Has anyone else been noticing the sudden prominence of what I have started calling the Coronavirus Check-In? It’s one of the few positive things to come out of COVID-19: For the first time since I can remember, literally everyone I’ve had more than a ten-second conversation with has asked me some version of “So how are you doing?”
The most amazing thing is, it’s not just a polite effect—people seem to genuinely care about the answer.
I don’t think that people’s concern is entire because I’m a doctor. Because I’m a sub-specialist, I’m actually seeing fewer patients as procedures have gotten postponed in the Great Cancellation of 2020. I like to say that I’m in the back of the front lines. Though I’ve volunteered to help out our ICUs if they get overwhelmed, they haven’t yet.
It might be that people know that I’m in the process of launching a new book, and I’ll admit that yes, I would rather not be launching This Is My Brain in Love at the peak of a global pandemic. But in the grand scheme of things, publishing is an uncertain industry.
At the same time, my work as a writer has never felt more vital. I can’t think of a better time to be talking about books that tackle anxiety, financial stress, and resilience—issues that are all front and center in This Is My Brain in Love. People may have never been more open to talking about mental health.
You can say that my life has forged me into someone uniquely equipped to deal with a pandemic.
First of all, I’ve been navigating anxiety and depression my entire life. It took decades and a lot of false starts and slides back into near crisis, but I’ve figured out what combination of therapy and medication works best for me.
Secondly, I’m used to stressing. I’m used to eating-lunch-while-fast-walking-to-the-operating-room busy. In medical school and residency, I was forced to learn how to compartmentalize and focus on a goal—patient care—while oftentimes ignoring my physical and emotional well-being. It wasn’t healthy, but it did teach me that keeping busy is a surefire way to distract yourself from personal troubles. There’s a reason some people turn into workaholics to avoid other facets of their life.
The coping mechanisms I’ve developed to deal with my life can absolutely be translatable to life in self-quarantine. Here are some tips, beyond the great general advice that the CDC offers to reduce anxiety (take breaks from listening to the news, keep exercising/practicing deep breathing, focus on things you enjoy, and connect with others):
- Learn how to spot credible medical information. There’s a part in This Is My Brain in Love where one of the main characters talks about this concept of fake medical news and that’s something that we’re seeing a lot of in the media right now. I encourage everyone to take this time to learn about how medical research is conducted and why it’s important that drugs be tested in a thoughtful way (basically, because any medication can have side effects that only show up in large, controlled studies). The NIH has a great section on how to think critically about health information on the internet.
- Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. I’ve been watching ICU videos as a way to prep for the time when I’m called into the COVID-19 wards. It’s my way of combating the sense of helplessness I feel on the sidelines. You don’t have to be a physician to provide tangible help. You can combat this sense of helplessness by making masks or face shields and delivering food to seniors. Some authors have even taken to sending money to strangers to help with groceries. There is no shortage of need in the world right now—and only a fraction of it can be helped by medical providers.
- Be kind to yourself and allow yourself flexibility. In the COVID era of medicine, there are a lot of times when doctors haven’t been able to do the so-called “best practice” care. Instead, they’ve done a kind of “best-we-can-do practice.” The same is true of daily living. You don’t have to get every calculus problem right, and your essays don’t have to be perfect. Being “good enough” is the new excellent.
- Take this time to learn new ways to keep in contact with friends and family, even when you’re physically apart. Just yesterday I finally learned how to use Instagram Stories, and OMG, there’s no going back to how things used to be. A lot of these new technologies and ways of interacting take time to learn, but now’s the time to figure them out.
- Don’t be afraid to consider therapy or medication. Knowing when to seek help can be a sticking point for a lot of people. My rule of thumb is if you’re thinking about it, it might be time to at least talk to a professional. Sometimes one or two visits are all you need and just knowing that the relationship has been established and help is available is enough. Sometimes you need more. I know, after having tried three times to get off medications, that one of my problems is just that my body needs more serotonin. There’s nothing that I can do to fix that other than taking antidepressants, and I’ve stopped feeling ashamed of it—just as I would never be ashamed for my high blood pressure.
- Remember to take refuge in art. Books have always been my salvation and my distraction of choice. There’s literally no best way to learn about the arc of history and dig deep into all the world’s mysteries. Reading also slows life down and lets your imagination run wild about a subject that’s not coronavirus.
- Make your enjoyment of art communal. Sometimes, when I’m with family, reading seems too solitary. So movies are a great way not only to escape but to connect—try out Netflix Party, which allows you to synchronize your TV watching with a friend.
- Don’t knock video games! There’s a little bit of snobbery toward video games, but I’ve always found them to be great stress relievers because they are incredible means to short-circuit your brain and distract from your thoughts. The best ones (I’m currently obsessed with Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild) are full-sensory experiences that require critical thinking and problem solving and thus don’t leave room for destructive thought processes, at least not for me. For my kids, Nintendo Switch Online has been a godsend because it allows my daughter to play games with her friends even when they’re not in the same room. In the case of a game like Mario Party, they can even get their bodies moving and be physical.
- Finally, try to stay creative. My daughter recently got into musical theater, so it’s been a huge bummer to her that all productions and auditions have been postponed in our area. But we’ve been finding ways to keep her engaged by doing videos to post online, and my husband is even considering writing a musical based on one of her favorite books. Many arts organizations like Backstage are still offering online classes, and one of the live streams I watched talked about how performers can use this time to “build their book” and learn new repertoire. The uncertainty that COVID has cast upon so many creative endeavors can be paralyzing, for sure, but it can also be liberating—it can be an opportunity to try something different.
The vast swaths of time so many of us have right now can seem like a harsh, unwanted gift. But something tells me that after this quarantine period ends, we will think back at this period as a time when we all became more aware of what we can do to take care of ourselves, and of others.
I only hope that when that too-far-off time comes, that we’ll remember to keep asking how everyone is doing and listen to their responses with the same care and attention we’re doing now.
If you’re not doing okay, the national Disaster Distress Hotline is there for you at 1-800-985-5990, or you can text TalkWithUs to 66746.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
I.W. Gregorio is a practicing surgeon by day, masked avenging YA writer by night. Her novels include Lambda Literary Award finalist None of the Above, and This Is My Brain in Love, which has received three-starred reviews so far. She is proud to be a board member of interACT: Advocates for Intersex Youth and is a founding member of We Need Diverse Books. Find her online at www.iwgregorio.com and on Twitter/Instagram at @iwgregorio.