New Year’s Eve seems like a lifetime ago, when we toasted to a new year. I was particularly excited for a fresh start and new goals for 2020: I was going to run a half marathon in April at Walt Disney World, spend more time on hobbies that brought me joy and my family was planning a few vacations that we were excited about. I was also starting a new chapter as I said goodbye to the retail business I had for five years, after selling it in late 2019 and closing my brick and mortar in Chicago a year before that, when we made the move to the suburbs. The new year was like a breath of fresh air, and in all, 2020 was looking to be full of promise. Then came the pandemic.
I’m not saying this year is a complete waste—I’m really trying hard to be positive amid so much uncertainty. But the COVID-19 pandemic and all the pain, struggle and death it has brought is nothing we could have imagined a month ago. It is unprecedented and as a mother, I’m fiercely trying to protect my young children’s innocence. This is nothing I experienced in my ’90s youth, which was full of rollerblading, friendship bracelets and MTV. As a daughter and granddaughter, I’m concerned about my grandmother in a retirement home that is on lockdown, and my boomer parents who won’t stay home. And as a former business owner, I’m crushed by the mandated closures, and what this means for so many small businesses.
I know I’m privileged to still be employed and to be writing about my experience from a home filled with food, health and connectivity. But I also know I’m not alone. I recently spoke with two friends — one facing a job loss and the other a small business owner — and it’s undeniable that we are all wallowing in the same rollercoaster of feelings. But it’s also evident that we are doing our part to find the silver linings in the everyday.
Emily: Taking Charge of Her Mental Health in the Face of Uncertainty
My close-friend Emily Berman, who wears many hats, is one of those who is facing a potential job loss. On top of being a wife and mother to two young boys, she is a studio manager and personal chef for a small design firm in Chicago. With everyone working from home, she can’t cook lunch or take care of the space. Her husband is self-employed, adding to the stress of the future. “I’m faced with losing my salary, and my insurance for myself and my children. It’s terrifying. I am having a very hard time dealing with this uncertainty and not defaulting to a doom and gloom outlook,” she says.
Last summer, Emily took the steps to prioritize her mental health after she had an emotional breakdown. “Medication, therapy, stepping back and learning to say no more often and let others take care of me,” helped her immensely. Now, she is back in these feelings. “I’m feeling that same weighty and paralyzing anxiety, like I’m nearing a point of shutting down,” she says. “I had nonstop panic attacks last weekend and have been feeling myself going deeper and deeper into a dark and scary place, losing interest in things, not sleeping well and not taking care of my body. I’m able to recognize it better this time around, which helps.”
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With all of this on her shoulders, Emily is taking the important steps to take care of herself. “I have a video therapy session scheduled this week, and also a video session with a new psychiatrist to possibly switch my meds to handle this extra stress moving forward. I’ve been face-timing with friends and family, doing crafts with my kids, assembling puzzles and cooking a lot, which have all been helpful.” she adds. “We are not the only family that is going to be affected financially by this. We are not alone.” She also recognizes that her family is luckier than most. They are healthy, have an amazing community to lean on, and her husband can work remotely. And despite all this uncertainty, she is helping others. “Doing things for others really helps me—it gives me a great sense of purpose. It’s making me feel a little bit better, knowing that even if I’m not feeling 100% I still have the ability to make others feel good.”
Elaine: Bringing Joy in the Midst of a Crisis
I met Elaine, a mother to three and the owner of Luft Balloon, in the early days of her business. You’ve probably seen her beautiful balloon installations around the city or on Instagram. Being in the consumer and events business she is facing uncertainty like others, but Elaine is one of the most creative people I know. She is taking new meaning to Luft’s motto of “bringing the joy,” by pivoting to offer uplifting balloons direct to the doorstep. “Come hell or high water, I’m gonna try my hardest to beat this Covid with joy,” she wrote on Instagram.
