Author: George Hofmann
I’m the father of a 9-year-old girl who will be starting school in front of a Chromebook this fall. I also have bipolar disorder, and sticking to a strict routine has been crucial to my recovery and stability. That all changed last spring.
Our city school district was not prepared for the shutdown in mid-March and the kids went seven weeks with absolutely no instruction at all. When online school finally did resume, my daughter was in class for about an hour and a half each day. That’s it.
My wife, who travelled extensively for work, was home working upstairs without a break. Summer came, camp was cancelled, and my wife lost her job. That routine I mentioned – gone for good.
I’d done well for years. My routine was almost monastic. I’d get everyone off in the morning and spend a few hours writing, walk the dogs, meditate, and then pick our daughter up from school and be the dad. I had no significant episodes of anxiety, depression or mania.
The early summer this year was rough. Shaken out of my schedule, I stopped sleeping and started drinking. I had a book published and spent a few weeks on a book tour on Zoom, but then I found myself rudderless and unable to commit to a regular program of work.
There were always people in the house, highly stressed people uncertain of what was to come, unable to plan for anything. We looked forward to the fall and a resumption of the life we led before the virus clipped our wings.
Now summer is almost over. Fall approaches. School, work and leisure are all still shut down and we really have no idea when they will reopen. Every day is mind-numbingly the same. You’d think I could easily establish a new routine and get on with it. But I haven’t been able to. I’m still clinging to the idea that certainty is just around the corner.
There is freedom in uncertainty. Routines are necessary to live well with bipolar disorder. A routine enables me to level my behavior and my expectations and gauge each day against the next, enabling me to sense early and clearly when a difficult episode is seizing me.
But a severe routine too heavily depended on can leave one stuck in a rut, captured by inertia. When the coronavirus shutdown first began and my routine was obliterated I found it hard to cope small daily challenges. Instead of consulting my family, and myself, and expressing this difficulty, instead of working to adapt to the changes around me, especially the changes in the house, I became grumpy and agitated and my life lost its joy.
Through the meditation, movement and meaningful work I practice I was able to realize this, eventually, and act to both establish a new routine that fit others’ needs and to learn to be flexible and understand others’ demands. I stopped drinking. More stable moods returned.
I learned a lot. My wife and I, who often spend very little time together, actually like each other. Spending all day with our dogs is fun. Our daughter, growing and loving, has turned more to us to express herself and ask for listening attention to her goals, dreams and troubles. Part of our routine had been to treat each other in full, but incomplete ways. As we face a very insecure fall we’re better together.
It’s also made me more aware of others’ need for routine, and the way mine must be adaptive to theirs. Kids need routine as much as those of us with bipolar disorder. In the press to all get work done we have to have time together and time to be alone. We must respect each others’ desires and troubles, and be there for our daughter as she navigates questions about the indeterminate future she shouldn’t have to deal with this young.
She knows she won’t be going back to school as soon as the school district promises. She’s becoming stoic way earlier than a person normally might. We can only promise so much, and more often the answer to her questions about when this will all end is simply we don’t know.
We all know the virtual learning experience leaves a lot out, and is much less effective and caring, but my wife and I have to sell it like it’s the best idea in the world, lest our daughter face the same panic we do.
Back to school usually means taking my daughter to pick out new sneakers and, every other year, a backpack and a lunchbox. We take pictures of the kids in the neighborhood as they trudge off on the first day, and drag the kids in from playing on the street to do their homework in the runup to Halloween.
This year there will be none of that. Yet there will be a tremendous opportunity to practice more compassion and discover how my bipolar disorder asserts itself given new challenges. There will be the gift of healing if I can adapt, and I can adapt. This will end, the kids will go back to school, and those of us with bipolar disorder can emerge with new routines, new self-knowledge, and less self-absorption.
In some ways, if we approach it with hope and confidence, this shutdown, this delay in school, work and plans, may present us with positive opportunities. Like the most difficult periods of anxiety, depression and mania we can deal with this. Persevere, and stay positive.
George Hofmann is the author of Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis from Changemakers Books, and lives in Philadelphia with his wife, their daughter and two poorly behaved dogs. You can find him at www.practicingmentalillness.com