How Do You Confront an Identity Crisis During a Pandemic?

2020 has prompted me to question everything.

Image by klimkin from Pixabay

No death, no doom, no anguish can arouse the surpassing despair which flows from a loss of identity.
― H.P. Lovecraft

To my family, friends, and acquaintances: please read the following at face value. It is not a cry for help, a play for sympathy, or a prompt to initiate bringing me back into the fold. It simply is a reflection upon the uncertainties I, along with many others, are feeling at this time.

Truth be told, I have been feeling tenuous for a while now. Many of the ideologies I have woven into my identity have become threadbare. The events of 2020 have prompted me to take stock of my mental wardrobe: Are my convictions valuable or vintage? Can they continue to spark joy or do they provoke dismay? Do they fit me any more?

The modern definition of identity was proposed by Erik Erikson as his fifth stage of psychosocial development. While our primary personality is established during adolescence, he postulated that our sense of self develops throughout our entire lifespan. Our “ego identity,” according to Erikson, is constantly being shaped by our interactions and experiences with others. A challenge to your ego identity can occur at any time, most likely when one experiences a major life stressor such as losing a loved one, loss of employment, confronting health issues, or experiencing a traumatic event such as — I don’t know — a global pandemic.

Developmental psychologist James Marcia further elaborated on Erikson’s theory. He proposed identity is based on the exploration of a variety of life domains including intimate relationships, religion, politics, and occupation. The status of your identity is either in crisis — “a time of upheaval where old values or choices are being reexamined” — or committed to a role within these domains.

Fear of commitment

Welcome to my 2020. Or should I say, 5150? Except my current detention is looking more like 72 weeks instead of hours — perhaps even longer.

Full disclosure: This is not my first identity crisis rodeo. That occurred a dozen years ago when I became a widow. I envision identity like a lasso — twisted of multiple strands and used to secure yourself to someone or some ideal. When I lost my role as a wife, I clung to the other fibers of my life for strength. I was able to keep the rope somewhat intact until recent events have caused it to further unravel.

The first thread to break loose was with my church. Don’t misunderstand me, my core faith is as strong as ever, if not stronger. It’s just the man-made constructs that have disappointed me. When I was initially widowed, there were the standard outpourings of support and they were much appreciated. But once the dust settled, things took a turn. Slowly, steadily, (and I’m sure unintentionally) I was isolated. No longer included in couples’ events, I was relegated to coffee meetups and the occasional ladies’ lunch. Dinner party invites became nonexistent. I looked into the widows’ support group, but at 44, I was significantly younger than the rest of the members. There was no place I felt I belonged — or noticed for that matter. I would sit in the pew by myself, missing my husband more than ever. Feeling lonelier each time, I eventually stopped attending.

The next thread tattered by disillusion was my political affiliation. A lifelong Republican and Californian, I will never forget the feeling of being 18, newly registered, and attending a local Ronald Reagan reelection rally. I was thrilled to see a sitting president in person and proud to cast my first presidential vote for a man I felt possessed honor and character.

I wish I could generate anywhere near the same feeling of admiration for our current candidate. When did buddying up with our adversaries become a GOP construct? Putting policies aside, I wish my president to be a person of integrity. I continued to be baffled by how many Christian leaders (and friends) can support him as a man of God. They somehow excuse or refuse to acknowledge his consistent name-calling and slander of opponents, mocking of the disabled and women, and utter lack of humility. This list can go on and on, but suffice it to say, I feel like I’m in an alternate universe where right is wrong and up is down.

So now I’m left, or rather, was left, with my occupation. I had finally settled into my dream career: travel event planning. COVID-19 not only unraveled that thread, it chopped it with an ax and seared the ends. I’m a 56-year-old woman with a convoluted resume looking to reinvent my career yet again. California has more than 2.5 million unemployed workers. How do you like those odds?

Compounding matters, I suffer from an autoimmune disorder that has flared and left me at limited capacity these past few months. I’m not sure if it’s safe for me to return to work, let alone be physically up for it. As an added bonus, my current medication has caused me to gain 20 pounds and completely altered my appearance. Not only do I not feel like myself, but I don’t even recognize the woman in the mirror.

Temporary Restraining Order or Stay of Execution?

Marcia would most likely conclude I am residing in the moratorium identity status: in the midst of a crisis but seeking alternative identities. Working through the explorations leads to a commitment or “identity achievement.” Major life events — such as the death of a spouse — can create instability which triggers a MAMA cycle: moratorium-achievement-moratorium-achievement. I went through such cycles when I lost my husband, working through the identities of the widow, single mother, and middle-aged single woman.

