My life with my husband, Sem, has been nowhere near as dramatic and traumatic as all of our lives have become lately, with the appearance of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19. The internet is full of articles about how to cope, and things to do for those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to stay home during this time (and I cannot stress enough that if you can, you should… please, just stay home!). I’ll say up front that I have no training in mental health, no clinical knowledge, or answers. What I do have, though, is an understanding of relentless, grinding anxiety in response to an unseen enemy, for lack of a better term. So what is it that I can contribute? It’s this: be gentle with yourself.
Whatever gets you through this period of isolation and worry, do that. By all means try different coping mechanisms to see what helps you, if what you’re doing right now isn’t working. There are a lot of great suggestions online to try, so look around until you find what fits you best. Most of us are winging it because let’s face it, I’m pretty sure none of us have gone through a global pandemic before. We are trapped in a cycle of fight-or-flight without a clear ending point and with a real fear of suffering and death, for our loved ones and ourselves. We can do things to minimize our risk of becoming infected with the virus, but even if we do everything exactly right, there is no guarantee of safety. It’s no wonder we are overwhelmed.
I’ve been reading about things that people are doing, while they are self-isolating (please, please, self-isolate as much as you can). They are learning new languages, taking online art classes, reading the classics, starting new exercise regimes, decluttering their homes, redecorating rooms, tidying up their gardens and using their time at home to make big, positive changes in their lives. And that’s great. If that’s what is keeping them sane, I’m all for it.
Maybe, though, you are like me. When things get to be far too much, I shut down a little. Self-improvement? Hah. It’s more like self-preservation, for me. What I want to do is go face-down into whatever carbs I can find, so I count it as a pretty big win if I drink a couple of glasses of water instead of diving into a bag of tortilla chips and eating my way out. Some days, not doing myself harm (in a general sense) is enough; indeed, it’s often all I’m capable of, in times of great stress. I can’t focus on that novel that rattles around in my head or force myself to do some high-stepping laps around the apartment, but at least I can stop myself from wolfing all the bread as fast as I can butter it. Sometimes.
Those of you who know me well, know that my life with Sem – while amazing and beautiful, miraculous and downright astounding – has also been an exhausting, terrifying rollercoaster ride since around 2011, when he started doing peritoneal dialysis at home. That’s when stress and fear became my daily companions. We battled the invisible every day, with hand-washing protocols and hand- and surface-sanitizing practices before each dialysis session, diligently undertaken to prevent contamination. Peritonitis was the spectre hovering over each day: was that just an upset stomach, or had Sem contracted an infection? Did he have a fever, or was the heating just turned up too high? Was the drained dialysis fluid crystal clear, or was there a hint of telltale cloudiness in it? Similarly, these days most of us probably ask ourselves questions like: is that just a sore throat, or is it coronavirus? How’s my breathing? Is that a temperature? Are those muscle aches, or did I just overdo things yesterday? The fear is there. Every. Single. Day.
I come from solidly pragmatic Teutonic stock. I am grateful for my heritage, for the mental strength I am fortunate to possess, and for my upbringing which taught me that collapsing is not an option. My parents were children during World War II, in Germany. They endured fear and hardship for years which I cannot even begin to fathom, and their experiences shaped who they became, which in turn sculpted me into who I am, now. I’m not particularly strong or brave, but I know with certainty that I cannot – dare not – collapse. That is a luxury not afforded to me. But not collapsing comes at a cost, and when it’s time to “pay” it means I need to shut down for a while. I’m still vigilant, still worried and anxious and frightened rather than in a blissful heap of oblivion, but it is still vital to how I cope. I just need to drift for a while, not doing much of anything at all. It’s not for everyone, I’m sure. But right now especially, I’m a big believer in “you do you” as long as I can do me.
After Sem had to transition to hemodialysis we had nine grueling months (far worse for him than for me) of traveling a thousand miles a month, just to get to and from dialysis. As a result, much of 2016 is foggy in my memory. We were finally able to move closer to the hospital in 2017, but after moving day we were on our own with no friends or family to help sort out the unpacking and organizing. Sem was very ill and had just been in the hospital during the week we moved. I was exhausted and anxious. The physical, mental and emotional stress were crushing.
Three days a week during the hours when Sem was at dialysis, do you know what I did? I played solitaire on my laptop, surrounded by boxes, with the violent shouting of battling upstairs neighbors in the background. For hours and hours at a time it was all I could do, clicking through the games mindlessly before picking up the reins of responsibility again, when Sem’s wellbeing and healthcare were handed back to me by his wonderful dialysis nurses. Sometimes I unpacked a few things, once or twice I tried to do yoga when we cleared enough floor space, but mostly… solitaire. I “graduated” to watching stuff on TV, once we got that set up. I’m proud to say it wasn’t trashy daytime TV, at least. I can’t even remember most of it. I remember blasting my way through ‘Downton Abbey’ and ‘Queer Eye’ but beyond that, I have no idea. I’d always go back to old faithful, though – solitaire. And d’you know what? That was okay.
Similarly, right now we don’t have to take every moment at home to improve ourselves or our surroundings in some way. We don’t have to learn to cook new meals, trim our grass with nail scissors or alphabetize our spice racks. Unless we want to, and it soothes us, and our minds are distracted for a time from this world situation. But if all you want to do is lay in bed today and watch cat videos, or play solitaire, or – my current escape – find dreadfully trite (and cheap) Kindle downloads about plucky women who inherit cupcake shops and find true love with the local handyman, then… do that. Am I proud of the cheap collection of absolute brain-junk-food-fiction in my ‘Kindle Cloud’? Nope. So will I stop reading it? Double nope. It’s mindless, and it helps.
Sem has been delighted to make use of virtual museum tours because art is totally his thing. He has downloaded tons of stuff from the Gutenberg archives. He has worked on his watercoloring skills, he writes about fountain pens, and this week he started going through our many bookshelves to clear out the books he can bear to part with (hint: it’s not many, but he is being brave). Meanwhile, I sit here and read the literary equivalent of cheese fries, when I’m not playing solitaire, that is. And that’s okay, too. (Mmmm… wish I had some cheese fries…)
Nothing can hide the fact that the world is currently a very frightening place, and will be for the foreseeable future. If you’re super-active and re-vamping everything, and that helps you, that’s great! And if you need to spend a day on the couch with a bag of Fritos to help you cope a little bit better, that’s great too. If you’re somewhere in between, like me – dealing with the basics, but needing to zone out on utterly useless things for a couple of hours a day – then that, too, is perfectly acceptable.
Self-care comes in all forms. Whatever it is that you do to cope, know that it doesn’t have to be anything at all like what someone else does. I had to remind myself of that when I started noticing all these people wringing productivity out of every moment, because it made me feel inadequate and bad about myself in comparison. But that’s not the way to think, especially because right now mental health is extremely important as we try to weather this storm however we can.
Sem and I are trying not to let coronavirus dominate every conversation. It’s hard. The collective consciousness of the world is saturated with it. Even the memes that make me laugh are often coronavirus-themed. It can become inescapable, if we let it. In fact, I should apologize for contributing to it by writing a second article on the subject, but there you go. That’s our world right now. If someone would rather I write a column about something absolutely NOT related to coronavirus, I am happy to do so; just say the word and I’ll try to think of something different and distracting to write about. Maybe you’ll roll your eyes and decide it’s irrelevant to these trying times and skip it, or maybe it’ll be just the gentle redirection your mind needs for a few minutes while you read about something other than That Virus.
In the meantime, do what calms your mind and gives you balance. Whatever that may be, whether it’s active or passive… I’m behind you 100%.