If Covid’s ‘new normal’ makes you even more anxious than before, you’re not alone | Sophie Brickman

The other morning, my kindergartner woke me up by clambering onto the bed and stage-whispering hotly in my ear, “The mama is lost!”

What?

“The mama, she’s lost!”

Long pause, as I squinted open my eyes and my brain started to crank awake.

“From my dollhouse.”

Oh. And from your house, too, kiddo, I thought, as I swung my feet over the side of the bed and staggered into the day.

As I ping-ponged about, cladding my preschooler in a surgical mask for school in the park and making sure my kindergartner’s water bottle had a straw so she could drink under the face shield she’s required to wear during lunch, I thought back to this time last year. At least then, everything was so horrendous that it made obvious the decision of whether to entirely upheave our lives and move in with my parents. (Answer: yes, even if it meant coming to terms with my mother’s preferred baby-proofing strategy, which is to apply foam to all surfaces liberally, turning each room into a big, bumpered bowling alley.) These days, as we head into our 18th month of recalibrating our new normal, the fuzzy grayness of everything is causing even the most pragmatic of us to start to fray. My friends text each other constantly, finding solace in the fact that each of us is spinning out in her own way. One of them calls it “route recalculation.”

“Is this going to be an every-hundred-year event, or an every-three-year event?” another asked me. She’s an ophthalmologist and mother of three, one of the clearest thinkers I know, who navigates surgeries, school pickups and nursing with grace. “We’re doing Delta now; what happens when Gamma comes around? At least last year you knew what camp you were in: you were strict, or you were not strict.”

For the first 12 weeks of the pandemic, after Andrew Cuomo shut down New York City, my parents’ doctor prohibited them from crossing their door jamb. My mother, ever the rock, would call me, saying: “I’m walking two miles around the coffee table while listening to Vivaldi!” But we were desperate to be together. So when a friend called with the news that he had two cottages side-by-side on his property with our names on them, we jumped at the chance. What was supposed to be a few weeks of reunion turned into six months of isolating together, much of it idyllic, a multigenerational oasis.

Was it all wonderful? No. But at least the stakes were obvious.

On a walk with my mother recently, after we passed a man on a unicycle wearing large, furry cat ears and a jumpsuit, she said, “We all assumed this thing would be over, that we’d be back to normal life this fall, but now that we’re all still wandering around in masks we’ve gone a little crazy!”

Am I going a little crazy? I’m not wearing fuzzy cat ears – yet – but I whipsaw from the ecstasy of seeing my daughters cradle their new baby brother to erupting that Dave has put the berries away in the wrong part of the fridge. Yes, the baby came with accompanying maternal hormones, but they’re just gasoline on a fire that is burning all on its own.

I contacted Barry Schwartz – a psychologist who has spent much of his career exploring how the modern world plagues our psyche, and who has written several books, including The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, and Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing to get his take on my constant simmering crazy.

He started off our Zoom with a quick, Psych 101 lesson about the difference between fear and anxiety.

“The terms are quite different, but in popular discourse, people don’t make a distinction,” he said. “There is an object to fear. You are afraid of something. The thing of anxiety is you’re afraid of everything. You don’t know what you’re afraid of.”

Last year, we feared the disease. When we were told to lock down, we locked down. When I was told that if I didn’t isolate with my parents, I couldn’t see them or else we might expose them to the disease and kill them, we moved in together. That fear has been replaced by anxiety, which doesn’t have a single culprit. And in today’s world, that anxiety is amped up to 11.

“I call it ‘radical uncertainty’ because we can’t attach odds to outcomes,” Schwartz continued. “There is a sense that no matter how rational you try to be, and no matter how much information you seek, you’re not able to reduce uncertainty. That creates a kind of unease that is much, much worse than before.”

Though the effects remain unknown, Schwartz is concerned that this seismic shift in our collective understanding of the world will result in lingering pathologies that may take years to play out. In the interim, he’s doing his best to make risk calculations, which in his case means seeing his grandkids, but not going to the theater.

“I acknowledge the risk is minuscule, but there’s no upside to justify it,” he told me. “What it comes down to is asking yourself what really matters, and categorically rejecting everything else until things settle out.” It’s a hard line, but a clear one. And one that mitigates some of the uncertainty, tradeoffs be damned.

We found the dollhouse mama before bed the other night. She’d somehow fallen into the bucket of stuffed animals, where she’d been floating around next to giant hedgehogs and bunnies. The preschooler fished her out and promptly deposited her in the miniature bathroom, where she’s currently lying prostrate on the floor. But at least she’s home.

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