Safe Socialization #1: Lessons From the Road

This sunset was a dream trip finale after ten days traveling the West Coast with Cassie the Dog in my VW van. But even moments of pristine peace were disturbed by the underlying feeling I was doing something wrong. 

Taking in a spectacular sunset from a remote beach on the coast of Southern Oregon, I closed my eyes, tuning in to the rhythmic lapping of waves against the shoreline.

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For the first time in months, I felt relaxed. Observing the order of nature reassures me all is not lost to the actions and attitudes of us humans.

But the contentment I felt was convoluted by another emotion, one that made me question my presence at the beach altogether.

Guilt.

It had been gnawing at me all week.

This sunset was a dream trip finale after ten days traveling the West Coast with Cassie the Dog in my VW van. But moments of pristine peace were disturbed by the underlying feeling I was doing something wrong. 

This sense of shame has held me back, made me hesitant to write or talk about the trip. I’m worried I’ll seem reckless, inconsiderate, or much worse…hypocritical.

Pre-pandemic, I’d have jumped at the chance to share photos of picnics, Redwood hikes, and goofy misadventures of road life. (like accidentally stealing decor from my hotel room, or getting chased from a river swimming hole by a 5-inch snake.)

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But beneath the glare of 2020, through the lens of COVID 19, my enthusiasm for chronicling adventures and posting them to the public domain has been muted.

Driving south, I cowered under freeway billboards which admonished (seemingly directly at me) “Stay Home, Save Lives.”

I didn’t heed the warning.

Now that I’m home and have seen news of virus cases skyrocketing all over the country, I’m even more conflicted.

I’m afraid of being judged. Afraid friends won’t understand why I canceled plans with them but took this trip.

I’m afraid I’ve contributed to the problem instead of helping.

As a nurse, I feel an ethical obligation to role model the highest level of caution: either go to work and save lives or stay home and save lives. Nothing in between.

Yet, I’m human. I need self-care. I need family. I need work-life balance.

Honestly, I needed a break.

Let me insert a disclaimer here, a feeble attempt to assuage my guilt.

For what it’s worth, I was not in any patient rooms that were COVID positive for over a week prior to travel. I was tested for the antibody, which came back negative. (Though the accuracy of these tests is poor and the implications unclear.)

I was essentially self-contained in my vehicle the majority of the time. I only ate at restaurants outdoors, I didn’t join groups or gatherings, I was masked for the entirety and sanitized my hands regularly. img_7873

This trip was not mandatory nor was it an emergency, but it wasn’t pure hedonism either. I visited San Diego to have my van camper top refurbished (how I damaged the original in a parking garage in Whistler is a somewhat shame-inducing story itself!) The trip was initially planned for April – and of course – was canceled.

I definitely appreciate how trivial this is compared to major life events so many have canceled – weddings, surgeries, anniversary vacations to Iceland (my heart broke for this friend!), first birthdays for a first child.

And, I’ve had my share of disheartening cancellations: the annual soul-replenishing retreat at Salt Spring Island (should be there today!), Disneyland with my kid (our first trip together in 4 years), Hawaii with my best girlfriends…

Sacrifices have been made by all.

As the pandemic waxes and wanes, we’re forced to make decisions regarding what activities we deem safe and reasonable to engage in. The conflict, guilt, and doubt this conjures up aren’t unique to me. 

Friend and colleagues have shared similar concerns. “I’m not ignoring the virus, but I miss my friends so much.” “I don’t want to make things worse, but I just can’t sit home alone any longer.” “No matter what I decide to do, it feels wrong.”

After carefully following the mandates of isolation for months, many of us are desperate for some normalcy and have begun taking calculated risks. Our mental health depends on it.

Since the pandemic’s (publicly known) onset in the US, my mission as an ICU nurse has been clear: prevent, treat, and eradicate this plague and the suffering it generates. I’m meant to ensure you, your child, your spouse, and your parents will not succumb to the virus. It’s no wonder my bias towards “stay home” and “wear a mask” has been steadfast, as I’m overwhelmed by the bleakest realities of COVID 19, and frequently witness prolonged and painful deaths of the patients who succumb to it.

Separated from that environment, even briefly, to engage in hugs with family (which I literally have not felt in months) eat food prepared and served by another human (not via drive-thru), and run freely on the beach next to my furry best friend, I became acutely aware of how important it is for us to live.

The farther I traveled from stifling hospital air and seemingly endless office hours via claustrophobia-inducing ZOOM, the more apparent this became. 

 

Distance from the frontlines also helped me better appreciate the “outside” world’s perspective. (Non-healthcare professionals, and/or those who haven’t experienced the tragedy of Coronavirus in their personal circle.)

I can identify, to a degree, with those calling for businesses to open immediately and even those throwing caution to the wind to gather in groups, mask free.

We need to socialize, adventure, and fuel our economy. We need to rise above the fearful and negative energy that’s been vibrating through the earth for the greater part of six months.

But this doesn’t mean we can ignore it altogether.

Returning to work after vacation was emotional whiplash. From beachside Utopia to caregiving of patients fighting against Coronavirus for their lives, including a young woman on life support who contracted the virus after attending a small, intimate wedding. Sadly, it was her own. Every guest in attendance became ill.

