The Emotional Long Haul of COVID: Continuous Coping as Another Pandemic Earth Day Arrives

The Emotional Long Haul of COVID: Continuous Coping as Another Pandemic Earth Day Arrives

What does Earth Day mean to us during this long-haul pandemic?

Every year I write about Earth Day. It’s a critical turning point in my life, because my son’s life was saved on April 22nd, 13 years ago. He was 2.

I’ve always drawn a connection to Earth Day and his surgery day.

But with Year #2 of quarantine and pandemic facing us head on, we have a new brand of fatigue setting in.

On March 11th, 2020 the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Last year my post reflects on these thoughts:

During this time, I’ve been able to reflect on cultivating grit, grace, which is the notion that I, that we, will get through this somehow – even with loss, tragedy, and even death – and we will somehow emerge stronger, together. Let me share my story.

~ Earth Day post 2020 – Ginger Garner

2020 – Life is Fragile, and so is Earth

My son’s health depends on the earth’s health. Human health is intimately intertwined with the health of the planet.

Five times in my life I have been acutely and painfully reminded of the fragility of life on earth. Five distinct times in my life I’ve been given the clear opportunity to cultivate grit, grace, and gratitude.

  1. Grit – The first time was freeing myself from the cycle of abuse and poverty. It took me 3 decades to finally emerge from it. That was no easy task, but it built resilience in me, helped me always find the silver lining in the dark cloud, and put me on a determined path to advocate for healthcare and social justice.
  2. Grace – The second was healing from the trauma. A lifetime of HPA Axis dysregulation and fight or flight did a number on me; and it motivated me to ditch the chemicals (in household products, processed food, & self-care and beauty products), stop over-working, and stop seeking approval from everyone around me. That included ditching the extreme yoga scene and industry, which had so often manhandled me with rigid dogma and underhanded politics.
  3. Gratitude – The third was living through Hurricane Florence and its devastation in eastern NC. At the time I was also trying to raise 3 children, operate my small healthcare and education business, and run for public office. Florence took our roof, but we were fortunate. She destroyed most of my friends’ homes. Those weeks lived without power and surrounded by the biohazards of mass flooding forced us all to a back basic-to-basics survival mode of living.
  4. The fourth is COVID-19. The global crisis we are living now has taken all 3 – grit, grace, and gratitude – to cope. I’ll never again take for granted breathing fresh air without wearing a mask, or shopping in the grocery store without fearing for my life and my family’s health, or visit my aging relatives and hugging them, instead of visiting through panes of glass and worrying that they are struggling alone and confused in a locked-down nursing home.
  5. The last was coping through my son’s health condition. It was the most profound, because as a parent, the worst possible thing you can go through is the loss of a child. My child survived and is thriving today, but I still had to go through the grieving process of accepting that I may lose him, or he may never be the same again after his ordeal.

Cultivating Grit, Grace, & Gratitude

Pain is the doorway to the here and now.… “Through the radical undoing and debilitation of repeated pain we are reacquainted with the essentialities of place and time and existence itself,” says Whyte, “in deep pain we have energy only for what we can do wholeheartedly.”

David Whyte

Adversity taught me a long time ago to stop calling experiences “good or bad.” I quit being judge and jury of what is good or bad, because I’ve lived long enough to know that what the world considers to be failure or pain may ultimately be the best thing that ever happens to me.

I also learned that through all struggles and pain, good can come – like the phoenix from the ashes. Life has taught me to be thankful for my adversities. I know now pain is a way in…it brings me back to what I wholeheartedly believe in and value.

In short, pain taught me about grit, having the determination to succeed against all odds. It taught me to give myself and others grace. No one is perfect, it doesn’t exist. Just do your best everyday. Out of grit and grace, gratitude is cultivated, the ability to be thankful despite life not going your way.

Michael’s Day ~ Earth Day: Making the Connection

Michael’s illness culminated in having urgent heart surgery on Earth Day. So Earth Day is also Michael’s Day. This date will always make my heart tighten – but that painful memory I know can also be used to nurture wisdom and love.

