As we wrap up perhaps one of the most volatile years I have ever experienced it brings light to just how diverse the stresses of mental health are within our society. As a collective group we experienced natural disasters, riots, political unrest and of course COVID-19. It takes minimal effort to list those off but they do not include subcategories such as limited social interaction, job loss and limited clarity of the future to name a few. Before kicking 2020 to the curb and washing our hands clean of it, I reflect back on my own journey through the year that wasn’t all negative.
Let us start with the big one, COVID-19. In August this year, I myself became infected with COVID. As a badge of honor, I am proud to say that I had nearly every symptom. My first week was a cakewalk and then I quickly learned I was in for a battle. The next eight to ten days were perhaps some of the most miserable days I have experienced. At one point when my oxygen levels were dropping, I looked at my wife and said, “Do you think this is going to kill me?” While I am often subject to a “man cold,” (Just ask my wife) this virus challenged me not just physically but mentally. As I was lying in a bed in the emergency room, I had major concerns about getting back to work, taking care of my children and my own ability to fight through it. Of course, 2020 would not be 2020 if I did not have lingering symptoms such as a sense of smell that fully hasn’t be restored and hair loss. The stress of COVID for myself has lasted much longer than just the two-week quarantine window and continues to be a challenge three months after infection. All of which have been psychologically and physically draining and created unanticipated unease that I have not dealt with in the past. Without the support of my wife, close friends, and family, I would not have been able to focus on my own recovery.
I think a natural progression from COVID-19 is addressing the limited social interaction because of the virus. I joke around with some of my introverted friends that this is probably a dream scenario for them but even for the most introverted people the lack of social interaction has been a struggle. Being an extrovert, I knew I enjoyed socializing but the absence of face-to-face conversation made it clear just how valuable it was to my own mental health. Even with the technological resources such as Zoom, FaceTime and Skype, something was missing and a stress was bubbling inside of me. It was not until I was driving back from a trip to Pierre, SD, where I was able to interact with individuals that are part of the Leadership SD class of 2020-21 that I felt relief. Then it dawned on me just how precious our social interaction really is to our own wellbeing. I had spent three days listening to stories, sharing experiences and building relationships that I had been deprived of for months. I almost immediately felt a level of rejuvenation.
While we discuss social distancing being a preventative measure to fight COVID I often ask myself at what cost? There is an underlying challenge to social distancing and that is our natural desire to be social. We can try to subsidize it with virtual meetings, happy hours and socials but at the end of the day it does not replace the value of a face-to-face interaction. This became clear to me when that tension and stress was removed after time spent with my peers.
Last, as a consultant, executive director, father and husband, my biggest hurdle this year has been the limited clarity on what the future has in store. As a leader, your ability to anticipate what is on the horizon allows you to effectively steer the ship but 2020 has been a year of unanticipated roadblocks. Do we host events? Do we not host events? Can we meet with clients or should we not meet with clients? Can we invest our resources or do we sit back and let things smooth over before stepping forward? All these questions have added complication and stress in my professional life to name a few. The list goes on and on for not just myself but I am sure any business owner. I have had friends who have had to deal with the pressure and anxiety of answering the question, “will I be in business next week?” These are not easy questions and the pressure associated can be devastating.
I personally had to take a step back to reflect. I found that I needed to make a conscious effort to focus on myself. I can’t help everyone else if I don’t take care of myself. I learned that I needed to take breaks because my work life was now pooled with my home life. The temptation to check an email or work through lunch had become so easy that I would find myself working and not taking care of myself. Making sure I at least walk upstairs to eat lunch and close the office door at the end of the day is key to my own mental wellbeing. It sounds simple but it truly did provide some relief.
The transition from working professional to husband and father also needed to evolve. Before work-from-home, I had this thing known as a commute. Instead of walking downstairs to casually start my day I rushed around showering, shaving, scrambling to find my wallet and rushing out the door only to forget both my coffee and my phone. Right after that morning commotion, I had a drive to work that allowed me to internally transition from husband and father to business professional. The opposite was true at the end of the day. It was something I took for granted. The walk from office to living room I learned was not quite enough time for a transition after a demanding day. The tension was still very much on my shoulders and translated into how I would interact with my family that evening. So once again, I had to consciously take 10 to 15 minutes to decompress at the end of the day to be a better husband and father before leaving my home office.
Put the political environment, rioting and viruses aside to clear your head for a second. When I did, I also found that 2020 had allowed me to do something I had not in a long time. Spend more time with my family. That 30- to 60-minute commute was now time given back to my family. My boys could now come visit me in the middle of the day on breaks or whenever a two and three year old deem necessary. I also was able to drop my eight-year-old son off at school nearly every morning since I did not have to fight traffic. Best of all, we were able to again sit at our dinner table over a meal and share our day more consistently. It is these less obvious rewards that give 2020 a glimmer of hope.
We often become so wrapped up in our lives that we forget to slow down and appreciate the blessings that surround us. In addition, we can focus so heavily on the negativity that it can blind us from the positive aspects. I am not going to sit here and say I am sad to see 2020 go by any means. If I have learned anything, it is that while hurdles may have hindered me all year it also allowed me to focus on what is most important. It allowed me to recalibrate an organization that was ready for change without societal perception pressuring the decision-making. It also taught me that at the end of the day we have to take care of ourselves first before we can help anyone else.
Therefore, as the ball drops at midnight on December 31 I encourage you to turn off the devices, step away from the media and have open conversations with whoever is closest to you. Check in on your neighbors and friends. Look for light in even the darkest of times. Be kind to yourself and remember no one is perfect.
Here is to a healthy, united and prosperous 2021!