Keeping it Real: Reintegration

Tomorrow will be nine weeks exactly. Nine weeks since my children were in their own schools or we worked in our offices or saw patients face to face. There was chatter, there were CDC reports, but nothing was definitive yet. I was growing more and more concerned that we were not taking this seriously enough. I had finally said we were bringing our oldest, who goes to school in the bay area, home.  In fact, on March 14, I was so ready for my youngest daughter to be home I let her go into school for the morning for a special event, fifth grade wax museum, then brought her home and made her shower. We left the backpack outside. This was the start of spring break anyway, so why not take half a day? Little did we know, they wouldn’t go back for the rest of what was supposed to be the best elementary year! I was ready to lock everyone up in the house, sanitize, and play board games.

My older daughter, a freshman in college, had come home several days prior, after  her school had cancelled Mom’s weekend and instead of me flying there, we flew her home. She had no idea that she wouldn’t return to her dorm or her first year of freedom. Nine weeks of college online, while paying out of state tuition. She finishes this week. Next fall, we still don’t know what will happen. A crew of people packed up her dorm and her things are in storage.

My son had an extended spring break and then his school had a well-planned online quarter. It was game on and a steep adjustment. He is fifteen, so quite naturally, needs redirected countless times a day in order to make sure he is staying organized and on task. I really need to remember to send every teacher he’s ever had each a bottle of wine. He has really struggled with independent learning and there have been tough consequences and power struggles. Last school year, he got mono and missed basically, the entire third quarter of school. This year a pandemic. We barely remember normal for him.

No sports for any of us. Soccer, cancelled. Track, cancelled. Lacrosse, cancelled. I used to say, “I would love to have one day where we didn’t drive anywhere”, because it had literally been YEARS since that happened. To think I used to hope for rain so I could stay home. Our neighbors tolerated the yard of the sports family who didn’t have time to maintain it.

Two days ago, I didn’t even go outside. I don’t know if I have EVER done that. I am hyperactive and don’t do well being still. If I’m still, I’m probably asleep.

My husband’s office closed before mine did and they have no travel orders still for the next several months. He works from a room downstairs w a card table as his desk. He hung up a bird feeder and I see him watching the squirrels and birds as I pass by the glass doors on a daily basis.

My patients. My team’s patients. Everyone moved to telehealth within three days. I was a mess for about a week getting it all set up, but it was so worth being proactive and we had most kinks worked out when others were just beginning. I stopped doing equine therapy as no one could come to the farm safely. I just knew we would hear later that animals could carry the disease.

The first week at home was chaos. The refrigerator died the day we had made a one million dollar run to the grocery store stocking up. Several days later, the ovens died. There were cookies baked in a roaster and nachos made without an oven or microwave. I was glad I bought cases of beans and flour and yeast. I was, at this point, envisioning living off the grid, growing our own food.

In a very strange way, we settled in. We adjusted to all five of us being home, being quiet during someone’s call or class. Making a meal for all of us. Every. Single. Time. We ate. We learned you can have your groceries shopped for and delivered within two hours. We ordered pounds and pounds of bacon and fresh oranges from Instacart, just in case something may run out. We take walks together, the kids and me. We wear pjs and leggings a lot.  We find ways to entertain ourselves. My oldest started a company drawing people from their photos. My middle child has practiced a ton of Elton John on the piano. My youngest spends some serious time with her chickens and tadpoles. I spend a few hours a week on a telehealth call with my patients, who are all in similar situations. I check on horses. The rest of the time is a blur.

We avoided stores all together for seven weeks. The first store I went back into was Lowe’s. Our rental house had emptied, and it was time to clean it up to sell. Paint? I have to go shop for paint. (Something I have happily done countless times). I nearly had a panic attack. I wore a mask, got some paint samples and paint supplies, and tried to hurry through. When I dropped my samples on the ground and the cashier took my debit card with an ungloved hand because it wasn’t working- I really thought I might lose it.  This is when I realized I was going to have a hard time reintegrating.

This is when the anxiety begins for many. In three days, we go to Phase Two. There is so much controversy about what we should do, who we should believe, is the government controlling us, are people being ignorant about the dangers of the virus…. thriving long time businesses are closing down. Buildings for lease everywhere. People are still waiting for unemployment they filed for two months ago.

I am conflicted. I am craving contact. Some of my patients are asking for face to face sessions and some are not going to leave their house for months.

The kids have been such amazing sports. No friends in house or going to their house for many, many weeks. The oldest has had a few “cove get togethers” in front of our house with three friends in lawn chairs, eight feet apart. My youngest finally cried a few nights ago and said, “I just want to hug someone other than you!” (She is known to be quite the hugger by all that know her). I didn’t know how to comfort her. She is missing fifth grade graduation, Washington DC, track and soccer, and changes school next year, so ultimately, will not see most people she goes to school with again. When she cried, I thought of the only thing that might help- I decided we would go to Target the next day and she could get whatever she wanted.

I took all three kids to Target the next day. Y’all, I have fantasized about going back to Target. I half expected them to laugh and refuse, but I handed the kids surgical gloves and masks and they all put them on. We did not stand out in the crowd. I offered fifty dollars each to get what they wanted. We were there no more than thirty minutes. Child One: face wash, hair conditioner and Matcha tea in a can. Child Two: Pringles and Red Bull. Child Three: a new swimming suit, a movie and a big bag of bubble gum. My how things have changed. The fantasy of perusing every isle and looking at anything we wanted, was quickly fast forwarded due to itchy masks and crowded aisles. No thanks. The kids left the store before I did.

We have eight horses (ok one donkey, seven horses) whose lives are to be therapy partners for people. No one except my family have been to the farm in nine weeks. They’re lonely. Its sad to go into the She Shed office and see a space no one has sat in so long. I avoid it.  The office in town is dark, dead plant in the sink, the familiar comforting smell is fading.

I have tried to be a motivator and leader. I haven’t been especially sad or even that worried about my business or income. I’ve had a few panicky moments, but we have been very lucky to have a solid practice and ability to work during this. But I am “off”. When I do calls with my team, others are off. We are afraid and uncertain. And I know before we reopen, we will have our own personal work to do so that we can help others manage their own anxiety around being back in community. Part of the work will be alongside our patients as well.

Reintegration fear is real. I have never had so much compassion for soldiers or those who have suffered trauma that left them feeling unable to participate in society.  Or for people with social phobia or fear of germs or obsessive compulsive disorder. I truly think I will never un-feel some of this. I think that reintegration is going to be, in many ways, more traumatizing than having to stay away. They say, “avoidance breeds anxiety”, but avoidance has been necessary for us as a society. So, we can expect a great, great deal of anxiety.

Are we as mental health providers and parents – who are looked to as the leaders and models for what to do- ready for this? Are we regulated enough to open our doors of our offices or to send our kids to friends’ homes or back to school- not only am I asking can WE handle it, but have we the capacity to hold space for those who can’t? I am good in a crisis. Both personally and professionally, I am the one who can keep it together, so others don’t have to. But this. This is a different animal. I am not going to pretend I am good and capable of providing space for someone when I am not ready. This is not dictated by government or schools or anyone else. This is a personal decision only I can make for me. I am hoping that I’m being responsible more than paranoid or dramatic. I hope that others, who feel the calling or the need to provide a space for others who are struggling, are really taking a deep, deep look at themselves and know what their own band width is. Because I think that without a great deal of intention set, we may do more harm than good. We are human. We are still going through something traumatic. Can we agree to not try to be heroes, but instead be human and have compassion for ourselves and our limitations?

by Britt Palmer, LMFT, LPCC, CEDS, NLC-C, EP, C-TCYM