How I Learned to Stop Avoiding and Embrace Stillness During the COVID-19 Pandemic

“There are so many contradictions

In all these messages we send

(We keep asking)

How do I get out of here

Where do I fit in?

Though the world is torn and shaken

Even if your heart is breakin’

It’s waiting for you to awaken

And someday you will-

Learn to be still.”

— “Learn to Be Still” by The Eagles.

About two months into the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, I discovered a hair growing out of my cheek. My cheek. It wasn’t a soft, downy hair; it was coarse, like a horse’s tail. It was dark. It was “ugly.” I wondered how long it had been there. “Pandemic hair,” I thought. It was a symbol of all that was around me. Our dirty house, our bored kids whose bangs had grown over their eyes, our overwhelming desire to bolt. We had run out of things to talk about. We mostly wore pajamas. We were sick of Zooming with people — our faces frozen in bizarre positions, shouting through the screen. Why couldn’t anyone ever hear me? I must be muted. No, I’m not muted. Forget it, I’ll just sit here while other people talk.

“I hate this,” I thought. “I hate it.” I had an inner tantrum almost daily — angry that my routine had been disrupted, frustrated that my kids had lost their physical contact with their teachers and friends, and despondent that each day was exactly the same, one blending into the next. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I mean, I knew — I needed to help my kids through school assignments and make them breakfast, and clean up breakfast and take the dog for a walk, and change the laundry over and wipe up the floor, make the kids lunch and get on a class Zoom with them; clean up lunch and argue over how to subtract. Say no to the kids when they asked for one more freaking snack. Take the dog for another walk.

And this was before 3 p.m.

But after 3 p.m. was pretty much the same, except substitute making dinner and cleaning up dinner and crying in the shower. This horrible sameness, day after day; it was maddening. So naturally, to change things up, I turned to social media. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. Scrolling, scrolling, scrolling. As if our worlds weren’t in our phones enough before; now, we had nowhere to go. Except into our phones.

But the phone is a dangerous place to go. It feels like an escape, but it’s not. We think we are bolting from wherever we are, but we’re not. We are simply isolating ourselves further.

In any given 10 minute-long (or let’s be realistic, hour-long) period, I can be bombarded by taquito recipes (triple it and freeze two bags), personality-type quizzes, pictures of kids getting ready to go back to school, moms who look like models working on their Monday Morning Mindset, tweets from the president, new masks/face guards, posts about what we should be doing, posts about what we shouldn’t be doing, pictures of cute dogs, ugly dogs, beaten dogs, forgotten dogs. We see what new items we need for our kids, what new fears we should have for our kids, reminders of what we should be grateful for, reminders of what we should feel ashamed about. We are asked to question whether we are real Americans; whether we are closet socialists. Do we need a licensed therapist? Magnetic eyelashes? Apple cider vinegar gummies? Period-proof underwear? What about hacks for doing laundry, hacks for cooking with kale? We are reminded that we are all going to get sick. Also, we are reminded how “stupid” we are for believing that we are all going to get sick.

“I wonder,” I thought to myself, “why I feel so emotionally wrecked. One minute I’m fine, and the next minute I’m frozen with fear and insecurity.”

Yeah, why would that be?

I was a phone-checker before the pandemic, but being trapped inside took it to a whole new level. I found myself scrolling the second I woke up in the morning; scrolling as my kids were talking to me, scrolling while watching TV, scrolling while eating, and scrolling even as my eyelids grew heavy at the end of the day. In addition to my full-blown phone addiction, my nightly glass of wine had turned into two, then three. Sometimes I’d have a cocktail first.

It’s amazing how we can fool ourselves into accepting new habits with the idea that they are serving us in some way. Subconsciously, I knew that I was addicted to social media. My hand seemed to have a mind of its own sometimes, reaching for my phone before I even processed that I wanted to pick it up. Before I knew it, I was knee-deep in food blogs about how to make vegan maple donut smoothies and cat memes. Sure, some of it was helpful. Glennon Doyle posted a video daily about how she and her family were getting through quarantine (“it’s gettin chippy in here”) and comedian Jim Gaffigan filmed the horror of his five children stuck home during the pandemic with nowhere to go — food wrappers everywhere, open kitchen morning, noon and night. We could all relate.