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Not only is Elaine taking care of her three children while she and her husband work from home, but she is channeling her positive energy into connecting others with joy during the crisis. “I am finding so much joy in being the facilitator of connecting the joy for others. During this crisis, we are lucky to — within reason — get the basic things we need. But what is really weighing on a lot of us is being able to connect with another human in a meaningful way—to reach out to that friend who is having a millstone birthday or a couple who just had to cancel their wedding or someone who just had a baby. Life does go on and some celebrations cannot be paused. I feel immense joy that I can be the facilitator for their joy.”
This joy is also extending to her family. Elaine says that, “as a mom, I’m teaching my kids that we need to spread joy in our neighborhood by delivering balloon Bags ‘O Fun to our neighbors. Over the years, I’ve learned that there is no age cap on the smile that a balloon brings to someone.” And as a small business owner, the amount of support Elaine and her team have received from the community, is a true testament to why small businesses are not only needed but wanted. “The big boxes of the world aren’t pivoting and creating Zoom Balloons or Smiling Rainbows or Crappy Happy Bouquets because they can’t. But us little guys can.” This is what Elaine loves about creativity and being in a small business. “We have pivoted hard from our 85% events-driven business. I started LUFT with the mission to rethink the balloon and to bring joy through the art of the balloon. Be it a 500-person event or a pandemic.”
Elaine is also a firm believer in taking care of oneself, especially when our lives have done a 180. “I think that when the rug is pulled from us, and this is a big one since the whole world is dealing with this, we have to nurture ourself in whatever we need,” she says. “Just pause. Take it in. Cry when needed. Drink when needed. Laugh uncontrollably when needed. Order food out when needed. That is how I have coped.”
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An Expert’s Advice on Coping: “Stay focused on today”
So how does a licensed therapist suggest working through all of these feelings so we can be strong for our friends, family and colleagues? I spoke with Jack Gordon, a therapist with Cherry Hill Counseling, who has switched to teletherapy to help his clients. “This is an unprecedented event,” he says. “So much is unknown and changing every day which increases anxiety.” When we cannot control the unknown, he suggests trying to not predict the future. It’s useless and Gordon suggests our imagination can be worse than reality. “Stay focused on today. Focus on the things that you know and the things you have control over.”
Some of us might be lacking the motivation we once had to start the day. “It can feel very tempting to sleep more, stay in your pajamas, and watch a lot of TV. Something that can be very helpful for your mental health is to keep yourself on a schedule,” he says. “If possible try to get outside, go for a walk, hang out in your backyard (while maintaining social distancing). Get up for the day, get dressed and practice hygiene as if it were a normal day for you. A shower and clean clothes can do a lot to improve one’s mental health.”
A therapist can be a great resource to learn techniques to help you manage your anxiety. “Many clients may be nervous about using teletherapy and their first instinct is to just wait till everything ‘goes back to normal,'” Gordon says. “To those clients I would encourage them to try at least one teletherapy session to see how it feels.” Most of his clients have said that the teletherapy felt more helpful and comfortable than they had anticipated. Just how a phone call or house party with friends can lift your spirits, therapy can help you work through your worry. It will also help you maintain a human connection, which is important during isolation. Gordon recommends coming up with creative ways to digitally “meet” with friends and family. “It may not feel the same as seeing them in person, but it will likely help you feel more connected to them.”
One point that Gordon stresses is that we need to remember that what we are feeling is normal, and that we are in this together. “It’s important to know that a lot of people are experiencing depression and anxiety in response to current events. It is both understandable and normal for anyone to be distressed at this time.”
So as we grieve the 2020 that could have been, remember to take care of yourself, to help others and to not forget how lucky we are to have our health and each other. Even if your 5-year old dumps an entire bowl of spaghetti on the ground or a dog interrupts an important Zoom call—give yourself grace.
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Macaire Douglas lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband and two sons. She proudly supports Save Abandoned Babies Foundation, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization that works tirelessly to prevent the illegal abandonment of newborns nationwide. Since its inception in 2000, more than 3,600 newborns have been safely surrendered and adopted into loving homes.