How many months has it been? It started for me sometimes in March. Or was it earlier? I remember talking about it in February because we thought about traveling to New Mexico, but I still wasn’t focused on it. I believe it really hit home when I returned from New Mexico on March 11th and saw that the airport was nearly empty. On that flight home, I discovered that my daughter and son’s universities were transitioning to online classes. Then, a few weeks later, Governor Pritzker shut down Illinois by issuing a shelter-in-place proclamation.
That order added a level of fear, but also a strange sense of odd excitement in me. The isolation order brought back memories of the 1967 Chicago blizzard. A time when everything was closed and a time when everyday life was on hold. I didn’t yet comprehend the difference between a 5-day snowy shutdown vs. months of lockdown.
When I came back from New Mexico, I was surprised to see empty shelves at Walmart… and there was no toilet paper! I couldn’t even buy a pack online, so I resorted to buying a case of industrial, commercial stuff- the TP that no one wants to use. Twenty-four hours later, Amazon sent me a notice stating that I had canceled that order (which I did not). I went on another online search and bought a case of TP from a hotel supply company. Several weeks later, that case plus the one that Amazon said was canceled BOTH arrived. Two cases of sandpaper quality TP. Bonus or bogus?
The kids were back at home, and Julie and I had gone from empty nesters to a family of 5 in a matter of a week. Spaces had to be re-allocated to accommodate them and their particular needs.
Everyday grocery items like pasta and white flour were nowhere to be found. Hand sanitizer and Lysol products had gone missing but could be bought if one was willing to spend ten times their average price (I chose not to). People were walking more; they would wave and say hello to me as they crossed the street to avoid me. The kids and I found some construction paper in the house that we cut into hearts, and on which we wrote inspirational sayings. “Breathe,” “Joy,” “Be Strong,” and dotted the front windows of our house with them.
The stock market, which is my primary source of retirement income, took a tumble, and I panicked. However, I tried to remind myself that I was still more fortunate than many.
I relied on my medical and scientific knowledge as the COVID threat intensified. Wrong information and spurious conspiracy theories were flying, and so I sorted through the facts vs. fiction. I did my best to educate others.
Initially, there was a temporary feeling about the crisis. It would end soon…but it didn’t. Days blended into weeks. Weeks turned into months. Holidays muted. Get-togethers canceled. The initial “crisis novelty” wore off.
As a retiree, my position was different than many. I didn’t need to renegotiate my work life. So I focused some of my technical energy on Julie by setting up a secure video conferencing platform for her to see some of her patients remotely.
It slowly started in me, a strange feeling. It wasn’t depression, but I didn’t feel happy. It wasn’t laziness, but I really didn’t want to do anything. It wasn’t anger, but I was irritable. It felt like I was separating from the world around me. I wasn’t disconnecting; it was more of a sense of not connecting. It didn’t feel terrific.
It was time to put on my psychiatrist hat and to make changes in my attitude. I would like to tell you some of the ways that I have been coping and share some general concepts that may help you emotionally deal with the pandemic and its resulting isolation.
Our home went from 2 individuals (one who was still working) to 5 individuals at home 24/7. We each found spots where we could have some private space. For example, I used my study and built a “nest” in a leather chair next to a window. My daughter claimed as her own a section of public space, our family room. She “built-out” a chair and end table with those things that were important to her-her phone, computer, and water bottle.
For those of you living alone, it is also essential to have zones to do different things. This can be accomplished in any sized space, including a studio apartment. Where you sleep should be different from where you eat and work.
Keep it clean!
When you have nowhere to go, it is easy to let yourself go. After all, who cares! The reality is that you should. I feel fortunate that I can step into a steaming hot shower whenever I please. I feel better about myself when my body is clean, and my teeth are brushed.
Tidiness goes beyond personal hygiene. A disordered house makes you feel disordered. Keeping surfaces clean and dusted, and putting things away can add a sense of serenity. It is especially important to keep things orderly when you live with others. Messes can accumulate quickly, and with them comes resentment. Disorder can prevent you from doing things that you need to do. You are less likely to make yourself a healthy dinner if you have to first wash pots, clean dishes, and clear off a messy countertop left from the morning’s breakfast.
All individuals in a home have to work together to maintain such an environment. This is not only necessary, but it also adds a sense of teamwork. Kids feel better about themselves when they accomplish tasks.
You may be a team of one, or you may be living with many. If the latter is the case, it is imperative that basic ground rules be established. Naturally, everyone should share in everyday tasks, or at least accept responsibility to accomplish joint goals. For instance, one family may decide that they are going to cook their meals together. Another family may determine that one person will cook meals, and someone else will clean the bathroom.
