This morning I stayed in bed until nearly 11:30AM. Last night, I stayed up until 3 AM watching that mullet trainwreck of a documentary, “Tiger King”, on Netflix, allowing myself to be shocked and bamboozled into another episode, just one more episode…
For the past two weeks, my sense of time and agency has completely gone out the window. Work usually gets done… later rather than sooner, and sometimes never. My life now possesses a background ambiance of anxiety, whispering that somewhere, something important needs doing, yet when I open my calendar, almost everything is canceled, abandoned, or indefinitely postponed.
There’s a name for this constant sense that there’s no reason to do anything today because, fuck it, what’s the point? Depression. And on days like today, I feel myself slowly slipping into it. Judging from my email inbox, I am not even close to the only one.
Nothing has all of the ingredients for the emotional breakdown recipe quite like a pandemic-induced global shutdown. Lack of face-to-face socializing and general social isolation? Check. Financial uncertainty and mass unemployment? Check. Lack of regular exercise, sunlight, and access to basic necessities? Check. High uncertainty of one’s safety and security in the near future? Check. Tons of free-time to refresh news feeds five thousand times per day? Double check.
So far, I rarely feel depressed and lethargic for more than a day or two at a time. I’ll have a shit day like today, but generally, by tomorrow, I’m functional and mostly happy again.
But let’s be honest with ourselves: the next few months are going to be really rough on everyone’s mental health. And we need to be prepared for it.
A new paper published by AEI estimates, depending on how effective a nation’s social distancing measures are (i.e., how well people stay the fuck home), that we can most likely expect to be locked down anywhere from 11-12 weeks to 30-34 weeks. That’s from three to eight months for those of you who are bad at math. The US Federal Government’s initial projection last month was four to six months. Some estimates have been even longer. Almost none have been shorter.
So, as fun as it is to Zoom happy hour with our friends and joke about #QuarantineLife, this shit is going to get old. Real fast. Whatever struggles you’re already coping with, you need to be mentally prepared to sustain them for the next three to six months, with an outside chance of sustaining them for the rest of the year.
And if you’re one of the lucky few who hasn’t felt the stress or emotional head-on collision yet, well, get ready. It’s coming.
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Sadly, unless you’re reading this from Asia, things are likely to get much worse before they get better. After all, this is a public health crisis first and foremost, and it’s just beginning. By the end of it, most of us will know of someone who has passed away or been in the hospital in critical condition, maybe someone close to us. We will know someone who has lost a job and/or their business, if we don’t already. Friends and family will get sick, go broke, or go crazy. Maybe all three. At least a couple of celebrities are likely to die and, if we’re lucky, maybe a politician or two.
I bring this up because the first step to dealing with this is to be realistic about what to expect. It does us no good to have false rosy outlooks. No naive positive thinking. No unjustified belief that the virus will just miraculously skip over all of our friends and family (not to mention ourselves) or that a vaccine will magically appear out of someone’s ass crack. This is likely the most disruptive global event of our lifetimes. And we’re in this for the long haul. This will not be easy or fun, and the economic, political, and cultural fallout will persist for years.
I know, aren’t I just a bowl of fucking peaches?
But that’s reality. And you can’t cope with reality until you accept it.
Below are some guidelines that I have put together to help us all mentally sustain ourselves through these hard times. These guidelines were compiled in two ways:
- Research online about social isolation, discussions with mental health professionals, as well as reading the accounts of people who have experienced long periods of isolation professionally, like Navy submariners and NASA astronauts.
- Polling my email subscribers on what they’ve found effective in maintaining their mood and sanity so far. Over 1,700 people sent me their experiences, some with long, detailed emails. The responses taught me many things… like you actually can garden indoors and that there is no shortage of ’90s dance videos on YouTube in case you ever want to learn their sweet, sweet moves. Regardless, the wisdom of these responses has been aggregated below.
