Darlene Styron, owner of the Sweet Tooth & Fig Tree Deli, wears a mask and shows how all of her candy is no longer in jars but is in individual bags. Photo: C. Leinbach

Ask a Mental Health Professional installment No. 5

By Earle Irwin

Question: Please tell me what I can do about this situation. I’ve got an overwhelming case of ambivalence about the reopening of the island and the return of visitors. Regretfully, I’m not able to fully appreciate the boost to our island economy that visitors bring because I have such anxiety that they may also bring COVID-19. I get especially nervous about seeing clusters of visitors who don’t socially distance or wear masks. I feel stressed. I want to be happy that they’re here, but the truth is, I fear that they’re here.

Response: You describe ambivalence–the state of having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about something or someone. Life is full of such challenges. We love when rain revives our sun-parched gardens and yards, but we dislike when the rain continues for two or three straight days, forcing us inside and turning our roads into rivers.

We can find aspects to like and aspects to dislike about nearly every situation. We will be happier and less anxiety-ridden if we focus on the aspects that we can like—the benefits. As you mention, visitors support the economy of the island, and so in that way their return is welcome. However, when they appear thoughtless or ignorant of our health issues, we easily can resent their presence.

Try this: return your focus to what you need to stay safe and healthy. Continue to take the precautions you were taking before the visitors arrived: wash your hands, wear a mask, and wait six feet apart.  If you have to interact with others because of your work, set an example: Wear your mask, disinfect your work space as often as necessary and politely request people to step back if they encroach upon your personal space.

Employees in the newly refurbished Jason’s Restaurant are masked. Photo: C. Leinbach

If you receive a negative or unkind response to your request, don’t reinforce that response by giving it attention. Move on.

Often, we resent other’s behaviors when we feel personally threatened. Instead of subscribing to a belief that visitors blatantly disregard health guidelines to bring the virus to our island and infect us, we do ourselves a favor to consider other possibilities. We can avoid over-generalizing our fear by seeking out examples of visitors who are respectful. And for visitors who challenge our anxiety level with their apparent disregard, we can attempt to walk in their shoes.

If I had not been invited to Ocracoke to provide mental health support these past five months, I would have been stuck in a more urban area, during inclement weather, with few opportunities to get outside.

I would have had to face larger crowds of people if I went to the grocery store or the post office. I would have had no opportunities to interact with people I know—no outdoor walks or porch sits. I would not have had the wide-open beach to go for fresh air and rejuvenation. If that had been my life, I now easily could be stir-crazy to get outside and throw caution to the wind.

Quite possibly, this has been the life that many of the visitors have been living. That does not give them the right to disregard our health and safety, but it does help us to understand that we may not be on their radar screens. Their behaviors are not about us—or about harming us—at all. Their behaviors are about them relieving their own stress and anxieties, without awareness how their letting-loose may negatively affect others (us).

This shift in perspective is not about making excuses for clueless behaviors. This perspective allows us to have understanding or compassion in the place of resentment. Resentment eats at us. It serves no useful purpose. Perhaps you’ve heard the quote (attributed to many): Carrying resentment is like swallowing poison yourself and expecting your enemy to die.

The Ocracoke Variety Store requires all to wear face coverings during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: C. Leinbach

My husband and I were grumbling about a group of visitors who stepped out in front of us on the wrong side of the road as we rode our bikes. Maskless and bunched together, they seemed completely oblivious to traffic. As we swerved to give them a wide berth, one of the women turned toward us, slipped a mask across her face and smiled at us with her eyes. She wore a tee shirt with the words “BE KIND” in a billboard-size font.

Good advice.  We waved back.

In summary, if ambivalence is causing you discomfort, work on disassembling that stance by honoring your own wisdom and taking charge of your personal safety. Be aware of fears and resentments, and practice replacing those thoughts with different perspectives on the situation.

Focus on the positive. Set healthy examples. Be kind. This is the short version.

Please don’t hesitate to call, text or email me in the next month if you’d like to discuss more tips for dealing with this type of situation. 703-863-1243 or earleirwin@gmail.com. My support services are available to you at no charge.

Earle Irwin, a retired clinical nurse specialist, is on Ocracoke to help islanders cope with Dorian aftermath and any other issues they may be dealing with.

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  1. My husband and I were married on Ocracoke island last July 1st. This year we reserved our 1st Anniversary there. Wow! So different. People weren’t friendly as if assuming everyone was positive Covid-19. No annual 4th festivities either. Would have been nice to have known prior. We left early. Tried to pay it forward for someone else, but hotel kept money instead. Jasons was the friendliest and best place to eat on the island. Next year we will stay in Beaufort NC.

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