Shifting stressors during the pandemic

The big project at work wrapped last Wednesday. I was essentially lead project manager on it, directing a gaggle of engineers and managing expectations with executives. It was a lot of work on a “you’ve got to be kidding me” deadline. Planning and executing it consumed me, especially in the last week or so as things heated up. But we delivered it just a few days past the deadline (on a project like this, that’s considered successful) and everything worked.

I was spent by the time it ended, so I took Thursday and Friday off. I thought I’d sleep late, make some photographs, write a little in this blog, and putter around the house. It was going to be five luxurious days of restorative downtime, and I was so ready.

Instead on Thursday I found myself power washing the deck so we could stain it. I guess I didn’t know that this project, which my wife and I had been talking about, was going to be this weekend.

On Friday I ran a frustrating and unsuccessful errand for my wife’s upcoming birthday that ate up my morning. But in the afternoon I developed and scanned some film, and I aired up my bike’s tires and went for the first ride of the season. That was great.

I couldn’t sleep late. In the last few weeks of the project, enough tension and stress built up that I struggled to let go and sleep. I managed five or six hours most nights, always interrupted by up to an hour and a half awake somewhere in the middle. I thought when the project ended I’d sleep deeply for a couple nights and be back on track, but instead my messed-up sleep pattern continued. I couldn’t shed the accumulated stress.

Saturday I crashed, and hard. I felt terrible all day. I managed the weekly grocery shopping and my laundry, but I was extremely irritable and my body ached all over. I needed to stop. My wife was staining the deck, and I know she hoped I’d join her, but I told her I couldn’t. I spent the rest of the day in bed reading a book. I dozed off a few times. That night I finally managed about seven hours of sleep.

Feeling partially restored, on Sunday I worked my ass off staining that deck. By the end of the day we had two coats on the railing and one on the deck surface. We also discovered that the structure under the steps up to the deck was rotting. Our son dismantled it and will rebuild it for us today. It’s nice to have someone with those skills in the family.

I thought a day of honest physical labor might do me some good and let me sleep deeply. Nope. Last night, once again, crap sleep.

I’m deeply tired, and I’m a little depressed. I think I’ll take tomorrow off, too, a day just for me. I need to press my inner reset button and this weekend really hasn’t done it for me yet. Everybody else will be back at work so I will be alone. I love being alone.

I forget that the pandemic itself is stressful. We’ve all had to adapt to a lot of change in a short time, and that’s never easy. The big work project was a great distraction. It started before the lockdown, so from the first day of working from home I could throw myself fully into it all day. Then all evening I could focus on my family. I seldom went out among people — Saturday morning to the grocery store, and usually once a week to pick up carryout, but that was it. I sometimes read the news so I’d have some idea about the pandemic’s progress. Otherwise, I could shut it out.

I also forgot that the pandemic is stressful for my entire family. Our children who no longer live with us have their own troubles but I’ll focus on the three that still live with us. All of them spent several weeks unemployed. I’ve said before that they were okay because we were able to provide them a roof and food. But they were also stuck here at home with no in-person contact with any of their friends. I’m good with being at home for long stretches. So is one of our sons. We’re both people with considerable inner worlds and we’re thrilled to live in them.

But our other son and our daughter are not built for this and it was very hard on them. That son, we learned, was sneaking out to spend time with his girlfriend, exposing us all to risk. I was furious at first. But after a long conversation with my wife I was able to see what isolation was doing to our son and daughter. I was no longer sure what was right. I’m still not.

Since Indiana started reopening, all three of these adult children spend some time with friends now. I’m a little frightened of it. Margaret and I are in the age group that has had the most cases of COVID-19 in Indiana. I do not want this disease. I also know that I fall on the very conservative side of reasonable responses to the virus. Other reasonable responses include some social contact.

I empathize with our children, who need that social contact. I’m conflicted about whether to draw a line, or allow this. I just don’t know what’s right. So I’m doing nothing, which tacitly allows this, and I just feel stuck.

I expect things to be more normal at work when I return. Stressful, tight-timeline projects like this one are not typical. We normally work in two-week chunks, or sprints, as we call them. Most software companies want some ability to predict when projects will finish. This system of sprints gives us good enough predictability with a lot less pressure. Engineers feel like they have the time to do good work. I like that.

