Recently, I sat with coffee in hand with a dear friend. Winter starting to melt under the sun’s warm, uplifting brightness. Those rays filling us with a sense of new beginnings, deep breaths, letting go, and moving forward.
We cupped our coffees, a residual comforting habit from those frosty mornings from winter’s frigid abyss. We let ourselves thaw, letting go of weighted heavy layers, unfolding those cocoons we had weaved around ourselves from colder days.
It has been a long season, we agreed. The temperature being the last thing on our minds. There have been lows and highs. Sometimes, the low lows dipping farther and staying longer than we could have anticipated. Sometimes, finding the path out the other side more winding and less paved than we hoped.
In this time we sat together, we let go of any “I’m fine” neighborly banter. We never discussed the weather. We told our truths. We led each other into the hard and let it be known that we were not in fact holding everything together behind a shiny bow. Our bows were loose, worn, fraying at the edges.
There is undoubtedly so much good and so much to be thankful for, but sometimes it is okay to acknowledge that what has brought you to the other side of a season, what has broken you down and left you with pieces to mend is just part of your truth. Those feelings are valid. We have all been through it to varying degrees. We are all getting through it.
I think back to a year ago. Keeping patients comfortably breathing, keeping them alive, keeping the rest of us safe and healthy was an unbearable responsibility that filled me with crippling anxiety. It flooded into my nights and the low, pounding bass of my insomnia was untamable. These feelings that had never been a prominent part of my emotional vocabulary now clutched tightly to me and held me captive. My ability to compartmentalize becoming my most deployed and essential tactic, like gasping breaths to keep me afloat and steady.
Over time, with the help of dedicated scientists, medicine, hard working essential workers, improved PPE stockpiles, and the community that has surrounded me, those gasping breaths have calmed. Sleepless nights have become full nights again woken by an alarm.
During these times, what kept me strong was the immense amount of love that enveloped me and held me upright. The love of my husband and the inevitably contagious joy of my kids that filled me from my toes on up. The kindness and care I received from my community. The check-ins, the front door drops, the uplifting messages that let me know I was not alone. I was supported, lifted up, and most importantly, I never felt alone. That was truly the greatest fuel to keep me strong. Sure, it was messy and never picturesque, but I was part of a greater community that let it be known that they were walking right alongside of me. So I moved forward, because this grind required all of our wheels to keep moving forward.
But I have wondered, what if I did not have this community? What if I did not have this dear friend here to talk about truths and let me cry? What if I leaned and there was nothing to lean on and I fell farther down a deep hole? Or worse, what if a community surrounded me but I still felt unheard and unseen? What if I felt like I could not let anyone in and no one knew I was falling?
Last night, I learned about the passing by suicide of a young, brilliant physician. A mother, a wife, a vibrant member of a community. This loss hit me in the chest and sucked away my breath. I did not know her personally, but every female healthcare provider is part of the same united community. We are here for each other. We know the hard is hard, and also that the good is beyond rewarding. The challenges of being a female provider are a collection of nuanced uphill climbs that make a collective steep mountain for us to summit. The boulders that have been placed in our way this last year have made it all that much of a rockier terrain, as it has for everyone in so many ways.
This year has also been one that has placed a much-needed spotlight on mental health. Mental illness is an unapologetic part of so many worlds. Whether loud or whispered, acknowledged or ignored, it is ever present. May we allow it to be spoken about in a safe space so we can start to better understand how it significantly affects those we love and our community.
On the other side of this year of greater hardships has been a slow release. The pressure grew, expanded and now, it is starting its tentative release. The hiss initially quiet grows louder. Sometimes, this slow release of pressure explodes. It becomes unmanageable and those breakthrough tears are more than just that. I have no insight into what led to the suicide of this female physician within my local community. But I imagine that maybe her slow release became too strong and overwhelming. I often think about one of my colleagues who said in passing, “post-traumatic stress disorder is identified as post-traumatic for a reason.”
On the other side of adrenaline, stress, and getting through any trauma is a let down of everything you have been holding tightly to your chest. It is a let down that has sometimes brought me to tears. It is a let down that has sometimes sent waves of sadness over me. It is a let down that has allowed those compartmentalized memories to become disorderly and break down the iron doors at the gates.
People have died. Loved ones have been lost. People have struggled to breathe, cope, and endure. Sometimes they have won after weeks and months. Sometimes they have lost. There has been despair. There has been anxiety. There has been unknown which breeds the worst kind of fear. There has been isolation and loneliness that has left people feeling broken.
I have taken each of these pieces of tragedy that I have encountered and cupped them in my hands. I have soothed them and placed them gently and carefully in a compartmentalized box. Once in awhile, they spill out, and they remind me of all the sorrow that has left dark staccato spots throughout the filmstrip of this year.
As we all process the events of this last year, a new set of emotions has surfaced to greet us. For some, it is filled with insurmountable grief, loss, and tragedy. For some, it is knowing where to begin to heal from this past year’s fear, anxiety, and loneliness. For some, it is hope.
As I look back, I am reminded of recent coffee with my dear friend. We talked a lot about holding space for those we love and what that means to us. Holding space is letting go of judgment. Not trying to “fix” or change anyone. Holding space is letting go of comparisons. It is being present. It is seeing one another. Hearing one another. Validating all the emotions that exist in a person’s truth. Holding space is creating a safe space for one to be him or herself. No questions. No criticism. Just friendship with no strings attached. I have found this to be the thing I have needed most this past year. A rope for which I can steady myself and that helps pull me forward. Not a tug of war that leaves me doubting and exhausted.
In processing this all, a few things are clear to me. Let’s be careful with one another and listen. Let those around you know you are ready to be present for them. Know that your emotions are valid and worth talking about. Everyone has been through something, big or small. My hard may look vastly different from your hard, but each is laced with a complex set of emotions and coping. We truly don’t know what we are each managing on a daily basis, so let’s just hold space for one another.