In March 2020, I was employed as a special educator in a Connecticut preschool. When the nationwide lockdown began in the wake of COVID-19 surges, I counseled parents on Zoom, helping them understand how these dramatic, worldwide changes might be affecting their children. Employed — but at home, like everyone else — I waited for school to reopen in the summer. I was thrilled to return in July of 2020. Ah, life is back to normal, I thought. With masks.
Then, in October 2020, the school’s director eliminated my position. Between the institution’s financial difficulties and safety issues surrounding COVID, moving from classroom to classroom was no longer feasible or safe. I was out. Unemployed. Shell-shocked.
My Identity Disappeared with My Job
In January 2021, I began to experience severe anxiety, panic attacks and depression. My thinking became increasingly negative, and the future seemed bleak. At first, these feelings of hopelessness came on every few days. Then they became more frequent and harder to manage. At almost every turn, something would trigger my symptoms.
While I knew my despair likely came from these unprecedented circumstances and my unemployment, that knowledge wasn’t enough to mitigate my overwhelming fear. I had built my life and identity around being a “working woman” with multiple careers, each of which I embraced enthusiastically. I defined myself by my talents, credentials, dedication and success. I had become reliant on positive feedback from employers and co-workers, and I felt safe inside the working woman persona I had created.
In fact, I’d say to anyone who’d listen, “I live to work. I will keep working until I’m dragged, kicking and screaming, into a nursing home.” I felt whole in the workplace. Back then, I didn’t understand that basing my entire sense of self on my work was a warning sign of trouble ahead.
And then unemployment rolled around and circumstances over which I had no control swept away the identity-bolstering construct I relied on to tell me who I am. I felt a catastrophic loss without work or anywhere to go. The obvious way out was to find a new job. But being over the age 65, I feared a return to the classroom, especially as the Delta variant of COVID-19 persisted.
My mind felt increasingly unreliable as each day brought an ever-intensifying sense of disorientation. The days felt empty. More to the point, I felt empty. My life had changed dramatically. I could barely stand it.
Getting the Help I Needed
In March 2021, my therapist urged me to enroll in an intensive outpatient mental health program at Silver Hill Psychiatric Hospital, “as soon as possible.” Within a week, one of the hospital’s loving and empathic social workers assessed me. My insurance coverage was in place. I was ready to get help.
In early April, I started a Zoom-based Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) program in which I spent three hours, three mornings a week, learning to better manage my disturbing emotions. Through distress tolerance techniques, I was able to come to terms with the radical change that had turned me upside down. I was so grateful to have a safety net like this to carry me forward. It felt like a miracle. And I had somewhere to be, nine hours a week!
Finding New Meaning and Direction
As I went through four months of group therapy, I became able to better evaluate how irrational many of my fears were. I began to see that I had to define myself separately from my work. This forced me to better articulate what made life meaningful — in terms of what I valued rather than what I did. Very gradually, the anxiety, panic attacks and depression decreased in intensity and frequency. But I knew that I would never again be the working woman I was before COVID. The trauma of corrosive doubt and the ever-present pandemic threat made it clear I had to find a new way to live.
But the questions remained. How would I shape a new life that’s not at all what I envisioned? Who was I really, now that I’d been stripped of the workplace supports I’d studiously pursued for 50 years? As I participated in the outpatient program and dealt with reshaping my life in a way I could live with, I decided to find a way to work with children and families again.
Today, I facilitate an online parent support group focused on the concept of authoritative parenting. I coach a parent whose child was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. I volunteer as a religious education teacher for pre-K age kids at our Unitarian congregation. And I’m being trained to work with grieving children who have experienced loss. I also write a humor and inspiration blog— an endeavor that has become equally important to my work with children and families.
Being a Stronger Self
I can feel myself healing every day. My increasing ability to withstand ambiguity and change is a measure of my improved mental health. I’m beginning to understand that I can choose my attitude: acceptance of what is — flavored with purpose and optimism.
It recently occurred to me that I may be stronger now than when I was working myself to the bone because I have my new sense of self to rely on. Work is not me; I am not work. I make new meaning, one day at a time, using my skills and experience to help others. To bring laughter to the world through my blog. To be a loving spouse and cat mother. A good neighbor, sister and friend.
When people ask if I’m retired, I answer with an emphatic “no!” I have more to give and more, much more, to create. I still struggle with anxiety, but the road ahead seems smoother. I’m grateful and hopeful. And I am out there in the world.
Amy Greenberg holds an MA in English and an MS in Education. She is a teacher, humor blogger and inspirational speaker. A native New Yorker transplanted to suburbia for love, she is married to artist Don Perley and the proud mother of Fluffypuss and Peekaboo.