Ever since I became trapped in my own state, I tried to maximise my state of mind. Grind, be grateful, be busy. Only recently did I realise what I was doing.
There’s something incredibly powerful about finding the right words to fit the shape of your pain; often it is through conversation that we can map out a chaotic internal world, and the impact is profound because we (a) feel seen, heard and validated and (b) we have a better idea of where to apply the healing salve. After much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the past seven or so months of lockdown, and with the help of my therapist, I finally found the way to describe how I was feeling. Previously, I was naming it up as common and garden anxiety, fear and loneliness, but have realised it’s actually a bit nuanced and different. I feel trapped.
It’s not just that I feel trapped inside Queensland, and within Australia, but that’s a huge part of it. Because my de facto partner was due to move to Australia this year from Sweden, our entire future has come into question because of the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and we are throwing huge amounts of time and money at trying to make a future together in Australia happen, with no guarantee of a positive outcome.
Subclass 801 Partner Visa application processing times currently average about 23 months, so even if the temporary Visa is granted, and even if we are able to obtain a compassionate exemption to have him come to Australia ASAP, and even if we can afford to fly him business class to Australia and get him a spot in Brisbane hotel quarantine, we still have no guarantee that the permanent partner visa will be granted and we will be held hostage for up to three years by a faceless Immigration Department. Essentially, we exist in a liminal space whereby it is impossible to plan for the future.
In terms of the value of Government-imposed restrictions on personal freedoms, I am not ignorant of the theory, I actually support a lot of it. I want this pandemic to fuck right off just as much as everyone else does, and I have done absolutely everything asked of me on State and Federal governments’ advice – I downloaded the app, I bought the cloth masks, I even had a badge made that says “I’m social distancing for public health reasons”.
So, when I say I feel trapped, I’m not just talking about border closures that are preventing me from travelling interstate. I’m talking about having the terms of my life dictated by layers upon layers of bullshit systems that have existed long before the pandemic, garnished with some bespoke pandemic related ones.
In terms of the value of Government-imposed restrictions on personal freedoms, I am not ignorant of the theory, I actually support a lot of it. I want this pandemic to fuck right off just as much as everyone else does, and I have done absolutely everything asked of me on State and Federal governments’ advice – I downloaded the app, I bought the cloth masks, I even had a badge made that says “I’m social distancing for public health reasons”. Much to their annoyance, I have even encouraged recalcitrant others around me to do the right thing, for the sake of public health. But now, I’m exhausted.
The compassion fatigue that I feel is deeply rooted in the frustrations at my own circumstances, but it is exacerbated in my work. As a mental health clinician, every day, I speak to people who have been adversely affected by the pandemic. In addition to the more common reasons why people would want to seek mental health care from me (such as managing an accumulation of stress, or processing traumatic events), the pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing vulnerabilities – for example, people who may have learned to successfully manage symptoms of their mental illness are now finding that all the tools they’d previously used are futile.
Normally resilient others experiencing acute distress for the first time, are wondering where everything went pear shaped and are struggling to come to terms with the inevitable changes in themselves that come from mental health challenges. All the while that I am hearing this, I sometimes forget that the pandemic is actually happening to me, too. I work to my remit and catch myself speaking about the pandemic almost objectively, as though it’s something that’s not happening to me, because I have to put all my own stuff aside to be present for others in a therapeutic relationship.
It’s well-acknowledged in the literature that this kind of intense emotional labour, whereby we perform “unpaid, invisible emotional work to keep those around us comfortable and happy”, is directly linked to compassion fatigue and burnout. Emotional labour is at its zenith in caregiving roles whereby we are required to evoke or suppress our own emotions to be of service to others, and naturally, the cost of this is very difficult to quantify.
So when I hear Federal announcements about increased funding for mental health services I rejoice alongside everyone else but I also worry, a lot, about all those mental health clinicians. Do they, like me, have personal struggles that they are contending with and showing down in order to help other people? Probably yes, because I know my struggle is not unique.