1. From Today Until This is Over, You Have a New God, and His Name is ‘Routine’
The biggest lesson I have learned from the past two weeks is how much I rely on social pressure to accomplish, well, anything.
That may sound weird coming from someone whose occupation (author) doesn’t even require me to wear pants most days. But, I know, it surprised me, too.
My days used to revolve around meetings, calls, and deadlines. It used to be, “Oh, I have a bunch of really important meetings this afternoon. Better get writing!” Not only have those been removed, but so has the urgency of getting anything done in a timely manner. I mean, all my deadlines are in limbo, so who cares, right? Whether I write something this morning, tonight at 11 PM or next Tuesday, nobody is going to know. Therefore, constant procrastination has set in. And it’s been brutal. I’ve often found myself finishing work at 2 AM and somehow feeling good about it. Apparently quarantine life brings out my inner college student.
When you look at professionals who have to deal with a lot of social isolation, they all say pretty much the same thing: routine is king. Most people are like me, they rely on the fear of social embarrassment to get them out of bed on time in the morning. Without that social accountability, they morph into some sloth-like creature that vaguely resembles a functional human being.
That’s why, in these desperate times, we must fall back on our personal routines, and worship them like the angry jealous gods they are.
Routines should be basic. They shouldn’t be over-planned or obsessively detailed down to the minute. That’s because the more rigid and detailed a plan is, the more you’re going to fuck stuff up. And when you fuck stuff up, it becomes that much easier to throw the whole routine out the window and say, “Well, that didn’t work. Back to video games.”
For our quarantine routines (quaroutines?) let’s stick with the basics:
- Wake Up Time
- Work hours or Productivity Hours (new skill, project, etc.)
- Time for health and self-care
- Bed time
For me, this looks like…
8 AM – Out of bed by this time
8 AM to 3 PM – Work hours
3 PM – Exercise/Health self-care
4 PM to 9 PM – Socializing/calls/video games
12AM – Lights out
Set times for each one, and then adhere to them religiously. I don’t know if you’re into Jesus or Yahweh or Allah or whatever, but if you are, take a minute to pray to them and let them know that it’s not them, it’s you, and you need to see another deity for the next few months. And that deity’s name is QUAROUTINE.
Quaroutine is an angry, jealous god and demands 100% compliance. If you miss any of Quaroutine’s deadlines, you’ll be punished with 48 hours of lethargy and despair. Don’t disappoint the Great God Quaroutine!
Now, here’s the important part. You need to set up little rituals for yourself to make sure you worship Quaroutine correctly. Pick a location for everything. Are you going to work at the kitchen table? In your bedroom? What are you going to wear? How can you set up your house to make this as easy as possible?
This sounds crazy, but a lot of people who work from home still get dressed up as if they’re going to an office because they find it shifts their mindset. It also wastes a lot of money on make-up and straight razors, but we’ll discuss that in another article. The point is, your Quaroutine shouldn’t be mindless, there should be a conscious process around each time.
One thing I do that has always helped me is opening up everything on my computer that I will need to work on the next day, the night before, so when I wake up it’s harder for me to procrastinate starting. If you’re going to exercise, where? Can you put your exercise clothes out the day before? If you’re going to cook, can you meal prep? When will you decide what you’re going to make? Decide these things now, because I guarantee if you wait to do it in the moment… you just won’t do it.
The Quaroutine God is best worshipped in pairs. If you can, find an accountability buddy (accountabilibuddy?). Find someone else who is struggling to get shit done each day and link up with them either via text or call a couple of times a day to check in. Better yet, start up a Skype/Zoom call with your Accountabilibuddy and just sit there and work together on the call to make sure you’re both doing it! On top of finding some accountability for yourself, this will have the added benefit of getting you important social contact with others (which is the next point we’ll cover).
Finally, when it comes to sleep, you can’t control when you sleep or how well you sleep. But you do control when you get in and out of bed. If you adhere to the strict Quaroutine that you lay out for yourself, your sleep will naturally adapt (after a couple painful days).
