A week ago Friday, I woke up to a bright Mexican sun. The night before, my mother and I had taken a boat ride to another part of the coast, sipping margaritas along the way, to have dinner under a canopy of lush forest with sparkling lanterns and plenty of wine and then enjoyed a circus show that embodied shear defiance of gravity and the limits of the human body. We could have slept in that morning, but our time in Puerto Vallarta was drawing near, so we threw on suits and walked along the beach, letting the ocean wash across our feet and snapping photos of the rising sun. Then, we parked ourselves in front of the pool, under the sun, where we had spent most of the previous four days, for a few more hours of reading and just one more margarita. We had taken this mother-daughter trip to celebrate my mother’s 60th birthday (her first time out of the country_ and as a much needed break for both of us. However, it was time to return to the U.S. and back to real life.
Except, that isn’t what we came home to, rather, it felt like an entire different country. And, in some ways, it was.
In the week my mother and I were on vacation, COVID-19 took a stronghold of our nation, like many others before us, and a panicked, different set of being settled across the U.S.
All week long, we had heard news reports and stories from family about what was happening back at home. It was an odd thing to watch from afar. OK so Coachella is cancelled, but now so is the NBA? Then, I received noticed that my school was postponing classes for a week and then would resume online only until further notice. Even in South Dakota, a state that is more isolated and less congested than Chicago, was starting to take precaution. By the time we left Mexico, both of us had been given an extra week off from work and school, which at the time felt like a cool bonus vacation.
After I texted him that I made it to the airport, my husband joked, “Have fun flying back into hell.”
It’s been a surreal ever since. Each day brings more news, more cancellations, more worry. More than one friend has remarked, “What a time to be alive.” Yes, this is definitely historic.
During a recent episode of “Keep It”, Louis Virtel said that he realized this pandemic was serious when they cancelled the release of the new James Bond movie. The other hosts made fun of him for this, but it made me think about how most of us probably have a time when they thought, “oh wow, this is really big.” It’s probably related to something that is important to them, something that affects not just their daily life but a foundational part of who they are as a human. For example, for many of my running friends, it was likely the postponement of the Boston Marathon. Yes, a lot of races have been cancelled or reschedule, but Marathon Monday is the biggest day for runners, whether you are racing it or not. In 123 years, this race has never been cancelled, so you can imagine that only something so serious as a global health crisis would be the reason to make this difficult decision.
For me, this moment came Monday evening when I received a message from a friend who works at Peace Corps: the entire Peace Corps global operation was being suspended, meaning thousands of volunteers were coming home. This is huge. This event made me think about when I was serving in Lesotho and the government was on extended shutdown. There was talk about whether or not we would have to go home, but because volunteers are considered essential employees, we stayed at site. Plus, our staff told us, it would be too costly to send everyone home. Now, I know that this decision wasn’t taken lightly, but evacuations are devastating not only to volunteers but their host communities. These volunteers have to return home to no jobs, no housing, and little money while their communities wonder if they did something wrong. Having gone through an evacuation myself, one that still has emotional ramifications nine years later, my heart goes out to them. While I knew that this was serious, it was then that I started to understand that this pandemic is bigger than just Chicago or the U.S., but really a global emergency.
Like most people, we are social distancing in our small two-bedroom apartment in Chicago’s far north side. My husband is working remotely, and I will start virtual classes next week. Both situations are beyond ideal, but nothing right now is perfect. My part-time job suspended their in-store operations and are limited to only pick ups. They have minimized staff so really only those who are salaried are working, while the rest of us part-time employees are staying home. Thankfully, because we live paycheck-to-paycheck, I am being paid for my regular amount of hours for the next two weeks. We leave the house to walk the dog and go to the grocery store as needed, and I still continue to run outside, but that’s it.
This is weird for us for many reasons, but mostly because I am never at home this much. Like never. Before I went to Mexico, the most time I had at home, other than sleeping, was like three or four hours Saturday afternoons, between errands and social appointments. My class schedule and two jobs has me on the go, and I am often rushing from one thing to the next. This isn’t great, and I’ve been pretty burned out lately. Honestly, some forced social distancing is probably as good for my physical health as my mental health.
On the other hand, part of the reason I schedule myself to the brim (besides lack of strong boundaries) is because I get restless. I don’t know how to relax well, and I don’t think I have ever been bored because I can always find something to do. Staying at home for a night is my dream, but I am not sure how to handle weeks of them.
Additionally, I am scared. I worry because my husband just started this new job after being underemployed for a year, and if they have to make cuts, he was the last in. If my part-time job can’t go back to regular business after two weeks, will I still get paid? If not, I am not sure how I will afford rent, groceries, and other bills. What if this pandemic causes an economic crisis that will take years to recover from? We are lucky that we can get by, for now, but we are incredibly vulnerable. Also, we are getting fairly decent insurance under my husband’s job, but that doesn’t start until April, and our plan now is awful. Sure, we can get tested for free, but what if we need medical treatment? The uncertainty of what will happen and how long this will last is unnerving and produces daily anxiety.
