By JESSICA KEITH | Uptown News
I had a newborn baby and a toddler and believed I was dying. I choked on every breath assuming it would be my last. I couldn’t leave my home. I couldn’t drive to the beach or go to the grocery store. It wasn’t safe outside. This was in the year 2014. It wasn’t the government telling us to ‘shelter in place’ for safety. It was my mind. I was suffering postpartum anxiety and agoraphobia, the thoughts and fear that nowhere is safe.
I believed the pain would never end as relief was nowhere in sight. I couldn’t manage the unfamiliar barriers and restrictions my mind was putting on me. Recognizing the signs, my OBGYN directed me to get help. Partnered with medication, I began cognitive behavioral therapy, practicing techniques to calm my mind, and to challenge my thoughts. But the mental illness had taken over my body, holding it hostage. I wondered if any of these tricks and tools would ever start to work.
Six years later, we are in the midst of a pandemic and similar to anxiety, the virus escalated quickly, giving people an overwhelming feeling that it will never end. Welcome to my world.
Currently, I’m teaching college students, now online, while schooling my three young children (ages 2, 5, and 8). Putting my children to sleep, I told a bedtime story, as we all lay down, under the covers, with our eyes closed. I made up an adventure going through the letters of the alphabet. “At the zoo an Alligator named Allie told me to go see a Bear named Barry. He told me to look for a Cougar named Carrie. She told me to look for a Dolphin named Daphne.” When I got to the letter M, my three children were asleep and I felt relaxed. Distracting my thoughts, focusing on a mental exercise, was one of the tools I learned in my treatment.
Scrolling through social media during this pandemic, I began recognizing a number of recommendations I realized I had already integrated into my daily plan. Instead of overwhelming my thoughts with the depths of an unknown future, Monday through Friday, we are following a schedule. The toddler is our alarm clock at 6:30 a.m., cueing us all to wake up. We then get dressed and make beds before breakfast. A “school” day plan is on a dry erase board. Amid the chaos, I have been putting order in my day. In the evenings, when I can, I go for a walk outside and call a friend. Exercise is an excellent stress reliever and feeling the fresh air keeps me in the current moment. At the same time, the conversation keeps me connected to a support system. All of these little steps, remind me that taking them day by day, will help keep me healthy.
Unlike years before, now, I am mentally prepared. I can’t see the end of this pandemic, but I know through dealing with my anxiety, it can’t last forever. Challenging my mindset was one of the tools I learned in the treatment. I am not stuck at home like I was before. I am safe at home, doing my part to keep others healthy.
To stay on top of my anxiety during this unprecedented time, I have to use coping tools in my toolbox. But I am also realistic. I understand, today will not be the same for me as tomorrow. I should limit my caffeine. It increases your heart rate while stimulating nervous feelings. While I have three children bouncing all around at all hours while I “school” them at home while I am teaching, I chose to focus on what I can do. While I navigate this pandemic with the tools I learned from a mental health practitioner, I will still have a cup of coffee in hand.
—Jessica Keith has spent the past three years teaching Cultural Adaptation at San Diego State University. She can be found lecturing in the classroom to an audience who listens or at home with her three children who are more interested in Legos than their mommy’s master’s degree in International Education. Jessica Keith is a resident of North Park.