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Waiting to Emerge From the Pandemic: What Awaits Us?

April 19, 2021

By Andrew Penn, RN, MS, NP, CNS, APRN-BC
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The opinions expressed by Psychiatry & Behavioral Health Learning Network bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone and are not meant to reflect the opinions of the publication.

There is still an enormous pile of books sitting next to my bed. A year into the “lockdown,” I still haven’t read them. And while we got a “COVID dog” and flirted for a while with sourdough, I’m still a lousy guitarist, I didn’t write a novel, and there are still projects that have been on the to-do list for years that remain there still, a year into COVID-19 and working from home. And all of that, is OK because I, like you, am tired. 

This year, I learned the value of everyday ritual—not the prescribed, annual rituals like the Christmas holidays, or even birthdays (those days seemed to come and go with little fanfare). I’m talking about the simple domestic daily rituals—lighting a candle each night and having dinner with the family, walking the dog after we eat, occasionally going out to the beach to watch the sunset. I’ve learned to appreciate the commonplace. A Facebook page I created, called Beauty>Fear, gathered over 1000 people posting pictures of the flowers they saw on their daily walks, the sunsets outside the window, and the changing of the seasons over this last year. It was commonplace beauty, but in a year where nothing seemed familiar, the quotidian was a comfort.

When everything changed a year ago, I realized that I missed the commonplace. Things that had seemed perfunctory before—meetings, small talk—or enjoyable, but not essential— meeting a friend after work for dinner, going for a swim at the Y—the lacunae of these events left me and many others feeling adrift in shapeless time. Is it a weekday? A weekend? Does it matter?

A year ago, the collective fear (aside from dying from a poorly understood and seemingly untreatable virus), seemed to be isolation, boredom, and an indeterminate “lockdown”. People talked about the projects they were undertaking to fill the time they suddenly found themselves with, home from work or school. Italians sung from their balconies at sunset and New Yorkers cheered from open windows in appreciation of essential workers. I never seemed to discover that promised surplus of time, probably because I’m not good at slowing down. Even though I’m usually working from my kitchen table (that I sometimes sardonically refer to as “global headquarters”), I’m busier than ever, with online meetings to attend, lectures to write, classes to teach, and patients to treat. It’s been a productive year in many ways: I have academic papers in press, and even won awards for teaching in the midst of all of this. I’m deeply fortunate to have my health, my family, and my work. So many have lost so much more than me.

At the one-year mark, I realize that I am tired. Like many of my colleagues in health care, I am good at postponing my needs for others. This is not laudable, arguably it’s pathological, but in our line of work, it is normalized, especially in an all-hands-on-deck moment that a pandemic brings. For my colleagues on the front lines, they had no choice but to put one foot in front of the other. For some of our colleagues it cost their lives, by infection from COVID or by suicide. For those that have survived, I fear that the wave that will follow the virus will be one of post-traumatic stress disorder, neuropsychiatric disorders, and substance use. I suspect our work in responding to the mental health impact of COVID is only just beginning.

I am tired of wondering when this will be behind us. I am tired of waiting for the better angels of our nature to emerge as the attempts to control the virus, or to discount it, play out in the body politic. I am tired of approaching my fellow citizens with caution and distance. I am tired of watching my kid struggle through a school year from in front of a laptop. I am tired of not seeing my students and my patients in person.

COVID, it is said, has killed small talk and shifted our sense of purpose inward. There are times at the end of the day when I’ve been doomscrolling on the couch for an hour and I think, “what if I had been reading those books or playing the guitar during this time? I could come out of this pandemic with something to show for myself.” In those moments, it’s easy to beat myself up and feel guilty. Instead, I’m trying on self-compassion. If a good friend was tired, I would encourage them to rest. Why can’t we extend this same kindness to ourselves?

So, what will we go back to? What awaits us? For so long, we just wanted “to go back to normal.” But after over a year away from baseball games, summer vacations, and classrooms, so many of us look towards the future with a measure of weariness. How much energy will it take to overcome the inertia that has befallen our daily lives? Will we reenact a simulacrum of how things were before, or will we find, deep within ourselves, the capacity for reimagination of what could be? These are the questions that await us. A year later, we are still living into them. The poet Galway Kinnell ends his poem “Wait” with these lines, wise advice in the days ahead as we emerge from our shelters:

Don’t go too early.
You’re tired. But everyone’s tired.
But no one is tired enough.
Only wait a little and listen:
music of hair,
music of pain,
music of looms weaving our loves again.
Be there to hear it, it will be the only time,
most of all to hear your whole existence,
rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion.”

Andrew Penn, RN, MS, NP, CNS, APRN-BC was trained as an adult nurse practitioner and psychiatric clinical nurse specialist at the University of California, San Francisco. He is board certified as an adult nurse practitioner and psychiatric nurse practitioner by the American Nurses Credentialing Center. He has completed extensive training in Psychedelic Assisted Psychotherapy at the California Institute for Integral Studies and recently published a book chapter on this modality in The Casebook of Positive Psychiatry, published by American Psychiatric Association Press. Currently, he serves as an Associate Clinical Professor at the University of California-San Francisco School of Nursing, where he teaches psychopharmacology, and is an Attending Nurse Practitioner at the San Francisco Veterans Administration. He has expertise in psychopharmacological treatment for adult patients and specializes in the treatment of affective disorders and PTSD. As a steering committee member for Psych Congress, he has been invited to present internationally on improving medication adherence, cannabis pharmacology, psychedelic assisted psychotherapy, grief psychotherapy, treatment-resistant depression, diagnosis and treatment of bipolar disorder, and the art and science of psychopharmacologic practice.

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