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By Cristina Stanger, WRFN Self-Advocacy Liaison
*This article was originally published in the Family Pulse Newsletter May 2020*
-- My heart goes out to those whose lives have already been touched by COVID-19, to those who are at high risk of infection and complications, and to those who are dealing with other hardships/tragedies that are compounded by this challenging social environment. And my deepest thanks to the frontline workers, on whom we all depend. --
While I may appear composed from the outside looking in, my ‘sky’ is so often falling because I find different aspects of the world around me confusing due to my exceptionalities. But given these unprecedented times of medical threats and rapid societal changes brought about by the coronavirus, I have noticed that I’ve been uncharacteristically calm throughout all this upheaval. And I thought, “Well, this is strange.” And then I got to wondering about why that might be?
A stay-at-home order inherently allows me to bypass many aspects of everyday life that typically overwhelm me. However, I don’t feel this accounts for my clarity of mind. Then I thought, “Is it possible that my life experiences, as an exceptional individual, have helped prepare me to navigate these current events?” My intuition is telling me ‘yes,’ both in terms of weathering the emotional storm and also in finding healthy coping strategies. By no means am I saying that I am handling this perfectly, but I thought it might be valuable to highlight some of the advantages my experience with exceptionality has afforded me in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. And in doing so, my hope is that you will be reminded of your own wealth of experience, your own strength, and your own resilience in the face of adversity.
Some ways of feeling…
Firstly, there is grief. Particularly, the type of grief sparked when reality doesn’t match what you envisioned for yourself or your family. And this is paralleled by what we face today - celebrations postponed, unstable employment, education disrupted. These are examples of how our hopes and expectations for the future have been undermined by COVID-19. I have given myself permission to grieve. In acknowledging my grief, I can move through it, in my own unique, non-linear way, as I have done before.
Secondly, there is the anxiety that comes with uncertainty, with which I am well acquainted. I am sure that many of you reading this now have also had periods of time when you wondered, “What will my future hold?” When you asked, “How much longer can I go on like this?” I am asking myself similar questions again now. And I can employ the same techniques to navigate this uncertainty, such as: (1) identify my feelings and use them as a cue about what I might need, (2) stay present, as I cannot experience anxiety in the now, and (3) seek out support.
Thirdly, there is a familiarity with internal existential conflict. I had a three-year period in my life when I was working very hard to overcome obstacles, yet it felt like I was never getting anywhere, and I wondered what my purpose was. Progress was slow and hard to measure. However, during this time I did learn things, such as: (1) a sense of who I am as a person, rather than valuing myself based on my productivity (‘being’ rather than ‘doing’) (2) a more forgiving and flexible perception of the passage of time (I will get there when I get there) and (3) the benefit of forming a routine to guide myself through unstructured time (pets are immensely helpful in this regard). While it may feel as if I am currently stuck in limbo, I remind myself that I still have value, I still matter.
Some ways of coping...
I also understand the need to be gentle with myself. I try to focus on what I can control and take things one step at a time. There are good and bad days when living with exceptionality. So too have I had good and bad days during this pandemic. Identifying which kind of day I am having is key to weathering this storm. Hard days warrant more self-compassion. Good days allow me to take small steps forward.
Adaptations are something that those with exceptionality work with on a daily basis. I have had to find different ways of doing things that other people might take for granted. So, I am able to view COVID-19 shutdown as an opportunity to use my creative problem solving. Knowing my strengths and weaknesses also comes into play, and I can work within my support circle (while socially distancing) to divide and conquer challenges.
A strategy of gratitude is relatively new to me, but I have found it incredibly grounding. Thinking about what I am grateful for helps actively shift my inner focus from what is negative to what is positive. And whether I am dealing with exceptionality or COVID-19, a lens of positivity can work wonders in finding the courage to carry on.
Finally, there is power in acknowledging the journey. The future may be uncertain but taking pause to honour the struggles I have already weathered, can be helpful. I do not feel that I am strong in spite of my exceptionalities, but rather I am stronger because of them. My hope is the same will be said for the COVID-19 pandemic, both on an individual level, and for society as a whole. Please try to give yourself credit for navigating these unforeseen challenges; let’s become stronger because of them.
If you or your family members would like to discuss this, or any other topic, please reach out to Cristina through the Ask A Self-Advocate program (AASA). As with all WRFN programming, the AASA program is provided at no charge.