Let's Acknowledge Our Suffering

Written by
Katie Rose Guest Pryal

Jan 4, 2021

Jan 4, 2021 • by Katie Rose Guest Pryal

If you are like me, you are struggling right now. Perhaps even more than you have been during this difficult year. Your institution reopened, and you slogged through a semester that threw incredible new challenges your way. Our nation has been disrupted by an election with conflicts unprecedented in our lifetimes. COVID‐19 is spiking again, nearly as dramatically as it did at the beginning of the pandemic. You don't need me to list every horrible thing. You know what they are.

If you are like me, you are careening off track, and you don't know how to stop. What do you do? Last month, I wrote about how we must take care of our students. This column is about taking care of ourselves.

If you find yourself failing at everyday things and are unable to figure out how to do your ordinary best, you have to learn to acknowledge both.

It's okay to acknowledge that you need extra time and extra help. For example, if you feel safe to do so, you can acknowledge your need to your supervisor, and you might receive time and help. Or you might not get either of these things, but you may get your supervisor's sympathy—after all, your supervisor is likely in a similar place as you are. Most people are not having an easy time right now.

Or you might not feel safe talking to your supervisor, but you can acknowledge to yourself that you are struggling, which can make a difference between being angry at yourself for falling short and giving yourself grace in difficult, if not impossible, circumstances.

We're All a Bit Lost

What I'm about to tell you might sound familiar.

I haven't slept through the night in months. I'm constantly anxious and also afraid (of nothing in particular, and also of things in particular). My anxiety is so bad, I even stopped drinking caffeine to help alleviate it. Zero. Not even a sip. And I own my own espresso machine.

First, there is the pandemic, looming even larger.

The election has done nothing to calm my anxiety. Even with Biden's win, many of us knew that things would only grow more unsettled after election night, and they did. The legal challenges created the unsettled place that our nation is now in. So, I've taken precautions: I've limited my social media and my news intake. I refuse to discuss politics even with my husband. I can't read the editorials, updates, and think pieces or my brain will rabbit hole to worst‐case scenarios.

Additionally, my family finances, children's education and safety, and elderly parents' health all tie together in a knot in my gut that I can never untie.

But despite my constant state of being wrecked, the academic calendar rolls on. I had to grade finals. I have a deadline for my next textbook. I have a book proposal that I have to write that is due soon. I had to get classes ready for the spring. I can't stop working just because I'm wrecked. I have to earn my paycheck to keep paying our mortgage.

Everything is overwhelming.

I know that I am not the only one who feels this way. Our ways of suffering may be different, but we are all a bit lost or a lot lost in our own ways. But before I wrote this column, my suffering was a diffuse gray cloud, something I was unable to pin down or articulate.

Finding the Words

I was talking to my colleague Ariane on the phone about how to get anything done under these conditions, especially now that the semester is coming to a close. We talked about how all of the pressures around us were converging at a bottleneck—current events, money, family pressures, and work. I told her that, after three days of doing almost nothing because of physical and mental exhaustion, I didn't know what to do to get started again. And she said, “I don't either.”

Later, I texted her a chart someone shared with me on social media, created by the Colorado Healthcare Ethics Resource and adapted from research on firefighters and stress (https://cohcwcovidsupport.org/). The chart was a revelation to me.

It depicted stress and its symptoms as a continuum, from green to yellow to orange to red, from “thriving” (green) to “in crisis” (red). As I read the chart, I felt strangely validated. In front of me were the words to describe how I've been feeling for weeks, months—honestly, I've lost track. And the chart means that I'm not the only one who feels the way I do. Rationally, I know that I'm not; Ariane is proof of that. But sometimes I can't help but wonder if I'm weak. A failure. Inadequate. Deficient somehow. But the chart showed me that there is a greater pattern in the world, enough that we need a chart to track this greater human suffering.

Once I shared the chart with Ariane, she wrote back, “That's dead on.”

The chart gave me the words to describe how I am feeling: “persistent fear, panic, anxiety…hopelessness.” “Exhaustion.” “Poor performance and difficulty making decisions or concentrating.” “Restless, disturbed sleep.” And more. I now had words to describe the amorphous gray cloud.

I acknowledged my suffering. I realized I wasn't alone.

Suffering, Together

Now, that I have acknowledged my suffering, I know what I need. I'm not afraid to ask for it. For example, I'm working from home. My husband's office is downstairs and mine is upstairs. But now, I get anxious by myself. I have trouble concentrating. I feel exhausted.

So, I asked my husband for help. I asked if I could work at the extra table in his office, near him, to help me stay focused and be less lonely. He said yes, of course, and he made me a workspace. Now I'm writing with him nearby, and I feel less alone. It's incredible how something so small made such a big difference. I didn't know how to ask for it before I acknowledged that I needed it.

I also do regular check‐ins with Ariane. Sometimes we just share what is hard for us. Sometimes we share a work goal—just one, our main goal of the day—and then encourage each other to finish it, cheering via text message. That kind of emotional support isn't something I realized I needed until I acknowledged how much I was suffering.

Are you suffering? Reach out to others and let them know, whether at work or in your private life. Ask for what you need. Even the small things can make a big difference. Say “Hi, I'm really suffering. Are you suffering, too?” And know that you aren't alone.