What Chronic Illness Has Taught Me Might Help You Stay Sane in a Pandemic

It took me a while to comprehend the early hullabaloo around social distancing. Having long ago already built a life around suddenly not being able to leave the house for 3-6 weeks my initial response was: “Wha? Doesn’t everybody have a five week reserve of toilet paper?” In weirdly good(?) timing, something went terribly wrong for me last fall (in the classic irony of take a drug to solve one problem, create a WAY worse problem) and bam! housebound-hella-sick for five months before the pandemic even hit.

Thus, while I may have been slow to grasp what ya’ll are struggling with, my own personal marathon-of-suck has generated a huge reservoir of insider (pun!) tips for coping while stuck at home and your world falls apart.

A non-comprehensive list of mindfucks

  • Having your safety and wellbeing entirely dependent on what others do (or don’t do).
  • Doing all the right things and yet everything is still shit.
    Fun variation: realizing there are no “right things” and yer just plain fucked from the get-go.
  • Knowing what you need to do for yourself, but not being able to fucking do it.
  • Watching your world fall apart around you and not being able to do a thing to stop it.
  • Being alone with your thoughts all the goddam time.
    [Add your own in the comments below]

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These circumstances drive huge feelings of frustration, fear, helplessness, and despair. What you are experiencing is a natural respond to a universe laying down some serious mindfucking. It is confusing, upsetting, and overwhelming. I feel ya.

You are going to be tired

Brains consume ~20% of the body’s energy. You hit a brain with this level of demand to adapt to change, process emotionally, problem solve at warp speed, and it is gonna slurp that extra energy right out of your bones.

Don’t be surprised if you are suddenly fond of napping, or find yourself just staring into space. Your brain is working through some profound shit, it will shut down unnecessary processes and demand new resources. Be sure to rest, and eat as well as you can. Be kind to your stress eating and cravings; it isn’t a character flaw, it is your brain shouting MOAR POWER and some of those cravings are calls for very specific nutrients.

If you are really struggling  consider supplementing your neurotransmitters (I’ve got a stress-drink with Gaba, Taurine, L-Theanine that is ooohyeah). Antidepressants may be important if you need a bigger boost (for myself I don’t have to work as hard to buoy my mood when I have my meds right). Like a bodybuilder needing protein shakes, your brain might need specific extra ingredients (meds/supplements/foods) while it does this heavy lifting.

Routine and gentle discipline

Finding that balance of when to push and when to let go will be one of your biggest challenges. Routine is one of the few places (lizard-brain freak outs being another) where it really matters to not let yourself just drift.

Get up/go to bed around the same time. Anchor your day with things like snack time, exercise time, check in on friends time. Be flexible enough to accommodate the good days and the shit days, but in a world of constant change, a base routine will be a comfort.

Make sure nature is a part of your routine. If permitted, go for a walk (non-peak hours if your hood is dense). If you can’t do that, make use of your balcony/yard. No balcony? Throw open the window and pull up a chair.

if nothing else, when things are really bad and the weather is shit I will curl up and watch nature docs [comment below if you want vicarious nature suggestions]. It seems trivial but our lizard brains love this shit, and it is a huge part of engaging our parasympathetic nervous system as well. Get it any way you can.

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Sky TV – view from my porch pillow nest

Slow burn trauma and the relaxation response

Activating your Parasympathetic Nervous System in slow burn trauma is tricky.  Surviving a Cabin in the Woods-esque horror weekend and then going home to a bubble bath to calm down is a very different trauma (not that you don’t come away with a swack o PTDS) than the long slow burn of a constant background threat.

When there is no clear end to a stressor your -shush it is ok now- system may not fire at the right times, or may be glitchy from trying to fire all the damn time. Thus it is important to very deliberately active your PNS as it may not be clicking on automatically.

I could do a whole separate post on re-regulating during a lockdown, but I think there is lots of stuff circulating already [comment below if you do want such a post, or if you have a specific question/struggle]. These are not trivial things people are posting; utter bloody silliness is healing. You may need multiple approaches multiple times a day to activate your PNS enough to keep the slow burn from frying you out.

Belly laughs, self massage, dance breaks will all have a huge impact on how you feel physically and mentally. I’ll start you off with vagus nerve article (major PNS “switch”), and a list of calming measures for kids (which work for grown-ups too!). Let me know if you need more.

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I have legit done 23 things on here already

Don’t lie to your lizard brain

At this point you are likely well acquainted with your inner lizard (aka primitive thinking needed for survival) it is the part of your brain driving those fits of anxiety and frustration. How you talk to yourself during this time will have a huge impact on what you experience. This whole existence is shit but it is possible to not be swamped by it, at least not all the time. You need to be honest with yourself though; your lizard brain may be primitive but it is not stupid.

