I didn’t realize I was deeply “in quarantine” until three months into actual quarantine. New York in March, in April, even in May was about survival and when you live here you become an extension of the city. I was 5 foot 2 inches of full-on survival mode. My brand of survival and quarantine looked like an overload of Twitter consumption and siloing myself behind the walls of my own apartment. The answer to why I did both was the same—it was for the sake of my mental health, I told myself.
I was confused by my fear and motivated by the false sense of safety I was chasing. Neither of these were actually helping my mental health.
During a session in March, my therapist was able to help me quickly unpack one of these newly erected pillars of survival.
“It’s hard, but you need to start asking yourself, ‘Will this piece of news benefit my next move?’ ‘Do I need this information to actually get to my next step?’”
Turns out, checking my Twitter incessantly and knowing the CDC’s most recent developments on different studies wasn’t going to help my next step. I wasn’t in charge of developing a coronavirus vaccine.
All I could be in charge of was getting myself to a healthier definition of what was actually going to help my mental health during this time. I couldn’t safeguard myself from the entire world or box myself into existence only in my apartment and not expect detrimental impacts on my mental health. While health officials made the right call for what was going to keep our physical health intact and the media disseminated that information, I would need to follow a different recipe for my mental health.
Trial and error
In the beginning, it was hard to know what feeling safe actually needed to look or feel like, since we’d never gone through a pandemic before. I remember walking out of a Trader Joe’s in the middle of a rainy night in late March and lugging four bags into an Uber to make my way back to my apartment.
I was reaching for safety in TJ’s Orange Chicken, instead of realizing I should have been pausing and giving myself the chance to ask bigger or bolder questions.
What is life actually going to look like now? Why am I panic buying cans of food? How is this scarcity mindset actually affecting my mental health?
And most importantly, how will not being able to go outside when my anxiety needs to be outrun shift the way I manage my mental health?
I have a say on the status of my mental health
The confusion and mystery that surrounded those first few days of COVID made it hard to believe that my agency remained intact. I felt myself slipping away and giving into the belief that I was bound to be sad, overwhelmed, or fearing for my own life for the months to come. During those first two months, I mostly was. My everyday life was a proof of concept that the Groundhog Day mentality was wearing on me. I was barely, if at all, leaving the apartment and when I did, being around anyone made me anxious.
Yet, I was having a hard time settling into the truth that while all of the healthy coping mechanisms that I’d learned over years of therapy were dependent on me being able to go outside, it didn’t mean that I couldn’t learn and create new ones.
My perception started changing in May, when it felt like the panic mindset was starting to wear off and we had more information to work with. I knew what did or didn’t make me feel better in the midst of a pandemic because I’d given myself the time to actually notice who I was in spite of it.
Those two months acted as a bridge for me. It’s not one I built between me and the outside world, like so many times before, but instead one I built to reach my own mind and my own heart. I learned that taking an hour to read before work helps me transition from my morning routine and into a work day. Quarantine gave me time to understand how to give myself a break and not only when I was asleep. Stopping work at dinner and picking up a hobby after was not only okay, it was what helped ground me.
Staying home didn’t erase me, even if it felt it would at first. Instead, it helped me figure out who I actually wanted to be.