A Good Few Weeks

I had to return to working in the office full-time on Friday, the day after Georgia’s shelter-in-place order expired. 

For Tyler and I, those weeks where we both worked from home were dear and kind. Talking with my grandmother on the phone one night, she warned me that this kind of experience, especially being stuck in the house together for such an extended period, would be a trial on our marriage. But for us, it hasn’t been. Or for me it hasn’t been. I’ve had bad days. So has did he. But mostly we’ve had closeness, and cat gifs, and cat cuddles, and conversation. Sharing. 

We got used to watching Good Eats and Friends together during lunch, laughing and not wanting to turn it off and go back to our desks. We were spoiled by our ability to get up, brush our teeth, and walk to “work” in a few seconds. We’ve cuddled in the mornings more. We’ve fallen asleep together on the couch in the evenings more. We encourage each others’ hobbies with a presence and attention we usually don’t offer. He’d open the blinds in the morning in every room of the house and I’d shut them at the end of the day. Around 11:30, one of us would ask the other what we want for lunch, and we’d fix it together and work on the dishes afterward.

A good, good few weeks. 

And all of this against the background of anxiety, stress, and the horrors of a society and healthcare system increasingly strained, friends increasingly isolated, friends and friends of friends learning they’d tested positive. People are losing their jobs, their hope. People are losing their family members and not even being able to hug their loved ones for comfort.

Tyler and I are well aware that we’re in an ideal situation. We’ve recently moved into our first home, one in good shape, and we have a cat but no children yet. We could still have a work-life balance because life didn’t need to cross over into work and our work didn’t meaningfully disrupt our lives. I don’t know how people are coping without pets. I can’t imagine being without ours, for comfort and cuddles and warmth and liveliness and cuteness and the sparks of laughter throughout the day.

I had sunlight and sweatpants and didn’t wear a bra or shoes for a week or more at a time. I miss all of that dearly now. Now, I’m in a windowless box. My own office, decorated with a few paintings and some Funko Pop figures. Arranged for ease of flow. But there is no window. The florescent lights overhead are grating and flicker when I turn them on, so I’m making do with lamps instead. 

My first day back in the office, I left with a massive headache I couldn’t shake until Saturday evening. I was utterly miserable, and felt like my work life had stolen something from my home life. I had bad headaches a few times while quarantined, but could take naps during the day and work later so that I didn’t have to take sick time and slow production during one of our busiest times of the year. This is no longer an option.

For all the brightness and warmth I had while working from home—when my job was very busy but my satisfaction was so high—I feel the void now. And, because Bibb County is expecting a surge, and because so many of my coworkers are at high risk or live with someone who is, I wear a mask when I leave my office. And when I’m in my office, I close the door so I can take the mask off while maintaining control of this space, its air, who enters. 

Now Tyler and I are isolated from each other as well as other people during the day, so we’re trying to connect in the same ways we we are with those outside our home, with gifs and texts and emails. And I’m still only available to my coworkers by email or phone, just as I was when working from home.

When I get home after work, I wash my hands thoroughly, clean my phone with Lysol wipes, and set aside my mask to dry out for three days or, if it’s cloth, throw it in the wash to start on hot water, then wash my hands again. 

Forty more minutes of my day spent driving, Fifteen minutes more preparing my appearance. Fifteen minutes more preparing my food and drink for the day. Countless minutes considering where and how to move so that I don’t infect a coworker, don’t infect myself. Every day is so full of anxieties I didn’t have to worry about when I worked from home. I often focus on those inconveniences, small but needless, or the litany of injustices evident in this entire pandemic so I can pretend I’m not terrified I’ll kill my husband by a thoughtless touch of my hand to my nose during the day or an insufficiently cleaned surface upon returning home. 

I’m the one leaving the safety of our isolation every single workday. If one of us gets sick, it’s almost certainly going to be through me. I try to avoid saying “because of me,” since I know I wouldn’t be in this building if there was any alternative that let me keep my job.

I’ve mostly managed to stop planning our hospital go-bags, trying to decide what the last straw would be before taking Tyler to the ER, how I’d need to sell the house after losing him, what it would be like to have to endure the rest of the pandemic alone without him or a single hug. These thoughts spark an anxiety spiral. I mostly manage to avoid it.

I mostly manage. I’m mostly managing. 

Which is all any of us are doing.

We’re managing as well as we can. 

Fear and Marriage Planning: Miscarriage

Trigger warning: discussion of miscarriage (non-specific, non-graphic)

Over the next few months, I plan to write about lots of wonderful parts of wedding and marriage planning. (I’m ridiculously excited to register for our Christmas stockings, for instance.) However, I feel like there’s a lot of that in the world. And it isn’t the whole truth of my experience. There’s plenty of fear as well.