Healthy adults will go through many MAMA cycles in their lifetime. It’s the natural progression of aging and growth. Some may term these events as reaching a “new normal” or acceptance of whatever stressor has been thrown in their way. Here’s the thing: most will encounter one upheaval at a time. What’s one to do, as in my case (and I’m sure many others) when you doubt multiple affiliations (religion, politics) and experience more than one loss (occupation, health) simultaneously? When a global crisis has disrupted society so much you’re constantly on guard, wondering what tomorrow’s shit show will be.

Do we hide, locking the world away? Do we appeal to God or fate to give us more time to sort this all out and/or complete our penance? Is there a remedy for this dilemma? Or vaccine to prevent it from happening again?

At the end of my rope, but not alone

I may be feeling unstable, but I’m not the only one. 2020 has taken its toll on everyone. A recent government survey reported 41% of U.S. respondents felt symptoms of anxiety and depression, compared to just 11% in 2019. As the year drags on, uncertainty continues to litter our collective psyche. We try to discard it, but our dumpsters are overflowing.

In a Popular Science article discussing mental health and the pandemic, Dr. Mary Alvord, a psychologist in Rockville, Maryland, states:

Humans look to have a known universe. That is how we keep ourselves safe,” he says. “It’s frightening to feel out of control. Sadness, hopelessness, fear — those will wear you down.

I honestly don’t know if these statistics make me feel better or worse.

What I do know is a few strands of my rope have remained intact and will be no matter what my revised identity turns out to be: My two sons, who not only support but motivate me to keep it together. My parents and siblings, who continually encourage and assist in any way they can. And my posse — my closest friends — who are always available to provide a listening ear, words of wisdom, and a glass(who am I kidding — a bottle) of wine when needed. These are my lifelines.

Eventually, with some introspection, exploration, and a little luck, I’ll channel my inner Wonder Woman and reconstruct the lasso of my truth. Surprisingly, I have found a gentleman who doesn’t view me as frayed and fragile, but as a woman of substance and strength. He wants to join me on the journey to discover a more suitable church to grow our faith. From now on, I’ll let my conscience — not my political party — be my guide when voting. As for health and occupation, I will keep praying and hoping that good news is just around the corner.

It has to be, doesn’t it?

Shipwrecked

Was I always your dirty little secret?
You couldn’t admit
even to yourself?

Into The Deep

I’ve waded through the shallows often. Colorful, glistening creatures tickled my toes and skimmed through my heart. Alluding to promises never to be granted. I’d nearly forsaken the expedition. Weary of the fleeting encounters, apparitions of affection and shipwrecked expectations. Prompted by tedium. Coaxed by kismet? I endeavored once more. Hope beckoning like the North … Continue reading Into The Deep

Stop Drinking the New Normal Kool-Aid

This sucks and we all know it

andre-hunter-5otlbgWJlLs-unsplash

Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

OK. I’ve had enough of the bullshit. Up to my salt-and-pepper roots with the candy-coated viewpoints. I’m removing my homemade sock mask and screaming:

NEW NORMAL SUCKS!!!

Damn thing stinks anyway.

If you follow me, you know I’ve gone through varied stages coping with pandemic pandemonium. I threw one killer of a pity party, tallied my blessings and cowered in fear. Yet, I seemed to have missed a stop on the Kübler-Ross grief train, so I’ve double-backed. The Metro has dumped me at the Anger Depot and is no longer in service. I’m off the rails and plopping my Jabba-the-Hut ass down for a sit in. If needed, I’ll beg for necessities, “Sister, can you spare a square?”

Staring directly into the bright side has scorched my retinas. All I see is red.

I’m spent — plain tuckered out. Too pooped to shovel this crap any longer. (Yes, I know, I’m referring to excrement quite often. Frankly my dear, I don’t give a shit.)

The spoonful of sugar technique has been attempted repeatedly. My gag reflex is too resistant for such deception. Taking a cue from my Maltipoo, I’ve tried covering the bitter pill in peanut butter. It regurgitated like cow cud.

Safer at home? Tell that to my psyche. I’ve been simmering in my juices for far too long: Marinating in my anxieties, both past and present. How much longer until my connective tissue is fully dissolved, severing my tethers to humanity?

Exactly what are the benefits of our so-called safe havens? Commercials are already referencing our “places of refuge” in their “We are all in this together!” campaigns. Life in our humble abodes tranquilly portrayed like a utopian Westworld scenario. Not in this habitat. The only area shielded from disarray is what can be viewed through my Zoom Happy Hour camera. Eau de nursing home toilette wafts throughout: Lysol mixed with flop sweat and not-so-quiet desperation.

My childhood dreams did not include me being unwashed, unshaven and unemployed, gleaning style tips from Tiger King. (They say animal prints are never passé.) My pits and pubes so overgrown, I am contemplating repurposing my barrettes and hair ties. Note to self: Watch YouTube video on French braiding.

Aren’t you tired of adulting? I’m fed up with rebooting, repeatedly switching to a new alternate reality. I need to vent before all hell breaks loose.

