I wrote a poem the other day as an attempt to vocalize the undercurrent of emotions swirling beneath my surface. And while it helped to isolate and identify my feelings, as time has passed I realize I’ve only scratched the surface. I wanted to take a moment to not only honor what I’m feeling but to also connect with you as you might be experiencing some of these same emotions.
First of all, can we all take a deep breath? I mean a legit, deep-belly breath that makes sound as you exhale all that built up tension right on out of your body.
Breathe in and out…
It’s interesting how noticing something as routine and ordinary as your breath can catalyze such a shift in how your body physically feels. Let’s talk a little more about our breath, the life giving necessity that our body does on autopilot. Of course our breath is vital to our existence and like a well oiled machine, our bodies naturally breathe in and out. But the breaths we take are efficient; just enough air in to function and just enough air out not to wind ourselves. Our natural state of being runs on self preservation…essentially we operate in the realm of just enough. But if I take a conscious moment, or several, and reprogram what comes so naturally, I can feel a physical response. My heart beat slows, my chest rises and falls more slowly and my muscles truly relax.
Let’s take this a level further and circle back around to my water analogy. If you’ve ever been in the ocean before, you’ve felt waves. Now if you’ve ventured out further than where your feet can touch, chances are you may have experienced an undercurrent. If you haven’t, consider yourself fortunate because getting caught in one is a scary scenario.
When I was 12 my family took a vacation to Hawaii, so naturally we spent the majority of our time at the beach. This wasn’t my first experience with swimming in the ocean, so I ventured out. Deep enough where my feet were nowhere near able to touch or even find the bottom. I was enjoying what you would call body surfing, or letting the waves propel you forward while you float. I was thoroughly enjoying myself until I was caught between two crashing waves.
Water rushed over me, sending me down beneath the water’s surface. Several full body tumbles later and I was completely discombobulated. I began swimming towards what I thought was the water’s surface only to realize I was in the middle of the ocean, unsure which direction was up. Frantically, I began swimming in the other direction trying to navigate the tumultuous waters.
Another dead end.
My heart was racing, my arms and legs were coursing with muscle tension, my breath was running on empty and my mind was terrified.
What if I can’t reach the surface?
What happens when my breath gives out?
Can you still be revived after your lungs fill with water?
After twenty more seconds of swimming in circles and what felt like my final few breaths, my mind stilled. I stopped thrashing and fighting the current. I relaxed my body completely. And you know what? I began floating towards the surface.
I emerged still slightly panicked, but relieved to have survived. Feeling out of complete control of your life is chilling to the core. I eventually paddled my way back to the sand and collapsed in exhaustion.
But my adolescent self learned a valuable lesson. The waves are going to come. And keep coming. They’re not worth fighting against. Better to be still and ride them out. In a panicked state, I only hurt myself and almost jeopardized my energy and breath.
It’s been awhile since I’ve been back to the ocean, but I remember that experience like I’m still covered in sand and saltwater. Yet during a time in our country, where the waves are crashing hard, our bodies naturally go into survival mode. We operate from a panicked and frenzied place and only further succumb to the waves. And I’m writing this from a person who learned this lesson the hard way, and even now has sunk beneath the waves.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been anxious. Felt the physical, invisible weight sitting on my chest, making it difficult to take in a full breath. Felt the haze that’s settled in over my mind making it difficult to think clearly. Felt the swirling of thoughts and emotions tumble in the emotional undercurrent; tossed around so viscously that I find it difficult to sleep at night. And then when the exhaustion takes over, finally, I’m not able to fully rest. I feel the overarching web of grief that we’re all collectively experiencing in one way or another.
But I’m here to tell you, everything you’re feeling and experiencing is valid. But I don’t want the initial fear and panic to sit with you long-term. When we are in our survival mode, we are limiting and hindering ourselves. We are not able to process and receive information in a clear headspace, therefore our reactions/responses will differ and stem from a place of fear.
Don’t feel pressure to respond to this situation in a particular way. Don’t feel guilty for reading a “how to be productive from home” guide only to realize that none of those tips and suggestions are helpful. Don’t feel less than for not doing a daily at home workout. Don’t feel shame for not shopping completely healthily. Don’t feel embarrassed for snacking more than usual. Don’t feel lazy for slowing down and watching (or binging) a new Netflix show, I’m talking about you, Tiger King.
This time that has been placed in our laps does not have to be more productive, more purposeful, more creative, or more anything. In fact, I would encourage you to use this time in the opposite manner. For me what has felt the most beneficial and healing has been slowing down. Less hustle and bustle, less time on social media, less time in front of the television, less time rushing from one event/task to the next. Less time planning and more time being in the present moment.
If painting is what helps you cope, then by all means, but don’t feel like you have to produce art daily for your day to count. If going for a run gets your heart pumping and makes you still feel connected to nature, then go for it, but don’t run because you’re afraid of putting on weight. If watching an episode or three, of mindless television helps your mind stop reeling, enjoy it, but please don’t use it as a bandaid to ignore your thoughts and emotions.
There is no right way to respond. However, I truly believe that if we slow down our breath, encourage our bodies to relax, and choose to fill our days with at least one choice or activity that brings us joy, we’ll all come out of this on the other side in a better place than where we started. I also recognize and acknowledge that I’m writing this from my living room with working electricity and internet. I’m not diminishing the severity or ferocity or suggesting that times are not difficult. I’m merely sharing a life shaping experience that helped to reshape my perspective when responding to struggle.
It’s my hope that this message is able to bring you peace and hope, even if only temporarily. You’re not in this alone. I see you.
P. S. Since most of us are confined to our couches, I figured I’d upload a photo of me sitting on one of my favorite couches. In a field. In my wedding dress. Just a little different from what my daily routine looks like now, right?!