What if this was real life?

A control freak struggles to let go.

An essay by Danielle Levac

This academic year is my last as an assistant professor before submitting the crucial tenure and promotion dossier that determines my professional future. It was already a difficult one for me, even before COVID-19 shut down my research lab and left me reeling from the limb-like loss of so many carefully curated plans. In mid- November, my five-year-old daughter became suddenly, violently ill with a blood infection that required a week in the intensive care unit and many more in hospital. Unlike the current crisis, this one was ours alone.  As the rest of the world marched solidly on during this earthquake in our lives, the shreds of me that remained after attending to her and to the emotional needs of her older brother scrambled to keep up.

For those of us who rely on meticulous planning and continual goal achievement to maintain the illusion that we control the unfolding of life’s events, the sudden illness of a family member is a stark reminder of just how wrong we are. I reacted stubbornly to this realization by holding tighter to the professional deliverables that were still under my control. I remember waiting while my daughter underwent yet another scan, half-delirious from stress and fatigue, with papers spread out over my lap, preparing to teach the next day’s graduate class. A wise friend who came to sit with me gently suggested that I cancel the class, an option I honestly hadn’t considered. She saw what I didn’t: it was time to accept that I needed to let go.

Several weeks into the COVID-19 crisis, a second complete upending of my life, I’m reflecting about whether what I learnt from my reaction to daughter’s illness, and the ways it differs from how I’m coping now, could be useful to others now that the calamity is collective and the pause button has been pushed indefinitely on most of our lives. Those who, like me, cope with our anxiety about the state of the world through attempts to control anything and everything that we can within it may find these thoughts particularly relevant.

At this point in the crisis, most of us with the privilege of doing so have probably already been forced to drastically lower our expectations for what we can accomplish under the weight of added home-schooling roles, caregiving responsibilities and immense global anxieties. Not everyone, of course: I recognize that the option to reduce expectations is a luxury not available to those we count on most, who need to continue what they are doing and often accomplish more at great peril to themselves, under exceptionally stressful conditions. Nor is it available to those who have lost their jobs and face impossible financial responsibilities.

An obvious expectation to let go of in times of uncertainty is the one where we assume life will progress according to our plans. If you’re like me, the logical next thing to go is the hard-won habits we had put in place in service of those plans. During my daughter’s illness, habits such as regular exercise, meditation, early mornings to myself, and drinking more water than caffeine seemed like ludicrous behaviors applicable only to someone with total control over her life. Uncertainty shifted my understanding of self-care away from providing for my future self and towards fulfilling my desperate, immediate needs for copious amounts of sugar, caffeine, and distracting, mind-numbing social media consumption. I told myself that since what I was living through was clearly not ‘real life’, the things I did to cope with it didn’t matter.  I’d just wait this out until it was over, and my real life could resume.

What do we lose when our shock, confusion and grief lead us to label crisis periods such as the one we are currently experiencing as abnormal, something separate from our real lives? From experience, I would argue that we lose the opportunity to understand that uncertainty, undeserved chaos and lack of control has always been part of life – that it is, in fact, a daily reality for much of the world’s population. It’s simply that many of us have been lucky enough not to be continually confronted with this fact. If we cope by stuffing our behaviors, experiences and memories of these times into a box labeled ‘abnormal’, one that we can hopefully shove to the back of the closet and forget about as soon as possible, we give up the chance to accept and potentially learn from how we react when life is out of our control.

My initial reaction to the COVID-19 crisis was a familiar one: I tried hard to bend what was happening to my will. Much like my daughter’s illness, the stress of not knowing what would happen next made me default to treating this time as a temporary aberration from real-life. I began to cope by using the same combination of doubling down on the external metrics left under my control while simultaneously abandoning whatever sustainable self-care required a measure of discipline to achieve. A few days in, I took a breath. I remembered what had happened the last time I had treated time as a dichotomy (now: abnormal; future: back to normal): namely, the intense anger I had felt at having to begin everything all over again.

Returning to work following my daughter’s illness, I had assumed that the most difficult part was behind me. I was surprised, however, by how challenging it was to deal with the depth of the resentment I felt towards the work it would require to re-establish the habits that had taken me months and years to develop, those that had sustained me as a whole person, rather than simply a tenure-seeking machine. The added burden of starting again down a path that, while raising young children, had initially been so challenging to create, was a weighty burden. I’m not suggesting that I should have expected myself to maintain these habits at my daughter’s hospital bedside – that was a clear impossibility. Only that this time is different. I have more bandwidth and energy now to experience this crisis in another way. 

I’m trying to be intentional about how I go through this time, to be open to the possibility that it may profoundly change me. Treating myself gently during this time is the priority; for me, this sometimes manifests in allowing myself a little bit of the control that I still so desperately seek. This time, it’s to control my expectations for what I should be able to accomplish during these times by lowering them, and then lowering them still. None of us chose this, but this is real life. I want to keep the parts of it that worked from before, while learning to let go of the ones that didn’t. My goal is to find a happy medium with respect to what I can control by realizing that there are more options beyond scrambling to hold on to the illusion that I have all of it and abandoning it completely.

Those of us privileged enough to seek opportunities for personal growth in this time of great uncertainty might do well to consider the sustainability of the path we were on. During my daughter’s illness, I was rigid about what I expected from myself, regardless of external circumstances. I operated under the illusion that unless everything was under my control, nothing was. Now, I’m asking what these weeks and months can can teach me about what it’s reasonable for me to try to control, and what it isn’t. Instead of trying desperately to steer the boat back towards its previous destination, I can chart a new journey, one in which I learn that I can be OK when things don’t go as planned.

Danielle Levac is a physical therapist and an assistant professor at Northeastern University. While most of her writing these days is scientific in nature, creative writing has been a hobby since childhood. She lives with her husband and two children in Jamaica Plain, MA. Her creative writing has appeared in the New York Times.