I thought I could take it, but now I am not so sure. I live in a state that is just now having an explosion of Covid-19 cases. I thought at this point things would be going back to semi-normal, yet it appears things are going from bad to worse.
My mother is in an assisted care facility and we can no longer visit her. My 87-year-old father needs me to bring him cooked meals and is going into a depression over not being able to visit my Mom.
My husband got laid off from what we thought was a secure job. There was no warning. He was told about it at work by someone in HR he didn’t know, and was walked from the building with a box just like in movies. No reason, no explanation, after fifteen years of steady promotions and top performance reviews. He is wandering around in shock. I am trying to be sympathetic but I find myself getting impatient and wanting him to start looking for another job. He’s taken out the kids’ old Xbox and is playing video games all day, and I think he’s smoking pot in the garage when he thinks I am sleeping. I want to scream.
I manage a group of project managers for a global supply chain company. Our business, deemed essential, went into a complete meltdown because of complications with China just when we were getting used to working from home and the endless video calls. I was forced to lay off half of my people. Although my company did a decent job, every one of my coworkers—those who are going, those who are staying, and my peers—are in various states of distress.
I volunteered to take a pay cut so I can only hope my job is safe, but I’m not sure if we can make our mortgage payments. My workload is insane because of the layoffs. I’m working very late every night, as are my remaining direct reports, some of whom are also dealing with young children at home. All of my close friends are also at a breaking point so I’m on the phone with them talking them off the ledge. I’m out of things to say to them.
Two of our adult children who have lost their jobs have moved back in with us to save money on rent. They are decent at the safety measures, but I just found out one of them went to a big house party last weekend—and my now-gamer husband has diabetes and asthma. You see how that might make me crazy? And our dog was just diagnosed with cancer, and there is no way we can afford the treatments.
Little things I’ve always let slide, like people leaving lights on or leaving the milk out to go sour, are sending me into a rage. I know how high the electric bill is. I know what groceries cost. We can no longer afford to be cavalier about these things.
We have had social justice riots in our town and just a mile from where I live a couple of major businesses were badly looted and my bank was burned down. My BANK! So, on top of everything else, I feel like the world is burning down and Armageddon is here.
I am exhausted. I feel like I am walking through quicksand. I know you’re going to tell me to take advantage of our EAP Therapy program—well, I did, and it didn’t go well. It took them two weeks to get back to me and another two weeks to set an appointment, and when I did get on the phone with a therapist, he was mean. He basically told me I needed to suck it up. It was everything I could do not to hang up on him.
I’ve always appreciated your answers, Madeleine, and I feel like this one is going to stump you. Are you going to tell me that I just need to suck it up? I don’t think I can. But I also don’t see an alternative.
Going Down in Flames
Dear Going Down in Flames,
Yeah. Whoa. Wow.
OK. I am not a mental health professional; I am just a coach. But more fundamentally, I am human being and my heart aches for you. Let’s just say it out loud: this is hard, hard, hard. This is the Dustbowl. This is The Blitz. Oh, wait, no. This is The Plague. It is real, and it is bad. And just when you think it can’t get worse: locusts, frogs, fire, floods.
I hope this is the hardest thing you will ever have to get through. And based on what you have already dealt with, you have evidence that you will get through it. I’m not saying there aren’t others who have it worse—there always are—but this is hard. And you have been heroic. But even heroes need time off.
So, no. I am not going to tell you to suck it up. You have had so much adrenaline and cortisol (a stress hormone) pumping through your system that you must find a way to rest. I am going to tell you to fold.
Take a day, two days, whatever you need, and step away from the fire fight. Crawl into a fox hole. Forget work. Take some time away. And if they fire you for it, well, so be it. It’s only a matter of time before you lose it and start yelling at your manager anyway, at the rate you are going. I won’t bore you with the neuroscience, but take my word for it when I say that a human being can take only so much and no more. So do the opposite of sucking it up. Fold.
Make your kids go to the grocery store, cook, and take food to your dad.
Email your boss and your direct reports that you are taking some time.
Turn off your phone, go into your bathroom, lock the door, and take a long bubble bath. Then get into bed and watch Sophie’s Choice and cry through the entire thing. If that isn’t going to work for you, choose something else—Marley and Me might do it—and have a good cry. Get into bed and cry. Cry a lot. Mourn your safety and your certainty. Let yourself grieve for the past, when power bills were not an issue. Allow yourself to feel the shock of your stalwart husband reverting to adolescence. Go to your dad’s house, stand six feet away from him, and cry about your mom together. Lament the loss of your dreams and dashed expectations of what you thought this part of your life would be. Pet the dog and cry about the cancer. Just give in and feel it all.
When I was young, I thought the book of Job in the Bible was a laughable exaggeration. No more. It really is astonishing how rough things can get, and it feels awfully personal. So, go ahead and wail Why Me? at the moon.
Go for a long walk and complain out loud to yourself. Everything you are managing, putting up with, tolerating. Every protest, grumble, unfairness, injustice.
You seem to be carrying this entire load by yourself and you must insist that your perfectly able-bodied family help out. Get your (you did say adult) children who won’t turn the lights off and your husband into the living room, sit them down, and read them the riot act. You can be nice, but be firm.
Tell them you have reached your limit. They may have noticed that you were recently sobbing in bed, so possibly they have already gotten the memo. Tell your kids they need to suck it up. Behave themselves. Put the milk away. Stop taking risks. Find new jobs. Pay rent. Tell your husband exactly what he needs to do to help and contribute. He already got to fold; now he needs to step up, get online and apply for unemployment, and look for another job. Cook the meals for your dad. Chores. Something.
OK? Don’t suck it up. First, go ahead and wallow. Then you must take a stand and insist that your family join you in the pulling the cart. Decide what you can do, and simply don’t do more than that. If you keep sending the message that you can take on more, more will be handed to you. So stop sending that message.
You will get your strength back and start to see some silver linings. Things will probably get worse, but they will get better eventually. You have to settle in for the marathon and conserve your energy.
I am really sorry that your therapist was a meanie. I just don’t get that at all, but who knows, maybe he is up against it too and was having a horrible day. It happens—therapists are only human. Could you try again and get another one? Finding a great therapist is a little like finding the prince. You have to kiss a lot of frogs.
And, I am really, really sorry about your pooch. That is just adding insult to injury.
About the Author
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is the co-founder of The Ken Blanchard Companies’ Coaching Services team. Since 2000, Blanchard’s 150 coaches have worked with over 16,000 individuals in more than 250 companies throughout the world. Learn more at Blanchard Coaching Services.