Suggestions for dealing with isolation — from someone who spent many years bedridden.

By Kate M. Nicholson

Painted image of a heart with colorful droplets emanating from it and the word heal written in large blue letters.
Renee Stout, “How We Heal” (2019). Courtesy of the artist.

On a crisp September day in 1994, while my friends headed out for a hike in the Shenandoah’s, I lay in my apartment in bed. Ordinarily, I would have joined them. But three weeks earlier, I had suddenly become unable to sit or stand, and severely limited in walking. Those three weeks would stretch to more than 15 years, during which most of my time would be spent in physical isolation and in bed.

That evening, my friends brought their day back to me. They arrived at my door with goldenrods and purple asters, newly harvested apples, and groceries to prepare a fall feast. As we dined, they described their hike in vivid detail — recounting how the verdant hills were beginning to turn, spotted with vibrant reds from a few precocious oaks and the nascent yellows of ash trees. This vicarious tour and their companionship helped me to feel as though nothing had changed, even though — for me — much had.

The funny thing about sudden life change is that the world continues to move impossibly forward. Aspects of one’s former life intrude into the present, demanding attention. Like many people with disabilities, I learned quickly to adapt my job as well. By using available technology, I was able to continue to work.

Figuring out how to navigate in new circumstances is essential to living one’s best life. I offer a few reflections and resources, since most of us now are experiencing some form of isolation.

Thought # 1: Continue to do your thing — just do it differently.

Even though digital technology is ubiquitous, relying on technology as a mainstay may feel initially cold and awkward. As professors struggle to get courses up on line, a law professor friend mentioned that she asked students to introduce their pets to break the ice and add warmth in her first online class. Tilt West Board Member, Bianca Mikhan, who is a hip hop performer, put out a call on Facebook, inviting others to join her in a freestyle challenge. Improvisation seems an apt metaphor for the adjustments we are making right now — we are all freestyling.

Whatever your passion, find ways to engage it. While binging on junk food and entertainment might feel good in the short run, those empty calories are unlikely to sustain you in the same way that things that are meaningful to you will. If you have access to the internet — there are so many opportunities.

Museums large and small offer their collections online for your viewing pleasure. Here is a list of more than 2500 museum collections. If a smaller, more intimate art-viewing experience suits you better, art galleries also have their work online.

The Met Opera, the Berlin Philharmonic, and others are hosting regular “quarantine soirees”. Film festivals are placing their programming online, adding to the variety of online film collections that already exist. Broadway plays are available, and Broadway actors are livestreaming as well. One of my favorite signs of ingenuity to emerge of late is the “Social Distancing Festival.” When so many arts events were cancelled, this initiative decided to support artists by putting their performances online — a “win-win” that offers everything from comedy to trivia contests to poetry readings and more.

Popular music more your thing? Here is a list of musicians from John Legend to Willie Nelson who are livestreaming concerts. I started to put together a silly thematic playlist of online music videos that reflect this moment– songs like “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” by the Police, and (since I was dancing to it by myself) Billy Idol’s “Dancing with Myself,” Janelle Monae’s “Dance Apocalyptic,” Gloria Gaynor’s “I will Survive,” and many more.

Books. Books. Books. Quiet time is wonderful for reading. Thousands of titles are freely available from the New York Public Library; there are also sources of free audiobooks. Local authors are doing readings and offering their thoughts, like this series from Suzi Q Smith. And if art is your thing, here is a shameless plug for the Tilt West Journal, which features poetry, essay, and visual and time-based artwork.

Missing the refuge of nature? Take these incredible tours of the National Parks. Animal videos more your thing? I have a friend who fosters puppies and puts videos and photographs of their progress online, which have become a regular tonic for me. Choose whatever soothes you and gives you meaning and solace.

Screen shot of a YouTube version of the Police song, “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.”

Thought # 2: Continue to connect with people and to be active.

It’s not just important to connect to the world and your work, we have to continue to connect with one another. Social distancing is a bit of a misnomer. Community is more important than ever, even as we practice physical distancing.

These days, I do a lot of speaking (or I did before the onset of COVID-19). Recently, I was asked to give a talk about resilience and healing, and I learned that the most important tool for building resilience is cultural and social support. Social scientists have found that even people who are profoundly isolated, like those in solitary confinement, find ways to communicate with those around them, such as by tapping on the walls. They suggest that we can all develop a “tapping response.”

