COVID-19 Broke My Hamster Wheel and I Am Better For It
Like for many people, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a mental health journey for me. If there is one thing I learned through COVID, it was that I had been a hamster on a wheel for the last decade. While the burnout for healthcare professionals and frontline workers is very real right now, the beginning of the shutdown was a pivotal moment for me to evaluate my own wellbeing and take inventory of what was working and what wasn’t. I began journaling, working out more frequently, eating healthier and all around Marie Kondo-ing my life a little bit. I reevaluated friendships that were taking instead of giving, redefined relationships in my life—including with my family—and how to show up for people in an authentic way. Now I am so much more dialed in.
Before March 2020 it was “get my to-do list done, feel very little, be productive and not worry about the consequences.” Then when the world shut down, there was a lot of fear and anxiety. It forced me to slow down and actually feel my feelings. Being a pediatrician during a pandemic meant I had to rev up my hours. On the personal side, I had to figure out a way to slow down my mind. I realized there were a lot of skeletons in the closet in terms of work-life balance, and the fact that it was just not there. I thought I was balancing everything perfectly when in reality, I felt burnt out at work, and like I wasn’t giving enough at home or to the company I co-founded with my brother, Jaanuu, which is incredibly important to me. I realized that I had a lot of anxiety that was going untreated and that I was not practicing any self care. I was always preaching about my own self-care and I was telling others about self care, but in reality I wasn’t actually putting any of it into action. That had to change. So the fourth week of COVID I started therapy.
I’ve been really open and honest about talking about these mental and emotional challenges because I was such a mental health advocate before but didn’t have my own therapist. I was the ‘show up person,’ always the one saying, “I’m good, I’m good,” which I found out later was a coping mechanism called fawning. “Fawning” is people pleasing designed to diffuse conflict, feel more secure in relationships and earn the approval of others. I’ve learned that a lot of doctors can and do struggle with fawning because they are used to putting everybody’s feelings and life before their own. This can lead to anxiety, depression, burnout and a feeling of emptiness. So once I figured out I was doing that then I didn’t have to act like everything was perfect because everything wasn’t perfect! We’re in a pandemic. I’m working crazy hours. My husband and I are both on the frontlines so there was so much fear in our household that we were going to come down with COVID, or that we would infect our kids. I felt guilty for being less available to the medical community I support through Jaanuu, but we were all out of our element. I had to reach really deep for the grace to be kind to myself—I was doing the absolute best I could in an absolutely impossible situation.
Finding those boundaries at work and finding a new gratitude in my profession was another big struggle. I have always loved my job, but being in full PPE and not being able to hug and touch babies and kids…you don’t realize how much that changes things until it does. The kids are scared of you and I wasn’t able to comfort them in the way that I normally would; it put this unfamiliar barrier between my patients and myself. Not to mention, handling the parents’ fears and anxieties in those first waves. COVID has forced me to find gratitude in a very different way than I have been the past ten years. It forced me to find new ways to comfort people and myself in this really trying time, and I do think it made patient-doctor relations stronger; however, it’s still a struggle.
I began embracing the “less is more” philosophy—less of everything else and more time at home, more time sleeping, more time working out, more time meditating, more time in a quiet space. The past decade, I had no idea what I was experiencing because I thought having a really positive outlook was how I was “feeling.” Deep down, I really, truly felt that way but it was because I never allowed myself the time to sit down and process my emotions. So now, I’m more in touch with my mental state because I have given myself the space to say, “Actually, I’m not doing that great today.” Now it’s okay to be neutral. We have this range of emotions and I wasn’t using them, and the only way we can really know how we’re feeling is to allow ourselves that grace to slow down—this has been so empowering.
I also never asked for help—not from my husband, colleagues, nurses or family. I felt I needed to be the provider of all things to everyone. Now I’m really quick to say, “Can you help me?” All of these moments of asking for support have helped me create deeper relationships with friends, family, and even my Jaanuu community because for the first time, they’re seeing my vulnerable side. I remind myself that the people that love you want to help you, and that has been a tough thing for me to learn. I always thought asking for help meant being weak. In reality, I was drained and making myself run on fumes versus being able to take a few things off my plate and then add things back in that really motivated and fueled me.
This self awareness journey has been just that, a journey. There have been many demons brought to the forefront that I didn’t want to deal with. No one wants to talk about their trauma and triggers, no one wants to talk about why they feel what they feel—digging deep into the past and doing the work to heal those traumas can be exhausting. On the other end, you get the beauty of living life with more purpose and vulnerability. My relationship with people and my gratitude for my work as a pediatrician and with Jaanuu is exponential because it’s coming from a real place. COVID-19 dealt us a nasty hand these past two years, and collectively we are suffering and confused with how to process. But, if there is one thing I am grateful for during this time, it is that I was shaken out of simply moving through life and into a better, more authentic version of myself. For that I am grateful.