Coping With Quarantine
There is more time to get things done, but there are more worries, too
I am a quarantine failure. Now before you think that means I’m not staying at home or social distancing in the coronavirus pandemic, it doesn’t. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I’m following all of the stay-at-home rules and have been washing my hands and wearing a mask. But it’s society that makes me feel like I’m doing this quarantine thing all wrong.
All it took was some social media scrolling — the same scrolling I used to make me feel connected to my friends and family — to find the Marsh family, who wrote a parody of Les Misérables’ “One Day More” and made a hysterical video singing the rendition with their children. Of course it went viral. I thought I can do that. But I didn’t.
I found a post from the folks at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles where they challenged art fans to post photos of themselves recreating their favorite works of art from the safety of their homes. I thought I can do that, but I didn’t.
Even some of my friends would post how they were working on paintings, reading mountains of books, writing beautiful poems or even cleaning the garage that they haven’t touched in 20 years while they were stuck at home. I thought I can do that. But I didn’t.
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Gwyneth Paltrow suggested that we learn a new language during our time at home. I can’t imagine asking my brain to speak Italian right now.
'When I Have Time'
I think back to 20 years ago when I became a single mother overnight after my husband lost his short battle with cancer. For years, my life revolved around my children, with hardly any breaks to do projects I wanted to do, write screenplays I dreamed of completing and selling or creating artwork I envisioned from time to time.
I thought I can do that. But I didn't.
I always thought that I should either be working as hard as I could to provide for my family or, with any downtime I did have, playing with the kids because one day they would be out of the house. Often, I found myself saying “When I have time, I’m going to (fill in the blank).” When I have time.
In 2017, when two of the three kids were out of the house and the third was at college, I thought I had time. I ended up with a breast cancer diagnosis.
I spent every ounce of energy I could working, so that when I couldn’t, I would be recuperating from chemo. No downtime for projects I wanted to do, screenplays I wanted to write or art I wanted to create. When I have time.
In Survival Mode With Work
My youngest just moved out to her own apartment a few months ago, and I was in the middle of downsizing my home to put it on the market when the pandemic struck. You would think being quarantined to your home would finally give you all the time you needed to complete your to-do list and all the projects you wanted to do.
As a professional writer, I already work from home, so that didn’t change. I write books and magazine articles that I’m paid to write to keep a roof over my head and food on the table. Unfortunately, that work is drying up a bit and I’m once again in survival mode.
I’m grateful to have some work, but I want to bake bread and read books and write scripts. However, every ounce of energy I have is spent trying to formulate sentences to write articles such as the one you’re reading.
Articles typically take me a couple of hours each, but now my brain is "goo" on some days. During the goo time, I’m researching grants, filling out paperwork for assistance and contacting creditors to discuss my financial situation.
When the sentences do come back to my brain, I jump on my assignments to take advantage of it. Being scared of being completely out of work is a fear I’ve felt before, but this time it’s so much worse.
I Discovered I Wasn't Alone
When I do peek online again, I see that friends are having virtual happy hours, reading their books in a virtual storytime or baking and cooking and baking and cooking.
I pop the frozen pizza into the oven, look at the stack of recipes and the fondant I wanted to try for a cake I saw back at the holidays, and suddenly I’m beating myself up for not being a quarantine success story.
Stepping back from social media didn’t help.
My emails were inundated with press releases from companies who wanted me to try their products to help me stay calm, read their books while I apparently had time or try their recipes that I didn't have the energy or time to try.
I didn’t know where to turn.
This quarantine failure feeling was all becoming too much and my anxiety was reaching its peak. It didn’t help that my best friend was on a ventilator fighting for her life. Maybe I felt guilty having even a little bit of fun while she was going through this? I don’t know.
I finally confessed on Facebook what I was feeling, and discovered that I wasn’t alone.
Meg Pritchard, who lives in Philadelphia, told me she has a house full of family and that’s the silver lining, but when it came to everything else, she felt like a failure, too.
“I'm doing all of the work for clients and I'm doing the cleaning to keep up and prevent my house from looking like a frat house during rush week, but I'm barely keeping up — not working on big, life changing projects,” she said.
Michele Wojciechowski, a writer and editor in Baltimore, says she keeps reading about people learning new things during the quarantine, like crafting and baking, but she’s not doing any of that because she already works from home.
“I've been spending my time doing work I already had and getting new work to replace what I lost as a result of the pandemic,” said Wojciechowski. “I keep wondering when people ask me down the road what I did during the self-quarantine, I’ll reply, 'Mostly what I was doing before,' and that makes me feel like I'm failing.”
Linda Dorman, of Chicago, downsized some time ago and moved from a 1700-square-foot three-bedroom house into a 500-square-foot, one-room loft. She brought the 50 boxes she had in storage into the loft and every day tells herself that she really should unpack and sell or donate the stuff.
“Now would be the perfect time to tackle this project, but I'm still dawdling,” she said. “Does that make me a quarantine failure or just a highly successful procrastinator?”
'Don't Compare Yourself to Anyone Else'
Weeks have gone by since I started feeling this way.
I have tried to set a few goals for myself, but haven't kept them. I’m too worried about money and work, though as a movie and TV buff, I did give myself a few nights off to watch some television that isn’t news. Since I was a child, television and movies have been my escape and I've realized they always will be.
But I wanted to get past the feeling of failure.
“This is an unbelievably stressful and unprecedented thing we’re going through,” said Sherry Amatenstein, a New York-based psychotherapist and author of How Does That Make You Feel? "The limbo of not knowing adds to it. Even if you are a high-functioning person it changes everything and it brings instability on every level — emotional, financial and physical — so it’s normal to not feel able to cope.”
When it comes to my feeling of failure, Amatenstein reminded me that everybody puts their high-achieving stuff on Facebook, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t going through personal things, too.
Now I take the pandemic one day at a time. If I read a book or even an article, I'm okay.
“Don’t compare yourself to anyone else, because you don’t know what’s going through their head,” she said. “Get things done, but if you can’t clean closets or write the great American masterpiece, it’s okay. Social media has always [shown that] everybody’s vacation looks the best or their food looks great, but just do the best you can for you.”
She also suggests we look for positives and key into the strengths that got us through past crises.
Between the death of my husband and my own battles with cancer, I know I’ve been through hard times and this is the hardest. But I remember thinking about what my mom told me when my husband died. “One day at a time,” she said.
Now, I take the pandemic one day at a time. If I read a book or even an article, I’m okay. If I didn’t make a YouTube video, I’m okay. Maybe I will at some point or maybe I won’t.
But I won’t call myself a quarantine failure. Maybe Linda Dorman had it right. I’m a highly successful procrastinator and whatever I want to do I’ll get to, eventually.