Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

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Covid 2.0

COVID 2.0
 

This week, my blog is brought to you by the number 2. We are in the second year of the COVID-19 lockdown, and we are currently battling NEW contagious variant strains, so I am calling this new year COVID 2.0. I am reminded of the children’s song that says, “second verse, same as the first, just a little bit louder and a little bit worse.”

The other song that is running through my head, subconsciously, is a rewrite of Madonna’s hit “Material Girl”, only the words that I hear are “We are living in a virtual world and I am a virtual girl.” I’m sure I didn’t create this, but all I can tell you for sure is that it was not Weird Al Yankovic.

It can get rather intense, alternating between “we are living in a virtual world” and “just a little bit louder and a little bit worse.”

Vaccines are on the horizon, but it feels like the goalposts keep getting pushed further out due to vaccine shipment delays, identification of potential side effects and the spread of variants.

Sigh….

When this thought pattern happens, I remind myself of what I have (i.e., practicing gratitude.) I have shelter—more space than I need since I became an empty nester, but now is not the time to worry about that—I can work from home and be close to my beloved dog, Tessa, and I can communicate with my friends and family and sometimes even see them for outdoors visits (thank heavens spring is here!)

While I am generally a great proponent of finding silver linings, I am getting tired of reading articles that talk about the silver lining of the pandemic. It has just been too much, and speculating about what pearls of wisdom we can sew onto the fabric of our re-emerged society doesn’t help us deal with the here and now. Let’s face it: many of us are feeling burned out and we lack the mental energy to engage in redesigning our world post-COVID”.

However, I found a great article that reflects a more helpful way of looking at where we are and how we are going to get to the metaphysical “other side.”

Professors at the University of Waterloo have set up a World After COVID (WaC) project, where experts in fields including psychiatry, psychology, futurism, and disaster management have weighed in about what type of wisdom we need to get through the remaining months of lockdown, uncertainty, and fear due to the spread of the variants.

Four themes emerged, and they fit well with Assist’s life strategies.

Social Connectedness The theme identified by most experts in the WaC project was the importance of social connectedness, which probably doesn’t surprise anyone. Indeed, many of us are bemoaning the loss of our connections, or rather the traditional way that we feel those connections.

As humans, we crave connections. I am grateful for the ways that technology allows us to have a level of interaction with the people in our lives, but we miss in-person relationships. Seeing someone at the office now is like a family reunion since most people are working from home. I value those rare conversations as I shake my head realizing that it has been a year since I saw that person I used to see five days a week. Colleagues are an important part of our social framework—and our work relationships are an important component of our professional identities.

Can you identify one step you can take to enhance your feeling of social connectedness?

Here is one thing I did--I have a close friend out on the coast that I stopped communicating with—for no reason other than just being too busy and too weighed down with life. We were friends because our mothers were friends, and we wrote letters to each other as children, and handwritten notes were how we communicated, even in the days of email. I moved several years ago, and my mail was forwarded for a long time, but I kept meaning to include my new address in a Christmas card that never got sent. And she stopped sending cards, no doubt after one was returned to sender.

So, on a quiet day after the Christmas rush, I sat down and wrote a letter to her, apologizing for dropping the ball in our friendship and telling her about my life over the last several years. I haven’t heard back from her yet, but I feel more connected because I reached out.

The Assist community may be one exception to the reduced social connectedness most people are experiencing due to our online coffee circles. We have a core group that meets each Monday at noon, both peer support volunteers and newcomers to the practice of law, and we are building connections with law students at both Alberta law schools.

Research shows that loneliness and depressions can be precursors to depression, a common problem among lawyers. This is why we launched our Assist Community programming a couple of years ago. If you start feeling lonely, please know that you are welcome to join us. Our new Mosaic Coffee Circles start on Tuesday, April 13th.  Grab your favourite mug and your favourite after-lunch beverage and join us for social chitchat.

While we are all experiencing the pandemic and lockdowns at the same time, we are not experiencing it the same way. But regardless of how we are impacted, we can maintain and build social connections. And when I think about how we have been able to create community via Zoom, I am happy when I sing “And I am a virtual girl!”

Sense of Agency The second theme identified in the WaC Project was finding and maintaining a sense of agency in your life. It is easy to feel that you are being buffeted along by the whims of the pandemic and our governments and that you have no control—this is what uncertainty does to us. However, according to WaC’s panel of experts, we can:
  • Reframe the pandemic as a manageable challenge
  • Identify things that make you get out of bed
  • Establish structures and schedules to replace lost external structure.

Do you remember the feeling you had in law school after the last day of classes and before exams? It was this vast period of time where you didn’t have to do anything at any particular time, but you had to get all of your studying and preparation done. I remember feeling intimidated by the lack of structure in this time (along with the feelings of panic, fear, and overwhelm.)