DON’T:
Lizard:  I’m trapped!
Me: Everything is gonna be ok.
Lizard: YOU HAVE NO EVIDENCE OF THAT. Lots of people are super not ok. Like dead, asshole, or without jobs income or even fucking toilet paper.
Me: Um, yeah, fair point. We’re fucked.

DO:
Lizard: I’m trapped!
Me: Yep, we’re we are 100% in the shit right now. But I choose this as the least shitty of shitty options. And that matters, for me to try and hold on to being the kind of person I want to be, even when shit is off the hook. Plus in this particular circumstance what helps others also protects me; when else will I get the chance to be both selfish and magnanimous in one go?
Lizard: We’re trapped heroically? Well that’s alright then. *chills*

You may have to have many varied conversations with yer lizard every day; it can be creative and prolific in its freak outs [we can go through more examples in the comments if you struggle with this]. You’ll only be successful in calming yourself if you are frank about reality. Trying to cram enough sunshine up yer ass to keep you going for a whole day doesn’t work, because… leakage. A known physics thing re rectal-photon containment and losses due to friction and not something I made up.

You can’t stop the shitty but you can choose what to do with it, based on your current capacities. You may choose distraction. You may choose embrace it with dark humour. You may choose kick at it even if it is futile because it feels empowering for the moment. And so many of you are choosing help where you can (when you can, it’s ok when you can’t), which is fucking beautiful.

Sometimes all you can do is hunker down and ride it out. Comfort yourself in knowing whatever flavour of awful you are enduring counts as Advanced Empathy Training. You will “get” the suffering of others you may have never even thought about before. A shitty consolation you will be more grateful for later. Promise.

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Give yourself permission to grieve

When life derails you on this scale, you lose not only what you were doing you lose that whole line of trajectory in your head of where you thought your life was going. Just because it is conceptual doesn’t mean it isn’t a painful loss. A big one.

Humans innately live mostly alternating between head-in-the-past and head-in-the-future. If you suddenly find yourself in a position where your past was much more awesome than your present, and all your plans and hopes for the future are blown to shit, you’ve lost a lot of the core that moved you forward, and in a lot of cases told you who you are (Oooo add that to the mindfuck list). You’ll need to grieve all that. Including grieving yourself; you will not come out of this unchanged. Some version of yourself just ended, take time to say goodbye.

Don’t worry, the new you will be fuller, more robust, and a lil bit darker (coffee/your soul… samesies!)

Fuck it

Ironically, while there are a lot of emotional processing demands, slow burn trauma brain isn’t really built for existential crisis. Trauma response in any form is built to keep you alive Right Fucking Now.

When that saber-toothed tiger jumps out at you, it isn’t the time to ask yourself “What am I really afraid of here? Dying, or the surrendering of my power to an unfathomable force of nature?” No, your frontal lobes shut down and your lizard brain responds with a choice between fight/flight/freeze. In a slow burn crisis your options are the same, they just manifest differently (anger/anxiety/depression). Your primary and singular goal is SURVIVE.

You may have windows of brain beyond survival (flipping in and out of trauma brain is typical in slow burn) just don’t expect or push for it. “Fuck it” can in fact be loving self talk.

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Just observe

Now at this point you may be saying well thanks Valerie, this is all a great fucking comfort. It is all shit and there is nothing I can do about it. Super helpful.

First off imma just gonna drop this Alan Watts quote and say: you’re welcome. This is some next level shit and ya’ll just levelled up whether you wanted to or not.

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And secondly: ‘s cool. There is IS something you can do, and it is more powerful than you think. Observe. Notice when you are anxious, acknowledge when you are sad, say hello to that stress eating. You may not be able to stop it or change it, but that simple act of separating who you are from what is happening to you (and how you are responding) will be what holds the core of you together through to the other side.

Your lizard brain is gonna be driving the bus for a while. And that is ok. More than ok. We tend not to think of those base processes as “clever” but some iteration of your hindbrain has been keeping homo sapiens alive for millennia. Trust in that. It may be awkward and messy and flounder in a novel environment, but part of what it is wired for is adaptation under stress.

So kick back on your lizard bus, enjoy the scenery. Let your subconscious work away at the existential crap (it will bubble up in bits when you can handle it). Observe and notice when you are starting to spiral (also notice when you aren’t, and be proud!) distract and comfort yourself when you need to.

Oh and wave to the people passing by on their lizard busses (or RV’s or mopeds). Because our biggest comfort in this kind of distress is knowing we are not alone. That our suffering is seen, even if nothing can be done about it right now.

And I see all you fierce yet floundering motherfuckers. This shit is super hard. You are doing GREAT!

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