The early stages of quarantine were an exciting time for me. My fiancé Jessica and I had bought our first cat together, and we were looking forward to what we thought would be a mini staycation with each other and our new fur baby. Granted, we both had to work from home, but being an introvert, I now had a legal and moral reason to not be social.
I finally had the time and energy to do both old and new hobbies: I got myself a skateboard and started cruising around the neighbourhood, much to the chagrin of my neighbours; I bought an online Japanese language course on Udemy and started making myself flashcards; I got back into web development in the hopes of landing myself a new job (I hated teaching ESL online); and I started exploring the expansive world of the Witcher 3.
A couple months in, the problems started to appear.
The unpredictability of everything became a dark cloud of anxiety and misery. Would I be able to hug my family again? Could I ever sit around a table with my friends and play D&D? When would I be able to sit in a cafe with a book?
And then were the effects on my relationship with Jess. Because we live in a basement apartment, there was nowhere either one of us could go to be alone. I would teach my online classes from our bedroom while she would go about her day in the living room. I began to associate my bedroom with work, while the living room was a shared living space. I didn’t have a space for me. And so I began to retreat inward.
All the while, Jessica was trying to cope with her own problems: a job she hated, the inability to see her family and friends, depression, anxiety, and a partner who was increasingly emotionally unavailable.
We began to resent each other. We got snippy. We bickered. We became roommates.
Jess eventually found a new job that required her to go in. I also found a new job that was more in line with my interests and allowed me to be creative. But even though we had a bit more space from each other and new jobs, it wasn’t enough.
We were still both depressed and didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to support each other. It’s easy to support a partner with their mental health struggles when you’re 100%, but what do you do when you’re also at a 50? How do you keep the dishes from piling up when neither of you have the energy to do them? How do you avoid spending hundreds of dollars on takeout when neither of you can be bothered to make a meal?
I’m not exactly sure when things started to change, but I attribute much of that change to some unexpected feat of willpower on both of our ends. I’ve been meditating on and off for about two years now, but just over fifty days ago I made the resolution to meditate everyday for a year (and hopefully keep that habit going after that).
Part of my meditation habit involves me setting my intention: Why am I meditating today? Not just overall, but on this specific day. It also involves me thinking about the people in my life who can benefit from me meditating. Nine times out of ten, that person is Jessica.
I want to listen to her more actively. I want to refrain from becoming defensive when she expresses that something I did upset her. I want to be able to validate her struggles.
But I also want to stop taking things so personally. I want to stop letting other people’s moods bring me down. I want to stop holding onto things. I want to be happier.
Jessica recently told me that she sensed I had changed. She said that she felt I was actually listening to her during conversations and that I was acknowledging her feelings rather than resorting to justifying my actions during disagreements. She also said that I’ve been more open and honest in my communication rather than keeping things to myself.
And in my effort to be more mindful and observant, I’ve also noticed how she’s been trying to change. She’s not as quick to anger. She’s able to communicate when she’s not 100% and needs some help. She’s taught me that it’s okay to not be okay and to normalize feelings, both the good and the bad. She’s focusing on her mental health in her own way and that’s okay.
We’ve both learned a lot during these last several months, both about ourselves and each other. Some lessons had to be learned on our own while others had to be taught.
Here are some of those lessons:
- Self-care is essential, especially during COVID. Psychology tells us that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours are inextricably linked. If we feel depressed, chances are we will think depressed thoughts (e.g. I’m worthless). If we think depressed thoughts, that will be reflected in our behaviour, possibly through actions that isolate us (e.g. ignoring calls from friends). This behaviour, in turn, perpetuates our thoughts (e.g. Why am I like this?), which influence our emotions, behaviours, etc. Similarly, if we take care of our mind (e.g. through a hobby), it can have the opposite effect. Your behaviour (i.e. doing the hobby) releases the serotonin which alters your mood, which alters your thoughts, etc. Granted, it’s not always this simple (See next point).
- Everyone is different. I don’t mean this in a genetic or philosophical sense; I mean emotionally, cognitively, and experientially. For example two people may feel the same emotion, but they may feel them in completely different degrees. Or one person’s coping strategy for anxiety might not work for another person. While I’m a big proponent for meditation as a means to improve one’s mental health, I realize that people may have very different experiences and outcomes with it.
- Allow yourself to have low days. It’s unrealistic to think that we can be 100% every day. We all have moments of weakness, and the goal shouldn’t be to completely eliminate those moments. The goal should just be to make those moments fewer and farther in between. Allow yourself to cry if you need to. Allow yourself to order pizza one night instead of sticking to your meal plan. Be kinder to yourself.
- If someone tells you that you’ve hurt them, acknowledge that hurt before discussing the details. While you may disagree with their interpretation of events, their pain is very real and they deserve to be validated.
- If someone is depressed, offering a blanket offer like “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help” isn’t very helpful. That puts the responsibility on them to tell you what to do. Instead, offer to help in specific ways or take it upon yourself to take small gestures like order them food or give them a call.
- You’re allowed to take a step back from a conversation if you need to. During conversations, especially disagreements, I’m not good at thinking on the spot or knowing how I feel. If disagreements become more emotionally charged, I’ll either become very quiet or say things I regret. In these moments, it helps to ask, “I would like to continue this conversation, but can we put it on pause while I get my thoughts and feelings in order?”
- The more that someone pushes you away, the more they need you. If a partner or friend struggles with anger, depression, or anxiety, their behaviour can make it difficult to be around them. It may be a challenge to not take things personally, but your patience and support is powerful.
- Routines are vital if you work from home. Having the freedom to do what you want when you want is both a blessing and a curse. Structure isn’t a bad thing. It enables us to be more productive and reduces the existential dread we might feel when we have to plan our day. As Haruki Murakami put it, “I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”
- When you’re trying to create new habits and routines, start small. For example, if you’re looking to start meditating, don’t meditate for 20 minutes for the first session. Try two or five. If you’re trying to become a vegan, don’t go cold turkey. Start with the beef and then gradually cut out more meats and animal products.