My strategy—and one that we teach at our law student coffee circles—is to impose a framework on it. There is a theory that you need to spend 3 hours studying for every hour of instructional time. If you have kept up with your reading and CANS, you don’t face 45 hours of studying for each exam because you have already done a lot of your preparation. Divide up your days so that you are spending the needed hours of studying for each course—e.g., 9-12: contracts, 1-5 torts, and 7-10 crim and then zero in on each course the day before the exam. Then do your best to stick to that schedule so that you can give yourself a checkmark for each time allocation.

We do that in the practice of law, as well, to make efficient use of our time (when we can) and in our homelife. I prefer to allocate a couple of hours on Saturday mornings (after I have my extended coffee and newspaper time) for errands and house tasks, and then have the rest of my weekend free.

Don’t be afraid to try to impose a schedule on the amorphous COVID world. Your schedule won’t always hold, so you have to be somewhat flexible, but you will feel more in charge of your life if you have some structure (other than just responding to emails and crises as they arise!). Because we need some joy in life, I reward myself when I succeed in containing the chaos. Be good to yourself!

You don’t have to limit your sense of agency to scheduling. Scheduling is just an easy example but every day, we make choices about our lives. Some are small (like what colour socks to wear) while others are more important (like deciding to get a pet.) You can choose to eat dessert before dinner if you want to. Embrace your power to make decisions where you can and you may realize that you have more control than you realized.

Long-Term Goals Number 3 on the WaC hit parade is concentrating on long-term goals. This makes sense when our short-term plans have been blind-sided. If we focus on the immediate or short term, we see only the things that we cannot have—getting together with a group of friends on a Saturday night or going on a holiday. But we can look to where we want to be in our lives and our careers one or two years out and map out general strategies to get there.

For those of us lucky enough to have uninterrupted employment, we may have reduced expenses (e.g., parking, dry cleaning, going out for lunch.) Can you plan what you will do with these savings? A down-payment? A trip to Europe?

If your employment has been displaced, think about where you want to be in a couple of years. Are there courses you can take—online!—that will enhance your path?

And if you hate what you are doing but don’t want to make a career change during a period of instability, focus on the skills and connections you will need to make in order for this transition to be effective. Remember that you are stuck in the short-term, but that you have a plan for when our world reopens.

Optimistic Attitude Finally, the fourth theme is to cultivate an optimistic attitude. It can be hard to feel optimistic when the future is uncertain, but we can look to our past successes in overcoming obstacles. Humanity has encountered many pandemics, and we live to fight again.
 
When I talk to young (and not-so-young) lawyers about imposter syndrome, I urge them to contrast their feelings of not being smart enough with memories of their victories, especially the big wins and the unexpected ones. The best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour, so go ahead and relive those victories. This isn’t grooming arrogance—we are counteracting insidious insecurity with evidence of why we can believe in ourselves. And if we believe in ourselves and our ability to do good work, we can feel optimistic about our futures.
 
After 53 weeks of the pandemic, we have all made strides to re-establish our lives somewhat, but it certainly isn’t perfect. Sometimes we need to vent about how we are feeling, and our feelings must be respected and acknowledged. In mindfulness, we learn to acknowledge the thoughts that enter our consciousness. We acknowledge our emotions in the same way—we recognize them and note them. But then we can question whether our negative feelings are justified, and if you look at all of the things that you have done over this past year, you may see that you have shown incredible ingenuity and fortitude.
 
For each day that you wanted to stay in bed but managed to get up, recognize that you have resiliency, and that resiliency grows with use, like a muscle.
 
Assist’s counsellors can help you if you are feeling so worn out from a year of pandemic living that you question how you will get through the next several months. Working with a counsellor, you may find that you have the support and resources you need. A participant in our programs called me recently and said (and I paraphrase) “I felt so overwhelmed and didn’t think I could deal with all of the stress in my life, but the psychologist helped me see that I have all the support and resources I need, which includes the connections I built at Assist.”
 
This week, Assist psychologist Laurie Zalmonowitz led a webinar for students at both Alberta law schools about resiliency. He made great suggestions about building resiliency, including a 4 S Toolkit that plots out Supports, Strategies, Sage Advice and Solution-seeking behaviours to help us find the resources we need. Would your workplace like to have this type of presentation? Please call me to chat. If there is enough interest, we could host a webinar available to people across the province.
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As we head into Spring, we expect to see regrowth. We want to emerge from our semi-hibernation feeling strong and rested, but many of us do not feel refreshed this year. Assist doesn’t have all of the answers, but we can help you with counselling, peer support and community. Together, we are all are stronger, so please join us and let us walk this path together.
 
Loraine