Anne T. Donahue
Years ago (winter 2020), I wrote about the reminders I wanted instead of calls to drink water, take deep breaths, and to unclench my jaw. I wanted a life full of nudges to pick up my cat and hold him like a baby, take a nap, and watch Twister, and ultimately to be freed from the confines of handling stress a certain way. (And I still want those things. I will always want those things. Don’t ever think for a second that I have morphed into a ghoul.)
And yet, here we are. People are out, people are inside, vaccinations are happening, and we’re all starting to sort out the effects of the pandemic in our own ways. (Spoiler: it’ll take us forever! Our brains have been ravaged!) But for reasons that are related to covid and reasons that are very much not, I have continued to live my clenched jaw life and see no end in sight. Stress abounds, and I am, for a million reasons, constantly worried. And as I sit in front of the television with a hot pack on my jaw while summoning the strength to scream, “PLEASE JUST LET ME DIE,” I realize that this is the way it’s going to be for a while. Maybe forever! I will pour the entirety of the things I am thinking about into my poor, victimized teeth and jaw. And when somebody says, “Oh yeah, just make sure to unclench your jaw!” I will say “hot pack” three times in succession and turn them into the bean bag sloth I used to soothe my old-ass bones.
For many years of my life, my body has borne the brunt of, well, everything. On top of an already very sensitive stomach, for a very long time, I’ve merged the worlds of mental and physical health to create a bouncing baby eating disorder, which I can confidently report will happily fuck up parts of, well, all aspects of your internal organs, long after you’ve toned down the offending behaviour. So the jaw? It’s another extension of what I do best: I stuff my feelings as far down as they can go, and then when confronted with those feelings or an upsetting situation, I find myself cocooned in bed, wondering how the entirety of my face can hurt so much in such an awful way. And then I unknowingly clench some more.
But the thing, I – and all of us – are already dealing with plenty. This transition into phases one, two, and beyond are so exciting in retrospect, but even that excitement can’t cancel out everything else we’ve been put up against for nearly two years. There is an extraordinary amount of grief involved. There’s also a lot to process and let go and to keep with us. We aren’t about to emerge into the light, free of the emotions that have held their grip so effectively. We can try, but some of our coping mechanisms aren’t the sort that’ll disappear without time, therapy, or even medication. And that’s okay! Fuck, that’s more than okay. We’ve all faced a very specific, previously unknown type of hell. It would be cruel to assume any of us can move on from this as if it’s a bad shift at work. We have been changed and the work to make sense of it is daunting.
And so here I am, writing this piece, hanging with the flamingos outside, and clenching my jaw. I try to remember to not let my teeth touch, to do the physiotherapist’s recommended exercises, and to use my sloth. But now my body needs to unlearn another habit I’ve picked up to pack a Very Hard Time into my brain. Do I suggest clenching like it’s going out of style? Absolutely not, I think my teeth are about to revolt. But I suggest that when you see those recommendations to “unclench your jaw” or whatever the hell, check in on yourself for sure. You’re doing the most (or the minimum – and honestly, do what you have to do, this is your business), so you will work out your mountains of baggage at a rate that works for you. Just start with that acceptance of, “Holy shit, we’re closing in on a new, less terrible side of a pandemic!” Just, whatever you do, please don’t remind the rest of us to unclench our jaws or anything else equally ridiculous. I will clench in ways that will frighten you before turning you into a very large, lavender-scented heating pack sloth.
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