Take care of yourself in a time of stress
Bridgette Picou

I’ve never actually taken a self-defense class. The thought crossed my mind a few times as an adult, mostly when I heard stories of women who had been attacked or molested. In a way, I got self-defense lessons all through childhood. Older cousins and neighbors who wanted to make sure I could take care of myself poked, prodded, and harassed me until I got it right. Hands up, thumbs out, stick and move.

The thing is that over time, I came to realize that self-defense is not always a physical fight. It’s not always a Bruce Lee-style beatdown. Sometimes—much of the time—it’s more about mental agility than physical dexterity. Taking the power out of fear and putting it into hope. Learning to anticipate the danger or threat, and maneuvering out of the way. At the very least, adapt and change. Learn what you can about the threat, and let that guide you.

I don’t know how else to put it, but the everything-ness of the past year made that more clear than ever. You can’t very well punch racial injustice or drop kick a virus, right? I won’t ever forget the early times of my HIV diagnosis when I was so frustrated and angry, I just wanted to hit something all the time. Later I recognized it was just fear of the unknown and insecurity. That’s a different kind of self-defense though, right?

The ebb and flow of COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement (the two things that hit me hardest) brought those feelings back and made my fight-or-flight adrenaline kick in with a vengeance. I tend to be a nurturer by nature, and while my instincts are generally to care and comfort, I definitely felt some of that stick-and-move energy. To be sure a confusing and stressful time, but I tried to remind myself to translate the old lessons into new strategies. Stick and move. Adapt.

 As a nurse considered an essential worker, much of my routine didn’t change, which has been a blessing. I am still taking care of others, but with the added weight of constantly being worried about exposure to COVID and then inadvertently exposing a more vulnerable patient, so this is a new fear I carry.

I live with HIV, and have had people physically recoil from me when they found out. Emotionally as well, which is just as bad if not worse. Even before that diagnosis I was never a person who wouldn’t hug someone or touch them to give them comfort. COVID changed that. That stupid elbow bump greeting and social distancing go against all my instincts. I have never been a germaphobe, but I wash my hands a whole lot! This new “don’t touch” thing? No hugging thing? It still takes getting used to. I’m actually sad that it’s becoming easier to not touch people. That kind of worry turns to stress, and stress turns into anxiety. Self-defense for this was to remember to do the best I could. Wash my hands, clean the rooms between patients, and not expose myself unnecessarily.

I’ve had losses this year. I’m not alone. I would go out on a limb and say all of us have. Big, small, infinitely precious or mundane, we have all lost or had to give something up we weren’t prepared to let go. I’ve watched people go from happy and open to shut down and in survival mode.

Let me encourage you to practice self-defense. Care for yourself. Don’t forget that you matter. Get out into the sunlight. Polish your toes and buy the shoes. Take your medications and see your doctor. Do the little things that make you happy and that bring you moments of peace and joy. Give yourself, and those around you, the space and grace to grieve and adapt. Fight for people who can’t fight for themselves. Find your joy and laugh. All of the things we forget to do sometimes when we are caught up in survival mode. Stick and move, friend. Stick and move.

Bridgette Picou wrote the activist comments for this year’s HIV Drug Guide. She is a licensed vocational nurse in Palm Springs, California. She is also an active HIV blogger and contributor to the CDC’s “Treatment Works” public service campaign. Finding a voice in advocacy and activism is a natural progression, since she feels that every time she fights for someone else, she affirms her own life.