Article by Tara Haelle
In those early months, I, along with most of the rest of the country, was using “surge capacity” to operate, as Ann Masten, PhD, a psychologist and professor of child development at the University of Minnesota, calls it. Surge capacity is a collection of adaptive systems — mental and physical — that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters. But natural disasters occur over a short period, even if recovery is long. Pandemics are different — the disaster itself stretches out indefinitely.
“The pandemic has demonstrated both what we can do with surge capacity and the limits of surge capacity,” says Masten. When it’s depleted, it has to be renewed. But what happens when you struggle to renew it because the emergency phase has now become chronic?
By my May 26 psychiatrist appointment, I wasn’t doing so hot. I couldn’t get any work done. I’d grown sick of Zoom meetups. It was exhausting and impossible to think with the kids around all day. I felt trapped in a home that felt as much a prison as a haven. I tried to conjure the motivation to check email, outline a story, or review interview notes, but I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t make myself do anything — work, housework, exercise, play with the kids — for that whole week.
Or the next.
Or the next.
Or the next.
I know depression, but this wasn’t quite that. It was, as I’d soon describe in an emotional post in a social media group of professional colleagues, an “anxiety-tainted depression mixed with ennui that I can’t kick,” along with a complete inability to concentrate. I spoke with my therapist, tweaked medication dosages, went outside daily for fresh air and sunlight, tried to force myself to do some physical activity, and even gave myself permission to mope for a few weeks. We were in a pandemic, after all, and I had already accepted in March that life would not be “normal” for at least a year or two. But I still couldn’t work, couldn’t focus, hadn’t adjusted. Shouldn’t I be used to this by now?
“Why do you think you should be used to this by now? We’re all beginners at this,” Masten told me. “This is a once in a lifetime experience. It’s expecting a lot to think we’d be managing this really well.”
It wasn’t until my social media post elicited similar responses from dozens of high-achieving, competent, impressive women I professionally admire that I realized I wasn’t in the minority. My experience was a universal and deeply human one.”