Michael the evening before surgery, full of wonder & energy, despite his grave heart condition

On Earth/Michael’s Day, forever ingrained in my soul is the moment my husband and I handed Michael over to the surgical team and watched one of the women on the team carry him away to the operating room.

Our tiny son was draped was over her shoulder in his hospital gown. The gown was way too big for his tiny body. It’s strange how in traumatic moments you remember inconsequential things.  

They had given Michael a sedative so he would not be traumatized by leaving us. Instead, the hospital’s policy, which I think was very compassionate and am thankful for, was to carry the little ones into the OR, rather than putting them on a gurney and wheeling them away, where they may be afraid and confused. So Michael was hugging her, a stranger, and clutching his Snoopy and little blanket.

Surgical Snoopy
Michael’s snoopy. The surgical team prepped snoopy to reduce michael’s fear. Notice the little patch of gauze over snoopy’s heart, showing it was repaired, just like Michael’s heart.

My God, how I longed to take his place. My heart was breaking. I had waited a lifetime to hold him in my arms. And now, just like that, he was being taken away.

Returning to Us: The Ultimate Gratitude

But Michael did return to us. And the pain of possibly losing him, I instantly realized from pain I had experienced previously – would increase my ability to understand other’s pain, to love greater, and be more grateful for increasingly smaller things in life.  

And the way he came back to us was so profound, so unbelievable, that I count the experience as one of the greatest moment’s of my life. One of the moment’s that will forever teach me to embrace every experience and find a way up and out of any darkness it may cast across my heart and soul.

As I stood outside the doors of the pediatric ICU, I paced. I paced for 5 hours to be exact. My heart had decided that I would stand in the chasm of the unknown and pray and meditate until I knew the outcome. If Michael could not rest during those 5 hours, I would not either. I would be with him.

At the end of the 5th hour, something told me to look out the window. Just down the hall from the PICU (pediatric ICU) was the pediatric ward, and between those two wards was a window that looked out onto a small courtyard playground that the inpatient and visiting children could use.

In that instant, I saw the surgical team wheeling Michael’s tiny hospital bed down the corridor. His bed was shrouded in white drapes. My heart dropped. I knew it was him because Snoopy was perched on one of the many IV poles.

My God, my God, I said silently, he is coming back to us.   

Our Earth, Our Child: Continuing on in Cultivating Grit, Grace, & Gratitude

This is what I wish for us on Earth Day – for us to love the earth as much as we love our children. For the Earth, to come back to us – well and whole again – because we have treated her kindly and corrected what ails her broken heart.

Just like I will only ever have one Michael, we only get one earth.

Our children, and this Earth, are a gift. If we love our children we must love planet earth.

We should be treating this planet like we care for our own child. When my son hurts, when he was so sick – just like our planet hurts and is so sick – our hearts should tighten and we should gasp for breath.

Pollution of her air, soil, & water; our air, soil, & water – is something we can stop now and turn around. We can continue to exploit her limited supply of fossil fuels or we can work together to develop and use clean energy.

  • When we recycle, we are loving our children of planet Earth.
  • When we stay home during this pandemic and observe the stay at home orders, we are saving lives. We are flattening the curve and saving our aging loved ones, our family members at high risk, and our future.
  • When we buy less and repurpose more, we are demonstrating love for our children.

No Action is Too Small, No Single Day is Insignificant

A single day or action, like volunteering to pick up trash or making the decision to stop using plastic straws, can make a world of difference to save the Earth’s life (and ours in the process); just like a single day and action on the part of that cardiothoracic surgical team at East Carolina University saved my son Michael’s life.

“If you want world peace, go home and love your children.” We can do the same with our Earth. Go home and do whatever you can, no matter how small, to love her.

Mother teresa

Never minimize the power of a single action, or a single day. Every moment matters. Everything has a memory.

So what I have learned about Earth Day as a mom from having a child with a critical illness is this – If I love my child and want what is best for him, then I must love the Earth and do what is best for her too.

