By Lynne Wester
Until March 13th, 2020, I lived for the skies, the highways, and heck even the railways. For the past 7 years I have lived in hotels all over the world, only coming home for laundry and to check the mail. It amounted to over 300 days a year traveling, visiting 120 cities or so and 5-10 countries annually. But that life changed with the pandemic as many of yours did and here’s my most recent trip’s story:
I clicked the check in button on my phone and am immediately paralyzed with fear.
I realize the familiar, I've done this hundreds of times before. But this time it feels different. The QR code for my boarding pass is staring back at me. After 6 months on Grand Cayman working, living, laughing, and escaping reality I'm US bound once again. I'm masked, vaccinated and tested but that doesn't protect me from my anxiety. I had less when I went to Indonesia for Pete's sake. I've got my same gear—all my professional traveler equipment and creature comforts. So why does this feel so different? I'm going to Austin through Miami, something I've done before. But flying now feels different, travel feels alienating and something I'm not sure about. What is this pit in my stomach?
I know the real reason but, frankly, it's hard to talk about. Six months ago I left the US in the middle of the COVID pandemic, not in a good place with my mental health. I've had an anxiety disorder for a few decades now and even suffered a nervous break down a few years ago. But this was different. The pandemic made me feel isolated, distrustful of people and things I knew to be safe and reliable and took me away from the things and people I loved the most. I was suffering and didn't have an answer. I would spend days in my apartment and never touch the door out of fear. My family, friends, doctors, clients and even strangers were supportive and helpful but it didn't solve the problem. I knew I needed a drastic change for my health—but how? I knew I couldn't stay in suffering much longer. My life wasn't bad but no matter where I searched joy wasn't to be found. I needed to make a living, support the families that count on me, run my business, and I deserved to be happy.
So I went, all alone, to an island that was COVID free and living a more normal existence. After a two month application process and a mound of paperwork, I was accepted into the global citizen program here in Grand Cayman. On the way I got tested, saw my parents for the first time in almost a year, and pretended I was braver than I was. I've moved a lot in my life, but leaving my country behind? The familiarity of a two cheeseburger meal? Yes, I'll admit I knew I was going to a tropical paradise and there would be friends here to greet me when I emerged out of quarantine, but what would the day to day be like? How could I just leave my life behind? Would I be able to find the balance and mental health I was seeking?
And now as I visit but not yet re-enter my pre-pandemic life, I still have so many questions. I've made the decision not to return until at least the beginning of 2022, but I am worried about my existence and my joy. How will I find balance and divide my time? What will I do when my life exists of hotels and flights and delays and lounges again? And the clothing, oh the clothing!! I dread sleeves and close-toed shoes and anything with belts! Maybe I'm getting ahead of myself here, but I can imagine many of you are feeling the same way about reentering your physical workspace.
I'm sharing my story with you because I want to normalize us talking about our mental health and self care. It's been a rough 16 months and healing can be slow. It's ok to be exactly where you are and how you feel. Remember this when it comes to your employees, teammates, coworkers, and donors. Extend compassion not just to others but to yourself as well. And if you are not feeling joy, don't be afraid to ask for help. Professionally or personally, there are resources out there that make a difference. Sometimes we need to make small changes in our routine or life in order to cope. And sometimes, you gotta find it where you can, even if it's in the sunshine and sand.
What have you done to protect your joy and look after your mental health during the pandemic? When you think about post-pandemic life, what are you excited about? What are you anxious about? I'd love to hear more about how you have coped this year, and what you've learned during pandemic life that you'll do differently moving forward—for me, it's balance. A lot more balance, and a lot less travel.
Never be afraid to reach out for help when it comes to your mental health. Here are some resources you can turn to:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline - 800-273-8255
The Center for Anxiety and OCD - https://www.caocd.com
American Psychological Association - https://www.apa.org/
Anxiety and Depression Association of America - https://adaa.org/
BetterHelp - https://www.betterhelp.com/
Your organization's Employee Assistance Program
Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Dr. Kristin Neff