I spent the month of June 2014 learning what it meant to be neutropenic and to live in isolation. I had just been diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of sarcoma and was living at the Seattle Ronald McDonald House with my mom. For the next six months I spent almost all of my time either in my room at Ronald McDonald House or at the hospital. When I did go out I had to be careful to avoid other people, only eat food that had been prepared in a way that limited possible exposure to infection, and I didn’t touch any surfaces in public with my bare hands. It felt like everything I did was dictated by limiting my risk for infections.
Living in Seattle the past 6 weeks has felt very familiar. I haven’t been able to see my friends or family unless it is over Zoom. I am limiting the amount of time I spend in stores to just picking up essentials. I’ve been washing my hands so often that they are dry and cracked. What feels different this time though is that nearly everyone else I know is doing all of these things too. I am lucky enough to have a functioning immune system and a job in healthcare as a social worker that I absolutely love. Yet, I still find my mind wandering back to 2014; feeling like I am right back in it again.
“If you are anything like me and the past few weeks have felt uncomfortably familiar, I don’t think we are alone and there are some ways that we can make this better.
While we still don’t know a lot about the impact of COVID-19 on our mental health or its long-term impacts, it doesn’t seem unlikely that this type of collective trauma on a global scale would bring up memories of past medical traumas or experiences. So, if you are anything like me and the past few weeks have felt uncomfortably familiar I don’t think we are alone and there are some ways that we can make this better.
Find your community. One of the things that I really struggled with when I was going through treatment was to find a community of other people who understood what I was going through. This is one thing that Teen Cancer America has been able to provide me with and I am so grateful. I’ve been part of the young advocates group for about a year now. I have loved getting to connect with other young adults who have gone through treatment across the U.S. TCA is now offering weekly game nights as a way to connect with other young adults while we are going through all of this.
Meditation. I will admit that when this was first recommended to me by my therapist I rolled my eyes. It feels like everyone at some point or another had offered up meditation as a cure all for whatever difficult feelings I was having. It doesn’t work to fix everything, but it can help. I’ve been using apps like Headspace to help get me through periods when I am feeling more acutely anxious but if you don’t want to pay for a subscription they have a great free option and there are a lot of other apps and websites that offer similar services like, UCLA mindfulness meditations(https://www.uclahealth.org/marc/mindful-meditations) and Calm.
Let yourself feel. Lately it seems like I have felt every single emotion a person can have by 10:00 in the morning. It is exhausting. I find myself feeling like I am right back in the thick of treatment experiencing a level of exhaustion that I haven’t felt in years. Some moments I feel incredibly grateful. I am still able to go into work, my body has a functioning immune system, and I know that I will be able to pay all of my bills this month. Mostly though, I’ve been feeling lonely. Currently I am living alone so the only time I am around other people is when I am at work, but even then my contact with the teams I work with and my patients has been cut back to limit the risk of exposure. I miss seeing the patients and families that I work with and I miss spending time with my friends and family. Much like when I went through treatment, if I don’t allow myself the space to feel all of these difficult emotions I know that it will end up feeling like the worst game of whack-a-mole. They will pop back up again in a few weeks or months. When those emotions feel too big an ugly to handle on your own, reach out to other people. None of us have to go through this on our own.
This is an unprecedented time in our world but if it feels eerily familiar, like you are back in treatment again, please know that you are not alone. I am right there with you and if it’s after 10:00 I’ve probably felt every emotion I can. Me and everyone else at TCA are rooting for you and we know that you will make it through this because you can do hard things. We are with you in this fight and the rest of them that might come. And if you are free on Thursday nights TCA will bring the games.
If you are experiencing a mental health crisis or thoughts of self harm, please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Line (800-273-TALK (8255)). You can also text NAMI to 741-741 to connect with a crisis counselor.