Earth Day in 2020, amidst the silent terrorist COVID-19, has taught me this:

  • I have to remember what I’ve been through – and that I have resilience – grit – to get through it.
  • I have to daily remind myself to give and receive grace. That is the compassion of life that helps us thrive.
  • Lastly gratitude – I have to remember that I can’t get stronger unless I lift the weight. I have to go through adversity to know what good times are, what they feel like, and to be able to count my blessings.

What does Earth Day during COVID-19 mean to you?

2021 Earth Day: Where are we Now?

This year, I feel a whole new level of uncertainty – and fatigue. New York Times writer Adam Grant puts it this way:

“In the early, uncertain days of the pandemic, it’s likely that your brain’s threat detection system — called the amygdala — was on high alert for fight-or-flight. As you learned that masks helped protect us — but package-scrubbing didn’t — you probably developed routines that eased your sense of dread. But the pandemic has dragged on, and the acute state of anguish has given way to a chronic condition of languish.

In psychology, we think about mental health on a spectrum from depression to flourishing. Flourishing is the peak of well-being: You have a strong sense of meaning, mastery and mattering to others. Depression is the valley of ill-being: You feel despondent, drained and worthless.

Languishing is the neglected middle child of mental health. It’s the void between depression and flourishing — the absence of well-being. You don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not the picture of mental health either. You’re not functioning at full capacity. Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus, and triples the odds that you’ll cut back on work. It appears to be more common than major depression — and in some ways it may be a bigger risk factor for mental illness.

The term was coined by a sociologist named Corey Keyes, who was struck that many people who weren’t depressed also weren’t thriving. His research suggests that the people most likely to experience major depression and anxiety disorders in the next decade aren’t the ones with those symptoms today. They’re the people who are languishing right now. And new evidence from pandemic health care workers in Italy shows that those who were languishing in the spring of 2020 were three times more likely than their peers to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Hard Question(s) We Have to Ask Ourselves

How are we doing, more than one year into the pandemic?

I ask myself this question everyday, and if I’m honest with myself, I am not often sure.

Is it utter fatigue from attempting to be school teacher, school psychologist, cafeteria worker, janitor on call 24/7 to 3 different children (and 1 with special needs) who learn 3 different ways and in are in 3 different schools with 3 different remote schedules; all while reinventing and restructuring my 2 small business that I had JUST relocated 200 miles just BEFORE the pandemic hit and just AFTER I became caretaker of my parents after they were in a near-fatal car accident (during our move)? Or is it the constant grit I’ve had to harness to recover from 3 surgeries in 2 years that will leave me with permanent impairment in spite of my best efforts? Is it the deep grief of losing our way of life, of seeing my children struggle, and of losing one of my dearest family members to COVID at Christmas?

These are the questions we ask ourselves, even without the constant trauma and tragedy.

Everybody Hurts

The real question is – how do we tease out fatigue from languishing? Or exhaustion from burnout?

One of the ways that I can tell the difference is when my regular lifestyle practices fail to resolve the fatigue, indifference, worry, and/or burnout.

Some Resources to Help

When the following Lifestyle Medicine practices don’t improve your mental health or well-being, it’s time to seek out specific a mental health pro to get involved. These practices include:

The Emotional Long Haul of COVID: Continuous Coping as Another Pandemic Earth Day Arrives
Calculate your activity plan for the week for FREE here: https://health.gov/MoveYourWay/Activity-Planner/

Check out the links above for great resources to optimize your lifestyle habits. They are a first step in improving your mental health during this emotional long haul of COVID. It isn’t the only one – and if the above practices don’t help, please seek out the help of a healthcare professional – one with a background and understanding of how Integrative & Lifestyle Medicine, including Functional Medicine, work to improve long-term, not just short-term mental health, would be your best bet.

This year, self-care that is also healthy for the planet is my idea of celebrating Earth Day. Without the luxury of mask-free living or getting out into the world to celebrate our gorgeous planet with others (though my own little family can take a hike and get out to enjoy nature), I figure the best thing I can do is take care of myself, my family, and our little patch of earth around us.

There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing

We Have All Hit a Wall: Confronting late-stage pandemic burnout, with everything from edibles to Exodus.

Happy Earth day 2021! May we all begin to thrive (soon), and like never before!