Like so many others, I do everything from home these days. And consequently, I rarely put on shoes. So I have ample opportunity to view my feet, and in many moments – on conference calls, in the shower, lying on the couch – I have pondered the ragged state of my toenails. Many weeks ago, I hastily dolloped some dark blue polish on them, and it has since become chipped and ratty-looking. And I’ve wondered on many occasions, why don’t I seem to care?
In sandal-friendly seasons, I change my toenail polish almost as frequently as I change my underwear, and embrace colors ranging from ballet pink and sky blue to deep purple and shimmering mocha. And if glitter is part of the deal, all the better.
But this summer, the enthusiasm just hasn’t been there. Why not?
Is it because I am so overwhelmed by the upheaval in my life that I can’t find the time to attend to a frivolous form of self-care such as this? This definitely would have been the reason back in April or May, when the chaos of work-from-home colliding with school-from-home for my two boys made getting through each day an achievement worthy of a trophy. But thankfully, that insanity concluded in late May, when the school year ended. The summer months have been less than ideal, with my boys settling comfortably into a routine of rotating between Minecraft, the Simpsons, YouTube, and various other forms of screen time. Though I don’t love this setup, it has been a period of reduced chaos…and should have offered sufficient time to paint my toenails.
Is it that I never see anyone outside of my family anymore, and I have consequently disposed of care for my appearance altogether? If this were true, I would have let go of my preoccupation with the size of my derriere and the state of my post-post-post-partum belly. How I wish I could stem the hemorrhage of energy that fuels those concerns. But since my mood still seems to swing on a daily basis in proportion to the jiggliness of my midsection, I don’t think I’ve yet cut ties with concerns for my appearance.
Is it a lack of energy? Possible…though I have managed to keep up with the demands of my job throughout the shutdowns and quarantine. It hasn’t been easy, but for the most part, it’s been achievable.
Another possibility that I haven’t wanted to consider is that the shutdown is taking a toll on my mental state. It’s been easy for me to dismiss the idea that the shutdown could be impacting my mental health. After all, no one close to me has contracted the disease yet, I am still employed, and my children are old enough to (mostly) care for themselves while I work during the day. But in truth, the “new normal” is undeniably impacting every one of us, in ways that are sometimes difficult to recognize.
Psychologists tell us that the sudden and dramatic drop in in-person contact with friends and even strangers we have experienced in recent months is a significant source of stress. Isolation can breed anxiety. Further, social distancing means we miss out on the calming and healing effects of physical touch such as hand-holding and hugs. Cancelling trips means we miss out on the excitement of seeing new things. Even just staying 6’ from people is a source of stress.
Lacking structure and devoid of social activities, my days right now are, indeed, less exciting than they used to be. Making the best of our current situation is tiring – I’ve had enough of birthday parties on the driveway and car parades to visit loved ones in safe ways. Moving within the same four walls for all of my activities is wearing on me. Cancelling our summer travel plans didn’t do anything to help my mood. Overall, I am struggling a bit to find joy in every day.
Mild depression is characterized by symptoms such as a loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed, a lack of motivation, and insomnia. It seems plausible that my disinterest in caring for my toes is indicative of a broader pattern at play – and could be a sign that I may not want to dismiss.
To be sure, I’m no doctor, and self-diagnosing is never a good idea. However, acknowledging my experience — admitting that it’s harder to just feel like me right now — can be a step in the right direction. As Jeff Daniels’ character in The Newsroom tells us, “The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one.”
The coping strategies for dealing with stress and dissatisfaction arising from COVID and its myriad consequences include the usual prescriptions – adequate sleep, a healthy diet, regular exercise, time spent outdoors, and taking time for oneself. Rather than brushing off my frustrations about not being able to maintain the pace I kept pre-COVID, I’m committing to paying attention to my fatigue and malaise and interpreting it as a sign to increase my focus on self-care. I’ve been slow to admit to the toll the shutdown has taken on me, preferring to project as sense of competence and composure to myself and everyone around me. But this is real. And, since I have no sense of when our world will return to “normal,” if ever, I think the choice I need to make is clear.
Last night, I took out the nail polish remover and invested approximately two minutes in self-care, scrubbing the tattered blue polish from my nails. Setting tiny goals so as not to overwhelm myself, I’m aiming to paint them a fresh color at some point in the coming week.
Theresa Crimmins is the director of the USA National Phenology Network and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.