Cabin Fever in the Time of COVID

A Guest Essay From My Wife on Maintaining Sanity

I’ve been avoiding Facebook these days.

As an ER doctor with dwindling PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), my sanity depends on having some respite from anxiety, and Facebook seems to be the epicenter of anxiety lately. (Admittedly I am still on Instagram; somehow that’s a little easier.)

When I’m not at work I’m a wife and also a mother of 2 fabulous kids. Between the two extremes of working ER shifts in the COVID line of fire and being locked down at home with cabin fever, stress and anxiety and frustration are all running high. ER doc or mom: which is more challenging? Maybe it depends on the day.

Reflecting on COVID or dreading my next shift won’t do me any good, and it doesn’t help my family either. Instead, the things I have been thinking about are survival strategies for family happiness in a time of disruption.

Fortunately, cabin fever and homeschooling are things I have dealt with in the past! Many of you know that for about a year I lived on a boat with my husband and 2 children (then 5 and 7 years of age). Boats aren’t large: ours was at most 400 square feet of living space, and when at sea you can’t exactly leave your house whenever you want, so cabin fever was common. In those days, aside from safety, the thing I was most concerned about was homeschooling.

Based on this experience, today I thought maybe I could pass on some things that I learned from a year of social distancing at sea. I must say before going on: in no way is this advice for everyone and these are just my own thoughts; your children will be fine even if you let them watch videos and eat chips all day, I’m sure of it. So, please be kind with me putting myself out there; it’s not something I do every day.

1. Set a schedule. It doesn’t have to be the same thing every day, but most kids want structure. They want to know what time they should wake up and eat breakfast, and when to go to sleep. Every day, even though you’re not leaving the house: insist on having the kids change out of their PJs, brush their hair and teeth and do their chores, because they are comforted by routine. Plus, these are good habits that will ease the transition back to “normal” when the whole COVID thing is over. Oh, how I miss normal.

2. Way back when the girls were toddlers, they had daily “Quiet Time.” They napped or played in their rooms quietly or whatever. This was about 1 hour per day with everyone in a different space; sometimes longer or shorter depending on how patient and well-rested we parents were feeling. They eventually grew out of it, but during the year on the boat, we brought it back and it was my sanity hour! We’ve brought it back again these last couple of weeks and rebranded: Mandatory Me Time :-) During MMT you can do whatever your heart wants for an hour, but it has to be quiet and it has to be solo.

3. It took my husband and me about a month or so to realize — and then constructively put into (kind) words — that we needed our own space sometimes as well. To watch TV on the screen, journal, nap, whatever. The boat was so tiny and we were always in each other’s space and we would get snappy. Verbalizing the need for space helps, and we’ve pulled this trick out again during Covid. There should be no judgment from your partner for saying: “Please give me an hour of no kids, no you. Just me.” It’s done wonders for our relationship and right now, he’s my rock.

4. Eat more veggies! Not kidding. Living on a tiny boat or being in isolation in your home feels so abnormal in terms of how much movement we’re used to. Don’t console yourself with junk food, it’s tougher to exercise off the calories now. Veggies just make you feel better! Avoid the #covid15. And, if you’re able to get outside, do it. It was raining yesterday and I made my children sit on the front steps while they ate their lunch. They ended up finding some bugs in the yard to play with and wanted to stay out longer. Winning!

5. Be good to yourself. My favorite new show is The New Girl (Netflix). It’s silly and lighthearted and has nothing sad or too serious in it. It even has a little singing and a lot of jokes about a broken penis and there are 7 seasons. It brings me great joy and allows me to tune out of our current reality for 23 minutes at a time. Find your thing and go with it!

In summary, this whole self-isolation thing sucks. Sucks. So. Bad. But, we humans can adapt and do what we need to do. We are all in the same boat. Hopefully, you’ll find at least one of these tips helpful.

Just a last comment to those still reading: Have you reached out and checked on someone today? Text or call a parent or neighbor or friend. Ask how they’re doing. Most people just want to talk; to know that they’re not in this alone and things will get better. This is one of the most important things you can do.

Ok, I’m off to write my Senators about the ongoing lack of PPE, then I’ll learn how to make a homemade mask out of common items in the ER, and then maybe I’ll ponder what food I can eat during my next shift that will give me the best ratio of useable calories to time spent with my mask off.

Be hopeful. Be well. Be kind. And, go wash your hands!

G. Honis, M.D.

Doctor, Reader, Thinker

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