Often I would combine my scrolling with my drinking. (Tip: don’t do this.) “Oh yes,” I’d think, the following Tuesday morning when a non-stick frying pan, insulated water tumbler and five-pack of facial wipes arrived at my doorstep from Amazon. “…I forgot about these.”

It was only after I noticed how miserable I was that I stopped to consider what was going on. My life suddenly seemed stale and monotonous. I opened my eyes each morning to find that I was bored with my surroundings; that same picture in its frame. My same clothes in my closet that I didn’t even wear. That pile of crap on the sun porch that we never took to Goodwill. It was as if my life had been covered in a film of discontent.

It occurred to me that the moment I had been taken out of my fast-paced routine that I knew so well (gym, shower, dressed, kids, work, home, dinner, baths, shows, bed) my brain no longer knew what to do; as though the world had suddenly stopped spinning. In an effort to keep it going, I started spinning myself. I had been addicted to busy-ness, and anything different felt wrong, intolerable. So I had found a way to numb myself to the present moment.

They say that change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change. In my experience, it’s true. You know when you are just going through the motions, one day after another. When what you once enjoyed to lift you up feels hollow, like it’s not enough and never will be enough. There are so many ways we distract ourselves — through booze, shopping, texting, food, work, a new project. Anything to avoid the reality we face. That we are lonely, unsatisfied, bored, uncomfortable.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has insisted that we look at our lives in a new way. “What if,” the coronavirus says, “you were forced to stop running, and all of those things that usually comforted you were gone? What if those things that helped you remember who you were in the world, and gave you purpose, suddenly disappeared? What if there was nowhere to go? Nothing to do?”

It felt as though I was one of those wind-up plastic toys that had been maniacally racing around and suddenly hit a wall, but was still wound up. My legs frantically marching, marching, marching, banging into the floor, face down.

But what happens with those toys is that they eventually stop. They have to. Unless someone or something keeps winding them up, at some point, they are going to be still.

Still.

Oh, how I fought the stillness. Getting quiet enough to see what I had been doing felt so uncomfortable, like a too-tight bathing suit, digging into my skin. Like a fish wriggling on its hook, I fought with everything I could. But there was no denying it. I was addicted to escaping.

It started with putting down the wine. I knew that I needed to stop, because every day, 5 p.m. couldn’t come soon enough. I found myself thinking about a drink earlier and earlier. This bothered me. In addition, it seemed that just one no longer satisfied me. I had no where to go, nothing really to live for, so why not pour myself another? I’m starting another episode, what am I going to do, just watch it? No, I need something to sip. This is the reasoning of someone who is looking for an excuse to drink. I’d wake up in the morning feeling groggy and bloated. No matter. I’m not doing anything anyway.

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The thing is, I was doing something. Just the fact that I could wake up each morning and feel my feet touch the floor, breath moving in and out, hear my kids laughing at some YouTube video, put food down for the dog, make coffee. This is doing something. This was my life. For some reason I had decided that if it wasn’t productive in the way that I thought of as productive, it wasn’t really worth showing up. I mean I’d show up, but not really be there.

The same day that I stopped drinking, our bernedoodle puppy went in to get groomed. She hadn’t had a haircut in months, and as much as I’d tried to brush her, she was matted in several spots and they needed to shave her. When she came home, she looked almost unrecognizable to me. Her once full, fluffy fur was gone, revealing twig-like legs and a tiny body. Her head seemed huge because in an effort to not shave her entire body, the groomer had kept her face the same. She looked at me as if to say, “What the fuck happened here?”

As I sat with my sparkling water, I watched as she paced the room, rubbing her body along our couch, biting at her hind area and stuffing her face in between cushions. She felt exactly like I did: exposed, raw. “Get me out of this body,” she seemed to be saying. Of course, the answer was to accept her predicament. Even though it felt wrong, she needed to get rid of those mats. As much as she wanted to fight this new feeling, this was her — the real her.

The first few nights without my elixir were rough. I found myself agitated, fidgety. I sat at dinner, listening to my family talk about this or that, and I felt bored. And then I felt guilty about feeling bored. The next night was pretty much the same. When you are used to going through the motions of something and not really experiencing it, it feels awkward to actually be there. As if you are suddenly off-script before you know your lines.

