The COVID-19 pandemic hit home in a very real way over the last two weeks. Not that our lives had not been impacted prior, but this time, things became more personal…more real.
Within the past couple of weeks, my husband, three children and myself all tested positive for COVID-19. I was not naïve to think that we were not at risk, but like many people, held the belief that we would escape the grips of coronavirus. My husband struggled the most, with flu like symptoms for several days. However, given his compromised immune system, things could have been much worse, and I am eternally grateful that we are all doing well and on the road to recovery, eagerly awaiting negative test results.
Unfortunately, not everyone has been so lucky. This weekend I learned of the passing of a dear colleague, confidant and friend, my accountant of over 20 years. COVID-19 took Harry‘s life in less than two days. He passed away alone in a hospital with no family or friends surrounding him. Harry has been a fixture in my life for so long that the thought of not being able to pick up the phone and talk to him simply sickens me. He always promptly returned my calls, and so I knew when calls, emails and texts went unanswered for several days, that something was very wrong.
In DBT, we have learned that sometimes life brings us light rain, while at other times it feels like a perpetual category five storm. There were certainly moments this weekend where the rain felt fast and furious. Having practiced DBT for a number of years, I’m well aware that no decisions should be made in emotional mind. There have been far too many times in my past where impulsive decisions made during heightened emotional distress led to poor outcomes.
After learning of Harry‘s passing, my level of distress rose above a five. A rule of thumb, anytime our emotional distress level rises above a five, on a zero to ten scale, we need to use skills to bring the number back into our window of tolerance (between zero and five). Cold temperature, paced breathing, intense exercise and progressive muscle relaxation can very quickly help one emotionally downshift and bring them back into their window of tolerance. Sometimes, when distress is really heightened, a combination of these skills is helpful. In this instance, sitting quietly in a cold room and taking some deep breaths began to regulate my sensory nervous system.
The distract, self-soothe and improve the moment skills are effective distress tolerance tools when one cannot solve a problem and/or the time is not right to solve the problem in that moment. So many questions were swirling through my head that Saturday afternoon… Were my taxes filed? Who could I trust with my future accounting needs? How would I be able to get a hold of my accounting information? Almost instantaneously and without conscious decision-making, I walked outside and began to weed in the backyard. It felt so satisfying to take control of those pesky weeds and throw myself into a project where I could affect momentary change. At one point, I paused and chuckled to myself that I was effectively using my distraction and self-soothing skills. I laughed, recognizing that after years of practice, these skills do eventually happen automatically.
I’ve also learned in DBT that too much distraction can lead to avoidant behavior. Therefore, I was mindful to take moments during the weekend to reminisce about my relationship with Harry and many of the fond memories we shared. I allowed myself to feel the sadness and the loss of presence of this great man. I knew that it was important to feel whatever feelings I was experiencing, as we well know that pushing emotions away puts one at risk for complicated grief and/or self harming/maladaptive behaviors. As a mom, wife and clinician, I need to be able to find time to feel my sadness while also being able to contain it through my distress tolerance skills so that I can function adaptively for those who need me.
So as one family heals, another family grieves, and such is the yin and yang of the world we are living in. And as I quietly sit and reflect, I remind myself of a mantra I frequently use… “just this moment.” For this moment, I feel a sense of peace and serenity. I’ll take the time to soak it in, without clinging to it, recognizing that this too shall pass.