When I got the email from the University of Winnipeg explaining that classes were suspended due to the increasing risk of COVID-19, I remember at first thinking how great this was — I could finish teaching my course from the comfort of my pyjamas!
But as I navigated the grocery store that evening on the way home — the toilet paper aisle empty, seeing people wearing masks in public for the first time — I began to feel the severity and panic of an unfamiliar pandemic that we've all now become quite familiar with. Questioning how I would juggle the quick pivot to virtual teaching on top of my freelance clients was quickly answered later that week: most of my clients either terminated their contracts or informed me that they were closing their offices indefinitely. In a matter of days, I had lost 80% of my income — and, along with it, the densely packed schedule that it turns out was keeping my head above water.
While it's true that as a freelancer I spend a lot of time by myself, I think there was a misconception that this familiarity with alone time would somehow make all of this uncertainty and isolation easier. Pre-pandemic, I would spend most days facilitating workshops, teaching classes, working from busy coffee shops, or meeting with clients at their offices. When I wasn't working, I'd be training as a powerlifter, catching up with friends and family, and walking my dog. I structured my life around always being somewhere or having somewhere to be. It wasn't until I was abruptly forced to slow down that I realized the extent to which I had been living a life of chronic busyness in an attempt to tamper down the anxiety I was repressing, using the laughably ineffective coping skills I pretended were working.
All of the routine and structure that provided the foundation for what I didn't realize was a shaky work-life balance disintegrated in a matter of days. Being alone with my dog, my thoughts, and no answers began to feel not only foreign but grossly uncomfortable. Like all of us, my mental health has been known to take a nosedive now and then, but I quashed it with all the things I thought I was supposed to do. Read books! Do therapy! Stay hydrated! The anxiety that I assumed was efficiently tidied up and tucked away started to permeate the seams of my mind. It turns out that a heavily scheduled iCal, inflexible training routine, and militantly controlled nutritional intake were the glue holding this ship together, and without anywhere to be, a gym to train in, or enough distance between me and the fridge, the ship was sinking.
I quickly turned to my backup numbing skills (as you do), which consisted of powering through boxes of chardonnay (it just makes good financial sense to buy the box) while making cakes and cupcakes for friends and family. I used goodwill and a love of decoration as an excuse to get faded and eat buttercream by the spoonful, waking up each morning with what felt like a stomach full of acid. It's not lost on me that the veneer of privilege that coated my socially acceptable substance abuse meant that nobody would question why I was live-tweeting my own downward spiral. Besides, everyone knows you're funnier when you're a hot mess!
As it became clear that this pandemic wasn't going away anytime soon, I sought out new ways to fill my calendar and quiet my mind. But even after distracting myself with all the DIY home renos and online workouts, I could feel myself losing control of the disorder I hadn't ever given enough credit. I was struck recently by something that the host of the podcast, The Anthropocene Reviewed, said about the notion of pain: it makes you feel alone, partly because we are the only ones in our pain and partly because we don't have a language to describe it. And without trying to sound too precious, I felt the parallels with my own inability to manage my wellbeing.
We're socialized to believe that resting is lazy or that taking time for yourself is a luxury. Being overworked while continually hunting for new and improved productivity hacks has become a socially constructed marker of success. It's difficult to resist getting caught up in the wave, especially when you work for yourself. The preoccupation with busyness is so pervasive that it's even the subject of academic study, with research on the overworked finding that the underlying motivation is to show the world we have our shit together. "How've you been?" is met with "Oh my god, so busy" in order to showcase our "desirable human capital characteristics," which "are perceived as a 'scarce resource,' 'in demand,' and sought after in the job market." In other words, capitalism at work. But whether other people saw my busyness as a sign that I was competent or not, living with myself as I tried unsuccessfully to simply shift that busyness from client meetings to cross-stitching meant that I quickly became tired of my own shit.
It took me a while to finally admit that moving from one obsessive daily schedule to another wasn't the answer. I could trade the buttercream for something less likely to make my teeth fall out, but if I didn't address the dumpster fire in my mind, then I'd only find new ways to numb out. Being forced to stay home and slow down was in fact the best time to unpack the lies capitalism had fed me.
So I learned how to have compassion for myself. I confronted my fear that saying "no" will ruin my business or relationships, reminding myself that burning out would most definitely ruin them first. While booze and I are on a break, iCal and I still have a solid relationship — but we're just scheduling in a lot more time at the park.
The past few months have been a parade of horrors for everyone, to vastly different degrees. Uncertainty, isolation, and fear can make it really hard to see past your own pain, no matter how that pain stacks up against your neighbour's. The world feels like it's never been more unpredictable and volatile. But perhaps it always was. And while the notion of individualism suggests that focusing on ourselves will move us further away from those around us, I've found the opposite is true. Looking inward to find stability and real ways to take care of myself has actually made me better equipped to be helpful to and supportive of the people around me. And if 2020 has taught us anything, it's that we need to lift ourselves and one another up as much as we can.