Before I stopped drinking, I didn’t realize how much I thought alcohol was helping me with anxiety. I know that sounds strange, that I would have anxiety about having dinner with my own family — but I guess I did. I had a lot of ideas about what a family dinner should look like — kids set the table, kids stay in their seats with their napkins on their laps, everyone enjoys their food, the grown-ups talk, the kids ask questions appropriately. I grew up as an only child, and this was very much what dinner looked like in my house growing up. My mom would light candles every night and we would talk about our day together.

To say that dinner in my house now is a shitshow would be an understatement. Most of the time, I avoid even sitting down because I know how annoyed I’m going to get. I will make something, and because my daughter is a vegetarian and my son eats three things, the only people who eat it are myself and my husband, and sometimes my husband doesn’t feel like eating (he wants to go for a run afterward, or he has work to do and wants to get that done first.) So that means I’m left being the only one eating what I made. This frustrates me and makes me wonder why I go to the trouble at all. So that’s just the food part.

The conversation, as much as we try, is punctuated by my son saying things that are inappropriate, or getting out of his seat, or antagonizing his sister. Or, my daughter is in a funk and sits sullenly, answering questions in one word only. Or she’ll be chatty, but her brother will interrupt her so many times that she gives up. No one is having any fun. Then it’s over and they want dessert.

So, you can see how I thought I needed that drink to make it through. To take the edge off.

To take the edge off my own life.

I’m ashamed to say it, but it’s true. But when I think about what I was trying to A by drinking, it comes down to my discomfort with the way things were. In my mind, the fact that I couldn’t pull off a successful family dinner meant that I had failed as a mom. And frankly, without the job that I had quit because I couldn’t handle it with virtual learning, and without the exercise classes I had been going to before COVID-19 that helped to give me confidence and strength, and without my friends to get together with, and without plans to make for the future because we didn’t know what the future would bring, what else did I have? If I couldn’t pull off this mom thing, what did that say about who I was and what kind of purpose I had?

By the fifth or sixth day without my nightly friend, I was doing a little better. I still felt that urge when 5 p.m. rolled around, but found that it passed and by the time the evening got going, I had forgotten about it. This was a relief to me. I started reading more. I started writing more.

I noticed that I was much more able to tune into my signals of hunger and fullness. I no longer raided the pantry cabinet at 11 p.m. because the desire just wasn’t there. Surprisingly, I found that my kids could be quite funny. Yes, still obnoxious at times, but also creative and interesting and kind. I found that when I got that familiar feeling of agitation at dinner, I could feel it, and then … it would go away. It might come back, but then it would go away again.

So much of being still is being patient. Allowing a feeling to come and then giving it time to leave. I realized that with my addiction to my phone had come a very low tolerance for any kind of waiting, for anything. When I texted someone, I grew impatient if they didn’t text back right away. “What could they possibly be doing?” I thought. No worries, I’ll text someone else. Or check Instagram.

If we never allow our minds to be without stimulation, they begin to rely on it. And when they don’t get it, they get pissed. They start looking for more stimulation, and more. Give me something, anything! Anything to change up what I’m feeling right now. And when our phone dings with a text notification, we’ve gotten another hit. Until our next one.

We made the decision to send our kids to camp this summer (all outdoors). I found that I was excited to see people that I knew in real-life, in the flesh. When I talked with the counselors, I was beaming just to be able to have an exchange with them. Whether we realize it or not, we humans are social creatures. We thrive on eye contact and communication. We need to get together and exchange ideas and thoughts. We need to talk about this experience. What it has been like, how hard it has been. We need to listen to each other, not through a screen, but live.

If we can learn to be still, whole worlds can open up to us. What we thought we couldn’t stand for a moment, like sitting in quiet, can begin to feel good. We can even begin to crave it. We might be hit with insights that we didn’t know we were capable of — ideas that were buried somewhere deep inside of us. That grimy film that covers our lives may begin to lift. Perhaps most importantly, we are able to see that we aren’t really who we thought we were: the mom, the student, the employee, the CEO, the dad, the daughter. Those things are part of who we are, but they aren’t really us. Underneath these labels is our essence, the soul inside of us that makes us valuable just by existing.

Suddenly we notice beauty where we didn’t see it before — blue glob of toothpaste in the sink. Chipped toenail polish. Dog’s heavy body lying across your feet. In the stillness, we find the surprising truth that we didn’t need the numbing we thought we needed; that it was the noise and distractions that were pulling us down. That underneath the film of discontent was a shiny, precious life, waiting to be lived.

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