I’m an anxious person. I’ve had social anxiety all my life, but I haven’t fully understood the degree to which a more general anxiety has influenced my life until recently. I don’t have generalized anxiety disorder; however, anxiety is a low-level but persistent factor in my life. My mother—I’ve always known and she’s always admitted—is a worrier. But worrying, I believed while growing up, was learned. Learned things could be unlearned, even if my shyness could not. I prayed and unlearned as best I could, but anxiety remained.

And over the course of my life, I’ve developed a number of coping mechanisms and emergency protocols to help me through situations that trigger my anxiety. A big one is managing my expectations. But lately, I’ve noticed myself trying to manage Tyler’s too.

A couple of weekends ago, Tyler and I traveled up to Atlanta to visit my best friend/maid of honor and to go to a Braves game. At some point on the drive, as we were talking about the day, I recalled how excited my bestie’s mom had been that we were thinking of going on a cruise for our honeymoon (she goes on at least 2-3 cruises every year). I hadn’t expected her exuberant reaction. Tyler agreed, saying that’s how his mom will react “when she finds out you’re pregnant.”

Immediately, anxiety gripped my heart with both hands.

Tyler was imagining a scene in the future—real to him, though not yet realized—when I will be pregnant, we will tell his family, and his mom will scream with excitement.

To Tyler, that scene is not a possibility but an expectation.

At least, that’s what I took from his words. We’ve since talked about it and he assures me both that he’s aware of the risks and possibilities and isn’t pretending they can’t apply to us. But at the time, I didn’t know that.

I didn’t want to squash his hope or make him think I don’t hope for the same, but it’s just a hope in me, not a foregone conclusion. Relationships, marriage, good health, and pregnancy are generally accepted as will-happen situations with no complications or problems. We all I know there is a possibility that these dreams might not pan out the way we have been led to expect, but we generally don’t think other people’s tragedies and pains will happen to us. In the filing cabinet of coping strategies, in the emergency protocols drawer, is a folder labeled, “Miscarriage.”

I’ve written before about how, growing up, I kept putting off my disappointing about not being in a relationship, saying it’ll happen by this age, then this later age, until I realized I was building myself up for a disappointment so profound, so capable of embittering me, that it wasn’t healthy to defer hope any longer. I wouldn’t let myself set another relationship due date. I faced the reality of perpetual singleness. I made lists of the great things about it. I read stories of women—single, widowed, or divorced—who built adventurous, generous lives that I could admire. I grieved what I desperately wanted but may never have. I prayed and tried to choose, each day, to accept my current state and whatever future might be mine, especially the ones I found most painful and disappointing to imagine.

In Tyler’s truck that afternoon, he imagined telling his parents, experiencing his mom’s joy. I imagined Tyler having to deliver the bad news, his mom’s disappointment, how she’d look at me the next time she saw me. I imagined her, some weeks or months later, asking when we were going to try again. And if not her, than another well meaning, loving person in our lives.

Tyler’s family is large and close and many of them live nearby. Good news spreads through them like a wave and bad like fire. I imagine carrying everyone’s disappointments as well as my grief and Tyler’s. A miscarriage happens inside you; it brings guilt, a sense of betrayal. I would take the weight of everyone else’s disappointments and my body’s failures on myself. It’s a weight I’m terrified of, and everyone’s knowing would add elephants to it.

I feel horrible for being afraid of something that I have no actual evidence will occur and that we won’t be ready to pursue for years, anyway. So many struggle with infertility, miscarriage, and child loss now. Perpetually.

In Laura Turner’s essay “Missing Hope: A Trio of Miscarriages, and What Happened After,” she writes, they don’t tell you that fear, to reverse a phrase from C.S. Lewis, will feel so like grief, and so you begin to mourn what you have not yet lost, because mourning prematurely is the only way to protect yourself from hope.

“I know there isn’t a family history or anything,” I told Tyler as the stadium grew large before us. “But miscarriages are so common. I’m not going to want to tell anyone for…” we hit a bump and I stayed in the air an extra moment, wondering how many weeks would be safe enough, conservative enough, “a good long while.”

I didn’t want to bring the day’s mood down any further, so I didn’t explain. Tyler didn’t ask questions. He just said okay. My anxiety eased, and we had a really good day.

Winter is Coming (and I Don’t Want to be Depressed Again)

Last year around this time, I posted about my favorite fall and winter activities. A few months later, I posted about why my autumn hadn’t shaped up to be the favorite season it usually is. Nestled in there was an admission that I’ve spent much of the past year processing in theoretical and practical ways: I was depressed. I was also anxious, though it took longer to figure that out.

