By Erin Whittaker, MST Supervisor

On April 1, 2020 Erin, or A1E if you will, was born. A1E woke up to the unexpected gift of 30 days of government- mandated self improvement! 30 days of being forced to stay inside, reflect, and grow. Amazing! A1E woke up early, did some yoga, got all her work done in a delightfully planful way, used all the leftover veggies in the fridge to make soup, Zoomed all her friends, prayed, started a Korean skin care routine, and did not once feel the need to press the buy now button on Amazon. A1E was the best Erin that ever there was! April 2nd Erin was not so.  The success of April 1st made me so anxious that I was up all night worrying about how to do it all again. April 2nd started later, did not include yoga, work was spotty, and the soup went uneaten. I was furious with myself. When will I ever have this much time to focus on myself again?! I pouted all day and tried to pull it together with minimal success. On April 3rd I woke up and gave it another shot, but as I sat eating take out that night I came to the realization that A1E was not coming back and that I needed to be ok with it.

As the 30 days turned into 60, and now without an end in sight, I had to stop, assess, and take the time and figure out what MY pandemic was going to look like. Not supermom Karen with the perfectly designed scavenger hunts and rabbit shaped cookie’s pandemic. Not Fancy Jen down the block who is running a marathon in her back yard’s pandemic. Not even the guy who is able to literally do nothing but watch the entire catalog of Netflix’s pandemic. I had to do what was going to keep me well and safe and as happy as my extroverted little heart would let me be.

You may well be wondering how my pizza induced realization can be of any use to you and that is a good question. Here’s how I stopped trying to keep up with the Chrissy Tiegan’s of the world and live my best pandemic life.  Even as things start to open up more, and we move toward a “new normal,” all of these are ways that can help you do what’s best for YOU and stay on top of your mental health in a changing world.

  1. Unplug: Social media can be really overwhelming!  Looking at what everyone else is doing, good or bad, can force you to set an unrealistic expectation for yourself. Unrealistic expectations are unrealistic for a reason and when you can’t live up to them, the possibility of increasing depressive or anxious symptoms can increase. I know there were a few people I needed to hide (hi Fancy Jen!) and a few people I needed to see more of who were in my boat. I try to limit the time I spend touching my phone. It’s hard, but helpful!
  2. Learn at your own pace: I don’t want this to sound like I don’t want you to grow and learn during this time. If that’s what your goal is then go for it! But maybe don’t try to learn Mandarin all in 1 day. In fact, as time as gone on, I’ve found that the reality of this situation actually might mean we are LESS productive. Managing children at home and school work and work-work and being under the same roof with your partner or trying to stay healthy while you work out of the house, it’s. a. lot. Perhaps all you do right now is get through it, and that’s awesome. Adjust your goals in a way that facilitates missing practices, set backs, and getting bored. Remember that old piano teacher who told you to rehearse every day? I’m giving you permission to let go of that. You’re welcome.
  3. Find your people: Staying connected  might seem easy with social media, zoom, hangout, and facetime, but is it real connection? Don’t stress yourself out more with trying to have a weekly zoom happy hour with all 20 of your closest friends. Maybe in the beginning you were doing themed get togethers and every other night hangs with different groups. It’s okay if that feels overwhelming or exhausting. It’s okay if you stopped entirely! Think small and real. Who would you love to hear from today? Make that happen!
  4. Take time off: If you’re able to work from home right now, I bet you’re feeling dealing with a little bit of guilt because not everyone can. Please let that go! It’s not your fault. I’m personally finding that working from home is more work and more stress than actually being in the office, and God bless any of you out there doing this while raising kids and home schooling! Guess, what I’m going to do soon? TAKE A WHOLE DAY OFF!  I’m going to lock the computer in the car and do absolutely nothing. Why? Because I need a break and it’s ok. Do you need a break? Secondary PTSD and caregiver burnout are real. Take care of yourself, even if that means you need to take the day off entirely.
  5. Do what you can: Not everyday needs to be a win. Some days might have an unplanned nap or Nutella toast for every meal and you’re just going to have to own it. Blowing one day of your plan or routine is not going to ruin you. I love this analogy: If you slip down one stair, are you going to throw yourself down the rest of them so they all match?
  6. Make your own routine: Unless you have a meeting or a class at a certain time, who says you have to work or homeschool starting at 7:48am? Not me! Do what you can right now. If that means logging on for work at 10 and stopping for lunch whenever you happen to be hungry- do it! Don’t want to exercise (at all) or until 9pm- who’s telling you that’s silly? Find what’s realistic for you and make it work! We shared a blog about setting structure for your family that you can find here, and we’ll be talking more about schedules in the coming weeks.
  7. Move backwards instead:  I’ve really had fun thinking of things I liked to do as a kid and making that a part of my day. I’ve been writing letters to my nieces and nephews and doing puzzles like a champ. What did 10 year old you find fun? Give it a try and remember what those care (pandemic) free days felt like.

If I can leave you with anything at all I want it to be this: The goal isn’t necessarily to come out of this thing a better person. The goal is just to come out of this thing. You’ve been doing it for 8 weeks. That’s a win!

About the author: Erin Whittaker has been with Child Guidance for almost nine years. She is a Supervisor in the Multisystemic Therapy program as well as a Licensed Outpatient Therapist. Outside of CGRC, she is going on her 11th year leading a performing arts program for elementary students in New Jersey! You can often find her reading, traveling (her favorite places are Iceland and South Africa) and hanging out with her nieces, nephews and Godchildren.