There are distinct tensions being felt and expressed in many different ways right now. There is the tension of COVID-19 with all its unknowns. There is the tension rising from being told what to do by authority and not wanting to do it. There is the tension of economic uncertainty. And there is the tension of not knowing when this will be over.
To any of us who have tried to acquire a new habit, these tensions are all too familiar. I remember when I was trying to quit smoking. I knew it was bad for me and that I needed to stop. I understood at a theoretical level that stopping would involve changing lots of things. I knew it was going to be challenging. And it took me multiple times to achieve my goal.
I had to go through stages in order to actually achieve the end result. I first had to admit that there was a problem! Once I did that, I had to think whether or not I actually, truly, really, really really, wanted to quit (I didn’t!). Then I had to prepare to give up smoking. This entailed getting rid of all the paraphernalia that went along with it, including the lighters, the ashtrays, and the match book collections! It also meant I had to set a date to stop.
Then I finally did it. I stopped! But oh, how I wanted to go back to smoking. I would fantasize about the smell. I would pretend I had a cigarette in my hand, bring it to my lips, inhale deeply, then exhale and flick the imaginary ashes into the imaginary ashtray. It took a long time to let go of wanting a cigarette every time the phone rang or after a meal. I had dreams of smoking literally for years after I quit. And then, one day, I realized I didn’t want a cigarette any more. I was free!
Well, not exactly. I relapsed. I was with someone who was smoking and I asked if I could take a hit off their cigarette. That is part of cigarette etiquette, you know. If asked, you always offer a cigarette (except if it is your last one), or give a hit to someone. Sanitary considerations aside, I took lungful and immediately coughed. Two days later, I had bought a pack and was back to smoking.
I had failed. I was ashamed, but secretly felt like I had gotten away with something. It took five times for me to actually, finally, totally, and permanently (30-plus years now) quit.
From this I learned some very important lessons. There is no shame in committing to change and not succeeding. Change takes effort to begin, sustain, and then maintain. Like the song says, “I get knocked down/ I get up again/ You’re never gonna keep me down.” There is no guarantee that once I have achieved the change I wanted that it will last, no matter how much I want it to be that way. I have to re-commit to my new way of being every day.
This is true with what is happening now with COVID. I am seeing people across the world making changes to how they live, work, play, and think about things. The effort needed to adapt to the requirements this pandemic has laid on us is huge. That I remember to wash my hands, keep them away from my face, wear a mask when I am out in public, observe social distancing, and stay optimistic, while seemingly simple enough to do, is actually a complex and draining set of behavioral changes. No wonder people are pushing back. They just want a hit off that cigarette.
Of course, we know the danger of doing that. Here the tension is theatrical, with the audience (us) observing the unsuspecting hero or heroine walk into the trap laid (going to the beach, returning to work) by the dastardly villain (COVID). We can shout from the cheap seats, but the protagonist MUST make this error in judgment for the play to work itself out. Just as we must face the fact that people will refuse to wear a mask, will congregate on beaches and in restaurants. In spite of warnings, exhortations from medical professionals and caring politicians, there will be those who relapse.
For those who are able to sustain recovery, a different set of challenges exists. There is the pull to revert to old ways of thinking and doing things. Vulnerability to relapse is high in the first few days, weeks, and months of recovery. Then, magically, a new way of being becomes the accepted standard. We no longer shake hands when greeting one another. Everyone covers their mouth and nose in their elbow when sneezing. Six feet no longer needs measurements or marks on the ground for where to stand, but becomes the safe-distance cocoon we each occupy. And when this space is violated, we are aware and speak up.
This is actually one of the most vulnerable points in the change process because it marks the emergence of a certain mastery that can make one cocky. “I’ve got this COVID thing licked!” you may think. Your unerring eye picks up the scofflaws who are not following the rules and puts them in some psychic jail for social misfits. Or maybe that’s just me.
On the other hand, there are those who never quite achieve mastery. For these souls, the tension between wanting things to be the way the used to be and coming to terms with the new state of affairs frequently causes them to withdraw and become anxious. Here change never actually is achieved, and they remain caught between what used to be and what they fear might be.
I don’t know how much longer I am going to have to be COVID-conscious. I am adopting new behaviors and trying to master them. I am paying attention to possible relapse should I forget my hand washing routine or not carry my mask with me everywhere I go.
I really want to take a hit off a cigarette, but I am going to continue to shelter in place and just focus on my recovery.