It’s time for a collective temper tantrum. Join me in my fury that is far from insignificant. Six feet provides plenty of room to pound and kick the pavement. I’m not stopping until life goes back to business as usual — or maybe until someone brings me a gallon of Rocky Road.

I’m done with playing Pollyanna. I’m taking my ball and going home. F@#$! I’m already here. :/

Skin Hunger is Real and it Scares me to Death

Will staying out of touch remain our reality?

laura-barbato-67Ec0WdhVps-unsplash

Tell me in a world without pity
Do you think what I’m askin’s too much?
I just want something to hold on to
And a little of that human touch
Just a little of that human touch*

There’s a premise that has been disturbing me of late, looming in my hopes for the future like a murky fog: After months in isolation, will we remember how to reconnect? Will we be wary, cowering from physical contact? Can we exist in a world where exchanging hugs or pats on the back become taboo? If so, what will be the repercussions on society’s soul?

Touch has a memory — John Keats

I began writing when I was a recent widow. In my first piece, I attempted to describe how “unprepared I was for the craving of non-sexual intimacy…” How the yearning for simple touch was a physical affliction akin to detox. Each time I witnessed a spontaneous caress between a couple, I withered a little bit more.

Touch is the first sense we experience, fostered from the moment we are born. It is conveyed via the organ that completely envelops us, yet often it is an afterthought — until it is absent. My nephew was born prematurely with numerous health issues. Laden with medical equipment, he looked more cyborg than human. My brother and sister-in-law remained affixed beside his sterile bassinet, pining to soothe him.

Numerous studies have demonstrated the benefits of skin-to-skin contact, particularly in preemies. Also known as kangaroo care, the baby is stripped of garments and cradled in their parent’s bare chest. Stabilizing breathing patterns, regulating sleep and increased cognitive development have been linked to this practice. Benefits to the parents include decreasing stress and increased breast milk production. And so, my brother and his wife anxiously awaited this treasured thirty minutes granted to them each day. This nugget of time more precious than gold.

If one is out of touch with oneself, then one cannot touch others — Anne Morrow Lindberg

The deprivation of human touch has been termed “skin hunger.” Insomnia, anxiety and aggressive behavior have all been linked to the lack of physical contact. According to Psychology Today,

People who feel more affection-deprived: are less happy; more lonely; more likely to experience depression and stress; and, in general, in worse health.

So, what does this mean for those sheltering alone or front liners sequestering themselves from loved ones? Social distancing is now how we demonstrate affection for our fellow man. Stay six feet apart or you may end up six feet under.

When we finally emerge from our quarantine cocoons, will we recall how to interact? Will fear cultivate hesitation? Dr. Anthony Fauci has advised we never shake hands — ever again. Clothing categorized by PPE quotients are sure to appear across our Facebook feeds. Attire labeled with antimicrobial factors may soon be touted in Amazon Lightning Deals. The last episode of Saturday Night Live had a soap opera spoof parodying the perils of dating during an outbreak. Daniel Craig attempts to make out with Kate McKinnon through a large swath of plastic wrap. Are full-body condoms far behind?

The faintest glimmers of “flattening the curve” are on the distant horizon and some have started to contemplate what society will look like once the immediate COVID-19 threat is over. When queried about what our future holds during a recent White House briefing, Dr. Fauci replied:

When we get back to normal, we will go back to the point where we can function as a society. But you’re absolutely right. If you want to get back to pre-coronavirus, that might not ever happen in the sense that the threat is there.

It is said that every time we embrace someone warmly, we gain an extra day of life. So please embrace me now. — Paulo Coelho

I hail from a boisterous Italian family. No hello or goodbye is without an embrace and a kiss on the cheek. Our personas burnished by such affections to glistening patinas. If that is taken away, we might as well be mute.

What will happen to the rush of holding someone’s hand for the first time? Or the intoxicating scent of a newborn nestled against your shoulder? How will our collective psyche be altered without such stimuli? How out of touch can we be and still maintain our sanity?

The Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020 will be recorded in the history books as the first panicked response to the pandemic. Will the next be a run on HAZMAT bunny suits, beekeeper apparel or even fencing uniforms? Always on guard, will each encounter be a duel? Five touches and you’re out.

This is my second bout with touch deprivation. My greatest fear for myself — for society — is that we become calloused. The wounds of confinement scab and scar, smothering our ability to register emotion.

You might need somethin’ to hold on to
When all the answers they don’t amount to much
Somebody that you can just talk to
And a little of that human touch*
*Bruce Springsteen

#COVID-19 #Relationships #HumanNature #MentalHealth #Touch #NewNormal

Going Down the Rabbit Hole During a Pandemic

pawel-czerwinski-PPo9tjzjcPg-unsplash
Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

An invitation to a pity party

It was inevitable, no matter how hard I tried to prevent it. A conversation the night before had ignited a pessimistic spark. Dread simmered in my dreams. I awoke sullen, buzzing with trepidation. Before long, I was descending down the rabbit hole into one rager of a pity party.

