MARC Clinical Director Dr. Jennifer Richards’ Reflections on COVID-19
When all this COVID madness started, I do what I always do – I jumped into action. When MARC’s Executive Director made the decision that it was time for our IOP to move into a virtual space, it was developed, organized, and communicated about by the end of business that day. In the early days, as my team was struggling with a surge of anxiety fueled by illness or potential illness of loved ones, concerns about safety, health, and wellbeing, job stability, and uncertainty, I went into my mother-wolf mode. This is a very familiar and comfortable place for me to be. I am going to provide for and protect my team in any possible way that I can and try to create a physically and emotionally safe environment for them so they can continue to do the life-saving work we provide at MARC. I reached out to trusted friends and colleagues to see how they were handling things and supporting their teams. I looked to see what Brene Brown, Glennon Doyle, and others I draw inspiration from were advising. And then I did my best to do those things. In addition to our weekly group supervision, my team started coming together an additional two times weekly for COVID Support meetings. This became a space to talk about any changes in precautionary measures or procedures at MARC, to discuss best ways to manage the dramatically changing lives of our patients, to check in on the health and welfare of the team and their loved ones, and to inventory who was low on toilet paper, disinfectant wipes, or other essential supplies, followed by a plan to make sure the needed item made it to the right person asap.
Right from the start I focused on what I was grateful for. I had countless conversations with people assuring them that I was completely fine – like a script I noted that I really had nothing whatsoever to be upset about. I have a secure job, my husband has a secure job, and my children are too young to really be affected by the changes. And this is all true and I am truly grateful for it. I do not have to worry about keeping a roof over my head or feeding my family. I get to go into MARC every day and do work that feeds my brain, my heart, and my soul – I get to be surrounded by a team of colleagues that I gain strength and inspiration from when so many others are isolated and disconnected. I made some videos about cultivating calm and strategies for responding effectively to COVID that were posted on social media and I was trying my best to practice these principles daily. As an extrovert who is always out of the house and with others, I thought the weekends would be tough, but they really weren’t at all. I was grateful for the good weather, outside projects, and time playing with my children. I would tell people that if this happened in the winter it would have been really tough for me, but thank goodness it’s spring, I’m fine! And as the weeks passed and our new way of operating normalized as much as it can, the anxiety lowered, and the team at MARC shifted from two COVID Support meetings weekly to one COVID Support meeting. Everything was FINE.
About 3 weeks ago late in the evening I received an email from a colleague with an attached update from the World Health Organization (WHO) that clarified details about a conversation we were having earlier. Basically, I had been hopeful about something and the WHO information decisively shattered that hope. I simply wrote back, “This whole thing is so discouraging” and went to sleep. In the morning, the first thing I looked at was his response back to me. I have a great relationship with him and I am certain he was trying to offer me support, but I interpreted his response as a “there, there”/pat on the head/people have it much worse than you” response and, in that moment, I experienced a wave of intense anger (read fear) and sadness. My eyes welled up with tears and kept welling up with tears while I was getting ready, on my drive to work, and once I got to work. After I got to work I couldn’t hold them back. My colleague had inadvertently opened the floodgates and as I started typing a response, I couldn’t believe what I was typing. Thoughts were flowing onto the screen that I hadn’t even realized I was having.
I was tired of focusing on what I’m grateful for, of not being able to go to the grocery store or run basic errands. I was worried sick about the fact that my son is missing pre-school, sad that he is missing soccer and lacrosse, feeling way too stressed to try to fit in 5 lessons weekly with him when I work full time and can only do them on the weekends. I was tired of feeling like I’m not enough, distressed my kids are watching TV way more than usual, worried about how my kids manage on rainy days cooped up inside all day, upset about not seeing my mother for my birthday when I only get to see her a few times a year, and missing my friends terribly. I was worried that my husband, who is a teacher, is having such limited contact with others, worried I’m getting more easily frustrated, upset about canceling a trip with my daughter to visit dear friends I haven’t seen in a while. I was concerned about patients and alumni relapsing or suffering from their addiction in isolation, worried about my staff that are working very hard to manage the uncertainty in their own lives while continuing to provide stability for the patients, missing out on professional trainings and opportunities to connect with old friends and colleagues…and pretending that none of this should matter because we have jobs, we are healthy, our kids are safe, and there are people in WAY worse circumstances. It might have been one of the longest emails I’ve ever written! I ended with, “Is there plenty I have to be grateful for right now? Absolutely, but right now I’m just down and that’s okay too.”
I’m pretty sure I shocked the recipient of the email who did not anticipate triggering me. I definitely surprised myself. I consider myself pretty self-aware, but I had no idea I was hurting so much. This realization immediately took me back to a previously learned lesson. Back in 2014, during a professional’s weekend at a treatment center, I had the privilege of participating in Encounter in the Clouds with Bobby Chapman. This is an experiential activity developed by Bobby during which you jump off a 70-foot dam in the middle of the woods that was built by slaves during the Civil War. It is an intensely emotional place. We completed this activity in small groups one at a time. And I did what I do best – I instantly took a leadership role in getting the others prepared – from providing support to anxious individuals, to physically helping others get their safety gear on, to taking videos of each participant’s experience – I was in control. Then came my turn. I put on the gear no problem, easily climbed up the ladder with a huge smile on my face, shimmied over to where Bobby was sitting, and slowly turned around to be facing outward. And then I experienced one of the most powerful surges of emotion I had ever experienced. I was crying so hard I don’t know how I didn’t just fall off the dam.
My entire body was trembling, I couldn’t see because of all the tears, and I had no clue what was going on. Over the next 30 minutes Bobby guided me through a life-changing experience and when I finally got the courage to jump off the dam I knew in order to grow as a leader I needed to start honoring a side of myself that I had neglected for far too long. I realized that not only can I be a leader and be vulnerable at the same time, being more vulnerable was necessary to grow into the leader I truly wished to be. Fast forward to the present. Lesson relearned: I’m still human.
Work is my safe space – it has always been where I feel the most confident and competent. And crises might be where I do my best work because I can remain calm, operate from problem-solving mode, and typically come up with good solutions that make people feel safe. But it’s also really easy for me to use work to hide behind or mask what is going on inside of myself. What this experience has helped me re-learn (because I haven’t completely caught on the first 10+ times the universe has tried to teach me) is that I can be both a capable leader that has many things to be grateful for AND honor my grief/worry about all of the things that have changed or aren’t going as planned. In fact, I can only be a capable leader if I do that. I recently heard Miles Adcox from Onsite Workshops say two of the most powerful words in the English language are “me too.” Yeah, I hear you Miles and I’m hurting/worried/unsure too, just like everyone else. I can take care of people and honor our common humanity and struggle.
After I sent that email it left the floodgates open for about 2 days. I felt emotionally and mentally drained as I let myself experience all the feelings I had let build up. And then on the third day I woke up feeling better, feeling more balanced, knowing that grateful and sad could co-exist. I’m still trying to cultivate calm, I’m still showing up for my team and my MARC family, I’m still solving problems, I’m still starting my day by sending out a daily meditation to the MARC staff and completing a quick gratitude list, but I’m also checking in with myself, feeling my feelings, sharing my grief and worry openly, and thanking these feelings for being such excellent teachers.
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