Tragedies like these – ones that are a part of my everyday life since March, are keeping our communities from moving forward with social events for good reason.

But I know we can’t hide in our homes forever.

So how do we strike a balance of security, sanity, and solvency?

After navigating 2,500 miles of travel during these uncertain times, I don’t have any perfect answers.

But I do have suggestions based on what’s working for me.

Stay tuned for my next article, where I draw parallels between practicing safe sex and practicing safe socialization, using everything I learned in high school health class.

Coronavirus, after all, is basically just another type of preventable STI –

Socially Transmitted Infection.

Stay safe and healthy my friends.

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Cheers and Gratitude,

Tiffany

 “The views expressed on this blog are not medical advice, the opinions are my own and do not reflect the views of my workplace.”

 

 

The Road Trip Sessions: Installment #3

I had a secret weapon to deal with anxiety, pain or discomfort: simply self-medicate with substances. Being a little tipsy, a little numb and a little checked out helped me tolerate the surfing situation (not to mention all other hard things in life). The day would pass in sea-salt tinted haze.

“I own a surfboard, but I’m not a surfer.” This is my go-to script when discussing the salty sport.“Surfing is the hardest sport I’ve ever tried.” Is the next sentence that flows off my tongue. It’s all true. I purchased a 9’6” bright red longboard before ever attempting to tackle a wave, and once I did, found it to be the most challenging, intimidating and exhilarating activity I’ve pursued.

Surfing requires balance, coordination, strength, mental composure, a love of water and proclivity for adrenaline. When I first donned a wetsuit at age 30, I didn’t possess many of these attributes. I was physically clumsy, preferred reading on the beach vs. frolicking in the waves, and I’ve got a weird quirk about putting my face under water. I hate it. While I grew up thoroughly enjoying swimming in pools and lakes with my dad and siblings, I would rarely immerse my head. Like a cat, when water touches my face, I instantly recoil. Even in the shower. I know, it’s ridiculous.

(I have a couple theories why this is, but not enough blog space to elaborate. Perhaps another time we’ll examine my two near drownings along with early belief that  maintaining a perfectly made up face to gain male attention was more important than letting go to playfully swim. I’ve predominately overcome these, gratefully, but I still swim with my face fully above the surface!)

Submersion underwater is non-negotiable in surfing. My face was going to get wet; no way around it. But when one is 30 years old, in a new relationship, leaping into life in a fresh, adventurous way and one’s boyfriend says, “I want to take you surfing!!” one does not say “I can’t do that, I don’t like to get my face wet”. One purchases a surfboard and wetsuit and faces their watery foe head-on (after vomiting in the grassy dunes on the way to the waterfront.)

My first surf adventure was at Short Sands on the Oregon Coast. Lucky for me, my older brother is an excellent surfer and was there to walk me through the process. I’ll never forget laying shakily atop the unfamiliar red surfboard as he held tightly to the sides, chest deep in the water.  When the right wave was near, he’d say “Paddle” and push me ahead of the wave. Next, he’d instruct me to “Get up!” as I struggled to get vertical. The ocean was threatening and unpredictable. My brother: reliable and serene.

I’ve surfed a few dozen times since then, but not well. I’d schlep out into the cold liquid and hours would pass as I fell again and again. I’d make it up to my knees a handful of times, but rarely to my feet. The water was frigid, salt relentlessly stung my eyes, and the neck of my wetsuit suffocated me. Mostly, I stood waist deep with my feet firmly planted on the sand, looking out toward limitless rolling waves, hoping everyone was too busy to notice I hardly tried.

Besides avoiding plunging my face under, I was burdened with all the “normal” fears associated with entering a vast, creature-filled body of water:

  • Deep, primal fear of what lies beneath the surface: jelly fish, stingrays, and sharks oh my!
  • Fear of possible and probable injury: surfboards are hard when they hit your head and fins are VERY sharp when they cut your ankle, thigh or arm
  • Fear of unpredictable, merciless currents, waves and riptides: the ocean has a reputation of tumbling people like socks in a giant washing machine.

Signage along the shore warns of the risks assumed by stepping into the sea. The ocean plays by her own rules, and if you don’t know or understand them, you can easily end up a victim to the game.

All of that sounds awful as I put it on paper. “Why do it at all?” you ask. (I’m asking myself as I write this as well.)

I persisted because my partner at the time was into it and it was something to do as a couple. It was also an activity in common with my brother and bonding moments with him were rare and special. I persisted because it was the sexy thing to do. It feels young and trendy to wear a bikini top and a wetsuit pulled up to my waist, flaunting natural beachy waves in my hair. I persisted to belong; to join the after party without feeling like a fraud on dry land when everyone else had kicked ass in, or had their ass kicked by, the ocean.

More significant were the few exceptional moments when I got it. I mean really got it. The wave swelled under me, my body found its way upright and I maintained a balanced, athletic posture all the way to the foamy whitewater at the shore; the moment I caught a wave. That was a feeling I wanted more of. A feeling of alive seldom achieved in any other sport.