It’s also a lot less stressful for me. In traditional project management, like I just finished doing, I’m sort of the captain of the ship directing everything that’s happening from my chair on the bridge. In our system of sprints, we set up two weeks of work and I then trust the teams to deliver it. They mostly do. I coach the engineers along the way and when they get stuck help them through it. It’s real work, but a lot less pressure.

That pressure was part of what allowed me to be distracted from everything else. I’m going to have to face it now. I don’t know what that means yet. I’m going to find out this week.

Other pandemic reports from Yuri Rasin, Owain Shaw, and brandib.


20 thoughts on “Shifting stressors during the pandemic

  1. -N- says:

    For us introverts, I think the isolation is fairly easy, but we still miss our friends and family. Also, not working has its advantages as there is not the stressor of telecommuting. I just retired from teaching, and cannot even fathom trying to do online teaching at all. My husband has telecommuted for years so there isn’t an issue there – habit. We also have no extra children around except the dogs. Our lives in the pandemic have changed very little. I cannot imagine what it must be like with grown children at home – they are adults, but they still are your children, and that parent / child role can be hard to shed. Despite that, what we have missed are our social connections. These include having a beer with a friend, brewing dates, coffee klatsches, at the like – little social connections. As things lift, life will resume, but it will always be touched with caution. The fact is, the corona virus is now a part of daily life to which we need to adapt. Life will continue regardless. So will we. Adapting is the key to it all . . . hang in there! Enjoy your day to yourself – that is great therapy for an introvert. I just turn off and drop out!

    • I do miss my friends and family, but I’m also that guy who can go six months without seeing any of my friends in person. I have a friend in Columbus with whom I’ve corresponded by email regularly for something like 18 years — we talk more than I talk to any of my other friends. We’re both perfectly happy to have an email friendship.

      Our adult children are not fully formed yet. They’re all still trying to figure out how to launch into successful adult lives. So in many ways we still parent them, because without that parenting they don’t move forward. Frankly, it’s a pretty cushy life here, with few bills and worries. That’s the risk of letting adult children stay. It’s hard to know when we’re helping and when we’re enabling. When I was in high school my dad said, “Son, when you graduate high school either you go to college, or join the military, or get a job, but in all three cases you will be expected to move on with your life. You can live here for a time if you need to but there will be rent and even that won’t last long before it’s just time for you to get on with it.” But that was in the 80s and things just seem different and harder now for young adults.

      • -N- says:

        Totally get it! Some friendships you pick up with wherever you left off, never needing to renew for some reason. I left home at 17 and have been on my own since then. It is different now, economically as well as parentally. We do what we can, but most of all, we need to remember to encourage independence and self-reliance within the framework of community.

        • Thank you for giving me the language in your last sentence. I’ve been dancing around that for a while but couldn’t find a way to phrase it.

        • -N- says:

          Glad to help! Language is sometimes so difficult when trying to find words for things we haven’t solidified in our own minds . . .

    • There’s no map, to be sure. My world has shrunk considerably, and I’ve figured out how it works. But as it grows (as they continue to open the state) I’m sure I’ll have continued stress as I figure out how my new enlarged world works.

  2. Aaron Gold says:

    Amazing how the depression sneaks up on you. I am happy to be home with my wife, dogs and younger son and I worked from home for years. Still, I had this all back up on me a couple of weeks ago. I’ve learned that I need to take a little time away at least once a week, and that helps.

    I’d be concerned with kids sneaking out as it does raise the risk factor. We have a strict get-home process that includes shoes off outside (or soles sprayed with disinfectant), backpacks in the “isolation box”, “outside” clothes off and into the shower, then change into “inside clothes”. So far it’s working, knock wood.


    • I am concerned about the kids going out! I don’t like it. I’m not entirely sure what I can do about it other than put them into the street, which seems like an overreaction.

      I get a fair amount of time to myself while working from home – I’m here alone – but I guess it’s not the same as true alone time.

  3. Darts and Letters says:

    It’s a terribly difficult dilemma about the kids, I really sympathize. Even here in Seattle, where our populace is generally quite conscientious and receptive about local public health messaging and protocols in response to the pandemic (plenty of exceptions, though) some of my neighbors are taking surprising chances and increasing social contacts. I have several nieces and nephews who are getting ready for their first year of college and this has been a severe test for them and they’ve taken more liberties, including being around other friends. In the time I’ve followed your journal you’ve struck me as an exceedingly thoughtful, careful person. I have a feeling you’ll ultimately strike the right balance. From my perspective, you aren’t being too careful, at all! The pandemic will last too long for an all-or-nothing approach but I think your state of mind is right on cue. Realistic but very prudent about how things look. thanks again for writing so honestly and graciously. Hope you feel more on the level (relatively speaking) as the week goes on.