When I say worship your routine, what I’m really saying is that your routine should take precedence over everything else for the next few months. Some days you’ll be productive. Some days you won’t. Some days you’ll be healthy and energized. Some days you won’t. But every day, you can control whether you show up or not. And showing up is (mostly) what matters.
2. Build and Repair Relationships; You Have No Excuse Now
Remember all those people you used to miss hanging out with or wished you could catch up with them, but always felt like you didn’t ever have enough time?
Well, now you have no excuse.
One of the few nice things about this experience is that I’ve had more phone calls (yes, phone calls—remember those?) with friends and family in the past few weeks than I probably had all of 2019. I’ve reconnected with old friends I haven’t talked to in years. Email chains are popping up with groups of people who haven’t communicated in ages. It’s great!
This is something that we all need and I hope it continues on even after this is all over, as a lot of evidence suggested that pre-Corona, we were starved of social contact and meaningful relationships.
If you’ve ever wanted to start a book club, a board game club, a drink-a-bunch-of-cheap-wine-on-a-Tuesday-night club, now is the best time to start it. If there’s someone in your life that you have lost contact with, the virus is the best excuse ever to reconnect. If there’s someone you wish the seven plagues upon, then… well, now’s the time to shut the fuck up about it.
Now, granted, teleconferencing your fancy organic wine happy hour is just not the same as in person. In fact, none of this shit is. So much of our social stimulation and satisfaction comes from face-to-face interactions and physical touch, we’re all going to be drinking the diet soda version of socializing the next few months—same sweet flavor, but very little of the emotional sustenance.
But that’s still no reason to not do it. A little is better than none. And awkward hangouts with a bunch of people over Zoom is better than a teddy bear and a dildo. (Wait, what?) Don’t underestimate the importance of connecting to other human beings in any capacity.
Then there are the people you are locked inside with. Stress tends to magnify close relationships. Strong relationships become stronger. Weak relationships become weaker. And clusterfucks get even more clusterfucked. Supposedly, in China, the divorce rates skyrocketed after their quarantine.
All I’ll say is that a lot of us find ways to be busy outside the house as a way to avoid problems inside the house. If you find yourself in this situation, where you’re now home and seemingly shocked at how your kids throw tupperware at your face in fits of anger, now is not the time to drown your sorrows or escape the pain through more distraction. Now is the time to set to work fixing things. Have those difficult conversations. Make those embarrassing apologies. Listen more. Be present.
You might as well… none of you are going anywhere any time soon, anyway.
3. Focus on the Basics of Health and Wellness
Tell me if you’ve heard this one before. You get amped up on New Year’s Day and sign up for some absurdly complicated and overpriced fitness program, attend twice and then never go again.
Yeah, me too…
There are many reasons why developing healthy habits around fitness and nutrition are difficult, but one of the biggest ones is that our outsized expectations outrun our actual ability and motivation. Generally, when we get excited about some change in our life, it’s because we envision this change being this dramatic shift where we’re suddenly carrying kettlebells to the grocery store and doing burpees in the parking lot.
The unsexy truth is that, when it comes to health, consistency matters far more than motivation or even effort. Walking 30 minutes every day for a year is better for you than working out like a madman for a week. And the fanciest trendy diet/fad-thing for a week is nothing compared to simply not napalming your stomach with sugar every night like it’s Vietnam in 1968.
What I’m saying here is that if you’re like me and your habits around fitness and food just got shitcanned by a Virus Named Corona and you’re desperately stumbling through pathetic attempts at push-ups and situps that more closely resemble two arachnids fucking than any meaningful exercise, then you need to just chill out on yourself for a second.
Look: the biggest enemy in this whole thing is ourselves. Okay, that’s a lie, there’s a virus that’s probably going to kill hundreds of thousands of people. That’s enemy number one. But enemy number two is ourselves.
The only way to make this stuff worse—all of it, the shoddy work, the difficulty getting out of bed, the lack of exercise, etc.—is abusing ourselves for not doing better.
