From my balcony

From my balcony, I can see a fragment of life in the city. Any city, really, mine just happens to be Toronto. Leaning over the railing, raspberry ginger cider in hand, I watch as people mill about, living their lives. Couples walking hand in hand, carrying bags of produce from one of the markets around here. Another couple, gleefully decked out in their rainbowiest of rainbow attire – so delightful. And yet another couple, the woman very pregnant, shuffling up the sidewalk, her leaning into him for support, him bracing her arm and back as if that’s his only purpose on this earth.

A father and son walking their beautiful (and very large!) husky, three little kids, probably siblings, racing each other on their scooters down the middle of the almost-empty street. I think the father/son/husky family live in my building – I don’t forget a pup’s face as beautiful as that one. There are cars coming and going, of course, but at a much slower frequency than usual. Although, I must say, I’m losing my frame of reference for what ‘usual’ actually is – or was.

There’s a slight breeze, just enough to dance with the leaves on the trees and to make my balcony floor come to life with patterns of light and shadow, suggesting a play being acted by invisible marionettes. My big spider plant, at first greedily sunbathing in the sun’s generous warmth, is now wrapped in the coolness of its shade. The smell of burgers on a grill waft up to me from someone else’s balcony from below, instantly making me long for BBQs with friends and family, and bonfires. I love a good bonfire. I feel homesick for it.

In the slow-motion bustle of my once-animated street, I can still hear the whispers of our stories, it’s just more subdued now and somehow – more telling. People dutifully wear their masks, or don’t, making quite a comical effort to distance themselves when passing each other on the sidewalk. I know; I almost face-planted the other day trying to social distance from a very tiny elderly woman with her very tiny dog.

There is some commerce happening around here, but not much. There are more people than there are places to go. The Wine Rack, just around the corner from me is open and back to full operating hours after a brief closure earlier in the year – thank goodness! It’s a good thing I was already all about cheap Canadian wine, so it’s not an adjustment for me. The number of eggplant-y plum-coloured plastic bags I see dangling from peoples’ hands has seen a significant spike in recent months.

I close my eyes and listen. The sounds of my street, my neighbourhood, my city.

It’s quiet uptown.  

This isn’t my sunrise, but my own photos don’t do it justice.

It’s a Saturday night in mid- June, and I’m standing on my balcony, luxuriating in the sun’s last appearance for the day. I welcome it to warm my face and my chest, reminding me that I’m here.

I. Am. Here. We are here.

Life goes on. There is still uncertainty, and fear, but inevitably, we all seem to just go on. It may be a little faint, but I can still feel the pulse of my city. I saw the sun rise this morning, and I get to see it go down tonight. The colours are dumbfounding. And, even though the monstrosity of a condo building directly across the street from me blocks a big portion of ‘my’ sky, I still get to have the sun greet me and bid me adieu. There’s a certain beauty to that, I think. like bookends. I like the bookendedness of it.

I’m going to savor these moments on my balcony, with my neighbours, even if they don’t know they’re sharing anything with me. I must capitalize on this perfect weather window while I can. Soon it will be too hot to spend much time out there. I hope not (but who am I kidding?).

I vow to continue to watch and witness as my neighbourhood, my city, gets on with it. I’ll take notice of the couples and families and best friends and drunk buddies who traverse my outdoors, albeit, more distanced and conscientiously than before. I vow to close my eyes and soak up the sun’s last drops of gold when I can, and just breathe.

I’ll breathe in and I’ll breathe out and in and out. And comforted by the sounds and scents and pulse of my home, eventually, I’ll be able to breathe in and out without even thinking about it.

Notes from the valley floor

So, I’ve hit a wall, guys, an emotional and mental wall. My nerves are fried, my emotions, an exposed nerve. As if living through an historic worldwide pandemic isn’t enough, I’ve been experiencing shitty life stuff, one shitty thing after another. I just can’t take it. I mean, I’m a strong person. I think I’m strong, anyway. I’ve been through a lot of shit. I’ve come out of some pretty awful, terrible things and I always seem to be able to keep moving forward.

