Checking In at Mile 24

We have collectively hit weary.

Brené Brown, March 27, 2020 (!!!)

Real talk y’all. My days have been more down than up lately. Even though we are (FINALLY, truly… seemingly?) coming out of the pandemic, even though I am 1,063 days alcohol-free, even though I am loving my coaching program, even though we’ve had beautiful spring weather (well, except for a rainy and cold Memorial Day Weekend – not that I minded the excuse to snuggle up, read, and relax!)… even though there is so much that is good and for which I am grateful every darn day, it’s just not clicking.

My pandemic-pummeled brain feels foggy and scattered. My cortisol-crammed body feels heavy and slow. I’ve read articles about how pandemic fatigue is legit, and in my recovery coaching coursework I’m currently learning how the human brain is malleable and resilient even under long-term stress. So I know why I’m feeling this way. And I know I will – if not bounce, then crawl back to a better-functioning state… eventually.

My foggy brain is the result of too much time spent in fight-or-flight mode, which is the brain’s cavemanesque response to heightened stress. My brain doesn’t know a pandemic from a plague. All it knows is that I feel stress, so it releases adrenaline just in case I have to sprint away from a saber-toothed tiger. And because my brain can’t tell my body, “Chillax, this is a little stressful, yes, but don’t worry, you are not going to starve,” my body is pumped full of cortisol and holding on to every fat cell that it can in order to survive.

The fact that this high-stress state has lasted for over a year is, frankly, fucked up. And just bad news for our brains and bodies. Prolonged fight-or-flight is an unnatural state, and a huge hormonal load for our brains and bodies to carry.

On her podcast “Unlocking Us,” Brené Brown said, “We have collectively hit weary.” And indeed we have. Yup, she said that in March. OF LAST YEAR. So if we were weary then (and if Brené says so then it is so), what are we now? Wearier? Weariest? Whatever we are, it’s not pretty and it’s not fun.

This is mile 24 of the marathon, my friends. We’ve hit the wall but we’re still not done. This is knowing the finish line exists but not being able to see it. This is wanting nothing more than to cross that line while simultaneously fearing the shape you’ll be in when you do. And this is also feeling not quite ready to be done with the race because not knowing what’s next is almost harder than just continuing to put one foot in front of the other.

Is anyone else hesitant to take off their mask? I still wear mine to the grocery store or Starbucks, and if I’m with my kids at the playground I’ll wear it because they have to wear theirs and the mom guilt propels me to mask up. But now it’s getting awkward. Because if I wear my mask in an effort to be courteous to those around me, are people just going to think I’m unvaccinated? Not to mention if I take my mask off I have to start worrying about bad breath or something being stuck in my teeth. I haven’t missed thinking about those things for the last year. This ambiguous, in-between time is tricky.

Is anyone else’s social stamina shot? A couple of weeks ago, I volunteered to work the polls – not the pole, the polls, people – on my town’s local election day. My shift was two hours. I sat at a table with another volunteer, a mom of two elementary school-aged kids. She and I had enough in common that our conversation was perfectly pleasant and fun and interesting. There was a steady stream of people coming in to vote, and we checked them in one by one. There was never a crowd, and people were polite. I saw a few friends and even my kids’ nursery school teacher. WE even HUGGED, which was a joy. But the next morning I felt like I got hit by a train. I felt hungover. I felt utterly devoid of any energy. It took me awhile to connect my miserable state to having to be “on” for two hours the day before. My social stamina is minimal. It’s negligible. It’s in the toilet. And that is hard.

Is anyone else missing those early locked-down days maybe just a little? I AM MISSING THEM MORE THAN A LITTLE. There. I said it. Do I miss the endless stream of terrifying national and international news that seemed worse and worse every day? No. But I do miss that feeling of hunkering down with my kids, my husband, and our dogs on the island that was our 241-year-old farmhouse in New Hampshire, to which we fled last spring and again in the summer. I miss the simplicity, the quiet. Now that the world is opening back up – and, don’t get me wrong, that is a wonderful thing! – all the “should”‘s and “have to”‘s are popping back up on my calendar and to do list. A suddenly full calendar after a year of a mostly empty calendar has given me an unexpectedly jarring jolt.

I’ve been treading water for over a year. The constant treading hasn’t been easy, but the water itself was quiet and calm. Now, all of a sudden, huge wave of responsibility is heading toward me, starting to crest. I know I am capable of clambering up onto my paddleboard and coasting into the shore of New Normal. I just don’t feel ready. But I also know I can’t tread forever.

So, it’s June. Four weeks left of the school year routine before my kids once again audaciously bound back up into my business for the summer. I’m hoping to recover some positivity in these next few weeks. I’m determined to keep putting one foot in front of the other, or to hoist myself up onto my board and hold on tight – considering this post is now home to two metaphors. I’m going to try my best to limit the “should”‘s, tick off the “have to”‘s, and maintain boundaries as best I can. And I am going to focus on stress relief – because the clarity and energy for which I am so desperate can only be summoned once I migrate back to the front of my brain from the rear. And I can only do that by decreasing my stress.

How will I do that? I can’t end the pandemic. But I can change the way I respond to it.

I can move. Every day, I am going to aim to move my body in a way that makes me feel good. No bigger workout plan other than that. I have found during the pandemic if I mismatch my workout to my mood (including where I am in my cycle or how tired I am), it does not go well. With our bodies under so much stress for so long, this is just not the time to kick our asses. The pandemic has already done that. So if I feel like sitting on my bike, I’ll do a ride. If I feel like slowing down, I’ll do yoga. If I feel strong, I’ll lift. I will try my best to ignore calories burned and other stats, and just MOVE.

I can rest. This is probably the most critical and basic stress-soothing tool. But I don’t just mean sleep, though I will endeavor to get my 8+ hours every night. I mean rest. I mean sitting on the couch to read a book. I mean laying down in bed to watch the “Friends” reunion or the new P!nk documentary. Sleeping is a daily necessity; but rest is important too. I struggle to let myself rest without guilt, but I’m working on it. I read a book in two days over the weekend and I hope to take this non-moving momentum with me into June.

I can connect. This is a time to embrace (literally! YAY!) the cup-fillers and set a firm boundary with the cup-drainers. I have recently gone for two outdoor runs with a dear friend, and the combination of challenging movement, fresh air, and IRL companionship has truly given me life. I am going to continue to make an effort to connect with the friends who fill my cup. I need them right now in a big way, and I know my brain benefits from these joyful connections.

I can stay grateful. The power inherent in gratitude is boundless. Last month I started writing nightly in a gratitude journal again. And it’s amazing how the simple act of writing down three things for which I am grateful on a given day can flip my mindset from exhausted and down to picked-up and positive.

I can breathe. Meditation, or even just a simple breathing exercise (breathe in for four, hold for two, breathe out for eight) gently forces us to slow down and be present. I wish I wanted to meditate for 20 minutes a day, and maybe someday I will; but in the meantime I can meditate for five. And on days when even that feels like too much, I can breathe for a few minutes. When I do, I feel an immediate calming and clearing effect in my foggy head.

Move. Rest. Connect. Stay grateful. Breathe. Then do it all again tomorrow.

Life at mile 24 is not easy, and in many ways it’s more complicated than it seems like it should be. But none of us is alone in this marathon. And we are all going to make it.

Crossing the marathon finish line is glorious and emotional and vulnerable and complex. But as weak as we may feel when we get there, we’ll be stronger for having run the race.

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