In the summer of 2013, I received the most ludicrous phone call of my life. It was from a Garda who informed me that I had been fined €1,400 and sentenced to seven days in prison for three violations of the Road Traffic Act, non-payment of fines and contempt of court for not responding to a court summons. The truth of the matter was that I didn’t own the car in question and the fines and summons were delivered to a house that I no longer lived in. This was the first I had heard of it. To the courts, however, that didn’t matter. I had been tried and convicted and, since it had all happened in 2012, the time for appeal had passed. What I had to do was pay my bail (a surreal experience) and file for an extension to appeal. I did and was told that my case would be heard two months later. I’ve struggled with anxiety on and off for several years, but those two months were among the worst of my life. Every night I would struggle to fall asleep thinking about it and every morning it would hit me again like a tidal wave. It was brutal.
Anxiety is something that our society was struggling to come to terms with long before COVID-19 and the way the crisis has turned our lives upside-down is causing a spike in anxiety for every demographic.
My anxiety is at its worst when I buy into the myth that I can control everything. I can’t. You can’t. We can’t. All we can do is what we can. What’s frustrating is that knowing this doesn’t remove our anxiety. However, we can build practices that can help us to overcome our anxiety. Or at least manage it.
Practice #1: Own it.
You are living through a pandemic. You are being bombarded with statistics of illness and death. You are witnessing the knock-on effects of illness, separation, financial insecurity and loss. What we are experiencing is traumatic. It’s ok to be afraid. It’s ok to be anxious. It’s a natural response to a terrifying situation. You are not wrong to feel this way and denying it will only make you feel worse. Let yourself feel what you’re feeling.
Practice #2: Do What You Can.
Do the things that are most likely to keep you and those you love safe. Wash your hands. Stay at home. Practice social distancing. Those are obvious at this stage. But it’s also helpful to do things that take you away from the ‘fight or flight’ response we feel when we feel we are in danger. Talk to someone you trust. Make breakfast. Take showers. Draw. Play music. Sing terribly. Do normal things that remind you of the things that make life good, meaningful and beautiful. Our body’s ability to respond to crisis is incredible but our physical response to crises cannot be maintained indefinitely without taking a huge toll on our physical and mental health.
Practice #3: Self-Forgiveness:
Most of us have mental images of who we would be in a crisis that differ drastically from our experience in reality. I bought expensive running shoes at Christmas and now would be the perfect time for me to use them. They’re gathering dust and that’s ok. Some days I’ll run. (OK fine — someday I will run.) Some days a walk is a win. Some days just getting out of bed and facing the world (through my window) is a win. Adjust your expectations of yourself. This crisis is not another test that you’re going to be judged on. It’s a traumatic event that the world is enduring. No one is keeping score of your performance and you’re not being judged on your ability to master it.
Practice #4: Acceptance
I walked into court on that day in July armed with everything I could find. I had a letter from my landlord saying I didn’t live in the apartment they sent the fines to. I had documents from the Department of Transport saying I didn’t own the car that had received the fines. But, at the end of the day, I couldn’t control what would happen next. I was terrified. But in the days leading up to the trial, I had also learned to sleep and eat again. I knew that I had done everything I could. I could not control what would happen next. Admitting that was hard but it helped.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus asks an insightful question: “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to the span of your life?” I love that. But I still worry. My friend Lance has a wonderful line about fear: “Fear is interest paid on debts you don’t owe.” I love that too. But I’m still afraid.
What I’m trying to figure out is how to let my worry, my fear and my anxiety speak to me during this time … and yet not let them have the final word on how I live, act and feel.
It being Easter and all, I am going to mention Jesus again. The first place he appears to the disciples after his resurrection is an upper room where they are cowering in fear from the outside world (#relevant) and the first thing that he says to them is ‘Peace be with you.’ I wish for all the world that I could promise you protection, healing and safety in the midst of this crisis. I can’t. But I hope that, wherever you are, you are able to find comfort, rest and, most importantly, peace. If you need someone to talk to as you process everything you’re feeling, the chaplains, student advisers and health and counselling are all available to support you. If you want to talk to the chaplain who nearly (but crucially, didn’t) go to prison, you can contact me too.
Scott Evans – UCD Chaplain