These days, I pretty much live in my master bedroom closet. I’m not joking.
I wake up, go make sure the kids are eating breakfast, then bring my own breakfast back down to my room. Posting up in my makeshift office, I kick things off with a team stand up. And, I’m there pretty much all day after that. Later, I have dinner. We put the kids to bed. Since the upstairs TV is near the kids’ rooms, my wife and I head back down to watch something in our bedroom. Then I go to sleep. All told, I’m spending close to 21 hours a day in my room. It sucks.
There, I said it, it sucks. But you know what? That’s okay. Admitting I’m unhappy about the status quo is actually a sign of progress, and it’s allowing me to take a step forward in coping with these unprecedented circumstances.
It is increasingly clear that this coronavirus lockdown will lead to permanent changes in how we work, live, and interact with one another for years to come. Like many others, I am moving toward the realization that this crisis is no blip on the radar. So I decided it might be time to set up a more permanent workspace. After weeks pounding away on my laptop, surrounded by old sport coats and dress shirts, I am finally looking to fix up a new office in our empty crawlspace.
Since there isn’t going to be a definitive end to this crisis — not in the way there was an end to World War II, with parades and ticker tape and heroes waving to crowds from convertibles — we are presented with a unique set of challenges. How do we return to some semblance of normalcy without the closure of a ticker-tape parade? What will the new normal look like? As a psychologist by training, I have started thinking about questions like these through the prism of the seven stages of grief: Shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing, and acceptance.
Pretty much by definition, something traumatic generally comes as a shock to your system. In this case, something that seemed like a science fiction story unfolding in a remote part of China one day, appeared on our doorsteps the next. “Wait, what’s going on with this? Yesterday everything was cool and now my kid’s school is closed,” you think. “What are we going to do?” For a good number of us, a kind of temporary paralysis set in as events moved faster than our ability to comprehend.
After that initial surprise, it doesn’t take long to transition into the denial stage. “Well it’s just like the flu,” you equivocate. “We’re going to have a magic cure soon. It’s temporary. I can get by with a folding camping chair pulled up to the dining room table. Me and my kid can share that space a while.” That went on for a week or so, as we put some temporary measures in place and lived one day to the next awaiting the all-clear signal that told us everything could go back to the way it was before.
I don’t need to tell you, but we are still waiting. As social distancing measures continued week after week that denial started morphing into anger. For some — most of us — that edginess bubbles up in subtle ways. Maybe it boils over in the form of a little tiff with your partner or the occasional overreaction to something your kids did. You want to go outside. So do they. You want to go to your favorite restaurant. So do they. You want to meet your work colleagues face-to-face. So do they. Most of all, everybody wants to move around freely — just like they used to. Regardless of form, we are all saying something similar: “I can’t do things that I am used to and I’m mad about it.” It’s frustrating.
Because it gives us something to do, we move on to bargaining. This keeps us active as we try to develop some sense of control. Society at large has yet to go through the collective bargaining process as we balance priorities to transition out of the strictest days of lockdown — but there is a personal reckoning that is already underway. If only the gym were open, I would go every day. Once my favorite restaurant starts serving again I’ll eat there every weekend. Eventually, we start trying to make the best of a bad situation. Perhaps yoga in the backyard or takeout will work.
Amid this internal back and forth, the real magnitude of the changes underway starts setting in. It clicks. “This might be the new normal,” you think. “My staff meeting is really hard because people are all remote and the food from my favorite restaurant is not nearly as good as it used to be. It comes wrapped in plastic.” No matter the specifics, you realize that things really are different. You mourn the loss of the things that came before — and that’s okay. It’s important to grieve. Just like someone who loses a limb or a job, or the melancholia that often comes with moving homes, it’s supposed to feel at least a little bad.
And yet you have little choice but to keep going. So you start trying new things. We may not get to have that office banter over by the coffee machine that I am so used to. But you know what? My team has adapted our culture to include an always-on video chat. Up on my second computer monitor, right now, I can see six or seven people I care about. If one of them wants to say something to somebody, they just unmute. “Hey does anybody know where the project file is?” or “Hey, I’m going to grab some food,” or even, “I need to give the kids a new project, I’ll need an hour to get back to you.” It’s not the same as meeting together, but through trial and error, we start to adjust and make things work. We try new things, fail, then try again and fail better.
Greener on the other side
Acceptance is the last stage, and I don’t know if any of us can claim to be fully there yet. I know I’m not. We are still guessing what things might look like tomorrow. Still, I am finding it helpful to use these seven stages of grief as a framework to track the evolution of my own thinking. I know I need to get out of the bedroom closet. I feel acceptance coming on.
My house is on a hill and the foundation at the front of the house is a little off kilter. Water tends to flow into the crawlspace. For a year or so, we talked about fixing the foundation and converting it into a guest room or office. But, there was no urgency. After all, I work in an office already.
The demolition work on the crawlspace was complete ages ago, but there’s nobody ready to do the rebuilding. So I’m buying some nice curtains to hide the debris and turn it into an office. The final fix-up gets pushed back to a later date, but at least I will have a semi-permanent workspace.
I wonder why this simple act has taken me months to achieve, and I realize that I’m reluctant to let go of what was. Somewhere, unrealistic as it is, I hold out hopes that I am going to be able to return to my old routine. Right around the corner, my old life is waiting for me, ready to return. It’s like I’m waiting for that ticker tape parade to give me an all clear signal.
In that instance I need to admit to myself what I already know, but in other aspects of life, I feel like I have progressed a good deal further. I take an hour each afternoon for some outdoor exercise with my wife and kids. Meanwhile, we are planting beans, lettuce and other things in the garden. The novelty of the lockdown is wearing off and it’s becoming clear we are running a longer race now. I don’t think a garden is going to be a necessity to feed the family in the future — we’re not panic buying goats to milk in the backyard — but I do think homegrown vegetables can make August and September a little more delicious. Combine that with a little more office space, and a little more tolerance, and you might say I am moving toward acceptance.