I have been trying to decide if it’s a fortunate thing that I am holed up here alone during this quarantine or if I am deeply envious friends with spouses and family who I envision, are merrily playing board games together at home.

Thanks to the internet, 98% of the time I believe I am on the lucky end of things. Already just days into this distancing at home, I am seeing frustrated family posts. And this is coming weeks ahead of what I suspect may be more days together.

But in addition, I have come to realize these last few days that I am not alone in here in this house.  And I’m not talking about social media friends, or even my little doggo Toastaroo (who cheats at Monopoly BTW.)

The company I have is not the happy, fun kind at all.

See, during cancer treatment many years ago, I picked up two traveling companions-anxiety and post-traumatic stress. (I don’t capitalize them because they don’t deserve that importance.)

These two came as a package deal-the BOGO siamese twins of emotional baggage.

Back when I was toe to toe with the grim reaper, they brutally knocked me out of my emotional driver’s seat and loaded me down with their baggage. And let me tell you, these two are crazy-ass drivers to say the least. They especially like to drive at night, do erratic donut spins, and recklessly drive down every possible road labeled, “Bad Outcome, This Way.”

For the most part though, now 15 years post-cancer, I have gotten the evil twins out of the front seat of my car.

They sit in the back seat now, like petulant children with arms crossed occasionally sticking their tongues out at me when I catch their eye in my rearview mirror. Sometimes these sleeping giants of trauma and anxiety even nap for days at a time, and it is bliss.

But occasionally, I find myself with, out of nowhere whiplash realizing all too late that they have slammed on the brakes somehow, and have taken a firm grasp around my neck and yanked me into the back seat.

And just like that, yep, they are driving again.

Usually, this happens at yearly rechecks, when all the delightful sights and sounds and feelings of days of old get replayed. The walk of bare feet on the tile in the hospital for MRI, the laying in a dark room on a bed when ultrasound goo is squirted, the hardwired in my brain sensory reminders of my cancer diagnosis. The things that my brain recorded during that frightening time not so much of what was said, but what was felt and seen and smelled. Peripheral yes, but inextricably linked to that whole cascade of yuck that comes with the trigger, with the yanking a psychic thread.

In the town where I grew up, there was a bread factory right next to our school. The smell on baking days was heavenly. Not just heavenly, but comforting, coming over me like a sensory blanket of warmth and hygge. That smell was something that was woven into the tapestry of my brain, alongside a lot of the good feelings of safety and security and my love of those childhood days.

So, here I am 50 years later driving through Goldsboro, NC (unbeknownst to me a bread factory town.) And out of nowhere, I smell it. And suddenly my brain lights up all these long untraveled pathways from years ago. Calm. Hygge. Good Stuff. The smell calms me in a way I cannot explain and pull over and gulp it in. I ignore the townsfolk who are looking at me like, “what the hell is that old woman doing?” and sit for a very long time.

What happens with good memories also happens with bad memories. In short, your brain catches a whiff of something, an event, a smell, a place and starts sniff sniff sniffing around going, “man this smells familiar.” And consciously or unconsciously, this lights up those old pathways as a result.

It’s a great thing when we are in control and can drive these triggers like with comfort food or driving to Goldsboro on baking days.

But often, with the yucky memories, you don’t like running into the trigger, you often actively avoid the trigger. And it really sucks when it blindsides you.

When traveling this world with past traumatic experiences in your trunk, you get a mental “whiff” and it feels familiar. That whiff can be like for me, something reminding you of facing a life-threatening illness or stir up health anxiety. When this happens, and you are of the anxious sort like me, anxiety likes to go, “Hey, hey remember that? FUN TIMES.”

In a broader sense for all of us, it may remind us of a time we felt insecure or afraid. When we felt food insecure, health insecure, financially insecure or when we experienced a big loss like that of a parent suddenly dying, or a sudden illness. Or when we felt our bodies weren’t safe.

These past trauma whiffs aren’t gentle or hygge or fun at all. They are akin to what feels like an unknown source pulling the marionette strings in your brain to summon terror and anxiety. It’s usually these jokers, the evil twins doing it.

The sleeping giants in the back seat wake up, and poke gnarly fingers in your back and whisper, “This is crazy, this is out of your control, we are all gonna die.” And before you know it, you are locked in the trunk of a car careening into a catastrophic death spiral, driven by two idiots with bad breath who should have never been given a license in the first place.

This pandemic is nothing short of a perfect storm for this girl. I may as well have just pulled over and put myself in the trunk and called it a day. And I suspect it is the same for so many of us who have these traveling buddies for one reason or another.

Cabin fever is less than fun with these two. The 18 months I spent in isolation during chemo with the two of them wreaking havoc in my house and headspace was a psychic shitshow. And yep, here we are again, with the isolation, the fear. Familiar whiffs and boom, they are back.

These two fools are now doing nightly PowerPoint presentations of catastrophic outcomes, whilst I am duct-taped to my bed, immobilized by my terror, forced to watch. They drive me daily down overgrown and treacherous roads I haven’t been down in years. Last night we went down the “You fit all the criteria for a poor outcome and no vent” road. The night before it was the “You won’t be able to afford health insurance ever again” road.

It is exhausting.

My mom used to say, house guests are like fish, after three days they start to stink.

Today marks my 3rd day of quarantine and it’s time for them to go. They are stinking up the place.

So today I got up and said, I have to do something here. I have to figure out how to wrangle these two back into the trunk, if not, at the very least, in the back seat.

And perhaps put a cover over the rearview mirror.

