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436 Days On…

My life looks both very different, and not really all that different, depending on whether you’re on the outside looking in or vice versa. Year Two of the Pandemic, Day 71 sees me half-vaccinated and waiting for a second Pfizer dose in early July; still working with heavy client traffic in both practices, still doing multi-day intensive training courses whenever I can afford them, still pursuing new professional certifications to help support my clients, still working with supervisees and trying to keep them, clients, colleagues, and myself, as sane as possible while COVID-19 ravages on and on. South of the border the CDC has removed the mask mandate for fully-vaccinated persons while Ontario extends its third lockdown and border closures into June. A new Indian variant of the coronavirus is making its way into North America and challenging what we were told would be okay with delaying secondary vax doses.

I work, I sleep, I pander to the cats. These parts of my life look the same. I haven’t left my house much in the past fifteen months; that part is new. And as much as I miss travelling and visiting friends, I really enjoy being able to sleep in as late as I want EVERY weekend. I have embraced grocery delivery services and Skip The Dishes and now boxed meal plan services like I was born to them (though the boxed meal plan service is largely to counter my increasing reliance on Skip to feed me). And with the completion of the backyard project I started in the First COVID Summer, I feel like I have joined a Sooper Sekrit Club of outdoorsy folks that I’ve been envying for their outdoor spaces for years.

In the past fifteen months it has also become apparent that I now have only two modes: On, which is reserved exclusively for work, and Off, which is what happens once I am done for the day. It’s been a learning curve to adapt, but I’ve had 15 months to get used to the idea that Off is a necessary state no matter what anyone else says. It’s not lazy or unambitious or disorganized. It’s the point at which my brain has to switch gears or I will get zero rest and speed myself right into the hell that is BURNOUT. It’s hard on relationships but critically important for survival as a therapist and as a human.

COVID has done a couple of very important things for me. (1) The love I have for the backyard space that didn’t exist a year ago knows no bounds, and when I need to turn my brain Off, that’s my favourite place to do so. I have embraced Off, you see, as Respite Time. I don’t need to Do anything, or Attend to anyone; I don’t need to be “on”. The critters in the backyard who have come to accept me as a safe presence who also dispenses food means they accept me (warily) on their terms, though I get scolded if I go out without peanuts. (2) The work that had already begun on learning to live with depression has really hit home in accepting that not only can I NOT do everything on my own, but I don’t even have to TRY. All of my clients might be delighted to know that I’ve finally gotten as hardcore about calling out my own “shoulds” as I have been about calling out theirs. No, I should NOT singlehandedly be able to run an entire household, balance a budget, manage two practices, maintain the outside property, and keep myself fed. Farming out food delivery was a good energy-saving strategy but to go one step further and farm out meal PREP and PLANNING is simply brilliant. Someone else mows my lawns every two weeks. Once I can afford it and am willing to have live human beings in my house again, I’m going to hire cleaners as often as I can manage. These are options that go beyond “privilege” and well into the realms of “luxury”, and I am keenly aware of that. I also don’t have a village to support me in these things, but I do have some financial latitude that can take these tasks off my plate and free up the mental and energetic real estate I need to keep doing the work that I do. That’s prioritization and a set of choices I can live with, and will so long as I can afford them.

Having recently read Emily and Amelia Nagoski’s book, “Burnout,” I am keenly aware of the price demanded of caregivers for the work that we do, and the excessive cultural messaging to “get back in line” when we try to break the patterns imposed upon us. COVID took away most of the things I do to recharge and respite myself, so I’ve had 15 months to look inward at what best balances the demands of the work; the answers have been both surprising and emboldening. Almost every one of them would qualify me as “selfish” for putting my self-care first. But it’s been critical to getting through this year-and-still-ongoing trauma, and will remain so for some time to come, I’m sure.

I have nothing but mad respect for my fellow caregivers who ARE managing all their SHOULDs and then some (my heart goes out to the parents who have also had to become teachers this year, many on top of also running households AND being full-time career people to boot). I don’t know how y’all are doing it without setting the world on fire when I can’t even handle pants most days–well, not entirely true; I do know many of you simply AREN’T handling it well at all. I have those conversations with you day after day after day in my virtual office, so I know the truth. I’ve already been proselytizing “Burnout” up and down my social media channels and thrusting it virtually into clients’ hands, and I will likely continue to do so until we claw our way out of this pandemic into whatever the world looks like on the other side. I want women to realize they’ve been suckered and conned into playing a game that’s been rigged against us since the outset, and at the end of the day, letting go of the belief that we have to be ON for others all the time with no shame-free thought of respite for ourselves is the cruellest form of gaslighting we’ll ever experience.

It took 15 months of a global pandemic for me to get free of that belief (and guilt), to be perfectly okay with what the house looks like on the outside when I don’t do all my dishes regularly, or only have the lawn guy come by every TWO weeks. It’s been a relief, frankly to have the pandemic as a platform on which to let all those old expectations and assumptions about what I thought I HAD to do as an adult, go. Simply… go. I’d really be just fine, I think, working and living this way indefinitely, though preferably without the threat of a killer disease hanging over all our heads. I still love my work, love my clients, love my home (inside and out), but I have also learned a great deal about how I had been relating to a lot of these things in some pretty unhealthy ways.

On the outside, the pandemic has meant being locked down, locked in, stuck on pause. But it has also meant being able to turn inward, slow down or pause, re-examine a great many things we’ve just been too busy to stop and contemplate before now. My clients have been learning that; hell, I’ve been teaching them that.

Guess it was only a matter of time before that lesson finally came home to roost in the therapist’s house too.

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