So in a sense, we are all trapped in a situation where we often have to forget ourselves to be of service to others, and although we know this is what we signed up for (and I’m glad to be doing it), it’s important to be aware that mental health clinicians are not galvanised against suffering. We’re living through this with you, and there’s never been a more important time for us to consider and care for our own mental health in order to continue to be of service to others.
I was grinding away, working as hard as I could in order to ignore the pain and suffering I was feeling as a result of feeling trapped. I even went as far as forcing myself into trying to love my cage through gratitude exercises – being grateful for having a job; for having meaning in life; for having a purpose; for having something to do in lockdown.
Western culture encourages us to compartmentalise, to put aside feelings as though possessing some kind of internal filing cabinet is an archetypal characteristic of human experience, but in essence, it’s like trying to stem the flow of a waterfall. Selectively ignoring internal and external phenomena is at best a short-term survival skill, but not necessarily an effective strategy for self-care. Compartmentalising is a cousin of Capitalism; we are encouraged to do it in the workplace so that we will override what our bodies are telling us to do (rest, nurture) and get on with our jobs; essentially, the philosophy of compartmentalisation supports productivity.
Fully cognisant of what I was up to, I did this from March to last Friday. Pre-Friday, I was grinding away, working as hard as I could in order to ignore the pain and suffering I was feeling as a result of feeling trapped. I even went as far as forcing myself into trying to love my cage through gratitude exercises – being grateful for having a job; for having meaning in life; for having a purpose; for having something to do in lockdown. And it’s not that I am not grateful for all of those things, but what I needed to do was honour my feelings, not positively think my way out of them. Forcing gratitude when feeling trapped is an absurd ode to Stockholm Syndrome (funnily enough – the exact place I’d rather be).
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If we continue to take the compartmentalisation approach to life during the pandemic, we will simply be spinning our wheels; churning up stinking mud that soils mental health, relationships, wellbeing and any chance of peace. “Keeping busy” isn’t something that people would necessarily think of as a characteristic of the flight response (of Fight, Flight or Freeze) of the sympathetic nervous system, but actually, when we are lurching from one distraction to the next, this is often exactly what’s going on – we’re in flight – and thus, laying the foundations for the health impacts of chronic stress by pushing through rather than pausing to emotionally regulate.
So instead, what I’m suggesting (and doing) is an approach whereby we give difficult emotions the space to breathe and time they deserve. Treat your feelings as though they are an upset child. If you tell upset children to fuck off and that you’re too busy for their snivelling, they just tend to just get more upset, right? And that’s certainly no way to treat yourself.
Tara Brach has a lovely approach for exploring difficult emotions by implementing mindfulness to shine a gentle light on them, and self-compassion to help soothe them, summed up in the acronym RAIN*:
Recognise what is going on;
Allow the experience to be there, just as it is;
Investigate with interest and care;
Nurture with self-compassion.
The reason why this approach is so effective is that it allows us to see and honour what is present in the mind without becoming identified with it, and also gives us directions in terms of encouraging care and patience for ourselves. This is like cool hands on the forehead during a fever; we’ve spent months overriding the intuition to nurture, instead of keeping as busy as possible and wishing the days away. And by ignoring what’s present, we might be avoiding a bit of pain in the short term… but on the flipside, what gems might we be missing if we try to bypass our internal world?
It might not be possible to be happy when we feel trapped, but perhaps we can be at peace with it. “Everything is working out” is what my therapist left me with last Friday, with no particular future circumstance in mind, meaning that the environment and the conditions that have precipitated our current levels of suffering are changing in perpetuity, in ways we can’t always know. But until such a time as those changes start to appear, let’s not be afraid to look at our internal worlds with curiosity and compassion because I now know what’s worse than feeling trapped – feeling trapped, and then doubly so, by preventing myself from acknowledging it.
*Please check out Tara’s article for more detailed instructions on how to implement this approach in meditation.