“Keep Calm and Wash Your Hands,” the CDC advised.
When news of what is now known as COVID-19 first hit at the end of 2019, my natural instinct was to discourage hysteria. Before news of hate crimes against Asians worldwide were even recorded, I sensed its inevitability. As a 38-year-old Chinese American living with bipolar 1, the hate was what I feared more than any viral illness. For the past two decades, I had been prioritizing my mental health needs over any physical ones because, for me, the consequences of mental and emotional anguish is far direr and longer-lasting than most physical illness. Based on this logic, I fully believed racism, xenophobia, and hate crimes would do far more societal damage than a scary virus with flu-like symptoms.
But as it turned out, I was woefully unprepared for the havoc that COVID-19 was going to wreak globally and the US. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a pandemic. The following day, schools shut down in Seattle where I live and we were advised to practice social distancing. Suddenly, “Keep Calm and Wash Your Hands” sounded like a joke. It turns out we were armed with butter knives for a machine gunfight.
Suddenly, “Keep Calm and Wash Your Hands” sounded like a joke. It turns out we were armed with butter knives for a machine gunfight.
Now, all of the West Coast and much of the rest of the US is under a “shelter in place” command. After just over a week of staying in, I noticed my mental health deteriorate quickly. I was depressed like I hadn’t been in years, anxious, and struggling to grasp onto hope in all the uncertainty. Though we’re still struggling with our new routine, things improved after I came across a brilliant set of Daily Quarantine Questions by Brooke Anderson.
For the first week of social distancing, in my despair, I had given up without trying. A negative spiral had swallowed me whole and I was caught for days. But eventually, I realized I could not give up the mental health and stability that I had fought so hard for decades to maintain. Pandemic or not, I could not and would not give up living well happily. An intentional wellness plan was needed and I put it into action. The two most basic parts of the plan were:
1. Commit to a gratitude practice: While in COVID-19 lockdown crisis management mode, I had forgotten my gratitude practice. Recommitting to it quickly made me see how much I still had to be grateful for and it helped tremendously with my depression.
2. Stay connected with your social and family networks via technology: I found this prevalent expert advice hard to execute at first. I assumed connecting with loved ones on a deeper level was no longer possible while practicing social distancing. But once my loneliness reached a limit and I decided I couldn’t wallow anymore, I began checking in with as many friends and loved ones as possible by text, especially those whom I knew lived alone, and then followed up by organizing virtual brunch and coffee dates. I was forming a human chain of emotional connection to lift me along. I derived joy from even just the act of putting “Brunch with Brenden” and “Tea with Teresa” back in my google calendar. It felt like fighting back — a reclamation of normalcy. The virtual connections turned out to be utterly delightful, making me wish I had organized more of these even before the quarantine began.
Yin J. Li, MA, LMFT, psychotherapist and creator of “Asians Do Therapy” agreed. “When we are stressed and anxious, our nervous system is heightened,” she says. “We want to be able to calm it and stop further escalation. Having video calls with folks whose presence or ability to listen and share calms our nervous systems.”
“When we are stressed and anxious, our nervous system is heightened. Having video calls with folks whose presence or ability to listen and share calms our nervous systems.”
In addition, I had to let go of the idea that I would get as much work done as when my kid was in school. Instead, I devised my own flexible homeschooling plan for my kindergartener with lots of bright post-it notes helped make the task less intimidating. My child’s retired grandparents also excitedly agreed to teach math virtually as “Professor Papa” and host regular virtual “Storytime with Nana” when I pitched them the idea. Along with virtual Lego playdates with schoolmates, and GoNoodle videos, I rebuilt a sense of routine, which allowed the despair and hopelessness to dissipate.
For more inspiration, I asked some inspiring sober advocates what they’ve been doing in the pandemic to protect their mental health. Anne Lauren, 33, said, “As someone with trauma and self-harm history, it’s important that I keep my survivor-self safe: Scientifically-speaking, keep my frontal cortex in charge of my system and my amygdala and hypothalamus calm. These more primitive parts of my brain need predictability in this time when nothing can be predicted.”
To do this, Lauren gives herself the compassionate space to indulge in repetitive play to keep focused. “For me, that looks like playing the Frozen II movie and songs on repeat and playing card games with my roommate and quarantine buddy. These activities bombard my brain with hopeful messages and fun.”
I also spoke with Susan Fox, 68, who is a certified recovery specialist and a founding member of The Stability Network (TSN), a nonprofit changing the way we talk about mental health. Fox has spent over thirty years in addiction and mental health recovery from anxiety and depression. During this quarantine period, she has kept up with her support group meetings by attending the ones now hosted virtually. “I’m strengthened by connecting with other TSN members who validate I’m not alone with my feelings of lack of focus and feeling untethered.”
Last but not least, writer and co-founder of Make America Dinner Again, Tria Chang, 36, recommended several brilliant and thoughtful ways to stay connected and keep the love (of all sorts) alive. She says:
1. Have a date night.
The first week of both working from home, it felt like my husband and I had less time to focus on each other than ever. We decided we needed to be intentional about our time together and instituted a weekly shelter-in-place date night. For the first one, he went to pick up food from our favorite Mediterranean restaurant, giving me time to get out of sweats and into a dress and heels too impractical to wear out on actual date nights. I paired my fancy ensemble with my bathrobe (because why not?) and we ate takeout by candlelight.
2. Try a self-date night, too.
My husband and I are both introverts, so as well as date nights, we know we need to set aside time just for ourselves. “Self-date-night” consisted of us sequestering ourselves in separate areas of our small place — he played a video game in the office, and I did some writing on the couch with our two cats curled up next to me.
3. Go for virtual babysitting.
Staying home all day is much harder on some than others. One of my sisters lives in New York and has two very energetic and mischievous daughters, aged one and three. On top of everything, she’s been sick for weeks and hasn’t had a chance to recover. We use Facebook’s Portal video device to call her, which has a list of stories you can read with animated effects. The three-year-old loves them and can interact with them for an hour or more on some days. It’s a small respite for my sister but hopefully helps vary the days.
4. Don’t forget the family dinner.
My husband’s family lives about 40 minutes away, so getting together is a regular occurrence. Now that we aren’t allowed to visit each other, we started having virtual family dinners. We set the Portal up on our dining table, prepared some food together, and sat down to eat. I missed their usual delicious spread but I baked a chicken that was almost as good, and we got to catch up on all the important things.
5. Schedule a game night.
I had a board game night scheduled with friends before shelter-in-place was mandated and, instead of canceling it, brought it online. We used playingcards.io to play virtual Cards Against Humanity while eating separate desserts together. One friend had baked a strawberry rhubarb pie, which felt very unfair to the rest of us, and reminded us of how much better meeting in-person will be.
Chang is an ex-wedding planner and these recommendations, which blew me away, are a testament to her pro-level hosting expertise.
Despite all of these wonderful ideas and plans, the upcoming weeks will not be easy. Sheltering-in-place will likely negatively affect everyone’s mental health. Every day, I worry especially for my friends and loved ones serving on the front lines in the medical profession. My anxiety multiplies when I think about the wellbeing of older and weaker-conditioned folx in my family and community-at-large. The microaggression I’ve faced from just walking in our neighborhood with my Chinese face has become unbearable, forcing my husband and I to make the heartbreaking decision that, for me, going outside alone was no longer prudent for the time being.
The world is full of fear and uncertainty right now. It’s all very daunting, but it’s up to each of us to hold onto our humanity, to lift each other up, and continue to cultivate hope and love in this time of COVID-19.