You have to hold yourself in your hands—a literal translation of a saying we have that means something along the lines of “get ahold of yourself.”
In the days since February 24, I have spoken to my cousin Oksana frequently. She lives in Odesa, our home city in Ukraine. What echoes for me from our conversations is her use of metaphor—feeling “unglued,” feeling afraid but still trying to “think with a cold head.” It sounds like bitter poetry.
She has decided to stay, at least for now. She goes to work, though the nature of her job has shifted away from floral arrangements to food distribution. I bear witness as she goes through the process of adjusting to her new reality. From my more distant vantage point, I too reckon with how to live through this collective trauma without falling apart or losing my mind, even as the effects are more vicarious for me as a Ukrainian immigrant and US citizen. As a psychotherapist, I feel a particular sense of responsibility to stay grounded while I continue to work and hold space for others.
How are you doing?
The question I seem to get way too often these days. How am I doing? I alternate from hopelessness, pride, and reassurance (or is that denial?), to feeling numb. I successfully get distracted and then I remember. Then comes the guilt for getting distracted. Then comes reminding myself that this guilt does not serve me or anyone else. I am processing, processing. I try to hold some of the good things in my life, because yes, there are some very good things, along with the full truth of what is happening, and I quickly run out of room. It is all spilling over, and I, too, start to feel unglued.
You have to hold yourself in your hands.
How are you even working right now?
My patient asks me this. It’s a fair question. As I mentioned in an earlier piece, my work has been a welcome respite, grounding me, bringing my focus off the news and out of my head and onto the experiences of others and the relationships between my patients and me. A handful of my colleagues reached out to me after reading my writing, echoing the sentiment that the work we do can bring us relief in times of personal difficulty. A moment of mirroring.
In addition to my usual clinical work, I dive into crafting the syllabus for my first class. Having never taught before, I anticipate the newness to come. There is something so containing about leafing and scrolling through page after page of text. I don’t always know exactly what I am looking for, but I know it when I find it. I feel like I am in my own little world—a flow state, perhaps. I feel safe, like I could stay there for a long time. I hear a little voice in my head whisper that it can’t only be about work. I know I should listen to it.
There is a boulder in my belly, and I search for what else can help me feel a little lighter. Humor has always been central for me. I like to refer to it as my favorite defense mechanism. Even as a therapist, I use humor wherever I can to bring more of myself in, strengthen rapport, and help patients hear difficult things about themselves. I think my loved ones would describe me as striking a balance between always finding the humor while also being very serious.
I think I learned this way of being from my relationship with my father. Even in this most somber time, he and I keep in contact by sharing funny topical content with the hope that it will bring the other a moment of levity. I am also reminded that Odesa is well known as the capital of humor and has a long-standing history of making space for laughter in the face of hardship. The annual festival Humorina originated as a response to Soviet censorship in the 1970s. As fellow Odesite and Ukrainian American comedian Sofiya Alexandra aptly stated on the public radio program The World, “A sense of humor is not just a coping mechanism, but it is also an act of resistance, and I think that’s what we are seeing here in the spirit and in the actions of the Ukrainian people.” Perhaps both my father and I internalized our relationship to humor from our social-context mother, our Odesa Mama (a reference to a popular song and a moniker people in Odesa use as a term of endearment for our city).
Humor helps me feel alive, resilient, and connected to the people in Ukraine as well as the people who are in the moment with me. Still, I am often left feeling that I need to do something. It is so hard to feel powerless in the face of something so vast. The boulder grows in my belly, up into my chest. Yearning for spaciousness, I start writing again for the first time in two years. I notice that each time I write—even as little as a single sentence—I start to breathe more fully. A little bit lighter. I shake myself out of my own stupor. It feels unexpected, a transcendental way of moving the energy around inside me. I get to let something go, and in doing so, I start to glue myself back together. I find the answers that I seek in my writing.
I am at my learning edge—a place for turbulence, a place for growth. I lean on trusted people in my life, and when they can’t meet me in the ways I need, I lean on myself. I work, I love, I laugh, I create. And when all else fails, I hold myself in my hands.
- Mary Mykhaylova, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in private practice in San Francisco, CA. She is an instructor and supervisor at Access Institute, a supervisor at Queer LifeSpace, and a participant in the Supervision Study Program at the Psychotherapy Institute. She has a longstanding curiosity about how the sociopolitical context shapes identities and relationships and how these themes emerge in clinical work. In her writing, she is currently exploring her experience as a Ukrainian living in the United States. More of her recent work appears at Apofenie and Medium. When she is not writing or providing therapy, Mary can be found brushing up on her Ukrainian language skills. She can also be found on Twitter @marymykhaylova and online at mary.care.
- Olga Shtonda is an artist and illustrator from Kharkiv, Ukraine. She studied graphic arts at Kharkiv Design and Arts Academy (2009–2015). There she fell in love with printmaking techniques, which greatly influenced her style. She creates illustrations for children’s books, book covers, magazines, and animation projects.
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