A few weeks ago, Dinner Party published the first volume in our series regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, an article that addressed some basic FAQs regarding the disease. I intended to publish this piece shortly after, but it’s hard to give folks advice on how to keep it together when you feel yourself falling apart.
When the global outbreaks first hit the news early this year, a friend asked if I was worried about the situation. I said no. At that point, much about the nature of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was unknown, and no one had adequate information to properly assess and plan for the impact of the novel disease. And as someone who has struggled with OCD and anxiety for most of her adult life, I’ve learned from years of therapy that nothing good ever comes from panicking over something you neither have complete facts about, nor have any control over.
We’re all going through this singular, seemingly insurmountable situation together, while simultaneously experiencing the impacts of the pandemic in a million different, often inequitable, ways.
But much of my now daily routine—the thing I do have control over—has proven to be deeply triggering: almost round-the-clock hand washing, mandatory sanitizing of all objects that have been exposed to the outside world, the inability to break compulsive or catastrophizing thought patterns by going out in public and socializing face-to-face with other people. At the same time, however, I know that folks are facing much bigger problems than my white-collar, neurotic self has to deal with, and the guilt from this dissonance keeps me up at night. We’re all going through this singular, seemingly insurmountable situation together, while simultaneously experiencing the impacts of the pandemic in a million different, often inequitable, ways.
A colleague once gave me a pinback button with the phrase “It’s Okay to Not Be Okay.” I’ve found myself repeating this little saying over and over, because the world as I’ve known it is, in many ways, collapsing all around me, and I’m very much not okay. And that’s okay, but I do have to keep going.
Below, you’ll find some solutions that have worked for me in the past few weeks. I caution you against using this as a how-to guide with hard and fast rules, however. Instead, think of this list of suggestions as a source of inspiration to guide you in figuring out what you might need in the days ahead.
Establish a routine, but don’t be afraid to keep tinkering with it. Years ago, I lost my job during a harsh winter in New York City, and I found myself in a deep depression, unable to leave the house for several weeks. One of the things that helped me move forward was the simple act of creating a schedule for myself. For the most part, I got dressed in the morning and sat at my kitchen table for the length of a workday to fill out job applications, read, or finish writing projects. But some days are always more difficult than others, and I learned to allow myself to adjust my schedule depending on how I felt upon waking up. Sometimes, all you can muster is brushing your teeth twice a day, and you can still consider that a win.
Make sure you’re taking care of your basic needs. I get it—remembering to eat, drink, or get enough sleep is hard when you’re in the same place for days on end, often times with no obvious markers for when these necessary functions should be taking place. But neglecting these needs can lead to symptoms that mimic anxiety, and you don’t want to add to the stress that you might already be experiencing from the sudden changes brought on by the pandemic.
Don’t do work in bed. Keeping your bed only for sleep, intimacy, and relaxation strengthens this mental association, creating an ideal environment for a good night’s sleep. Doing work in bed can cause difficulty staying awake during the day because your brain associates your bed with sleep. Conversely, it can also allow thoughts and stress regarding your work to intrude into your nighttime routine, disrupting regular sleep patterns.
Consider teletherapy, online somatic sessions, or joining a virtual support group. Many mental health providers offer teletherapy services within your state of residence. If you intend to use health insurance, however, be sure to check that telehealth is covered under your current plan. And if you’re looking to start seeing a provider for the first time, Psychology Today has an extensive search function that allows you to look not only for providers who offer online or phone counseling, but also lets you search for a wide range of issues, language requirements, and types of therapy.
Somatics, a body-based healing practice, is also an alternative or supplementary practice to consider. The Seattle Somatic Healing Network provides weekly donation-based sessions via Zoom for up to 100 participants. Additionally, virtual support groups, such as the one offered by Queer Healing Oasis in Los Angeles, can offer non-clinical spaces to share and cope, and due to the economic impact of COVID-19, many are either free or donation-based.
Do your best in maintaining contact with the folks you care about. Humans are social beings by default, and this pandemic has disrupted our ability to fulfill our desires for connection with other people. Certainly, our phones and internet have allowed us to fill this gap to some extent. But, as with pre-pandemic times, clear and honest communication is what really matters.
Check in on all of your people, but make sure to also ask for what they need. Everyone’s going through this differently, and someone’s reaction to the current situation is simply a reflection of their past lived experiences. Some folks may appreciate regularly scheduled, “distantly social” Google Hangouts or a lively group text, while others might feel overwhelmed with dozens of messages and surprise phone calls. Moreover, folks are more likely to tell you what they need when asked, rather than stating this need outright, so if you have the capacity, make sure you’re asking this question at frequent intervals.
Remember to follow up with friends who are currently quarantined by themselves. And, while we’re on the subject, this is a great time to remind folks that loving and caring for people should extend far beyond blood relations or people you’re in a romantic/sexual relationship with (and are likely quarantined with). Now more than ever, we need to do away with these established paradigms and tap into the satisfying fulfillment that a robust social network can provide.
Lastly, if you’re like me and tend to overthink every little thing, keep reminding yourself not to read too deeply into text or chat messages. A lot gets lost when you can’t see someone’s face or hear their voice. And how much can you really glean from an emoji anyway?
It’s okay to grieve the things you’ve lost, no matter how trivial. In an essay titled “A Few Rules for Predicting The Future,” Octavia Butler wrote, “No matter how hard we try to foresee the future, there are always these surprises. The only safe prediction is that there always will be.” We all know this statement to be true, but we’re conditioned to find comfort in the familiar, the predictable, the routine (which is why tip #1 above works so well during times of great uncertainty).
At this point, the pandemic has altered all of our lives in some unexpected way. And in light of its devastating effects, you probably feel guilty about being sad over the little things—canceled dinner plans and movie nights, the freedom to go eat at a restaurant, or even the lack of water cooler chit-chat in your workday. But these normal, everyday things also likely brought you joy in the past, and it’s okay to allow yourself to grieve these losses. Sure, I feel pretty silly crying over the fact that I don’t know the next time I’ll be able to get lost in the stacks of my favorite bookstore, but feeling this emotion to its fullest extent allows me to process it and gives me the capacity to tackle more painful and difficult matters.
Be kind to yourself. Granted, this advice applies at all times, but it’s easier to forget to be kind to yourself when your sense of normalcy has been pulled out from underneath you and a giant overwhelming situation is at the forefront of your mind every single day.
There’s been a push to try and do “business as usual,” or even pressure to maximize this forced at-home time through increased output in both work-related and extracurricular matters (this popular Instagram post is particularly egregious). In fact, that’s capitalism talking, demanding productivity from its workers regardless of conditions, no matter how challenging or burdensome. It’s becoming increasingly clear that capitalism is at the root of why global leaders have been unable to control the spread of COVID-19 and protect the public from the disease’s dire consequences on people’s health, financial wellbeing, and social lives.
I’m by no means discouraging anyone from taking on as many new side projects and hobbies as they want. Keeping busy, as long as you’re also actively tuning into and caring for your emotional needs, is a coping strategy that many find helpful. But you should also be cognizant of the structural oppressions at play, and it’s wholly unfair to blame yourself if you can’t seem to be productive at your job, much less start a dozen new assignments after hours. These are strange times, and I advise you to allow yourself forgiveness for the moments when you simply can’t find the energy to complete certain tasks. We’re all just doing our best given the present situation.
Lastly, have regular check-ins with yourself, asking questions like the ones artist and author Yumi Sakugawa posts on her Instagram. Kindness, especially to yourself, will allow you to continue to move forward to the next day, and the day after that.