One doesn’t need to be a mental health professional to recognize that the coronavirus outbreak creates a particularly difficult set of challenges for us as humans. As the pandemic spreads, many aspects of our formerly orderly lives, even here in idyllic West Marin, remain in chaos. Ample research shows us that social distancing stands in contrast to one of the key aspects to people’s overall physical and emotional well-being—our ability to maintain relationships and interpersonal connection and our need to gather. Combine this with financial instability, job loss, and the one-two punch of fear and panic, and we have a strong potential to develop, over time, serious health issues like clinical depression and anxiety.
It was with these concerns in my mind that, three weeks ago, the first Monday morning of the shelter-in-place order found me hastily huddled over my brand-new work laptop in my sunroom, having shifted my entire clinical practice in a span of hours to remote visits. As a behavioral health provider at our community health center, I am often looked to for reassurance. But as my children thumped around in their rooms “studying,” the previous night’s insomnia seemed to have flooded my veins with lead, heightening my anxiety. Given my own stress, I worried how my patients, many of whom already faced complex psycho-social challenges, were faring.
“It’s one step at a time, one step at a time,” one told me. “We’re all just trying to do the next right thing.” He laughed about how he’s learning how to do his 12-Step meetings remotely, something he previously couldn’t have imagined.
It’s a sentiment I heard echoed as the day went on; everyone is afraid, for a myriad of deeply felt reasons. And everyone wants to lead with their best self in order to cope, if possible, in a meaningful way. One patient who hates to cook told me she made an exception and prepared soup to comfort herself. Some value the distillation of time, slowed to a near stop. Some are caring for themselves through meditation, or by helping others. An elderly person told me he is self-isolating not for himself, although he knows he’s more at risk to catch the virus. He fears giving it to someone else, so he’s willing to sit with near-endless loneliness.
Many expressed concern for me and my family, and told stories of ways that people in their community—be it Bodega Bay, Bolinas or beyond—have shown up, delivering firewood, buying groceries, talking over fences. “People are just being so nice to one another,” they say. Their voices through my headset offered solace like a warm hand on my shoulder.
As I ended my last visit that day, I felt wrung out, but oddly exhilarated. It occurred to me that, despite our physical distance, we live in a community that draws its members close. The stories about the flood of ’82, when emergency shelters in Point Reyes stood empty not because there weren’t people in need, but because West Marin took care of its own, housing and feeding its neighbors, bear witness to our resiliency. Historically, even in our divisions, we have strong convictions (think: the Tomales High School mascot controversy, the fallow deer, Oystergate, and the list goes on). Compassion, fortitude, community even in isolation: This is resiliency.
Of course, this resilience is not limited to West Marin, and other communities have their own unique strengths. Nor does it exempt us from the grim consequences of the virus as it marches on. There will be more people at risk, more calls for people like me. There are struggles ahead, and we fear the unknown. But at the end of that first day, I felt hope and gratitude settle in my chest, quieting me. Because every day will bring challenges, but I will rise to meet them, I hope, with your voices in my ear, reminding me to take one step at a time, one step at a time, straight on to the next right thing.
Elizabeth O’Brien is a licensed clinical social worker at the Coastal Health Alliance. She lives in Inverness Park.