A recent memoir about hardship and hope proved the perfect antidote to 2020.
Confession time: I really, really didn’t want to read Lori Gottlieb’s Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed. While I’m firmly in favor of books that normalize discussing our problems rather than suppressing them, I felt something about the title — perhaps the offer of “our lives revealed” — was uncomfortably intimate, as though the author were going to tell me more than I wanted to know.
Let’s leave the therapists in their offices, I thought. I don’t want to know how the magic happens. (It was convenient to suppress the voice in my head countering that the most important things to examine are exactly those that make us uncomfortable.)
I pushed Gottlieb’s book out of sight and mind, trying to focus on finding a different read about mental health for my column (a topic I chose with accidental prescience way back in December without an inkling of the fresh hells to which we’d be subjected in January).
Again and again, however, I bumped up against Maybe You Should Talk to Someone — on TIME magazine’s must-read books of 2019 list, on Amazon’s 10 best books of the year, on Kirkus’ celebrated starred-review list — until a combination of curiosity and resignation got the better of me and I ordered a copy.
Still, the cheerful-looking book sat on a shelf until I couldn’t put it off any longer. Glowering at it as though it were somehow personally responsible for my conundrum, I slumped on the couch to slog through it. Wincing at the looming monumental struggle, I flipped to the first page.
By the second, I was hooked.
By the fifth, I was frantically adding sticky tabs to passages of interest, relevance, or sheer hilarity.
Gottlieb is a talented writer, but it wasn’t her prose alone that drew me in — it was the book’s central tenet. If there’s a theme that links the author’s practice as a therapist with her evolution as a patient, it’s self-compassion in the face of uncertainty. Cut yourself some slack, her reasoning goes, and that act of mercy radiates outward, positively affecting those around you. Grant yourself some space to breathe, and the difficult times will become more bearable.
Going into our 12th month of quarantine, that goal seems reasonable. We’ve been hit with something unprecedented, something the scale and effects of which I’m not sure we’ll truly comprehend for many years. And while it’s safe to say the pandemic has affected each of us differently, it’s equally safe to assume that most of us have, in one way or another, shifted our perspectives over the past year.
Things that seemed important before — performing well at work, socializing with friends, traveling to new and exciting places — have taken a back seat to the bare-bones work of everyday survival and the realities of covid-19.
Conversely, the little tasks we once took for granted — grocery shopping, tidying up our homes, putting on a clean, presentable outfit each day — have become Herculean, infuriating in both their monotony and relentlessness.
In response to it all, I’d started having full-blown anxiety attacks — occurrences that made me feel ashamed and helpless, paralyzed and overwhelmed (though by what I wasn’t sure). I couldn’t rationalize my fears, so I felt them unjustified.
Why, I would wonder in frustration, is it so hard for me to just power through like everyone else? Why can’t I get it right?
Except everyone else wasn’t just powering through, and they weren’t always getting it right. If there’s a silver lining to the massive social-media bump the pandemic produced, it’s that people seem increasingly willing to reach out and share their beautifully imperfect stories, to voice their feelings of inadequacy and uncertainty.
For the first time in a while, I could see that I wasn’t alone.
So, I took a deep breath and took Gottlieb’s advice: I unclenched (a little). If I expected a catastrophe of biblical proportions to ensue, I was disappointed. Nothing much happened except that I felt a little looseness between my shoulder blades where before there had been only a piercing ache.
I started doing more meditation. I started running again. I started listening to music instead of news on my daily dog walks. With each investment in my own wellbeing, I felt myself relax a bit more and — just as Gottlieb had predicted — extend that feeling of kindness to others.
It’s been a tense year, and we have many more tough months ahead. But with a little grace, for both ourselves and others, I’m confident we’ll emerge, if perhaps not unscathed, at least having learned how to better process our grief and appreciate our joy.
Mariko Hewer is a freelance editor and writer. She is passionate about good books, good food, and good company. Find her occasional insights of varying quality on Twitter at @hapahaiku.