After years of suffering from frequent and sometimes paralyzing panic attacks and anxiety, I had come to a point where I finally felt (mostly) at peace. That is, until life changed abruptly with the coronavirus pandemic.
I built a small home cleaning business that I loved, with clients who felt like family. With flexible hours, I had the ability to be at home to get my two daughters on the bus every morning and off the bus every afternoon. Some days I would come home exhausted, but the fast-paced and physically challenging work did wonders in reducing the frequency and severity of my anxiety. I could not only shuffle my daughters to and from extracurricular activities but also help with some. I was in my fourth year of volunteering as their Girl Scout troop leader. I was feeling accomplished and content.
The weekend before Ohio schools were shut down, I remember telling my husband: “I’m considering getting a few extra things at the store…I know it’s silly, but you never know, right? Not a ton, just maybe some extra pantry food?”
Thankfully, he knows when I am anxious about something. “If you want to, go ahead. Couldn’t hurt. It’ll save you from going again in a few days.”
The next day I got a message from the client I was supposed to clean the following Monday. “I heard the schools were shutting down, I understand if you need to stay with the girls.” So I notified my other clients, telling them I needed some time to figure out childcare and get into the swing of homeschool.
Fast forward to now. I have been out of work and teaching my daughters from home for over two months. I wear a mask at the store and try to go out as little as possible. I am absolutely paralyzed with fear. I have lost eight pounds from stress.
Recently, I made a trip to our Dollar General store and had a full-blown panic attack. My heart and thoughts were racing. I cannot breathe through this mask. I am not getting enough oxygen. I am dizzy. What if I pass out? What will happen then?
I managed to get through the checkout line and outside in the sunlight. My eyes were blurry from being so dizzy. Purple spots were dancing in my outer field of vision. I am okay. I AM OKAY, I told myself. I drove home in a fog, close to tears. How am I ever going to handle working if I cannot handle the grocery store? Not only work, but social situations? A child’s birthday party? A family holiday? Will I ever feel safe again?
I do not know how long this will last or what the outcome will be. I do not know if I or someone dear to me will contract the virus. I do not know if I will lose clients, or if I will be able to muster up the courage to return to work. I just don’t know. The uncertainty, I decided, was worse than the virus.
I have so many questions I cannot answer:
Every person has a different perspective on the severity of the virus. Who is right? Am I overreacting or underreacting?
When is it safe for my family and myself to go to regularly scheduled doctors’ appointments?
Am I effectively teaching my children what they need academically?
When is it safe to return to work?
When will our family be able to gather again?
To cope with the uncertainty and combat this list of unknowns, I decided to make another list.
A list of the things that I can control:
I can act conservatively and carefully when I’m out of the house. I can follow guidelines to help ease my own fear about contracting the virus.
I can reschedule any appointment that is not of immediate necessity. I can use web and video for any health appointments that allow for telehealth.
I can email teachers often to check in and be sure my daughters are completing their work on time. I can be patient with my children as this is new to them as well as myself. I can give myself the grace of knowing that I am not a teacher, just a mom who is trying her best.
I can control when I return to work and what precautions I put in place for my safety. I can decide who I work with. I can cut costs within our family unit to compensate for any financial loss in the short-term and look for other job opportunities in the long-term.
I can maintain a relationship with family through phone calls and socially distant visits. We can decide as a family when it is safe to return to gathering normally. I do not have to carry the burden of decision making on my own.
I challenge you, right now, to make your own lists. What are you concerned about? What can you control within your life?
With empathy, understanding and patience, we will make it through this together. Do not measure your own progress against someone else’s progress. Dealing with anxiety and panic is difficult in “normal” times, and these are far from normal. Be kind to yourself. You are doing the best you can.
Alissa Wauford is a residential cleaner and mom of two in a small village in Ohio. She was diagnosed with generalized anxiety and depression at the tender age of 12. Now at 32, She uses writing as a tool to help others gain an understanding of what life feels like through the lens of mental illness.