D is for Disrupted

It is rare that every one of us in the world is going through crisis at the same time. Usually if some people are having their worlds turned upside down, they are staring uncomprehendingly out of the window at other people who are still living a normal life like nothing happened. But right now we are all facing disruption. Not one of us is unaffected by the global impacts of Corona virus.

As it has been pointed out though, even if we are all in the same storm, we are not all in the same boat. There are many different extremes already. Some are having to queue at the shops for longer and finding there is still no flour or pasta; others have had their world broken by grief at the loss of one or more members of their family. Some have no fear that their low income will still keep coming and are actually saving money by being at home; some business owners are looking at their home and belongings and wondering how much longer they and their employees will be able to keep paying their mortgages. Some people’s mental health is plummeting as they feel trapped, uncertain and unable to use their normal coping mechanisms; others are thriving with the much-needed pause this crisis has given them, and are able to take stock of what really matters and spend more time connecting with the ones they love.

Disruption means different things to different people. 

We mustn’t underestimate the power of disruption in our lives. We can rationalise it, explain things to ourselves, understand why things had to happen the way that they did, and remind ourselves that ultimately everything is going to be okay, but our emotions and our subconscious will often react in ways we cannot initially control. 

The biggest disruption in our house has been the cancellation of exams, meaning that the educational journey for all Year 11s and 13s came to an abrupt halt. So for two of my children who were building up to their final months in high school and in college, they had two days notice that their courses were all over. 

Logically this should have been fine. It was about to come to an end anyway, right? They both knew they weren’t staying in those places forever. They had both already planned what they were going to do next. But the abruptness of this disruption affected us beyond logic. It felt like an extremely unfair blow had been dealt and some vital life experiences had just been ripped away. 

Those first 48 hours were an absolute shock. Whatever I did, from constantly checking news updates, to getting all the freshly washed school uniform out of the machine, to opening the fridge and realising how much extra food we were going to need for lunches, was another lurch towards a totally unexpected new future. On the last morning when my alarm went off, I rolled over and grabbed my phone to check the trains were running on time as I always did, and I suddenly felt winded as I thought, “This is the last day you’re ever going to have to do this.” 

Let’s be clear: we were counting down towards the day when my 16yo didn’t need to leave the house every morning at 7:20 to get the two trains which may or may not get him to school on time an hour and a half later. I couldn’t wait to be done with the expense and hassle of those daily journeys. But it was part of who we have been in this season. The last two and a half years have been hallmarked by early morning train journeys, and the effort we put into making sure he got to school every day had all been for a purpose: to get him to successfully pass his GCSEs. I know school is about more than that, but that was the goal that kept us on track. Then *poof* the goal has gone. And your brain, your focus, your routine doesn’t know what to do with that

When I think about goals, from successfully passing exams through to hoping that treatment will be the cure for someone’s illness, I think about all the disruptions we have to face in order to achieve that goal. Getting up in time to leave the house at 7:20 every morning is a long series of disrupted sleep in order to get the best education available to you. Leaving work for a few hours or days or weeks to go and get chemotherapy and dealing with its after effects is disrupting every area of your life with the goal of getting better. Choosing to disrupt your evenings to do church stuff is laying down your personal preference of that day in order to build something greater.

While we have the focus of the goal, all these minor disruptions are worth it. We find peace, energy, self-discipline and even joy as we willingly choose to let go of one thing in pursuit of something better. It gives meaning to every choice we make. We don’t realise the hundreds of subconscious feelings we have overridden in order to make all of this possible. 

This explains why when those huge disruptions come, not the ones that change a little bit of our daily routine, but the ones that actually mean we can no longer achieve the goal we were focusing on, our emotions can feel like they are combusting in on themselves. When our goals die, part of us dies with it because we invested so much into it. Our mindset, our lifestyle and our investments have circled around something that no longer exists.

Where do all those things go now? Where is the centre of our focus? What do we do with all that energy we’d produced for and received from that goal? At the best our journey has ground to a halt in the middle of nowhere, at the worst all that energy has exploded into a devastating impact, like a train against a wall. 

I am not a sciency person at all but I am told that energy cannot just disappear. It has to go somewhere. And so it does - and often the place it goes to is back into ourselves. 