But because I know what awaits me on the other side of my (managed, for now) depression, I’m not ashamed to admit that the steps I’m taking to take care of myself right now are motivated by fear. I’m afraid to sink back into that familiar darkness. I’m afraid that if I do, I might not get back to the light this time. This feels urgent, vital, like everything is on the line.

So, here I am, finally with the clarity to write about this because I kind of staged an intervention on myself. Something had to give, I needed to do something if I wanted to protect my mental wellbeing because if I didn’t, I was going to break. And I mean for real this time.

I took a couple of weeks off work and got outta dodge. I’ve basically been holed up alone in my apartment for the last three months, barely leaving, except to take walks and pick up stuff from the store occasionally. I was losing touch with reality a bit, and suffering from the lack of human interaction. Phone calls and video chats just don’t do it for me anymore.

I’m spending the week with a friend (don’t worry – we’re both COVID-free and being very careful). I cannot express how much better I feel having stepped outside of my life for just a few days now. I can breathe, I feel lighter, I have slept well.

As we know, it’s not just the pandemic that’s causing so much pain right now, but I can’t write about that yet. There’s too much to process about the state of humanity for me to articulate into words. I will, but I need some time.

Instead, right now, I want to share some of my thoughts about the effect of the pandemic on my mental health, on our mental health, universally.

Please know that it’s OK for you to not be OK right now.

The whole world is hurting. Everything has been turned inside out and upside down, and while there are plenty of wonderful, heartwarming and inspiring things to focus on (and we should!), we also need to recognize the universal sense of despair we’re experiencing as a collective.

Some of us are navigating this strange terrain while balancing work, children, partners, pets, and/or elderly dependents. Some of us live alone and are grappling with an isolation never before faced, feeling alone with our fears and worries.

But we have to put our own oxygen masks on first. We need to prioritize our mental health above all else, otherwise we cease to be productive, engaged, empathetic, and flexible. Our ability to cope and be resilient, both for ourselves and for those around us, is paramount.  

It’s OK.

It’s entirely OK to feel what we’re feeling, to struggle to process our individual circumstances and to not feel like ourselves right now.

Remember: there’s no precedent for this. No one, not even the experts, definitively knows the right thing to do. We’re all just winging it, trying to focus on the day-to-day of our lives, while not dwelling on what’s to come, because the fact is that we have no idea what’s to come.

Easier said than done, right? The truth is that the mountain peaks seem impossibly far away when you’re withering on the valley floor.

But here are some scientific, physiological explanations for how we’re all coping with this worldwide pandemic that might help us make our way out of that valley.

Do you feel flaky and inconsistent?

That’s because your brain doesn’t know what to brace for next. There is so much uncertainty, and your brain is simply reacting to that.

Do you get tired easily?

That’s because your brain is burning your energy 10 TIMES faster than it usually does, in a perpetual state of fight or flight.

Are you having a hard time staying focused?

To protect you, your brain has temporarily shut down some functionality in the prefrontal cortex – the part of your brain responsible for complex thinking and planning. Your brain is simply trying to help you survive, to keep you alive – it’s a perfectly normal stress response.

Do you feel creatively blocked?

Your brain is temporarily diverting all its creativity (the ability to problem-solve) to simply keep you alive. Seriously! Your brain is in a state of a sort of slow-burn fight or flight, trying to keep you focused on not dying during this pandemic.

Do you suddenly not care about things?

It’s hard to care about goals and plans when you don’t know what’s coming next. We are in a constantly evolving situation, and whether it’s a work project or a future vacation you don’t know if you should cancel, your feelings of ambivalence about those things now is your brain’s way of coping. Your brain knows that being short-sighted is the safest way to think right now.

Give yourself (and your brain) a break and remember that this won’t last forever.

Stop feeling guilty for not working the way you did before (in the office or not), for simply not being the way you were before. This pandemic is not a sprint, it’s a marathon, and we must take care of ourselves – physically, emotionally and mentally – in order to make it to the finish line.

And we simply must do what we must to stay healthy and, in my case anyway, alive. There are no rules, this is uncharted territory for everyone. Do what you need to do.

I am, and I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that I’m certain that I’m saving my life.