By: Tzachi Fried, Ph.D
In March 2020 I felt like I had it all down pat. The ebb and flow of my work was predictable, my wife and kids had their own routine, and we had just worked out a weekly schedule that allowed me to have a better work/life balance. I didn’t realize just how fragile this was until there was talk of a lockdown.
When school was canceled after Purim, I panicked. My kids were going to go into an academic tailspin. My wife, an essential worker, would still be required to make the thrice-weekly trip to Jerusalem, while our kids would be home all day with no supervision. They would tear each other and the house apart!
I started having to work from home and transition my clients to Zoom sessions – the ones who remained in therapy, that is. Back then I told myself what many of my colleagues believed: there would be no way to do my job properly without meeting clients in person. If that was the case, I told myself, I would slowly lose clients until work dried up entirely, at which point we would become destitute and never recover.
I did what we therapists call “catastrophizing.” I took each detail of the situation, magnified its impact, took it to its worst possible conclusion, and then told myself that there was no way to handle it and that all would be lost. I did this repeatedly and the stress was really affecting me. The exact same things I point out to my clients happened to me: increased stress and anxiety, hopelessness, poor sleep, depression, irritability, etc.
I became increasingly frustrated with my kids for not meeting the behavioral and academic standards I set for them in my mind (based on a reality that no longer existed). I started fuming at teachers for not doing enough to provide education and structure under the circumstances, and then I fumed at them for expecting too much of my kids under the circumstances. I became frustrated at all the inspirational articles and videos that put a positive spin on the pandemic that was making me so miserable.
Interestingly, sometimes we can’t get enough of this mindset. When we’re in crisis we like to feel like we’re actually doing something to solve our problems, and taking an active part in worrying and refusing to accept reality allow us to believe that we will change something. But it only makes things worse.
And that’s exactly what happened, until my father-in-law in the US contracted Covid-19 and passed away.
It was a surreal experience. A sudden death in the family, an ocean away and separated from everyone. We could not get to the funeral, could not sit shiva together, could not receive visitors who wanted to pay a shiva call. The feeling of aloneness and loss was more profound than ever.
That’s when I began to realize how much I was catastrophizing. And with that realization came the awareness that I was living in denial, fighting a reality I could not avoid. Like catastrophizing, we love to hold onto the illusion that we have ultimate control – that if we insist and act like things should be as we want them, then somehow we can make it happen. I was insisting that everything just revert back to normal rather than radically accept and make peace with my new reality.
This was a bitter pill to swallow (along with my pride), and I discovered that following my own advice can be more challenging than I think.
Slowly but surely, I picked up the shattered pieces of my day-to-day, realizing that maybe, just maybe, I can put them back together into something worthwhile. Or even, dare I say, better?
I made it a point to notice when my thoughts turned to catastrophic thinking and asked myself if a different conclusion was possible. I noticed when my behavior automatically oriented itself toward insisting that the facts of reality be different, and responded by asking myself if maybe I ought to be more accepting. And with that, I changed my approach. I worked on getting a faster internet connection, bought a better webcam, and ordered new computers. We shopped for outdoor furniture and for home-based summer activities for the kids and my mother kindly agreed to teach our first-grader to read English via zoom. I adjusted my standards for the house and kids to more accurately reflect our current level of functioning, and generally turned my thoughts toward the improvements we can make in a situation that isn’t going away soon.
And I also started noticing. I noticed that I had more time to spend with my kids and that they were getting along with one another much better than I would have thought. I noticed that I now had some time to work on our garden and other home improvement projects. I also noticed that working over Zoom worked quite well for many of my clients. Sometimes it was even preferable, and has become an option to consider even post-Covid.
With the light of a vaccination shining at the end of the tunnel, it’s time to take honest stock of the things I learned. I learned that my kids can be far more helpful than I ever thought. I learned that my hour-long commute was a treasured time to reflect and transition rather than a traffic-infused frustrating nuisance. Most importantly, I learned that I need a taste of my own medicine more often, and that I need to be more flexible and handle change better than I thought. And I learned just how fortunate and blessed I am to have my career and family life come through this pandemic largely intact, something none of us can take for granted.
Life is too fragile and too short for us to spend it fighting reality.