Tanzina Vega: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Tanzina Vega. The coronavirus pandemic has forced many of us to reflect on the support systems in our lives. It definitely has for me. I became a new mom just a few weeks before COVID-19 tore through New York City in the early spring, and because of orders to shelter in place, my support system fell apart and I became my son's sole caretaker. The pandemic made me realize just how fragile our social networks can be, but as it continues through the fall and winter, I'm also realizing how critical those systems are to our overall survival. I'm not the only one who's been reflecting on the help we're giving and receiving during this time.
Christie: Hi, this is Christie from Oklahoma city. I haven't been doing very well. I'm struggling to get things done outside of work. I have bipolar disorder and it's been tough dealing with the depression from the pandemic, my own depression, and seasonal depression. I'm trying my best to reach out to others and stay connected because no one should feel alone during this time. My mental capacity has definitely felt depleted, trying to focus, and be productive with everything that's going on. I'm definitely ready for this to lessen and for things to improve soon.
Deedee: This is Deedee [unintelligible 00:01:46] from San Francisco. The most satisfying thing I've done in the last eight months was just last weekend. My daughter's grandchildren, and I formed a team to volunteer for the San Francisco Food Bank. We must've filled over a hundred boxes in grocery bags with food for those less fortunate. When we finished our shift I was exhausted, but highly gratified since I had been feeling so helpless.
Tanzina: For more on our support networks and coping in the pandemic, I'm joined by author Nicole Chung. Nicole recently wrote about the importance of emotional support systems for the New York Times. Nicole, thanks for being with me.
Nicole Chung: Hi, Tanzina. I'm really glad to be here. Thank you.
Tanzina: Thank you. You shared a very personal story in your New York Times piece about how you were coping after your mother passed away during the pandemic, which I will offer my condolences to that. How have you been coping since? How has that evolved?
Nicole: Oh gosh. In the early weeks, I think I was moving through stages that'll be familiar to anybody who's grieved. There was definitely a lot of anger and there was some denial and I think one of the things that made it really difficult to just accept what was happening was the fact that we were in a pandemic and I felt really cut off, not just from my mother and from her caregivers across the country, but also from just my support system, which is also spread out across the country. I couldn't even see people who lived close by. It was just a really tough time to figure out how to cope and how to really stay functional in the midst of all this grief when I was feeling so isolated from everyone.
Tanzina: It's interesting that you mentioned that because our circumstances are different, but in many ways what resonated to me in your piece was how you said, at some point, you just didn't know how to accept the help. That people were trying to reach out to you and it was just all too much. I think for those of us who tend to be very self-sufficient it is hard to accept help. How was that for you? Like navigating, how that felt when people are trying to reach you and you're like, "I don't want to do this right now."
Nicole: I was always really thankful for people who were reaching out and at the same time, it's so hard when you can't be with people and when you know that everyone reaching out to you is also struggling. They're also overwhelmed. Many of them also grieving something or someone. I think it's wonderful that people are trying to reach out and be supportive across these connections. I have noticed a lot of the time really all I can do and all others can do is hold that space together, really back to basics of empathy, mirroring what the other person says and listening and talking about what they're telling you and how they feel, just making room for all of their emotions and giving language to it because we can't actually physically reach each other.
Constructive advice and practical help, these are really important things too, but sometimes it can just be most helpful to let people know you here and you're there with them, and not feel so much anxiety about whether you can concretely make things better for them.
Tanzina: This idea that comes up in your piece also is that people are trying to help in the ways that they can. I feel like that's going both ways. Talk a little bit more about that. How are people trying to help others and also help themselves and find where their limits are and what they're capable of?
Nicole: Well, this is why I was really grateful to get to talk with them helping professionals. One of them, Martha Crawford, who's a psychotherapist, I think the phrase she used that I loved was that this help is in the spirit of mutual aid. That also comes from understanding where some of our support systems were weak already or places where our infrastructure or our safety nets are being dismantled or just overwhelmed.
The spirit of emotional mutual aid that we are really who we have can be an empowering thing to remember and to move forward with together. You move out of that competitive space for resources and feeling like, "I don't have that much to give," or "I can't ask this other person who also might not have much to give." Then just say, honestly, where you're at? Do you have the capacity to be there? And let people know that you want to be there and that you're thinking of them and give what you have to give.
