Surviving Inside – fifteen tips on how to cope with self-isolation

The photo is black and white. In the background I sit in my electric wheelchair, you can see the edge my head on the headrest, the photo is in profile. The foreground of the image is taken up with a dark grey greyhound, whose paws are on my shoulders. His face is in profile, looking to the left of the image, his mouth is open and his ears are back
Me with my greyhound – Benjamin Gilbert // Wellcome Collection

Last summer I spent 6 months in hospital. Three months in one room in one hospital, 3 months in one room in another hospital. I won’t pretend I didn’t go a bit mad during this time – clawing at the walls and wishing I could get out more than once or twice a fortnight – but I survived it unscathed. Before that, I’ve spent long periods bed and housebound due to illness and inadequate equipment and support. This list is based on the things that made those experiences liveable:

  1. Plan your day – whether you want an hour by hour plan, or a list of goals for that day, make sure you know what you want to do. If you’re having a down day where you do nothing, plan what that nothing is. This gives you a mental structure and lets you schedule in things like mealtimes and something to look forward to.
  2. Utilise technology – I have a google home system, which can easily be set up with reminders, to make sure I do things at sensible times. Skype lets you video-call people. Zoom is letting me speak at a conference and teach a class despite being trapped in my house. I’ve also scheduled coffee with friends, so I can hang out with them, even if it is virtual. I initially thought that this would feel very different from actually hanging out, but it feels very similar.
  3. Keep a bedtime and waking time – it’s easy to fall into the habit of staying up late and waking up late, but the further you get from a ‘normal’ routine, the easier it is for Coronavirus panic and immobility to take over. Even if you can’t sleep, it’s still important to keep those hours as best you can. I find white noise generators are really good for shutting down all the stresses that are wriggling round my head when I can’t sleep.
  4. Get out of bed – if you’re able to do this and have anywhere else you can work, do that. Working from bed is going to affect your sleep schedule, you’ll feel dreadful, and it’s not going to help you work effectively. If you can’t get out of bed or have nowhere else to work, remove your covers, put pillows to sit yourself up, and use a different lighting space, so you don’t feel like you’re working from bed.
  5. Communicate with the people you live with – what do you need from them in order to cope with the isolation. How are you going to share joint space in the house if one or more of you have to work? How will you cope around those niggling habits our friends have that bother us? Who is going to use the kitchen when? Discuss these things and write down what you agreed, so you can all stick to it and there won’t be arguments about what you agreed later.
  6. Pick projects – is there anything major you’ve been wanting to do around your house? If so, break it down into neat little lists and working your way through them. Clearing your living space and making it better organised will also help clear your mind and make you feel better in that space. If you listen to music or do this with someone else, it can even be quite fun.
  7. Develop different types of productive hobby or decide to improve something – when I was in hospital for 6 months, I learned to cross-stitch. It was good to do when my hands were working but I wasn’t feeling well enough to do any real work – and this time with coronavirus I’m learning sign language and (when the fabric arrives) embroidery. This will hopefully keep me mentally busy, especially as they’re both things where I can observe the improvement I’m making in them, and where there’s a clear end goal or project. They’re also very different types of hobby, so hopefully will fulfil different needs in me. Duolingo is great for noticing that you’re making progress at something, and I really recommend it.
  8. If you can exercise, do so – whether you’re walking round your house, doing bodyweight workouts, or finding yoga on youtube, keeping physically active will help with your motivation and sleep schedule. If you can’t exercise, remember to keep up with whatever movement you have, keep doing your physiotherapy etc. Being on isolation isn’t an excuse to stop this.
  9. Find ways of rewarding yourself, and rewards to give yourself – whether doing your hobby is a reward for yourself, or whether you want an early night, a long bath, or a run, doing things that are nice for yourself and that you’ll really enjoy will help you feel better!
  10. Make regular time for messaging and calling friends – make regular coffee, dinner, or film dates with friends, and then hang out with them. This will help you feel like you’re socialising, and means that you can support each other if you’re not able to see each other.
  11. Find ways of differentiating work and pleasure – try and work and have fun in different places completely. Don’t play mobile games while you work – if you’re working you’re working, and if you’re on a break then enjoy it, but don’t mix the two up.
  12. If you’re an unemployed freelancer, upskill – when you’ve got no work to do, it can get very depressing as well as very poor. Decide you want to be in a better position for work when isolation is over. Learn new monologues, audition pieces or music. Decide to write something creative each day, or read books about these creative pursuits. Don’t get lax and lazy, decide you want to come out of this improved and all prepared for all the auditions and work you’ll get when this is over.
  13. If depression gets you down – cancel work (unless it boosts you) and decide to take some time for yourself. Don’t reach breaking point, just observe how hard things are for you for a while, then engage in things that often make you feel better. You may well feel like they’re not helping or like you feel so dreadful that nothing could ever make you feel better, but give it some time and they will often begin to make you feel better bit by bit.
  14. Get outdoors if you can and get planting – if you can get outdoors and stay 2 metres from anyone, while keeping moving, this is probably quite safe. Spending time outside is good for you, and if you’ve got any any capacity for planting do so. Whether this is indoor gardening or window boxes, balcony plants, or a proper garden, spending time with it will make you feel better. I’m planting veg on my balcony railing and it’s really helping to know I’ll have fresh vegtables and salad that I grew myself to feed to my loved ones
  15. If you need help, ask – it’s a difficult time and people are understandably struggling. I’m getting very depressed and anxious about it, but I’m reaching out to friends, scheduling virtual coffees, and trying to focus on my hobbies as well

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