In our final episode of Season 1 on Finding the Helpers, we have an interview that manages to tie all our other interviews beautifully together. Mary Affee is a licensed clinical social worker, PhD candidate, and specializes in play and trauma therapy. She left her bustling practice in North Carolina to return to her original home of New York City for four weeks to be a therapeutic presence for frontline medical staff in hospitals as they faced the height of New York’s COVID-19 peak.
Like many front line staff and our other interviewees, Mary stressed a few times during this interview that she is not a hero. Mary’s daughter was diagnosed with cancer at 16 years old, and Mary truly saw this deployment to New York as her time to pay it back to the medical staff who saved her daughter’s life.
As we listened to Mary’s story, it was clear to us that with her clinical background, personal experiences, and the four weeks she spent working in New York hospitals, that Mary was not only going to help us share another powerful story, but that she tied together so many of the profound lessons we have learned through these interviews in the past four months.
Mary was set up in the hospital in New York with art supplies and creative activities in the same place every day, showing up as consistent, predictable support, equipped with the ability to administer psychological first aid and/or crisis interventions for hospital staff.
She shares a personal story of her work, when she interacted with a cleaning professional in the hospital, “[When] people think first responders, they think of medical staff. Often we overlook people in housekeeping. I mean, they are right there cleaning up.” The cleaning staff noticed that Mary was going to be leaving soon, and came to her and asked for a painted rock. Mary, being an expressive therapist, initially noticed her instinct to want to encourage this woman to create her own rock, but the woman was insistent on having one that was already painted. The woman then said to Mary, “I want something to always remember you by.” Mary goes on to say, “It took my breath away. You never know what a smile will do for somebody.”
When Mary says you never know how a connection is going to affect someone, she is talking about exactly what Laura Fuchs, the photographer in NYC, taught us when she described her work with the mask smiles project -- that you can, in fact, smile at someone through a mask. Additionally, they taught us how small acts, such as showing up in the same place every day to show support, or simply smiling at a stranger, can plant a seed in someone which has the potential to grow beyond what we could ever imagine. Laura also reminded us that, we never really know the complete ripple effect of how reaching out for connection will land on someone. This makes taking the risk and reaching out, especially right now, absolutely worth it.
“Just love people, be present, be real, be authentic. Those are the things that keep it real, keep us human, keep us in a shared experience.”
We are wired for self protection, to protect those we love, to protect ourselves. It is primal, and it is why fear shows up at times like these. Fear, while valid, is also divisive. And can make us separate even further than necessary. We loved how while talking about fear, she also brought up gratitude. We spoke about finding comfort in gratitude with both Felicia Temple, the ICU nurse from New Jersey, and Rouben Madikians, the flight attendant and COVID-19 survivor. Gratitude can be a huge shield against fear, and is a very strong way to find grace and moments of relief during overwhelming times, and despite her background in trauma informed care, Mary let us in to a very human part of herself when she reminded us that no one is immune to the trauma and heaviness that is happening right now, “Staying busy can be a healthy way of disconnecting but that can only go so far, and at some point, you’re going to spill or break.”
This idea that if we aren’t taking care of ourselves in some way, we will eventually break, is one we can’t stress enough as we wrap this season up. Both Mary, and Alex Kaiser, the oncology PA we interviewed earlier in the season, stressed using little things to combat this. It doesn’t have to be some elaborate, major, planned out moment for you to care for yourself. Mary mentioned comforting food, exercise, and Alex had a list of small tasks to do every day.
Additionally, Mary brought up two incredibly important points which we haven’t really covered yet. It’s okay if your first attempt at a self care activity feels futile. Sometimes in the face of such trauma or overwhelm, that will be the case. The hope is, as Mary did, that you can try something again the next day. Or the next. And eventually you will start to figure out which self care activities do feel like they make a dent in whatever you might be carrying.
The second point can be really helpful if you find yourself in the position where your attempts at self care don’t seem to be making any progress. Mary talks about trying to wade through the anxiety-inducing sensory overload which comes with trying to figure out which part of the large amounts of information you are trying to process are causing you the most stress. And then trying to use your self care strategies as a way to specifically let go of whatever is the most overwhelming aspect. Even if just for a moment.
We need to make sure we have enough gas in our tanks to make it through the long haul of both of these vital battles. We need to find ways, as Isaac Cosmas, our colleague on the humanitarian front line, so incredibly embodied, to have faith in a brighter future. Faith that these fights can teach us something vital, and that we will be able to come together stronger in the end. And those moments of relief, of levity, of humor can make it easier to keep that faith.
With all of that, we just really want to leave you with a message that we heard from Alex, from Morgan, from Laura, from Dr Budharni explicitly, and from almost all of the rest of our interviewees in some indirect way. And that is just to be kind to yourself. Give yourself grace in this. Most of us have never walked this kind of path before and there is no instruction booklet. Take the time, as Mary said, to find small moments for a break, for a refresh, even when it feels impossible. And then investigate further if it doesn’t feel like those things are working.
Lastly, while physical safety is obviously a major concern in everything America is facing right now, we want to remind you that so is emotional safety. Reach out. Talk to friends. Ask for help. Seek professional help. As we have said from episode one, as Isaac and so many other interviewees have said, mental health can not be secondary to physical health. This does not mean disregard the guidelines for physical health right now, but it means to seek safe ways of paying as much attention to your mental safety as you are to your physical health.
Thank you for spending this time with us. Thank you for listening and helping us share these essential stories. As this is our last episode for the season, we want to share that interviewing all of our amazing guests has been such an honor for us. As we look forward to Season 2, we will continue to highlight the frontline of COVID-19, but we are also looking to expand our focus to other situations where individuals are working tirelessly to support their community in need. Please feel free to continue to communicate with us on ideas for interviews. We look forward to coming back soon, but until next time, stay safe out there.
In Season 1 of Finding the Helpers, we are bringing personal stories of front line staff and families impacted by COVID-19. Our diverse guests will be invited to share their story of being on the front line, and in combination to their story, two expressive art therapists will provide art and creative activities that will support the challenges the individual and their family is facing. These could include ideas for short relaxation techniques to be done on the front line, creative ways to explain in kid friendly terms what is happening, ways to stay connected to family and children during long periods of isolation, etc. Throughout the podcast, conversation will include mental health insight related to the pandemic, anxiety and stress, grief and loss, resiliency, coping skills, and understanding the pandemic. Presented by the nonprofit Playing to Live's, whose history began in 2014 as a grassroots program focused on bringing play and creativity in the midst of the Ebola deadly viruses. Following our work in Ebola, we have continued our work as advocates and creators for play and expression across the globe in refugee settings, post war countries, and in the United States of America.
Lindsay Bingaman is the Regional Program Manager for Playing to Live, based in Nairobi, Kenya.