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The Six Month Wall

Hoooo-nelly… We’re still here. And we’re going to be here a long while yet (she says, eyeballing the again-rising numbers in Ontario and the ongoing dumpster fire that is COVID responses and shenanigans one month from a presidential election south of the border). And winter is coming — insert ubiquitous Game of Thrones graphic here — and shit’s about to get very, very complicated. (Not that COVID wasn’t already complicating everything, so I’m not really sure how much worse it can get… no. I really shouldn’t invite that kind of chaos. It can ALWAYS get worse.)

We’ve cruised over the six-month mark in this current pandemic, and it is taking its god-awful toll on all of us in some way or another. Not too long ago, someone pointed me to this amazing description of “the six month wall” by University of Toronto prof Dr. Aisha Ahmad. For those who prefer not to scroll through Twitter stories, she encapsulated her thoughts in this article, and there’s a decent Forbes article exploring her ideas. Dr. Ahmad’s experience working in disaster relief is, I think, a good parallel for what it’s like for many of us struggling to find footing and balance under the weight of an ongoing pandemic, albeit one a growing number seem inclined to ignore as a threat. She provides a very balanced look at both how tough getting over the six month wall can be and also what has worked to help keep forging ahead when we hit those difficult slumps and ruts.

The idea that in an ongoing, persistent crisis state, we’re all going to hit a slump in our struggles against that state just makes sense. Some people have been struggling with the fear of infection and illness since COVID first started spreading in North America; some are less worried about the virus itself and more concerned about the short- and long-term impacts of protracted social distancing. Others might be most impacted by grief and grieving those they cannot get to under quarantine restrictions and travel embargoes. Long story short, for one reason or another (or many reasons all at once), a great many of us have hit an exhaustion point. We’ve been struggling to adapt to this new scenario in all its implications since March; it’s been at best a challenge and at worst an utter shitshow. We’re breaking down mentally and emotionally stalling out.

As she points out, most of us have already adapted to some degrees of the “new normal”, but winter is going to require us to adapt again to the new challenges of COVID resurgence WITHOUT the benefit of warming weather and outdoor escape options. That we’re hitting the six month wall now, as those seasonal implications begin to really hit home for many, is doubly harsh. I don’t about other mental health workers, but I don’t even know how to predict what my work is going to look like come the holidays under COVID, and the aftermath heading into deep winter. I can’t imagine it’s going to be pretty. Humans are naturally adaptable on an evolutionary scale of things, but a lot of us don’t actually enjoy change when the necessity of it is thrust upon us by factors beyond our control (personally, I get grumpy about change even when it IS 100% in my control, so… there’s that.)

“[T]he wall is real and normal. And frankly, it’s not productive to try to ram your head through it. It will break naturally in about 4-6 weeks if you ride it out.” – Dr. Aisha Ahmad

Aye, there’s the rub… riding this slump out for another four to six WEEKS.

A later Tweet by Dr. Ahmad explores a little more deeply her concept of mental “shore leave” plan to help make it over the six month wall:

Mental shore leave means a psychic retreat. So my task is to get creative about where I can create respite in my life today, just as it is. It also means looking hard at where I can set boundaries, and cut out negativity & noise. The goal is simple: optimize rest and joy. /4

A key factor will be ensuring that my shore leave plan does not depend on anything staying open. If my strategy is about going to a gym or bookstore, it will be vulnerable to collapse. I need my respite to be absolutely untouchable. /5

On the whole, I am deeply onboard with this idea. The idea that we’re allowed to put down the load of “life in wildly-uncertain times” is seductive, if only because sometimes *I* just want someone to give me permission to stop worrying about things for an hour or two. Even half an hour! My only caveat is that, as presented, there is no allowance for those who have spent the last six months sliding down into depressive cycles that make adding ANY extra efforts to their day a difficult challenge, even respite time. As a therapist, in the past week, I’ve been shaping those conversations with clients in this slump as exploring their definitions of “respite”. For some, it has meant finding ways to increase literal rest or looking for ways to reshare/rebalance some of their workloads to provide relief from at least SOME of their stressors. For others, it has meant the deliberate, temporary delay of dealing with all manner of issues and circumstances that might be a lower priority than basics of safety and survival. For many on the depressive spiral, myself included, it has been a discussion about allowing ourselves a respite from some of the less-important things we believe we SHOULD be doing, and giving ourselves permission to make rest and recovery our highest priority as much as our circumstances permit.

The pandemic may be unrelenting, but how we engage with it need not be. I like Dr. Ahmad’s notion of respite breaks, but I would prefer seeing a more grounded approach in introducing that notion to our struggling clients especially. Most importantly, I really appreciated seeing someone outside of the therapeutic/mental health field validating and echoing what I’ve been noticing lately in discussions with my own clients… and experiencing in my own head. The wall is real, the slump is not exactly short-term but it IS temporary, and we DO have options for disengaging from it for whatever periods of time we can muster for respite.

I might just get myself and my clients through the next 4-6 weeks, then, given all of that.

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