That being said, I’ve been trying to incorporate some de-stressers and self-care practices to help me endure. Since we are all going through this, and because I just wanted to write in this space again, I thought I would share some of them with you:
Running: Being able to go outside and get some fresh air while moving my body has been crucial in keeping me sane over the last week. It helps that Chicago is showing signs of spring. It’s honestly the only hour I get out of my house and get to be by myself. Running continues to be safe as long as we practice appropriate social distancing guidelines, which is so helpful.
Open communication: Living in a small space, I’ve realized that my husband and I need to have daily conversations about what we both need. This might include him going for a long drive or us hanging out in different rooms, but if we are going to be in close proximity together, which we rarely are, honestly, we got keep adjusting and making sure we are asking for what we need. This is my secrete to staying married during social distancing. Tune in six months to see if it worked.
Checking in with friends: I often say that I should reach out to so and so, but then I forget or just come up with a reason not to. Now, though, knowing we are all in this together no matter where we are, when someone pops in my mind, I just text them. It’s been fun to reconnect with some old friends this way but also feel like I have some kind of social life. Also, a few friends and I’ve had or are planning on video chats. The first one I had last night was with two good friends from college, and it was wonderful. Hit me up if you want to video chat!
A Tidy Space: Cleaning has always been therapeutic for me, and it’s something that doesn’t happen much in my busy schedule. So, the other day, I did a thorough cleaning of our apartment, and it makes me downright giddy to go to bed knowing that all the dust bunnies are gone and the dishes are put away.
Baking: This is another thing I don’t normally have time for in my schedule, so I am taking advantage of some wedding gifts I haven’t had the chance to use. So far, I made St. Patrick’s day cupcakes and a quiche, but I’ve got big plans for scones, cookies, and multiple loaves of bread. However, most of the city also has this idea because baking essentials, such as flour and yeast, are hard to come by.
Entertainment: Like everyone, I reading and streaming as I can. I just finished Becoming by Michelle Obama and Maybe You Should Take to Someone by Lori Gottlieb. Both were wonderful. Glennon Doyle Melton’s newest book, Untamed, should be at the library for me tomorrow or Saturday, and I can’t wait to devour it. At the moment, I am reading this story about Des Linden, who made a huge announcement that she was going to run the Olympic Trials and the Boston Marathon, but didn’t the make the Olympic team and now can’t run Boston (p.s. this is why I started drinking bourbon). For TV, we loved “McMillions”on HBO, and I enjoyed “Hillary”. Other things we love include “Brooklyn Nine Nine”and “Schitt’s Creek.” For trashy, I really love “Very Cavallari”, because Jay Cutler is the best reality star on TV, hands down. Also, if you have never watched “The Good Place” do it now. It’s the most wholesome, reassuring television show out there. Now might be a good time to stream Tiny Desk Concerts, which I can do while doing literally anything else. For podcasts, I recommend Heavyweight, The Dropout, and Slowburn. Plus, some of my weekly favs, like Lovett or Leave It, are doing some fun things in this time of no studio audiences.
Naps: As a friend from graduate school recently said, there isn’t much a good nap can’t cure. But, also, this is hard and anxiety makes me sleepy.
On the other hand, there a couple of things I want to do more of during this time:
Homework: I am the kind of student that does all of my reading and gets all of my homework done a week ahead of time, but with my schedule, a lot of it is hurry up and submit. I sometimes feel like I am not absorbing it. So, I really want to use this time to feel like I am getting a good grasp on this before I start my internship this fall. I downloaded a few books that are specific to my theory and am planning to do some off-syllabus reading.
Writing: No promises, but I hope to be more active here during social distancing. Maybe even finally submit some pieces I’ve been working on for awhile.
Limiting social media and news in general: I am terrible at this. I refresh my social media every few minutes like a drug I need more of. And, I’ve been trying to really be careful about what rumors I believe and what news I take in. For now, it’s just a few daily roundup podcasts, which is more than enough. I hope to make it less and less. I want to be informed but also understand the more information I have the more the anxiety fire roars.
Letting go of expectations: There is this lingering voice above me that says I have to use this time to do all things. I need to get back to writing and find a way to make it a part of my future psychotherapy practice. I must pick up mediation. I should learn Spanish. Should. Should. Should. I mentioned all the expectations I have for this break on a video call with friends the other night, and one said, “Yeah, that sounds so like you.” I guess I do this a lot. But you know, a lot of things are going on and I kind of just need to watch old episodes of “Parks and Recreation” and bake scones. That’s OK. It’s all OK. I don’t have to do anything specific, other than just keep myself happy and safe.
Alright, so Dispatch #1 was a bit lengthy, but I want to know: What are you doing to keep sane? Send me your movie, books, TV shows, and podcasts recommendations. And, let’s chat if you are up for it!