I’ve been at this for four years and counting. In early 2016, a medical provider ordered me to stop all work, and I was put on extended medical leave without pay. A few months later, my boss and I called it quits. After all, it was my second medical leave in six months. So I was stuck. At home. Alone. Isolated from friends and coworkers and even neighbors. I had to finish my masters entirely online, including my teaching internship. I had to find online work. And I lost access to all my communities and favorite hangout spots.
And yeah, it’s not fun.
And absolutely, the transition is rough.
And yes, I did consider suicide a couple times.
But ultimately, becoming stuck at home due to health limitations—or a pandemic—is not the end. It’s just the beginning of a different life. And since none of us knows how long you’ll have to live this new life, it’s a good idea to act like it might be awhile. Judging from my students and their families in China, it probably will be. So buckle up. Let go of the catastrophic thinking. Replace it with a problem-solving mindset.
Here are some things I wish I’d figured out sooner and that made all the difference in keeping me mentally healthy. Maybe some of them can help you have a smoother landing than I did.
1. Establish online communities.
For many of you, this will be easier than it was for me. When I became housebound, I was too sick to even reach out to people. And I lost my communities. By the time I began feeling well enough to notice, I had to find new ones, and they had to be online.
In your case, your communities are still intact. They’re just stuck at home. Take advantage of that. Set up an online space for your book club or your sports league or your favorite coworkers on Facebook or your writing group on Inked Voices. Yes, I know. It won’t be the same. But also, it’s better than nothing.
If your faith community has moved online, participate. If they haven’t, then suggest they do so. If they’re not on the ball, then find a community that is. The great thing about virtual spaces? They’re not limited by geography.
When I was finally ready to commit fully to a Buddhist practice, I was hit by chronic illness and had to give up on all the local zendos I’d reached out to. But I ended up turning to Treeleaf Zendo, based in Japan, as well as the San Francisco Zen Center’s online zendo. If you look, I guarantee you will find.
2. Gain control over something.
This is essential. None of us can really have control over a pandemic. Collectively, yes, we can contribute a whole bunch to managing the threat. But for our mental health, we need a sense of real control over something. So find something.
For me, that’s a bedtime routine. It’s also, when the migraines allow, sticking to my TV schedule with my husband. And I like to sharpen pencils. Come on, fresh wood shavings smell good.
Just find something. Maybe you feel calmer when you’ve disinfected all the doorknobs. Maybe checklists are your jam. Whatever it is, let it become your little corner of security and order. Maybe society will collapse. Maybe we’ll all die from this. But I promise you, on that day, my pencils will be sharp.
3. Schedule in some regular self-care.
This could range from watching YouTube videos on motorcycle maintenance to doing a yoga class in your living room. But whatever regular stuff was keeping you sane before all this hit, find a way to replicate it as closely as possible at home. Order supplies while places are still delivering. Dumbbells if the gym was your thing. Watercolors and paper if art is helpful for you. Find a way to incorporate what you need into your space.
And if the anxiety of all this is getting to you (how could it not?), check out My Compass for free, self-guided Cognitive Behavior Therapy modules on managing anxiety and unhelpful thinking. For talk therapy, TalkSpace might be a good place to start. And of course, guided meditations are often my go-to, and for that, there’s Insight Timer, which is also free.
Essentially? Get your Bob Ross on.
4. Give yourself something to look forward to.
Months ago, I scheduled an at-home writing retreat for the last week of March. Guess what? I’m still doing that. If you’d planned to go out for a facial, a special dinner, a massage, a movie night, or a coffee date with friends, find some way to replicate that from your living room. Because you can. I believe in you. And again, I’ve been doing this for four years. I’ve had coffee dates with friends over Skype. I’ve penciled in writing group chats over Zoom. I’ve had calls with Zen practice partners during Ango. Yes, it won’t be the same. But do as much of what you’d already planned as possible.
