In March 2020, we all stepped out our doors into the unknown, but I didn’t realize it until about a week ago — I am a slow processor. My response to the pandemic was to make strict daily schedules of work, schoolwork and activities for me and my family.
When my husband, Garth, freaked out when I didn’t return my bike to “the correct bike hook in his organized garage,” I realized I am not the only one using organization to fight uncertainty. My strict family schedule and organizing around the house is my way of trying to find a sense of control and structure in my life during a time when I can control very little.
What would happen if I stopped and sat with this uncertainty? YIKES! Even as I type these words I open a floodgate of worries and fears: What would happen if I get sick or if someone I love gets sick? What if Garth or I lose our jobs? Should I find a way to get to Pennsylvania to be with my parents… the list of fears goes on and on.
As the pandemic stretches on, I can’t hide behind the same daily structure and I am not sure I want to simply replace it with a new daily schedule. But I’m also not sure I can face the full force of my uncertainty. I need to find ways to help myself and my family face our fears while also holding hope for our future. My answer is… Pac Man!
Every time a worry comes up for me, I create a Pac Man ghost and write the worry on it with a sharpie. Some worries are bigger ghosts and some are smaller. Psychologists refer to this as externalizing anxiety. By making a physical representation of my anxiety, I can look at it, name it, and eventually deal with it. I can label my fear and make it feel manageable.
My Pac Man ghosts are now hanging next to the colorful ghosts of the rest of my family. Some worries were easy for my kids, Leif and Kestrel, to label but others packed such an emotional punch that they needed support putting the fear into words. Now when a worry comes up or if we notice a family member worrying (often children show worries through behavior) we make a ghost and hang it up on the wall.
But I don’t want our house to just be filled with worries and fear. We can’t go back through the door we opened in 2020 but we can intentionally open new doors of hopes and dreams to our future.
After making the Pac Man ghosts, we have started making a new kind of art. First, we paint along with Bob Ross or make our own art. Then on our art we write words filled with hopes and dreams for our family for the year or two ahead. Now opposite our ghosts, we have a wall filled with hopeful art and descriptions of our family dog walks, Kestrel working on science puzzles on the phone with my dad, biking instead of driving, and our collective vision for our future.
I can look between these two walls. On one side is my anxiety. On the other side is my hope.
Now I continue to create some structure for my family’s days, but by making my anxieties visible and thus a little more manageable, I will see if I can also allow some space for uncertainty. To me that feels like the perfect balance for the world I am living with right now.
Dr. Pikiewicz earned her PhD in Clinical Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, CA. She completed pre-doctoral training at the Nan Tolbert Nurturing Center in Ojai, CA, and her post-doctoral internship at the Boulder Institute for Psychotherapy and Research. At both sites, Dr. Pikiewicz worked with a range of adult, adolescent and child clients in individual, couple, family and group settings. She also holds a B.S. in environmental science from Allegheny College and a teaching credential from Western Washington University.