How Are You, Really?: Essential Worker Dr. Eva Beaulieu Talks Self-Care During Crisis
How Are You, Really? is an interview series highlighting individuals—CEOs, activists, creators and essential workers—from the BIPOC community. They reflect on the past year (because 2020 was…a year) in regards to COVID-19, racial injustice, mental health and everything in between.
The past year has shown us the resilience and hard work of essential workers, who have been on the frontlines, seeing firsthand the impact of COVID-19. For Dr. Eva Beaulieu, an internal medicine physician in Atlanta, Georgia, the pandemic shaped how she views her role from now on. I spoke to Dr. Beaulieu about the last 365 days and how they’ve changed her job, personal life and health.
So Dr. Eva, how are you really?
My first question is, how are you?
This past year has been undeniably stressful. The sudden changes, the weight of caring for so many hurting people and challenges really piled up. Somehow, the strength, gratitude, positivity and fearlessness that kept me standing for so long disappeared and brought me to my knees. I learned early on that I was going to have to prioritize my mental health and seize positivity and silver linings to make it through. This pandemic has made me rethink my priorities and reconsider what my personal values are. I am grateful for my health, my friends and my family. I can honestly say that now I have a greater appreciation for life itself, and I’m specifically proud of myself for having made it through a very difficult, anxiety-inducing time.
How are you, really? As individuals (specifically BIPOC) we tend to say, we’re fine even when we’re not.
A Black woman will “I’m fine” you to death. Why? Because who’s really going to listen? This past year has made me realize that this world we live in is truly not the most accommodating place for Black women. The current climate of racism, discrimination, inequity, the pandemic and healthcare disparities were starting to affect my mental and physical health. The amount of time spent focusing on all the wrongs was simply not healthy and I refused to let it weigh me down.
With so much news and videos showcasing the mistreatment of the Black community, how do you focus on your mental health?
Aside from the pandemic, last year brought an increase in social injustice. In May, it’ll be a year since the murder of George Floyd and the rise of protest in the U.S. My heart aches for the families who lost their loved ones because of the way the system is set up. Honestly, it is not easy to stay engaged and informed about the injustices that happen in the Black community daily and focus on my mental health at the same time. I believe that it is a struggle for most of us.
The reality is that, as a community, we have to stay engaged with what is going on so that we can spread awareness of the systemic racism that the Black community experiences. But as the media remains a key source of health information and dissemination, we need to be cautious about over-pathologizing our responses to the news. I try to be more compassionate with myself, limit my news consumption, practice good stress management, sleep better and keep a regular exercise schedule.
Do you find it difficult talking about how you feel to others?
I’ve learned to open myself up to my loved ones, friends and colleagues about how I was really feeling—whether it was numbness, anxiousness, loneliness, stress or exhaustion. I’ve learned that everything I feel is valid and that my emotions don’t mean I’m sliding backwards but instead they are opportunities to move forward. So, now I give myself permission to feel, to cry, to let it all out and to do things others would not expect of me.
Why do you think it’s tough for BIPOC to talk about their mental health?
There is a stigma surrounding mental health in the BIPOC community that is viewed as a sign of weakness or even something to be ashamed of. It’s almost as if that community feels that a mental illness is not a health problem and they are more inclined to hide the illness instead of seeking help. They turn to the church or turn to friends rather than a mental health professional.
Breaking down the stigma would need to involve more education surrounding mental illness, specifically normalizing mental health problems so that individuals can recognize that seeking help doesn’t have to be shameful. In fact, seeking help is actually a sign of strength!
What are ways you focus on your mental health? Are there self-care rituals, tools, books, etc. you lean on?
I ask for help when I feel overwhelmed. I work with a trainer to focus on my physical health. I focus on my morning routine to mentally plan my approach for the day. I disinfect highly touched surfaces around the house with an EPA-approved disinfectant (like Original Pine-Sol Multi-Surface Cleaner) frequently, to help keep germs at bay. I try to maintain a positive attitude and focus on the good in my life instead of the bad.
With so much that has happened in the past year, what has made you smile/laugh lately?
My kids are a blast and they keep me on my toes. They are my happy place and the reason I smile and laugh. It is such a blessing to have them in my life and I am forever thankful for their youthful energy and innocence. No matter how busy my days are I try to make time for them because I genuinely enjoy their company. Because of them, I now appreciate the small things in life. Regardless of the circumstances, I choose to see abundance, not lack and positivity over negativity.
How has the pandemic played a role in your career?
Through my education, physician training and being a mom, I’ve become predisposed to compartmentalize my stressors and focus on the job at hand with efficient, ninja-like moves. But the pandemic was different. I watched hospital beds overflow, we lacked safety equipment and outcomes regarding patient health were unknown. It was then that I realized my positive glass-half-full-self had to give my human-self a break. I wasn’t giving myself time to grieve the loss of control and acknowledge the growing fear I felt, which had officially caught up with me. I hadn’t even taken a moment to say, “this is hard.” I realized that addressing your emotions and stressors doesn’t make you weak, it actually makes you a better doctor.
As a Black woman doctor, were there specific obstacles you faced?
The BIPOC community has been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. For BIPOC doctors, being in the white coat has never been easy, but it has been especially hard during the pandemic, both emotionally and physically, because I see myself in this community, and watching them suffer has been hard.
For Black women physicians, making it into the field is only the first of many challenges. Our credibility is constantly questioned by patients or colleagues. I’ve been asked on so many occasions if I was the tech, the nurse, the social worker, anything but the doctor, even after introducing myself as the physician. The burden of constantly having to prove myself in a workspace while facing invalidation, microaggressions or macroaggressions is glaring.
What advice do you give BIPOC women who want to pursue a career in healthcare?
The first and biggest piece of advice: go for it. If you truly enjoy helping others, it’s one of the most rewarding careers you can have. There are very few BIPOC doctors and medical professionals, which is a big problem because it causes racism to permeate into the healthcare system. Each day I am reminded how important it is to have a physician that looks like you caring for you. So get in there, go for it and make an impact.
What are your hopes for the year ahead?
There’s always something about ourselves we can improve. Personal goals of mine are to strive towards continuous self-development, to not judge myself when I fall short of my goals, to show myself patience and compassion on my bad days and to grow more spiritually. I also want to see my businesses expand globally so that I can have opportunities to give back to others. My hope is to continue to impact other women of color and inspire them to be the best that they can be.