And if you haven’t scheduled a spring vacation or some other treat for yourself, then maybe consider that. Picnics on the living room floor. Double-feature movie nights. Vodka-spiked hot chocolate. Hey, you won’t be driving. For more tips on how to plan a great staycation, click here.
Whatever floats your boat, plan something for yourself that feels like a treat and commit to it. You need it.
5. Do a little retail therapy online.
Even if you don’t have funds to splurge, window shopping can still be relaxing. Did you know they have cute boxes for index cards with placards and brass handles? I had no idea.
Most stores nowadays have digital storefronts. Generally, I find that online it’s easier to shop for variety than in a store. You can find anything from ethically sourced and made clothing to recycled index cards.
So now you’re stuck at home, too. Cool. Join me on the Dark Side. From the convenience of your couch, you can order everything from gourmet hot chocolate to the latest novel hot off the press to art/knitting/woodworking supplies for your new hobby. And to satisfy those ethics, it’s possible to still buy mindfully. I buy plenty of cruelty-free, recycled, and fair-trade products on Amazon. It’s the world’s largest digital marketplace. You want it? You’ll find it.
6. Set up a bird feeder.
Sure, this sounds dumb. You’re not into birds. You know nothing about birds. All cool.
You don’t know it yet, but you need birds out your window. I can’t explain it. Maybe it’s the ancient human brain feeling like there’s a ready food source. But it’s incredibly calming to watch birds flutter down, peck at your feeder, break seeds open, and just hang around like you’re operating the local nightclub.
And where to get that bird seed and a bird feeder, you say? Well, Amazon of course.
7. Find ways to help others.
Teaching online has saved my life. I get to do good for the children I teach and contribute something to the world each day. You need that, too. And it could be anything. It’s the internet. You could teach a free online yoga or knitting or car repair class and livestream over Facebook or post your video on YouTube. Or, if you have mad editing and resume skills, let your friends know that if they need to find online work, you’ll help them polish their resumes and cover letters.
At the moment, I’m going down a long list of people I love and sending them e-cards. It doesn’t have to be big, and if you’re broke like me, you can define “help” a bit creatively. But seriously, find a way to do other people some good on a regular basis. You’re not the only one who feels scared and alone. A little cheer and companionship goes a long way in these panicked times.
8. Invest in virtual realities.
Okay, a lot of you able-bodied people make fun of tech that allows nerds to exist in alternate, albeit parallel, realities. Well, you’re about to get a crash course in why these technologies are necessary.
My husband and I just scrounged together the money for him to get the latest version of Animal Crossing. Personally, I don’t get it. But god, the look on his face when I agreed to the price tag was worth every penny. Apparently, the prospect of fishing on a digital beach, listening to the digital surf crash over the digital sand while bartering with animated friends fills a lot of hearts with joy.
And okay, I do get that. I love RingFit, the Nintendo Switch exercise game that lets you jog through all kinds of beautifully designed landscapes while helping various people save their villages from an evil villain.
Even if you just want to play word games online, take the time to chat with some of the other players. Some, I guarantee, will be trolls and eager-beaver sexual harassers. But a few will be kindly grandmothers who just want to trade quips and chat about their families or business people looking for a place where competition doesn’t have to be mean-spirited. Online, it’s pretty much the same ratio as the public bus, but without the risk of spreading COVID-19. Win!
9. Stay close to the people you love.
This is not the time to let relationships go or even set them on auto-pilot. Text your loved ones. Schedule calls and video chats. Holed up in your house, it is super easy to lose touch with people. It takes effort now to be social. Make that effort. Your mental health will thank you for it.
So, it all boils down to one basic piece of advice: Give up as little as possible. You’re going to have to be creative in how you do that. But welcome to the reality of everyone with a disability. It can be done. And it’s not only worth it. It’s imperative. Whether this lasts two months or two years, most of us have a good shot at coming out on the other side. And when we do, you’re going to be grateful that you didn’t let go, for even a moment, of the people and activities and communities that bring you joy. If we’re getting through this, and I like to believe that we will, then we’re going to need each other.