month.
I feel small at the doctor’s office. I went for my yearly physical and as usual, felt consumed by nerves. Was I really old enough to be going by myself? Surely, my mom or dad should be present. What if the doctor tells me something scary? No one will be there with me to hold my hand and reassure me that it’ll be OK.
I may as well be four years old again, nowhere close to 24, at the doctor’s. And I always leave wishing that my mom or dad was driving me home, and that we’d stop for ice cream or something on the way.
Valentine’s Day was this last weekend. I honestly love Valentine’s Day, but not how it’s often defined. Growing up, Valentine’s Day is just pure sweetness. You make little cards for your classmates; you decorate shoeboxes with colorful paper and stickers; you just express appreciation for those around you, and you eat a lot of chocolate in the process.
As you get older, those sweet sentiments are lost. Suddenly it’s about whether or not you’re single — lamenting that you’re single or wearing your single-dom like a badge of honor. If you’re in a relationship, it’s all about how you can prove yourself as the most loving, need-anticipating, romantic partner possible. It’s about how much you can spend, how sweeping a gesture you can make.
I still make valentines for my friends. I love cutting paper hearts and choosing stickers and writing cheesy pick-up lines. I love sharing fancy chocolates. It’s fulfilling for me, sure, but it’s also an act of defiance — defiance against the “adult” world of Valentine’s Day. I just wish I could get my peers to do the same.
They (psychologists) say that fundamentally, adult life is divided between work and love. Your identity is wrapped up in what you do and who you spend your time with. But what if you love to work?
Last week, my organization had a town hall meeting. There were around 300-400 of us on the call. The head of our HR department, Bobbi, came on screen and put up a slide filled with various figures. She willed us to guess what they represented. Perhaps the most difficult one to determine was the number 33,433.68.
We puzzled for a few seconds until Bobbi gave in. The number represented the number of paid time off hours our organization had collectively accumulated and not cashed in. The number was alarming — just to think of all of the long, unending days that everyone has worked to bring us to that many PTO hours made me dizzy. Moreover, another figure, 24.14%, was equally shocking. It represented the portion of employees who had maxed out their accumulated vacation time. In other words, these people had worked so long with no off days, they’d become ineligible to accumulate any more vacation hours.
Being a slave to your work doesn’t make you a hero. It means you’re sacrificing your emotional, mental, and physical health for your job. It means you’re sacrificing quality time with your kids, partner, parents, and friends. It means you’re risking severe burnout.
Today, I bought a flight to visit my now-vaccinated grandparents next month. You can’t worry so much about accumulating time off that you forget to ever use it.
To end on a positive note —
Last week, I was at the climbing gym (shocker) when I caught sight of a girl who gave me an abundance of hope.
She couldn’t have been more than 8 years old. She strode confidently into the gym in a sparkly mask, hoop earrings, a choker necklace, and a Cotopaxi backpack. I could feel other women my age taking notice, too. I think we were all thinking the same thing: “Who is this girl? Why couldn’t I have been friends with her when I was 8? Why couldn’t I have had her confidence?”
She plopped herself down assertively, like she owned the place. She opened the backpack to retrieve her shoes, pulling out tons of traditional climbing gear — nuts and hexes for Pete’s sake — and nonchalantly got ready to climb.
I’m probably three times her age, but she inspired me. I hope she never, ever changes.