Tanzina: Some people [inaudible 00:06:18] things like they've come to do socially distant laundry, which I can tell you is one of the best things that's ever happened in my life. Yet those are things that require someone to be physically present. But when they can't be physically present, Nicole, how should people think about reaching out? How should people think about offering help? We heard from one of our callers who said, she went to pack food for the folks who were hungry. What other ways can people do that when they can't be physically present?
Nicole: One thing is just again, being very intentional about reaching out and about-- It can sound like administrative, but it's helped me a lot to actually make appointments with people, to spend times, because it's easy to say, "Oh, we'll catch up later," or "We'll talk again." But I have found unless I set a time it's too easy for that to fall by the wayside when everybody is so busy and overwhelmed. I think some of it too-- if you're fortunate enough to have resources to share, I've given and received a lot of material help over the past seven months and I've been really, really thankful for that.
Sometimes, it's hard knowing a friend is grieving far away and I can't actually be with them. There are people within my reach who are going through similar things. Sometimes if you can't be there for everyone, you want to be-- again, it's about finding, identifying who is within your circle within your reach, maybe within your community and how you can safely be there for them, even if you can't be there for every single person. I think so many people are operating in these pods, like community pods or even long-distance pods.
You have to be able to tell your group, your people when you need help, and recognize too. A big thing for me was, you don't have to get all the way to falling apart to ask for help. You can just have these check-ins and report how you're doing. If there are people you give freely to, there are people that you can also ask for help when you need.
Tanzina: I love this. We're going to keep listening and asking our listeners to call up with how they're coping and asking and getting help as well. Nicole Chung is the author of the memoir, All You Can Never Know. Nicole, thank you so much for sharing your experience.
Nicole: Thank you, Tanzina.
Tanzina: We're going to keep coming back to this question as the pandemic roars on, but here's what we've heard so far from you.
Lisa: This is Lisa from Little Rock, Arkansas. I'm very fortunate to be working and clean houses Monday to Saturday and have a part-time job on Saturday and Sunday. Two adult children, one with a baby who are struggling. They can't pay their utilities, their [unintelligible 00:09:07] and my anxiety is through the roof. Is the current government really going to kick my children to the streets? They are doing everything they're supposed to be doing. We're in the South and speaking for myself, I'm not sure I could contain myself as my children become homeless. I pray every day for all of us on this tiny planet in hopes that we can come back from this, but I'm not sure that we can.
Joe: Hi. My name is Joe [unintelligible 00:09:36] and I'm from Boonville, California. My grandson visited a few days ago. We stayed outside suitably separated, but didn't wear masks. He called us yesterday to tell us that one of his roommates tested positive for COVID. He was tested this morning and was told it would be two to six days for results. How am I coping? I imagine every cough, sniffle, unbalanced feeling to be assigned that I'm infected. The interminable duration of this virus is usually unnoticed, but present weight that we're carrying, that stress seems to be showing up as an accelerator to the many tensions that already exist. It's the straw that's threatening to break my back.
Hannah: Hi, this is Hannah from Levittown and I've been working from home in a new job. I know everyone's experiences are different, but I've actually been okay because unemployment equals near working two of my jobs, which I was working before the pandemic hit. I'm okay with paying my rent, but next month I might have to start looking at participating in one of the local food banks. That's a little scary to me because I've never had to do that before.
Tanzina: Others find some aspects of life easier to cope with now than before the pandemic.
Suzanne: This is Suzanne from Raleigh, North Carolina. Nothing has changed in my life for the worst because of the pandemic. In fact, if anything it's gotten better. I am now working remotely so I don't have to commute for eight hours a week. I've had more chance to bond with my family, my husband. I've had more time to take care of myself. I've lost 20 pounds during the pandemic so far. I achieved a sense of mental clarity that wasn't there when I was running around every place. I'm enjoying my life.
Tanzina: From balancing work and homeschooling to the mental health challenges of social isolation, many people's lives have become more stressful. For those in the service industry, in the many millions who have lost their jobs during this pandemic, it's been a particularly difficult time to cope.
Bella: Hi, my name is Bella. I'm from Tacoma, Washington. I own a hair salon here and coping with the pandemic has been tricky for all hairdressers because we have a state mandate that tells us we can only operate at 50% capacity. However, if we're operating, we then are not qualified to get unemployment or other assistance because if you make more money than the ridiculously low amount that they happen at, you can't get assistance. You can't make your normal amount of money and you can't operate at the level that you're supposed to, unless you want to risk making people sick, getting yourself sick, or losing your license.
Yet they won't do anything to subsidize that in order for us to be able to follow the mandate, and it's maddening
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