This year, I’m giving a lot of thought to the coming season, but without the excitement level of last year. My favorite things about fall and winter have always centered on light in darkness, but last year there was a lot of darkness in my mind (and, I would argue, in the world). As 2017’s days get shorter, I’m preparing in specific ways to give myself the best chance of making to spring without becoming suffering another depressive episode. (I think all 5 strategies are pretty solid ways to enter into the rest of this year.)

1. Simplify. I love knick knacks. Little things that spark a smile and look cool and remind me of fun times or people or characters or concepts. I’m just like my grandmother this way, who lined all her shelves with porcelain and glass figures, and kept them forever. But too much stuff, and things not being neat, stress me out. Not badly, but my mind needs room to consider, to breathe, to be creative. So I’m making space in my life and my schedule. At work, I’m putting resources I rarely need out of sight and rotating out my knick knacks so they aren’t all visible at once. If I feel anything but peace about something I’m asked to do, personally or professionally, I take a step back and reevaluate it. Why am I anxious or worried? Is this something I can say No to and feel at peace? Are their benefits that would outweigh these feelings? If I can’t say no, what’s most bothering me and how can I manage it to minimize my stress?

2. Clean out. A little over a week ago, I cleaned out my drawers and closet, filling two huge bags of clothes to donate to a local domestic violence shelter. Some items I’ve “outgrown” and others I just don’t wear often enough to keep. I’m keeping clothes I wear, not the ones I wish I did. That includes a beloved but too-worn pair of boots, a pleather jacket coming apart at the seams, and an incredibly comfortable pair of linen pants I never want to iron. I’ve been careful to buy fewer clothes than I’m giving away, and only very soft, very practical items. (Other than that one dress, but it’s practically got a cape!) Last year, I only wanted to wear soft, easy, warm clothes, and if that’s helpful to my brain when it’s struggling, it’ll be a better for mild seasonal blues, too.

3. Build good habits. I bought a light therapy box. I know I get a little down in the winter because my element is sunlight (it’s the most relatable thing about Superman, who I generally dislike). And, with shorter, darker days, I’ll need some extra help making sure my body is getting the sunshine it needs. Happy light to the rescue! … I hope! I need to build the habit of using it every day and in the right way. Only then can it do the good, darkness-dispelling work it was made to do. I also need to incorporate a better prayer and Bible reading regimen, which dispels darkness in a different, but equally real, way. Eating bigger breakfasts but fewer snacks are also on my habits-to-form list. And none of this will mean much if I don’t get enough regular, quality sleep. It truly is amazing how much I starve my body, little by little, of these two basic needs: nutrients and rest.

4. Take social media hiatuses. Presumably, an ideologically catastrophic event will not occur this Nov. 8 like it did last year, and so the most serious bout of depression I’ve ever experienced will probably not be triggered. However, accessing social media definitely contributed to my anxiety and depression last November and December, and I’ve noticed that I’ve struggled under its effects since then, too. I’m much better able to absorb terrible news at 11am or 2pm than right before bed or right after I get up. Also, some days are just worse than others, in terms of the type of news or what’s happening in my brain. A stormy mental health day needs a social media hiatus, especially from Twitter. Very terrible news might necessitate a break, too.

5. Choose manageable goals. I want to finish NaNo. I want to do it in order to recapture the joy participating in NaNo has brought me in years past and to help jumpstart my fiction writing life again. I managed to complete the 50,000 word goal last November while depressed, so I’m reasonably confident that I can do it again this year. However, I’m doing this for the experience, not the product, so I’m going to be looser with the rules than in the past: I’ll count blog writing in my word counts and won’t restrict myself to one project. I might rewrite my NaNo project from two years ago (cozy murder mystery with ghosts) or I might try a new idea I’ve been kicking around since the summer (also a cozy mystery). If one project fails on me, I’m planning to just pick up the next one and keep writing. Finishing NaNo requires prep work, like making and freezing meals ahead of time and making lists of scenes and characters and basic plot structures. For me, it also means planning well for the days I’ll need to be traveling and scheduling specific rest times throughout the month.

I don’t want to end with something cheesy like “Stay positive!” but if there is a 6th strategy, that’s it. I’m looking forward to Hallmark Christmas movies, chili, snuggling under blankets, candles, a fire in the fireplace, Christmas trees, crisp air, apple pie with ice cream, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

If you also tend to have more mental health struggles in fall and winter, I’d love to hear how you’re preparing for the next few months!