Section: Opinion

Learning to be kind to yourself in the time of COVID-19

Trigger warning: suicide and self-harm

I have learned a lot of lessons in quarantine, some big and some small. I have learned that I like puzzles, and drinking soda at night and David Dobrik. I have learned that in order to remain sane, I cannot speak to anyone in my family before 6 p.m. I have learned that crying is really helpful, that I am not emotionally stable enough to watch Glee and that if I think about him right before I go to sleep, I can guarantee a pleasant dream involving David Dobrik, one where he gives me a Tesla and we drive off into the sunset.

I am also learning how not to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders, something I have long struggled with.

When I was in the fifth grade, my biggest fear was that someone I knew would commit suicide. With the limited knowledge I had at the time, I saw suicide as a death that could have been prevented by empathy or love or kindness. I couldn’t shake the fear that someone around me would take their own life, and that I would feel responsible, as if I could have done something to prevent it.

These were indeed intense thoughts for a fifth grader to try and understand. If I heard someone in the cafeteria say something along the lines of, “I did so badly on my math test, I could just kill myself,” I would go home crying to my mom and ask her to report it. This would happen many times a week: whether I overheard someone using that common slang, noticed marks on a student’s arms or saw a concerning social media post from a peer. Although this fear developed in me at a young age, I have never quite learned to manage it, and I still feel these anxieties today.

I will never regret the times that I checked in with friends, reported something I overheard or trusted my gut and reached out to someone I was worried about; there is no such thing as being too careful when it comes to mental health. But I do wish that the days I went home weeping to my mother, feeling such a heavy burden on my shoulders, that I could have been gentler on myself. I don’t share this story to draw pity or to suggest that I have shouldered larger burdens than others—I undoubtedly was fortunate and privileged as a child, and I still am today. These are just the lessons that have stayed with me, ones that I am personally grappling with during this time.

In the time of COVID-19, these tendencies of mine started to worsen. Despite not leaving my house for two months, with the exception of the occasional walk around the neighborhood, I still found myself awake at night, calculating the possibility that I might have unknowingly given the virus to someone else, someone whose pre-existing conditions could lower their chances of surviving, and their suffering would have been my fault, a result of my carelessness, my lack of responsibility. My family has seen this anxiety in action, whether it be my constant nagging to use the serving spoons at dinner, despite us having been quarantined together for months, the many times I asked everyone to literally not breathe under their masks when rolling down the window at a drive-through, or the mornings I ate my cereal without milk in an effort to reduce our inevitable trips to the grocery store.

To a certain extent, I wish that everyone was this cautious when looking after our communities. The world might very well be a better place if everyone was constantly checking in on the mental health of their friends and family, or if each of us felt the entire weight of the pandemic on our shoulders. But I also think that this is not a healthy way to live. There is a way to be empathetic and careful without carrying such a heavy burden, feeling an unbearable sense of responsibility.

I visited Kenyon’s counseling center last year, in the hopes of getting some advice about this anxiety I had been feeling. What I didn’t know then, was that the advice this counselor gave me would end up helping me through quarantine today: “The fact that you care about other people is never a bad thing, and I don’t want you to change who you are,” he said, “but you need to find an outlet, something to check off your list, so you can tell yourself that you have done everything you can.” He gave me his email and told me to reach out to him anytime I felt like I needed to report something, even if I wasn’t sure or thought it might be silly. And after I emailed him, I could give myself permission, or even encourage myself, to be done with it. I had done all that I could.

Now, during quarantine, I am learning to apply the same advice. I enjoy reading the news, so I can make sure that I am aware of the latest updates and restrictions. I wear a mask when I leave the house, wash my hands frequently and stay at least six feet away from others when on a walk. And then, I try to let it go.

I want to hold myself accountable. I think it is important to hold ourselves accountable. But I am just a 20-year-old college student. I am still learning, and that is okay. I am just one person living through this global pandemic, and it is unreasonable and unhealthy to feel responsible for the state of an entire country. And I am just a fifth grader, my mom would repeat with me, I cannot alone carry this burden on my shoulders.

I understand that the troubles I face might be small in comparison to those of others, and I am lucky to be in the position I am during this quarantine; my family and I are safe and healthy, which I know is not something everyone can say. But no matter what you are experiencing today, something heavy or light, big or small, I hope that this can serve as a reminder to be gentle with yourself and with others. Now more than ever, it’s important to check in with ourselves, and to notice if we are carrying any burdens that are too heavy to lift on our own. Cry to your mom, FaceTime a friend and give yourself and others permission to continue learning. We must continue to look after each other, but we cannot afford to forget the importance of being kind to ourselves.

Mia Sherin ’22 is an English major from Wilmette, Ill. You can contact her at sherin1@kenyon.edu.

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