Two weeks ago I sent my latest round of too-familiar texts: Hey, which school do your kids go to? I just read the news. Are you safe?
Social media reminded me to check on my teacher friends, to call my senator, to hug my kids extra tight. Every headline, every post, every time I turned on the radio, the news kept coming and it kept sinking into the depths of me. I spiraled.
Should I pick my kids up from school?
Is private religious school a mistake?
Antisemitism seems to be forever on the rise, is their school a target?
They are so little. Do they know? Are they afraid?
Would my kids be able to be quiet during a lockdown?
How fast could I get to their school?
Our cops would run in, right?
As much as I love Mr. Rogers, this is not an article about looking for the helpers, or focusing on the small miracles that are inevitably present in any tragedy. This is an article about what to do with the depths of the darkness.
I was 13 when two teens murdered a bunch of their classmates at Columbine. My school district implemented a new rule: Students could only carry clear or mesh backpacks. Can’t hide a gun that way, we were safe. Except, were we? What about the lunch boxes? And the band instrument cases? I didn’t know much about guns, but I was pretty sure they could fit in lots of places besides backpacks. I became jumpy, unsure if I really knew my classmates, unsure if we were next.
Turns out I had anxiety when I was 13, same as I do now. I just didn’t have a clue about mental health then.
The steady drip-drip-drip-flood of school and other mass shootings in the 24 years that have passed since the Columbine shooting have shattered my tender psyche. I am afraid almost all the time. I am utterly convinced that any unknown caller is the police, calling to tell me I need to come right away. I don’t take my kids to crowded events. I feel some version of survivor’s guilt; I’m haunted by the reality that there are so many families with missing pieces. I take lots of videos of my kids, but I don’t watch them. They remind me too much of memorial videos.
And this is me medicated. This is me in therapy. As her majesty T. Swift would say, this is me trying.
In the days after each massacre, I see a steady stream of articles about how to talk to my kids about violence and tragedy, how to have age-appropriate conversations, how to actively listen to their questions. But I rarely see articles about how to talk to myself, or any guidance on how to just get through today. How do you act like everything is OK – or even better – how do you believe that everything is OK? Of course I need to be able to support my kids, but how do I support myself?
So I’ve made my own list. After reading the collection of fears I outlined above, you may think I am quite unqualified to make such a how-to list. You may be right. But, rest assured, my list is anxiety-tested, therapist-approved. Please keep in mind that I am not a mental health professional of any stripe. If my collection of fears vibes with yours, maybe you should check in with a professional. But in the meantime, I present:
An Anxious Mom’s Guide to Just Getting Through Today
Lean on what feels safe.
The news is a nightmare, and I dwell on it, and I feel terrified. The best antidote to that terror, for me, is to lean hard into something that I know to be safe, preferably something tactile. I dig in my garden. I take a really hot shower. I paint my nails in the laundry room while the washer does its loud and steady whir-whir-whir. The textures, the heat, the sounds, the touch all ground me in my immediate surroundings. Right now, I am safe. Right now, my kids are safe. If the goal is getting through today, right now is an awfully good place to start.
Make time to feel it.
Safe activities will only get me so far; the fear will creep in any time my mind is too quiet. For me, this is unavoidable. But I have found that if I set aside protected time to read the news, to feel the overwhelming grief, to mourn for all of the newly devastated families and friends, then I am less likely to be in a constant state of fear. Jewish tradition embraces grief as a process, not a task. When we sit shiva, or say the Mourner’s Kaddish, we are recognizing that precious time to feel is non-negotiable. And, when an anxious thought comes along, I can tell myself that it’s OK, I’m not ignoring it, there will be time for that thought later. This practice helps me move through time without being overwhelmed. More movement through today.
Try to find a way to talk out loud about it.
I bring my fears to my therapy sessions, but I know that affordable therapy is extremely difficult to access. There are many Jewish organizations focused on mental health; checking with your local Federation may be a great place to start. If you don’t have access to a professional, is there someone else you can trust with your fear? My husband is blessed with incredible mental health; I know I can say the scary things out loud and he will listen, commiserate and help me move through it. Rabbis are also great at this! But please be careful with your anxious friends: If someone wanted to talk to me about the horror of the news, I would probably have to decline in order to keep myself upright. Always ask permission before diving into trauma.
If at all possible, don’t numb out with substances.
When the world feels crushing, I feel singular gratitude that I don’t drink alcohol any more. I know – trust me, I know – how straightforward it seems: a glass or six of wine because the news is too much and you just don’t want to think about it anymore. But the raw truth is that the highs of alcohol are fleeting, and it’s a depressant; the lows will probably sink you below where you started, plus you’ll have to deal with shitty sleep and an uncomfortable hangover. And after all that, it won’t have fixed anything, the world will be just as crushing. You won’t regret getting through this day sober.
Send your kids to school.
Normalcy is the foe of fear. As terrifying as it has felt, I have gone to work the day after every mass shooting. And I’ve sent my kids right back to school. This is the hardest one for me, but what choice do we really have? The hard truth is, I can take precautions, I can vote, I can donate, I can beg for change, I can grieve for the children who were killed, but I can’t actually control anything. I don’t have that power. But I do have the power to show up for my family. To keep moving forward. To get through today and every day.
Friends, it is devastating to confront news of human brutality with the regularity that we do. Who can be surprised by our visceral fears? My hope for you is that you can make space to feel, to mourn, to process. You will get through today.