Perhaps one parent did all of the house cleaning in the past. Is it still fair for that individual to do all of the work now that others create greater mess and have more free time? These are the kinds of questions that have to be addressed during any significant life-change.
Two of my kids have returned to university, so there are now three adults (including me) remaining at home. I still do most of the house cleaning, but we share more meal-making tasks, and everyone is expected to clean up after themselves. Your needs and rules may differ.
When possible, it is essential to vary your environment. In the beginning, I walked a lot, but that wasn’t enough. I started to spend time with my friend, Tom and incorporated him into my COVID circle. Just seeing a different human improved my morale. As time has grown, I have gently increased my circle further. On occasion, I will visit my siblings. These visits have been in COVID safe settings. I also call people regularly (some daily), and I email my in-laws once a week. Doing these things has helped normalize the last few months.
A touch of the old life.
I live in an urban area that is rich with carry-out and curbside options. A cup of coffee from Dunkin Donuts’ drive-through or a delivery pizza on a Friday night can add a little normalcy to my day.
Projects and tasks.
At the beginning of the year, I was heavily involved in doing some odious tasks-like cleaning out my crawl space. Once shelter-in-place started, I lost all interest in these extracurricular activities. However, I have been slowly trying to return to “extra” jobs. I have made a few modifications to my campervan and have slowly started to rid myself of needless junk. It isn’t much, but accomplishing even a small task makes me feel like I’m moving forward instead of backward. I would suggest that you come up with some things you want to do and then do them. Spending a few minutes a day on a task that you need to do (but don’t want to do) can give you a sense of control.
View the whole picture.
Is it possible that there is some sort of an upside to this crisis? As strange as it may sound, the answer is yes. My wife has a friend who says she formed a deep new friendship with someone she met right before COVID. They have been communicating through emails and phone calls and have really gotten to know each other.
I’m cooking a lot of meals with one of my daughters, and we are not only having a lot of fun, but I feel like I’m getting to know her on a totally new level. Every coin has two sides.
Politics and pandemics.
Our greater community can help all of us adjust to change. I love watching videos about the homefront efforts that brought our country together during WWII. When we feel like we are part of the greater good, it is easier to accept imposed limitations. Local, state, and federal governments need to focus not only on physical practices (like mask-wearing) but also on the patriotic side of doing the right thing.
Over the years, I have known folks who lived in isolated parts of the country. They had to travel great distances to go to the grocery or hardware store, and their nearest neighbor was miles away. Yet, they were happy and content. They didn’t feel deprived; instead, they felt blessed with what they had. We create our expectations, and we determine what is satisfying and rewarding.
Don’t be an ass.
COVID, COVID isolation, COVID shortages… the list goes on. Yes, life with COVID can make people irritable. Several folks have told me of customer service interactions where the person on the other end of the phone was rude, inflexible, and downright mean. During times of stress, it is MORE important to make an effort to be kind. Kindness is not a weakness; it is a strength. When you are kind towards someone, they will often respond similarly to you. Even better, they may pass on their goodwill to someone else. Being angry may temporarily make you feel powerful, but the overall destructive energy it generates is poisoning to all parties, including the perpetrator. Consider doing random acts of kindness.
It is not all or nothing!
The longer someone has to do something, the less likely that their actions will be perfect. It is also expected that their efforts will need to be modified over time. You may have enough food in your cupboard for a few days, but eventually, you will need to go to the grocery store and break your perfect isolation.
It is easy to let go of the safeguards that you had in place. A safe gathering can grow to one that is unsafe. You may decide that you really don’t need to wear a mask or thoroughly wash your hands. An internal desire to return to normal may turn reasonable changes into foolish actions that put both you and your loved ones at risk. Assess how you can expand your world with an eye on what is safe and what is not. I just visited my brother-in-law and my sister. The three of us met on their semi-enclosed, well ventilated back porch. This was safe. However, it would be unsafe to have a big family party in their kitchen.
Be radical with your acceptance.
I talk to people who regularly say to me, “When will this be over!” They are waiting for everything to go back to normal. They are putting their lives on hold. The fact is that things may go back to normal, or they may not. However, the best approach is to radically accept our current life situation; otherwise, a “why is this happening” attitude can turn into sadness and anger. Radical acceptance is not “giving up.” It is an acceptance that there are things that we cannot change in our lives. Radical acceptance allows us to move forward and prevents us from being stuck in an endless cycle of self-pity.
Gratitude is the attitude.
Turn your cup from half-empty to half-full. Start your day by writing down 4 or 5 positive things about your life or situation. Then read your list and ponder on it.
Consider some of these thoughts, and make your day a little bit brighter.
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