I habitually obscure my struggles. When occasionally asked how things are going, downplaying is my diversion. Raindrops on roses and all that. Everything is practically perfect.

Or so I would lead them to believe.

Secretly, I crave reassurance — thirst for sympathy. I expect my friends and family to discern what it truly going on — even while I am reciting “I’m fine,” or signaling all is well. “Where is their consolation?” my pathetic ego whimpers. Aren’t they clairvoyant? Can’t they perceive the stress vibrating through my veins? I pay no heed to my flair for camouflage.

One hell of a party pooper

So, on this particular morning, I was wallowing in mire as thick as tar. To be honest, it had been percolating even before our isolation mandates. My uneasy temperament had been nuked into Hulk-sized anguish by our collective crisis. The scale in my bathroom bore witness to this mutation. Perhaps binging on Lays and Thin Mints had exacerbated this state of affairs. Who’s to say? Did you know chocolate left in the back of the cupboard for three years is still somewhat edible? Especially if you down it with a glass of cabernet. But I digress…

Of course, anxiety didn’t miss her invitation to my shindig. Feeling sorry for myself was the theme for this soiree. Loved ones’ supposed lack of telepathic abilities set the mood. Annoyance at succumbing to the dark side added just the right amount of oomph. Incensed and dejected, I yielded to what was to come: Plummeting to the depths of the rabbit hole.

It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to

There’s a hollow emerging in the sofa from days upon days of lethargy. I burrowed into the cavern like a grizzly nestling in for hibernation. The drone of the local tv news lulling me into a pacifying stupor. I was lounging in the void between panic and apathy when I received a text from my boyfriend. He wanted to know how my day was going. Seriously?! Couldn’t he detect my tormented spirit from his home six miles away? I thought we were on the same wavelength.

I expressed my angst — or so I thought. I sent vague texts about how no one understands without any further elaboration. My ire escalated as he seemingly couldn’t grasp the complexities of my despair. I even chastised him for not responding to my messages quickly enough. If he truly cared about me, his replies should be immediate, shouldn’t they? My conceit was enormous. I sent one last snippy retort. He gave me a call.

The onslaught began.

There was no slowing my roll. I sniffled and sobbed and despised myself for conceding to this display of vulnerability. I spewed my presumed misfortune and disappointment in my family, my friends and him like a machine gun. He listened, gently chided me when I deserved it and consoled me as much as possible until my arsenal was depleted. His character must be fabricated from Kevlar.

We are all Alice

When I first sat down to write this piece, I had planned on eloquently expressing my dismay. Catalog all that beleaguered me. That would garner me the outpouring of empathy I coveted. I envisioned relishing every last morsel. My self-indulgence was intoxicating.

And then I sobered up.

In reality, what would have that accomplished? Who was I to place such irrational expectations upon those I hold dear? Moreover, the entire population is spiraling down rabbit holes — stepping through their own looking glasses. It’s hubris to deem mine more abysmal than others. We are entering a new Wonderland with a yet-to-be determined set of rules. “Curiouser and curiouser,” we collectively cry. Brooding over news bites and statistics to assess our safety quotient.

If we are not careful, misery may be an even worse contagion that the virus itself.

That’s not to say that throwing your own pity party is unwarranted, if not crucial, to process the enormity of a world turned upside down — society’s ambiguous future. In my case, it proved to be a vital release, albeit a not very glamorous one. (Thankfully, no mascara was mistreated during this melancholy madness.) The trick is not to overstay your welcome.

Capturing the moment to seize the day

A good friend of mine recently told me she is choosing to say, “I’m having a bad moment,” instead of, “I’m having a bad day.” This slight shift in perception reminds us that moments pass. They are not eternal.

I’m striving to be more mindful of cheerful interludes. (No, this isn’t another boastful #blessed list.) Purposefully capturing periods of joy — contemplating gratitude. Protecting them in my memory so I can reflect upon them when worry shrouds my contentment. Call it my attitude stimulus package:

  • I am thankful for a roof over my head, potato chips in my pantry and plenty of toilet paper.

Such illuminations beckon me out of my rabbit hole. I shouldn’t ever squander these endowments.

Typically, I have little use for trite mottos. Life is too nuanced and our world more precarious than any sentimental declaration, but they can be a beacon. So here goes: Acknowledge the suck. Allow yourself to lament. Rail against whatever hardship until you are spent. Then, reboot your disposition. Create your own relief list.

The diem ain’t gonna carpe itself.*

*As seen on my new favorite t-shirt on Amazon and other fine vendors of pithy attire.