How do we undo fear?
I've debated with myself whether to write this post. Maybe I'll delete it. But as I look around San Francisco and the rest of the country, I continue to see gripping fear. Some fear is old and (unfortunately) justified, but a lot of fear is increasingly unjustified and terrible for us--individually and collectively. So I want to share part of my recent experience. This is not a hopeful story or a prescriptive post; it's simply what I've lived, and probably very similar to millions of other people. We have yet to confront the scope of the mental health issues from our pandemic response. Silence is no medicine.
Last summer, I was ready for good news again. After a year and a half of intense restrictions and political turmoil, I cried when I got vaccinated, took an elated selfie with cardboard Fauci, and booked a trip to Disneyland with my family; the trip we'd canceled back in March 2020. We had a great vacation, my kids went to summer camp once more (at long last), and after a year of resisting the commitment, the San Francisco school board promised in no uncertain terms to finally reopen schools five full days a week for all kids. I took a new job and found a circle of new, great friends. The world was catastrophically dry and still full of death and suffering, but I had let myself hope again.
Then the fall hit, Delta hit, and San Francisco and other blue cities and states went back into lockdown mode. Some people seemed happy about this, and the fear messaging ramped back up, only more intense; this was the new normal, apparently. At the same time, all the personal issues I'd put off addressing just to get through the first year of the pandemic could no longer wait. My husband and I started marriage counseling, the job was not a good fit, and there were problems for one of my kids at their school. The marriage counseling bit was the hardest. We were ripping off very old bandaids and exposing deep, painful wounds. All against the background of this bleak new normal.
I want to pause here and observe that none of my experiences or hardships were much. People were going through far worse; people were dying, and dying terrible deaths. Still, I'm sharing my experience because the pandemic response in certain places in the U.S., where we've drilled fear deep into our brains and bodies, also comes with a price. Even for the relatively comfortable.
Sometime in October, I began to have odd body pains. Out of the blue, my back was on fire, then my hips, and then my legs, etc. It made no sense. I wasn't doing anything different, but the pain was persistent, for at least a month and I couldn't sleep. I also began crying every day, though never when other people could see me; to the outside world and to my family, I was grand. Inside, though, my thoughts turned very dark. I screamed into empty rooms when I was alone. The benign vertigo I'd picked up during the earlier parts of the pandemic lockdown didn't come back in full, but it, too, hovered on the edge. Always. I felt off and shaky. I grew afraid of leaving the house; the outside world, and especially the constant conflict over even the dumbest little things like stop signs, was too overwhelming. All I saw was the apocalyptic trucks speeding down our streets, and the backlash against the very few silver lining policies and cultural trends that had come out of the pandemic both here in San Francisco and across the country. Hate flew its flag everywhere. On a weekend where I did manage to leave the house, I had a mild panic episode at a busy street festival in the Inner Richmond. Noise, anywhere, made my heart pound.
So yeah, in short, I was messed up. I abruptly took a week off of work to focus on healing; the work I was doing at that point--work I still very much believe in and endorse--forced me to immerse myself in ugly conflict, which wasn't helping. (I didn't help that I continue to have lingering anxiety from the roughly 15 years I spent in transportation advocacy, when going to a community meeting meant getting screamed at and told your life was unimportant and inconvenient, and where--at one org--part of my job was keeping a log of people who died because we'd failed to force change fast enough. This pales compared to the experience of many Americans fighting for their right to exist and thrive, but it still leaves its mark.) So, yeah. I took a break, sat in the sun, and took walks around the quieter parts of our neighborhood. I talked to close friends. I got some perspective.
I began to heal. I sorted out the pain with a lot of stretching and trips to a chiropractor, I began journaling, spent more time talking more openly about darker stuff with my close friends, spent more time with friends in general, left that job, began working on a new business that I love, scaled back my other volunteer work to focus on police reform, and chose to go head-first into the marriage counseling and not shy away from being honest. When I felt despairing or angry, I took action; I wrote a lot of letters to elected officials. We took a big Christmas trip abroad. I saw my brother at long last. And I made sure adults didn't have the power to drum their fear into my kids, too. I made damn sure.
I built us all back up; it was some epic Tetris.
Of course, there is no endpoint to this work once fear sets into your body. As with before the pandemic, I live with so much rage and dread about things happening now and things that are screaming at us that they're about to up-end what little comfort we currently have if we don't get our collective selves together. I loathe monomania. I love this world. I love the beautiful things we can do. I love my new business. I love the person I'm becoming in this marriage and my friends. I love the sunshine and the rain. I love the idea of this country, if not the likely future. I love chest openers.
And I love truth. Though the burden of this pandemic and pandemic response has not been shared equally, like everything in America, we have all been through a time. There is fear burrowed deep in our bodies now--on top of all kinds of other generational and personal trauma--and it has consequences. Our kids are trying to tell us this hard truth, but we haven't been listening; maybe because it's easier to go with the flow rather than push back on what's harming them or we want to deny that the fear exists in our bodies, too. My body is pretty blunt. I mess with it and it gives me pain. But I've come to see that's just one layer. Before the pandemic, I was a serious, semi-professional singer. I stopped singing in March 2020, though, and have only been able to sing a handful of times since. It's too hopeful an activity, to heave your breath up and down, to let go of enough emotion and worry to let the sound flow free. That's where my fear lives now.