That nervous sensation in your body, that restless mind, the swirling thoughts, the activity that means you hop from one thing to another - that’s all the energy you were evenly distributing to the meaningful activities in your day until you were interrupted. It charges round your mind and your body in erratic waves and stops you from settling on one thought or activity at a time. I’ve read that at points of crisis, your brain literally redistributes its capacity to some areas instead of others, meaning your nerves - the fight or flight instinct - are aroused and on high alert and the long-term processing parts that love to dream ahead, focus on the future and come up with long term strategies, have all their power syphoned off to other areas. This explains an inability to sleep (because your defences are on high) even though you feel absolutely exhausted (because your brain is processing thoughts at about ten times the normal speed).

Is it any wonder that disruption makes us feel like we’ve totally lost control?

The good news is that in about three days after the news in our house, we were able to channel the energy into other things. We celebrated the gift of extra time, and put our energy into finishing coursework, doing jobs around the house, and finding a new routine. We talked a lot about what we felt we’d missed out on, how we felt, and what surprised us the most. I suspect compared to most people’s situations, we bounced back pretty quickly in this situation, and we’re doing more than okay now.

But I know for some people it is taking much longer than three days to recover from this disruption. And it has not always been my experience to bounce back so quickly. There are some disruptions that go far deeper than finishing school earlier than planned or not seeing friends for a while. 

There are some disruptions that change the course of your life so dramatically that we do not even recognise our lives from that point onwards. Our brains have no ability to cope with the many many changes thrust on it all at once, so it does the best thing it can do in that time, and that is to shut down parts of it for longer periods of time. I think this is the medical definition of shock, and it manifests itself in so many different forms that we wouldn’t always call it that. We can stop functioning in many ways that used to come easily to us, and so we feel like we’ve not just lost our job, or our business, or our family member, or the project we were invested in, but we’ve also lost huge parts of ourselves. Short term memory, concentration, enthusiasm, communication, rationalisation, forward thinking - the list can be endless. Onlookers don’t understand why we can’t just do these seemingly unrelated things in the same way we used to, and neither do we. It’s part of the isolation that comes from living in Plan D*. We feel distant from the people around us, and from the person we used to be.

But friend, I want to remind you that the energy doesn’t just disappear. It’s always around, in some form or other, and all that needs to happen is to rediscover it. If you had creative ideas once and now you feel completely uninspired, it doesn’t mean that you are now uncreative. In fact, it may mean you’ve been putting all your creative energies into self-protection strategies without realising it. Some of the most creative people in the world are those who can anticipate negative circumstances so vividly that they subconsciously channel all their energy into imagining the worst outcomes and finding ways to protect themselves from them. Some of us that used to be perpetually happy have faced disappointments that mean we now get busy finding things that frustrate us and putting all our focus on those things instead, because we misguidedly think that it’s easier to be in control that way. I went for a long time keeping people at arm’s length not because I lacked compassion for them but because all my energy was going into self-preservation instead. I thought I found other people exhausting, but it was actually the sustenance of keeping my guard up that was draining me. 

So please take the time to appreciate just how big an impact that disruption can have on your mental and emotional state. You don’t need to ignore it or get over it or beat it into submission. Instead, explore it, name it, figure out exactly what impact it has on every part of you. And when you’ve done that for a few hours or days or weeks, allow yourself to explore what comes after it. Which parts of you still need to heal? Which parts of you are crying out to be reactivated after a break from using them? What thoughts are still huge in your mind, and do you want to take them forward with you or do you want to go through the process of changing them into thoughts that are going to serve you better? 

If you get impatient with the process, go back to the train analogy. Whether it slowed to a halt or dramatically crashed, you found yourself in a place you weren’t intending as your destination. You may have felt like your whole life was on that train, if it represented your career or your relationship or something else of high value to you, but the train wasn’t your actual destination. If that train is now irreparable, it’s no longer taking you anywhere. So you have to walk away from it to find out where you are, what you need next, and what you’re going to find to replace it so you can keep going. However, walking is a lot slower and more painful than sitting on a train, so you’re going to have to put up with some discomfort for a while. But there is more. The destination still exists. 

D is for Destination. It’s up to you to figure out what that is (for me I’ve defined that as fulfilling God’s purposes for my life) and what direction, no matter how slowly, you are moving in to get there. You’re not done yet, you just need time.

Be glad, people of Zion,
    rejoice in the Lord your God,
for he has given you the autumn rains
    because he is faithful.
He sends you abundant showers,
    both autumn and spring rains, as before.
The threshing floors will be filled with grain;
    the vats will overflow with new wine and oil.
“I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten”
Joel 2v23-25

* Plan D is how I’ve described life when you feel like it’s gone really far off the course you thought it was going - it’s not even Plan B or C, but much more complicated than that. This blog explores the different emotions and processes that go alongside that.


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