Two weeks into my county’s shelter at home order to prevent the spread of coronavirus, life has settled into something like a normally abnormal routine.
I consider my household one of the lucky ones: my husband’s job is essential and will continue bringing in money. We live far away enough from the big cities that we don’t see the worst of panic-buying in our grocery stores. (Sadly, the distant Costco we frequent is still a war zone.) If it comes to it, we have neighbors with trees whose leaves would make adequate TP substitutes. If worse comes to worse, our dog is big enough to make a few meals…
Since the full-panic phase of the situation began in the last month, I’ve seen endless content about mental health conditions in social isolation. I’ve seen YouTubers encourage viewers to take advantage of our new free time to learn skills, hobbies, and exercise regimens. I’ve seen opinion pieces telling people not to feel pressured to do something great with this period of time. (I have to say there’s something a little absurd about feeling guilty for not working on self-improvement right now, but I definitely get it. After all, how often do chances like this appear for average Americans? The only comparable situation I can remember was being snowed in for a week during college.)
One hopes that this situation will never appear again, but realists know it probably will. The one silver lining I see in a future pandemic scenario is the likelihood that essential businesses like Target will have better disaster-planning frameworks in place to prevent shortages of household items like toilet paper and hand soap.
In the last couple of weeks, my mind has formulated a new “normal,” a sort of low-level hum of anxiety about life that normally isn’t there. Those who have temporarily moved into large cities like D.C. or NYC will be familiar with this feeling: that constant sound of moving cars, trains, and bikes that never stops entirely, even while you’re trying to sleep. The mental equivalent is more of a string of intrusive thoughts that repeats day after day:
Can we make it another day without going to the grocery store?
Will this store have any hand soap or laundry sanitizer? Will there be any meat left for dinner this week?
I miss my (toddler) niece so much. It’s been two months since I saw her. Will she remember her aunt and uncle?
Will my dad get sick from his work at the hospital? Will Mom get it?
I feel fine, but could I be spreading it unknowingly?
Will life ever go back to normal? Is this the end of movie theaters? Will our small businesses be able to recover at all?
I wish I could do something to help, but I know the best thing I can do is stay home right now.
Above all, I believe what we’re feeling right now is a collective sense of helplessness and an inability to take control over our lives. Since we can’t proactively do the things that make a difference (manufacturing PPE, testing a vaccine, moving life essentials through the supply chain), we feel powerless to help, allowing the noise pollution of anxiety to gradually wear our spirits down.
While I accept there’s no turning off the noise entirely, I do believe that now, more than ever, the key to staying sane is to change the station by going outside and communing with nature. There is something incredibly restorative in spending time in the woods in particular.
Last week, I gloomily trudged outside in the morning with my dog for his first walk of the day, stewing about the TP hoarders who have made life that much worse for the rest of us. As I passed by a neighbor’s yard, a large herd of deer started frolicking and jumping over the fence. I said to myself, “they don’t know anything is different.” The songbirds are still singing, the hawks are still hunting, and the armadillos are still burrowing. Soon we will see the first spotted fawns from last year’s mating cycle. No matter what happens to us, the wilderness will continue as it has for millennia before us. There is something soothing about being swallowed by something as vast as nature. It may not be a solution in itself, but it is the best distraction available right now. It doesn’t hurt that time spent outdoors has been scientifically proven to have preventive medicine benefits.
We are all in need of some distraction right now. It is my hope that when life returns to “normal,” people won’t forget the role that nature played in soothing their stress for a while. Perhaps, in addition to nationwide changes in our employment and healthcare policies, we will see a renewed dedication to conservation causes.