We’re going through a hard time here. Every single one of us has had our lives upended to some degree or another. We’re all struggling and probably have people we know who are getting royally fucked right now. None of this is easy emotionally or mentally, nor should we expect it to be.
And when things get difficult emotionally and mentally, we tend to screw things up in the real world. That means we skip a home workout or ten. That means we eat enough chocolate to kill a mid-sized gerbil. That means we stay in bed watching that fucked up “Tiger King” shit instead of working or studying or calling our mothers to make sure they’re okay.
And this is to be expected. This is part of it. You’re going to screw up. Things that once felt easy are going to feel difficult and what once felt meaningful is going to feel pointless.
This is the part you must sustain—that you must say to yourself, “Okay, well there goes Thursday, let’s try again Friday.” Then you get up and pray to the Quaroutine God one more time.
Because the worst thing you can do in situations like these is start to destroy yourself emotionally over your own perceived failures. If you’re sitting at home thinking, “Wow, I’m such a loser, all these people on the internet are teaching themselves Mandarin and dancing to Britney Spears videos and I’m just sitting here crying into my third bowl of ice cream”
Well, then you’re fucked.
I know nobody tells you to do this, but fuck all those people: lower the bar. Lower your standards for yourself. We are living in desperate times, we’re all operating on about 40-60% of our mental and emotional energy, so it’s time to start at square one. Back to basics:
- Walk 30 minutes per day.
- Do a couple dozen squats, situps, or push-ups each day.
- Get outside and get some sunlight for a little while each day.
- Eat something green and non-sugary.
Nail those four things each day and you’re good. They’re not hard. In fact, they’re all pretty simple. Anyone can do them. Lower the bar to the times we’re living in: the bottom of the fucking dumpster. Because this is an emotional marathon, not a race. And Mrs. “I’m spending my quarantine getting certified in Jeet Kun Do while cooking vegan meals for my eighteen kids!” is going to burn out at mile three. I promise.
4. Remember: You Are Not Alone
Part of my job description involves me getting thousands of emails from readers about their life problems and occasionally responding with my two cents. What has consistently impressed me over the years is how dozens upon dozens of people can email me with the exact same problem, yet each one is utterly convinced at the uniqueness of their struggle. They believe that no one would understand what they’re going through. That no one has suffered in the way which they have suffered.
Today, that illusion must be swept away. Everyone is going through this. Whatever you are struggling with, we can all relate. Therefore, there is no reason to feel shame or embarrassment or to hide yourself in any way. Commiseration of misery (co-misery-ation?) is always available. It’s simply up to you to reach out.
On top of that, therapists and counselors are doing teletherapy. Insurance companies are covering it. Universities and education platforms are making many of their courses free. Governments are (supposedly) helping financially. There is help. We will get through this.
And if things get truly dark, suicide hotlines are still available around the world.
Don’t internalize it. Talk to someone. Don’t hate yourself. Hate the virus. Life can be cruel and difficult. But it’s in the difficulty that we ultimately find meaning. It’s the difficulty that draws and binds us together.
And when I find myself spiraling emotionally, I remind myself of some basic facts. First, that my grandfather stormed a beach in Italy and watched pretty much everybody with whom he had spent the past year die in front of him in a matter of hours. My great uncle, at age 19, had to financially support his three younger siblings because my great-grandparents could no longer feed all of their six kids during the Great Depression. A generation before that, the flu pandemic of 1918 ripped through nearly 50 million people worldwide and killed 500,000 in the US, mostly young adults and children. Just a couple of generations before that, over 600,000 Americans died fighting over the right for some people to own other people as property. Another generation before that, over three million people died because an egomaniacal (and short) Frenchman wanted to give everybody the metric system. Hell, the black plague in the 14th century killed an estimated 125 million people, that was 20% of the global population.
So yeah, I can sit on my fucking couch for a few months. No problem.