Different Boats, Same Advice

I recently listened to a “Self-Care in the Age of COVID-19” talk, and the presenter mentioned something that bothers her about today’s pandemic dialogue. “People keep saying we’re all in the same boat,” she stated, “but that’s not the right metaphor. It’s more accurate to say we’re all in the same storm. We’re in very different boats.” Her words rang true for me, as I’m sure they did for all the mental health workers tuned in to the training. Over the past several weeks, I’ve counseled folks captaining a vast array of boats – from luxurious yachts to driftwood pieces lashed together with twine – all trying to stay afloat through a prolonged, deadly storm.

There’s a lot of advice being batted around on how best to get through this time. “Take the opportunity to deep clean your house and learn a new language!” is often countered with: “Don’t stress about productivity. If you get through the day, you’re doing just fine.” “Go outside and take long walks!” is met with: “If you go outside, someone is definitely going to sneeze straight into your mouth.”

Since the dawn of the pandemic, I’ve landed on just one piece of advice, but I believe it’s a solid one, and there is no true counterargument. It’s simply this:

Breathe in through your nose…

…and out through your mouth.

Breathe in through your nose…

…and out through your mouth.

When negative, intrusive thoughts try to capture your attention, make note of them and put them aside.

Breathe in through your nose…

…and out through your mouth.

In through your nose…

…and out through your mouth.

If you haven’t breathed properly in a long time, by now you probably feel pretty high. But keep going. That’s just oxygen doing its thing.

Breathe in through your nose…

…and out through your mouth.

In through your nose…

…and out through your mouth.

That’s it. Keep breathing. It won’t change our current circumstances, but it will keep you calmer, more rational, and better able to face what comes. In a time full of fears and unknowns, sometimes the simplest actions are the best option we have.

Special Treat Day

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When I went to live on Orcas Island in the fall of 2012, I knew it was time to make some changes. In a recent moment of self-reflection, I’d come to understand that I’d placed myself on a psychological hamster wheel several years before, and it was time to leap off. So the second the ferry docked on the island, I thought, Okay, I’m making two personal commitments. One: I will abandon worry. Two: I will practice self-care. Easy enough. Then I laughed in my head for a really long time.

As a professional, I had focused on self-care for years (to be clear: other people’s self-care. Not my own, silly). I was even invited by a variety of community agencies to conduct trainings on that topic, which I secretly found hilarious since I didn’t practice what I preached AT ALL. During the trainings, I’d hear the words coming out of my mouth and think, This woman makes sense. I should listen to her. But I didn’t.

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As it turned out, Orcas was a magical wonderland, so the first step – abandoning worry – was easier than expected. Worry is both uncomfortable and counterproductive, so my rational self kicked it to the curb with relative ease, despite a lifetime of honing the art of fretful self-torture. Whenever I caught myself envisioning a series of potential worst case scenarios (I am extremely skilled at that), I engaged helpful mantras like, “That’s not gonna happen,” or, “Stop it, Kelly. That’s a bad Kelly.”

I was similarly structured about the self-care commitment, in that I scheduled it in on a weekly basis. Every Thursday was designated as Special Treat Day, and I allotted myself $20 to do with as I wished. For the remainder of the week, I spent money only on groceries and gasoline. My stomping grounds were the woods, the waterfront, my house, the local animal shelter where I volunteered, and the library.

527506_284064841704487_1019327406_nLibby & Shadow Me on the Eastsound waterfront

But on Special Treat Day, I explored non-free ventures. The San Juan Islands are touristy and expensive, so the $20 didn’t go too far, but I still had opportunities to eat food I hadn’t prepared myself and sip fancy coffee drinks, and it felt downright luxurious. Sometimes I didn’t even spend the $20. I’d just grab a cookie at Teezer’s and travel to parts of the island that were outside of my normal routine.

390112_298845763559728_98026084_nLike the lovely Olga Pier, for example

When I found out that walk-on passengers could ferry from island to island for free, I began to plan Special Treat Days off Orcas. The best one took place on Lopez Island, a sweet little place where everyone waves from their cars (you can find this information in every article ever written about Lopez Island). It was 4 miles from the ferry landing to town, so I had plenty of opportunities to exchange waves with passing motorists as I walked along the beautiful, bucolic terrain.

223208_284065208371117_1843583133_nPracticing the Lopez Wave upon arrival

When I finally got to town, I discovered that both of the places I’d planned to go (a cafe and a vineyard) were only open on weekends, but I didn’t care because it was Special Treat Day, and being disappointed on a day with that name is unacceptable. Instead of having sad feelings, I changed course and decided to take a different route back to the ferry. While I tried (and failed) to find a trail to the beach, I came upon a herd of adorable, horned fuzzballs.

149614_284065528371085_2089998726_nWho needs a beach when you’ve got wooly cows?

I also found a cool park and a really nice mushroom.

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So it turned out to be a good day, anyhow, and since then I’ve dreamed of returning to Lopez Island, ideally for a few months, to wander around, wave at strangers, go to that vineyard, and write the third book of Aret.

546995_300074756770162_760503568_nShadow Me (bottom left) on a Special Treat Day in Moran State Park

If it’s at all possible, I highly recommend incorporating a regular self-treating experience into your life. If you can’t manage every week, try for once a month, or however often is feasible. Looking forward to something – even if it’s just a cookie – can have a marvelous effect on one’s mental health. (I now say that from experience, not just as a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do trainer.)

However, if you should happen to name your self-treating venture “Special Treat Day,” I do not recommend ever abbreviating it. I did that once in my journal, and…that didn’t happen again. The day really loses its magic when you see the words: I’m so excited for my STD.