It was bedtime, about forty-eight hours into quarantine when my husband asked, “So, what’s the plan for tomorrow?” I laughed so I wouldn’t cry. What an interesting question to ask in the midst of this bizarre, sad, profound situation.
“This is it, brother. Settle in. We are living Groundhog Day.”
Later I thought, “Right! Groundhog Day, I wonder if I can find that old movie anywhere?” Turns out, yes. Thank you, Netflix.
Groundhog Day is the tale of Phil Connors (Bill Murray), a self-important weatherman who is less than thrilled to cover the annual Groundhog Day celebration in Punxsutawney, PA. After half-heartedly performing his job, he tries to get out of town quickly only to be stopped by a massive blizzard. Forced to spend the night, he wakes the next morning to discover he is living the previous day over again. And again. And again.
While intended as satire, Phil’s life “on repeat” offers us lessons during COVID-19. And, as art imitates life, the themes from his journey can help to validate and comfort us as we go through these very strange, repetitive days.
Denial: Phil spends the majority of the first day seeking information. He asks people what day it is. He refuses to believe the facts. The reality is too overwhelming to accept so he looks for other options. Please hear me on this. If you were someone who did not understand how serious this situation was and now you feel bad about it? Let. That. Go. We do the best we can with what we have and sometimes, our defense mechanisms kick in to try to keep us psychologically safe. When we know better we do better, and we can do better now.
Connection: Phil eventually realizes that he is, in fact, repeating the same day. Not wanting to be alone in his experience, he starts trying to collect sympathizers and make a plan. This is us, people. When we launched into this strange reality several weeks ago, we reached out. We made Facebook groups and passed along memes that validated our emotions. We learned how to use Zoom and Google Meet. We collaborated and created plans. We made our best efforts to manage this sudden new life and we did it together.
Withdrawal: After a little while, Phil gets distant. He stops communicating with his news team, not telling them where he is or what he is doing. There may be times when you need to disconnect from the news, social media feeds, even the people around you. Take comfort, this is a very normal way our bodies sometimes try to shore up resources that are depleted during stress. Just remember that extended isolation isn’t good for you. So, please, take some time but then, find ways to reengage with healthy support.
Anger: Eventually, Phil loses it. After a few days of stress, failed plans and people not understanding him, he gets mad. He is callous with people. He punches poor ol’ Ned Ryerson right in the nose and figures how he treats people matters less than the pain he’s in. Hopefully, we won’t go to these extremes, but feeling angry toward the virus, other people, or decisions that are beyond our control are very normal. Remember, emotions are information. And anger is a secondary emotion. It never shows up first. Instead, it is a response to sadness, embarrassment, worry, feeling out of control, etc. Try to track down what emotion got you there in the first place and you may be able to head anger off at the pass.
Desperation: While we all will have good days and bad days, there will be people who encounter a mental health crisis. In the movie, Phil does get to the point where he is so desperate for a way out of his circumstances that he attempts to end his life. But here in real life? There is always hope. Most people who feel suicidal do not want to die, they just don’t want to live. Those are very different things. Many people feel better if they are given the chance to talk, connect, get access to missing basic resources, and potentially, professional care. Your local doctor remains a resource as well as several options listed here: Disaster Distress Helpline, National Domestic Violence Helpline, National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Acceptance: After fighting every way to change his circumstances, Phil eventually settles into his new reality. He recognizes he is in control of very little other than his response to the situation. He shifts his perspective from scarcity to abundance and, in doing so, begins to see opportunities. He uses his days, and his resources, to better himself and others and eventually learns how to be more in sync with his very strange situation.
Phil is all of us. In many ways, it feels like we just woke up one day to this weird, repetitive reality — and we don’t know when it is going to end. Two steps forward, one step back, doing the best we can with what we have until we sync up with this new normal.
Phil’s Groundhog Day ended eventually, and ours will too. Be safe, be gentle and love one another as best you can until that day comes.