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

I Have an Autoimmune Disorder. Will COVID-19 Make Me a Second-Class Citizen?

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Photo by United Nations COVID-19 Response

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

— George Orwell, Animal Farm

I, along with the rest of the world, live in fear of COVID-19. But, unlike most of the population, I am petrified of the aftermath. How will society view me — someone with a dysfunctional immune system — and others like me, once we completely emerge from our cocoons? Will I be shunned and segregated? Or will I be forced to isolate myself to “protect” my physical health? What will be the cost to my mental health?

Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is the systemic disease that has chosen to take up residence in my body. This parasite, as I choose to visualize it, can affect any organ and/or any joint at will — often spreading its tentacles in multiple areas simultaneously. My immune system is hyperactive. It goes to eleven and beyond when triggered, wreaking havoc in the process. People with RA are more susceptible to catching a virus, developing infections, and experiencing cardiorespiratory complications. In other words, I’m poised to hit the COVID trifecta.

So, what’s a gal like me supposed to do when restrictions are lifted? Proponents of herd immunity want everyone out and about so we can all catch it, recover, and develop antibodies. That is all well and good unless you’re one of the individuals most likely not to survive such a grand Darwinian roulette.

I realize I am not in the majority. We need to reopen our economy, get kids back in school, and restart society again as soon as possible for it to survive. It would be unrealistic (and selfish) of me to expect anything less. I just wonder if it will be safe for me to go out and play. Will I even be permitted? Is becoming a recluse my mandated future? Human contact reduced to the afterglow of a digital screen.

Underlying Conditions

Currently, I am unemployed. My chosen field, travel and events, has not only been shut down by the pandemic — it has been decimated. In all likelihood, it will be one of the last industries to recover. I am but a single droplet in a sea of millions that will be seeking new employment once our first crisis wave is over. It is illegal for an employer to inquire about medical history, but how long will that protection last? Italy and Germany are considering issuing COVID immunity certificates. Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN the idea “has some merit” and is “being discussed.” All things being equal, won’t the candidate most likely to weather an outbreak be the more attractive option? I can envision a world where my economic future is regulated by my health condition. Ala Willy Wonka, I could be barred from entry to the factory unless I possess a golden Corona ticket.

Even if I can find employment, will it be safe for me? Restrictions are being lifted across the country, but the guidelines for those of us with autoimmune disorders are still in place. Web MD and Arthritis.org both advise avoiding travel (that’s a boost to my career), staying home as much as possible, and forgoing physical contact as much as possible with anyone outside your home. “Healthy” agoraphobia will be in control of my social life for the foreseeable future. Left behind while the general public moves on.

Our new world rests on order. The danger is disorder. And in today’s world, it can now spread like contagion. — Tony Blair, 2003

Apple and Google are ready to roll out their COVID Tracker app. Health agencies and the like will be able to use it to verify an individual’s COVID status. If you encounter someone who has tested positive within the last 14 days, you will receive an alert on your phone. Privacy issues aside for the moment (as of now, it will be up to the user to enter his/her COVID status), they have yet to minimize the number of false positives to an acceptable level. That’s reassuring. Can you imagine a chorus of viral emergency alerts blaring as you are walking down the street? People could be dodged like COVID zombies — their uncleanliness determined by Bluetooth.

The coronavirus has also recharged the call for a Unique Patient Identifier (UPI) system. All citizens would be issued a code, similar to a Social Security number, that provides access to their personal health database. Your entire medical record available within a few keystrokes. Proponents of UPI say it will make it easier for doctors to make diagnoses and provide proper treatment to patients. Citing security and confidentiality issues, opponents are wary of having such records under the control of the Federal government.

When HIPAA was passed in 1996, it mandated that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) create a UPI system. Two years later, Congress prohibited funding such a project due to privacy concerns. The subject has been debated every year since and in June 2019, the House voted to lift the ban. In September, however, the Senate appropriators left it in place and so it still stands — for the time being.

As a patient that has had been under the care of multiple types of physicians due to my condition, I can see the convenience of such a system. No more lugging charts from office to office or trying to remember all your past surgery dates and previous medications when filling out forms. The worry lies in how all that collective data will be analyzed. Will pre-existing conditions predetermine the quality of care? Will classifications based on antibodies and immunities ultimately determine our employment, housing, or recreation options?

That’s All Folks

I’ve read my fair share of dystopian novels. Set my eyes upon hours upon hours of post-apocalyptic tales. Perhaps they’ve altered my world view — sowed a bit of paranoia into my fertile imagination. Prompted me to foresee an ominous hierarchy at every turn.

There is no doubt I am overthinking. It’s been my stress reflex even before we were forced to steep in our own thoughts for months on end. I would like to think of my musings as a fine Earl Grey: Bold and rich, with a touch of aromatic citrus. More likely, they are like the gooey remnants remaining in a teacup forgotten on a desk for at least a week.

In reality, it’s the uncertainty of it all that sends my fears into a category 5 tailspin — whirling around me like the Tasmanian Devil. Oh, how I long to be Tweety Bird — projecting wide-eyed innocence, while always having the upper hand. Being ready for every contingency is what has always provided me peace of mind. Having some sense of control — even if imagined — is what settles me. The uneasiness resides in getting prepared for uncharted territory. Society’s next blueprint has yet to be drafted. Will I be deemed suitable for inclusion or cast off? There is nothing to but sit back and wait.


This post previously published @GEN | @Medium

Stop Drinking the New Normal Kool-Aid

This sucks and we all know it

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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?

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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