Four months ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the first confirmed coronovirus case in the US. There are now 1.6 million confirmed cases and 97,906 deaths. The last three months, most of us have been in virtual lock down, with mandatory mask laws and recommendations to stay home. The world is opening up now, but I have watched as the populate divided themselves into two camps: The “hurry up” camp and the “slow down” camp. It really doesn’t matter which camp you occupy, because right now it seems that we will not return to the old normal; at least not anytime soon. And this mental challenge of rearranging our lives; altering the way we have always done things, comes at a high cost. Stress, anxiety and depression is on the rise. Even some who were not previously diagnosed with depression are battling a sadness and an uncertainty of their future.
I had a dear friend who battled dark moods for decades. He never saw a psychiatrist or took medication. In the mental health world, some time ago, he might have been diagnosed with Melancholia. Melancholia is a sub-type of depression where people often feel extreme despair and guilt. When the mood hit, he struggled to feel any happiness even when good things happened. Think of the donkey in the Winnie the Pooh series, Eeyore. We all laughed when the donkey would blurt out, “Thanks for noticing me!” But sadness and depression really isn’t funny.
With my friend, the moods were not constant, but widely intermittent. He could actually tell when the feeling started and would characterize it with the phrase, “I’m on a low limb today.” It was his way of asking for a little extra understanding. During these short periods, he only experienced sadness. There could be a party going on around him, but he would be staring down at the floor, unblinking. Others found it difficult to understand how he could hang out on that low limb one day and be perfectly fine the others. But I always appreciated the fact that he could verbalize when the sadness hit, so as to get his need for space and compassion met.
During the self-quarantine of COVID 19, I have had my own low limb moments. Things rocked along during the weekday, because I stayed extremely busy with my job. Then came the nights and weekends, when I sometimes felt like I was in a bad sci-fi movie or the Bird Box. This weekend, being a holiday weekend, it really hit me that I would not be barbecuing with my friends by the lake like I usually did. I will just….be….here. They would all be quarantining themselves. I also amused myself this week when I realized I had started talking to myself more. And while I find myself to be interesting, the conversations I was having with me surrounded mundane things such as the laundry, the new dish I was learning to cook or the new craft I had thought of to pass the time. At least I did not develop a friendship with a volleyball named Wilson.
So, yes, the more I self-quarantined, the more I started to understand my friend’s sadness. I had some really low moments, where I questioned the purpose of things or the possibility that life would never return to normalcy. Had I developed melancholia? I took a hard look at myself (I mean what else did I have to do?) and I realized that sadness was not the emotion I felt. I could honestly point to happy moments each day, and overall felt contentment in my life. No, not depression or melancholia. But something was definitely going on with me. As I continued to take stock, I realized that what I had developed was ennui.
Ennui, unlike melancholia, is not sadness. Ennui is more of a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction that is based on your current situation. Most of the time ennui arises from a lack of occupation or excitement, or in my case usefulness. Think of the dramatic old movies where the heroine throws a delicate alabaster arm across her eyes and proclaims that there is nothing new under the sun. And while melancholia has more to do with a chemical imbalance and often requires psychotropic medication, ennui, although it doesn’t feel very good, can be addressed with self-talk and action.
If you find yourself battling ennui, I will let you in on my new game plan. I call it, the “How do I battle ennui” plan?
- Figure out why you are so dissatisfied. Do you want more interaction, more excitement, more action? Or, as in my case, do you want to feel more connected and a useful part of a bigger tribe?
- Discover ways to gain what you are missing while still following the safer at home rules. For example, my sister, who is extremely social, has a group where they play a virtual trivia game every Friday night with their family who are all over the map. She looks forward to it and gets her need for connection filled. My daughter researched a group in my city that gives back to the sick and elderly by running errands for them, or even just having virtual visits with them.
- Remember to be grateful for what you do have. I say that often in my writings, but it is a powerful truth that we take for granted. I remind myself to be grateful I am not sick; I am not unemployed; I am able to help others; I am able to express my thoughts in writing.
Ennui is not melancholia, but it can feel bad. For those who have addictions and those addictions are emotion-based, ennui can be a powerful trigger. For that reason, mindfulness is critically important. Practice being in the present, without the judgement, without the what-ifs. Take stock of yourself, find the source of your dissatisfaction and find creative, healthy, ways to fill that void. Start a regular face-time (zoom) or Teams gathering of those who make you happy. You miss them and I bet they miss you too.
And finally embrace truth. The virus will end. It may end in the summer, next fall, or even next winter, but it will eventually end. But we will emerge a little changed for the experience. Surviving is only half the battle. To finally beat this thing, let’s find a way to Thrive!