That sensation was so pleasant, so magnetic, it was worth facing all my aforementioned fears. Besides, I had a secret weapon to deal with anxiety, pain or discomfort: simply self-medicate with substances. Being a little tipsy, a little numb and a little checked out helped me tolerate the surfing situation (not to mention all other hard things in life). The day would pass in sea-salt tinted haze. Somehow, I’d make it safely to dry land and move on to more savory pastimes such as reading, beach combing, and more drinking. Alcohol washed away worry and Vicodin dulled the dread as I hesitantly paddled out into the Pacific, though they certainly never assisted in gaining balance or expertise.

WARNING: Do not ever surf under the influence. I am in no way insinuating substances ACTUALLY made me brave. They simply numbed my fear.  Which means they also numbed my joy. And then I became an addict and lost my job and many relationships and almost my nursing license along with my dignity and it’s taken me years to overcome the shame and sickness that ensued from thinking it was a good idea to self-medicate. I’m simply relaying how my brain worked at the time, before I understood the catastrophic consequences and life-threatening risks I was taking and before I truly loved myself. Ok, with that out of the way….

The seductive call of surfing sang to me again in Costa Rica, while traveling with family. The waves were comparatively warm and small, but I was no less terrified than I’d been in the polar Pacific. All my previous fears remained, with one major distinction: I had no addictive crutch to calm my shaking nerves.

In Costa Rica I would be surfing sober, and I lacked a backup coping mechanism. I longed for a super strong IPA and little white pill to transform my cowardice into (false) confidence.

Continue reading “The Road Trip Sessions: Installment #3”

The Roadtrip Sessions: Installment #2

Especially as a woman in recovery from religious trauma, self-loathing, perfectionism, opiates and alcohol, the ability to walk around with the experience that “I am absolutely OK just as I am” is nothing less than a miracle.

It’s been 10 consecutive days camping, hiking, swimming and posting up in driveways. The evidence is indisputable:

  • I have not changed out of my Olakai sandals, except for ONCE when I used the local Planet Fitness in Eureka California. My feet are toughened up for the barefoot season, to put it nicely. (I did book a pedicure today. I’m camping, but a girl still has needs.)
  • I’ve not worn a bra once, only occasional tank top like sports bras. If you’ve been reading for awhile, you know I probably don’t NEED a bra. (refer to this early blog. Fair warning: not my best material. Raw, genuine, but pre-writing course and I’m not taking the time to edit.) From the looks of the locals, I don’t think this part of Oregon requires the undergarment.
  • My skin is glowing with summer tan. And by tan, I mean my freckles have grown together close enough that from a distance, if you squint your eyes, I appear to have a mild bronze sheen. I’ll take it, it’s the best I can ask for.
  • My eyes are sparkling, my gait nonchalant and my face relaxed. (Ok, that could be the botox I got right before the trip…) Schedules/plans/obligations are beginning to feel like a thing of the past.

It’s official. I’m in vacation mode. After a week of reveling in the foggy western coastline and brilliant green shade of Northern California’s Redwoods, it was time to head inland for sunnier times.

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Sunny spot just outside Eagle Point, Oregon

Meandering northeast, I stopped for the night in Eagle Point, Oregon where I met a charismatic, van-owning woman whom impacted my life significantly in a matter of hours. She gifted me a homemade smudge stick, added me to a women’s only online van community, and generously shared the journey of her grief/healing process when our conversation turned to aging dogs and loss of parents. She introduced me to Laurie Anderson’s documentary “Heart of a Dog”,  and showed me mementos such as a healing candle from her mother’s service, and gorgeous glass pendant created from her beloved dog’s ashes by Psyche Cremation Jewelry in Bend, Oregon (which as you know was my next stop!) Cassie – my own special canine soulmate  – is still very much alive, but a large part of my trip’s purpose has been to celebrate her life and prepare for inevitable loss as she begins to slow down at 14 years old. And always, in the back of my mind, are thoughts of how and when I’ll begin to deal with my father’s passing in 2017. So much occurred in one brief night at Eagle Point, it’s hard to explain in a paragraph. Just trust me; I was meant to meet this woman.

Continue reading “The Roadtrip Sessions: Installment #2”

The Road Trip Sessions: Installment #1

It’s been a minute since I’ve written. More like 6 months actually, since I began working dayshift at the hospital.

Turns out I love working dayshift, but between the new hours and teaching during the school year, I have a lot less time to write. So I’ve been saving ideas, jotting down titles and a few paragraphs here and there in anticipation of summer when I work a lot less and (in theory) have a lot more time to do what I love. Which is write.

Now it’s summer and I’m on a multi-week vacation traveling through the beautiful PNW with (in theory) unlimited opportunity to write and create!

Maybe you don’t know, but I own a super sweet 1987 4×4 Volkswagen Syncro (though if you’re my precocious bandana wearing, sarcasm dripping student whom I will not name you might say “we have very different ideas of what a ‘sweet’ vehicle is.”) He’s right, it’s not a sports car. But she is sweet! Despite her unreliability and inability to go over 40mph uphill, Serendipity Syncro has been a miraculous addition to my life.

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Continue reading “The Road Trip Sessions: Installment #1”