As I talk to friends, privately and look at online COVID-19 support threads, I realize SO MANY of us are experiencing the same emotional fallout. The sense of our own personal anxiety genie being out of the bottle. So many of us are up all night with these jokers filling our already taxed noggins with the stuff of fear, anxiety, and uncertainty. The evil twins are eating us all out of house and home, chomping away at our ability to remain calm, to keep hope and to rest well.

It needs to stop.

So how do you do that?

Well, plot twist, I am not gonna tell you to meditate…oh I know that helps a lot of folks, but for this girl, it’s like trying to get a cage full of a thousand squirrels to all quiet down at once after dumping a bag of sunflower seeds in the cage. It just ain’t gonna happen.

What I will say is this. Start pulling a seed out at a time.

The first seed, the first thing to do is to simply recognize the source of the river. Follow the string on the marionette to find what is yanking your chain. Figuring out what it belongs to and realize it belongs to that time. Sometimes, there is great calm in saying, “Oh this feels like X, but it is not X.” Sometimes, there is great calm that comes with saying, “Oh this feels like X and now I remember that I got through X.” Sometimes there is great calm in saying, “Oh this feels like X, but I didn’t die from X because I did a lot of the right things.” It can deflate the tires a wee bit when you realize where this is coming from is all.  Once we know the source of the river per se, we can take steps to prevent falling in again.

We can also take different roads instead of the worn ones with tire grooves so deep you don’t even have to steer. We can think new thinks. We can say “No, I am not going down that road today.” When the car veers right, find anything you can do to go left. Walk, run, sing the Bare Necessities, think good thinks. Pro-tip, this usually involves summoning a thought, replacing a thought, or choosing a road that reminds us good things are to come.

Cover your rearview mirror. Put in earplugs. Figure a way to get updates about what you can do to keep yourself safe without all the hoopla. Turn off the dang TV and stay off twitter. Don’t get updates from places that feed the evil twins. Pro tip: get a once a day updates from an official, or a friend you trust.

Recognize how the sense of loss of control is something you can get control of. Part of the angst for me in this is the sense/fear that no one capable is in control. I remember the calm I felt when I was diagnosed with cancer that I picked who I thought was the smartest most capable oncologist, and I could turn it all over to him. Now, I don’t feel like that with the virus.

But I remind myself that there are very smart people in control. And that gives me control over this thought and corrals panic. There are wise, good, hard-working people doing their best this very minute to make vaccines, antivirals, and to create solutions to shortages.  There were many many people who legit did see this coming months ago and who prepared, and who rolled up their sleeves right then and got on it. Pro tip: good people aren’t always the ones blaring how great they are on the news because well, good people are busy doing what good people do, finding an answer rather than talking about it.

Remind yourself daily that there are people who WILL help us. Mr. Rogers’ helpers are out there. There are people who will risk their lives to care for us if we get sick. Remember that most folks with this virus do well at home and recover without needing these superhero people. There are also people who will talk to us online, people who will help us figure out how to get groceries and walk the dog and yep, there are people who will share toilet paper with us.

Think about this. Governments are responding. Almost everyone is in the same boat facing the same financial issues and they can’t evict us all, they can’t foreclose on us all and they likely won’t. The safety net is being woven by good people (see above) as I type. It may not make for a less terrifying fall, but I am pretty sure that net will catch many of us.

Recognize that ALL things pass. I am old and know this as fact. I have been through some awful stuff in my life, more than the average bear and it has all passed. All stages of life that we think will never pass do. Our terror after 9/11 eventually diminished, and we got through unimaginable fear at that time. Online posts remind us that things like the fires in Australia, things we felt certain would never get under control, have passed. Think back on your own worst times, they are passed am I right? China is moving out of it now, vaccines are being trialed this week in Seattle. Pro tip: Kidney stones, rotten bosses, and Dick Cheney have passed on through, so will this.

Here is a harder challenge. Think about the positives that will come. Now I will be the first to admit I have gotten a lot of crap over the years from the “cancer is not a gift” campers. But I still believe hardships launch gifts, and almost always catapult us to the next level of play. Good things come after things pass (which remember they all do.)

Lance Armstrong, early in his diagnosis, said he got an email from another survivor that said, “You don’t know it yet but we are the lucky ones.” He was like “what the F?”

But later, he got it. I get it too. We will all be the lucky ones.

I promise you. My perpetual pro tip is this: every single thing you do in the future will, as a result of passing through this hard time, feel like the lucky privilege that it is. Nothing will ever again feel like something you have to do. Every single gosh darn thing–school, work, boring meetings, and even future really hard emotional stuff, will feel like something you get to do. It is game-changing. It will be sweeter.

We are lucky now. We will all be luckier after all this is one day passed. We will come out of this with laser clarity about life and love and family and about what is really important. We will have slowed the pace for our kids and ourselves and will have been reminded of the need for downtime. Time to think thinks we don’t normally have time to think. We, our whole sweet little earth and worlds, will reset.

I woke up today to hear the news that the water in Venice canals is clear and that dolphins are swimming there for the first time in 60 years.

I imagine that a lot of proverbial dolphins will find us in the days to come. Good thinks will swim back into our hearts. And when that happens, because of all this, it will be crystal clear and it will summon comfort, like the smell of bread baking. Our brains will go, “Oh there you are, I had forgotten how wonderful and lovely and sweet you are.”

Just breathe in the good when the panic comes, catch a whiff of those good things. Let this be time we can pull over and sit and breathe it in. And let that whiff light up the way, let that good stuff be what navigates you through.

And tell those jokers to take their antics elsewhere.