    • I took today completely to myself. I drove up to a small town not too far away and shot a whole roll of film there! Always good for the spirit. Back to work tomorrow.

      I think the younger generation sees this pandemic as overblown. For them, it probably actually is, as their risk of having symptoms if they do get the virus is very small. Trouble is, they go home and put their parents at risk. That’s the part we’re having a hard time getting our kids to see. I hate to use the nuclear option and say, “this is a condition of living under our roof.”

  4. It is distressing when those days off don’t go as planned and when the rest you badly need simply won’t come. You may need to strike some balance during your work week with focus on self care during your downtime. Take a walk, go to bed at a ridiculously early hour, or just sit and watch traffic go by. Sometimes you need to just allow your mind to go numb so that you can recover from a stressful period.

    I count my lucky stars that I’m single and introverted at this time. The pandemic has taught me how little human interaction I need to be happy. This isn’t the case for so many who need that interaction. It would be especially hard to be young and social right now.

    I’m also blessed to be employed and busy with work during the day instead of binging on tv like so many unemployed people I know.

    Regardless of my empathy, I would be white got mad if someone in my household were sneaking around and exposing me to unnecessary germs. You’re a better man than me. :)

    Try to relax, Jim. You may not know it but every fiber of your being is tied up in a knot over all that stress and worry.

    • Thanks Brandi. This is stressful as hell, to be sure.

      I’m glad to be a deep introvert right now. I’m generally okay hanging out at home alone.

      Today I put film into a camera and drove up to a little town about a half hour away to photograph its downtown. It was wonderful to have the windows down, smelling the springtime smells of rural Indiana, on the way. It was good for my spirit.

      • Oh my. That sounds positively rejuvenating! I’m glad it lifted your spirits and hope the day will sustain you for a while.

        Every year, I create my bank’s annual report and plan a shareholders dinner in the span of less than a quarter. It’s like planning a wedding and writing a novel in three months every year. When it’s over, I’m sleep deprived and my entire being is so uptight that it’s like I have forgotten how to relax. Often, when I do finally let go and relax, I get sick – my immune system weakened by weeks of abuse. Oddly enough, I tend to become super irritable as well. It’s almost as though I’m no longer sure how to train and release all that hyper energy.

        Long story short, I understand what you’re experiencing.

        Be kind to yourself.

        • Good heavens, an annual quarter-long stress fest for you! The great thing about projects like the one I just came off of is that I never know when they’re going to happen. If I had one in, say, Q2 every year I’d spend all of Q1 dreading it!

        • Lol. I try to think of it as opportunity to prepare. I spend December trying to get ahead in my regular work for Q1 because that stuff doesn’t go away. Then I take vacation at Christmas and come back refreshed and prepared to hit the ground running. Usually starts the second week in January and runs through the first Tuesday in April.

          Mindset is everything!

        • You sound like the accountant who does my taxes. She spends all of January psyching herself up for Feb 1 through Apr 15, when she works 12 hours a day 6 days a week.

        • Haha. Yup. Very similar. And I like to give myself things to look forward to – sleep in on Sunday, a walk at lunch, a new book in the mail, a concert ticket for June. Anything to keep my spirits focused upward!

  5. I just finished a couple of large projects too, and am getting used to some kind of normal again.

    I am a little schizophrenic about this plague. On one hand, but for my age I don’t have other risk factors and am ready for some normal. My Mrs, however, does so she is much more cautious.

    My other mixed feelings involve our two younger children. Each has a place shared with a romantic interest. My Mrs and I have been decidedly uneasy about that (“Why don’t you just get married?”), though we think well of everyone involved. However this COVID situation has found them with needed companionship.

    • I don’t have any real risk factors (though being in my early 50s makes me more likely to suffer from the disease if I get it). But I’m conservative anyway. I don’t want to bring it home to my wife or our daughter, who both have risk factors.

      I understand the “why don’t you just get married” question. So far none of our kids are cohabitating without benefit of marriage, but I’d be right there with that question if any of them did it. But you can’t deny the value of companionship right now. Still, they could get married and still be companions!!

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