Fortunately, most of us are not in circumstances as extreme — we simply have to move our connections online. In about five minutes, I will join a virtual cocktail party organized by a friend in NYC. Tomorrow, I have a virtual tea planned with a friend who I haven’t seen since law school. I’ve scheduled zoom calls with friends in other cities; one of them, who organizes social gatherings for a great project called Looking for America, is going to work with me to curate a series of virtual dinner parties with people who don’t often come together.

I have also been touched by the people who have reached out to me. Perhaps most poignant, friends who are working on the front lines in epicenters of COVID-19, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington and an infectious disease doctor, emailed to see how I was doing.

It remains important to be as physically active as your circumstances allow. Some of us can still venture outside while practicing safe physical distancing: I am enormously grateful for my ability to be in nature in Colorado. But there are other options as well. With gyms shuttered, many are offering free classes via livestream. A group called Dancing Alone Together provides a range of high-end virtual classes. I have friend locally who set up a group called “Covid Connection” of virtual gatherings focused on fitness and wellness.

Making an effort to schedule social events and to exercise can help in another way as well, by urging us forward in setting new routines. In times of uncertainty, routine and schedule give a sense of control. These changed circumstances could go on for some time. While routine helps, we must recognize that there may be moments when we have energy to set up all kinds of virtual activities and moments when those efforts flag. Thus, it also seems important that we not expect consistent levels of performance or positivity from ourselves.

A photo of three adorable newborn mostly white puppies with black markings, cuddled together.
Kathy Gord Callahan, “Sheltering in Place (Cereal Puppies)” (2020). Photo credit: Kathy Gord Callahan.

Thought # 3: Try something new.

Unusual circumstances can be a great time to try something new. My love of art began with me starting to draw while bedridden — and it is now a huge passion in my life.

The Cleveland Intercity Ballet is offering free online ballet classes. A celebrated master chef is offering virtual online cooking classes. For those who really want to dig in, there are literally hundreds of high level academic classes offered online. I mentioned drop in exercise classes: last week I took a virtual hip hop dance class. I am notorious — despite my friends’ best efforts to intervene tracing all the way back to college (no, I can’t blame it on the fact that my legs did not work for awhile) — for dancing like a white woman. The advantage of dancing by myself? No witnesses!

Changed circumstances may create a vacuum you can fill with a project you’ve been wanting to do for some time — be it writing, gardening, or spring cleaning.

You might even find solace by leaning into the silence. I’m not a quiet person by any stretch — not a natural meditator — but I have learned the benefits of deep breathing, meditation, and visualization. For many years, I have meditated for an hour every day, because it calms a nervous system amped up by severe, long-term pain. We all need calming tools, especially now. And there are so many apps available and lots of groups offering free, even five minute meditation sessions.

Thought # 4: Reach out to those in greatest need.

Most important, let’s remember to take care of each other, because we are in this together. The point of public health is to recognize that our health is interdependent, and that our actions and precautions affect one another.

It is important to remember that not everyone is equally situated. The other thing I learned about resilience is that it has much more to do with what comes to us from the outside than what lies within us. It turns out that things like whether someone gets sick leave, how soon insurance money comes through after a natural disaster, having stable housing and ready access to food, and even whether a group is subjected to discrimination, matters much more than a positive attitude to resilience and survival.

We are all stressed and anxious, but some of us are suffering more than others. Some have greater vulnerabilities, be they related to health, mental health, or economic and social circumstances. In many ways, my suggestions feel very privileged: they offer paltry aid to those who are home schooling children while telecommuting, or those struggling with immanent financial and health hardship. I have concerns for so many of us. I worry about people in prison and homeless shelters who cannot effectively isolate. I worry and am writing about the rationing of healthcare that is likely to come, and its effect on those of us whose lives will be accorded less value.

Having worked in two public health crises — HIV/AIDS and the overdose crisis –-I have seen how these times can bring out both the best and the worst in us. Managing our fear is important. I loved reading a recent article in the Seattle Times about how the virus has created an “epidemic of people helping people.”

Check on friends who are expressing feelings of vulnerability or neighbors who are older, house-bound by their disabilities, or lack support. If you can, donate to local food banks. Schools are being cancelled, and many families rely on the food that educational institutions provide. I’ve been heartened by my friends who are counselors offering free sessions to those in need. I have the crisis center hotline at the ready, in case someone I talk to needs the kind of professional support I am unable to provide. I know others who are organizing the delivery of food and medicine. I remain ever grateful to those clinicians on the front lines, and to those who continue to work in and stock stores and pharmacies. We all have different things to offer in these times. Giving back and feeling gratitude are important for their own sake; they have the added benefit of building mental and physical resilience as well.

With much love and my best wishes for your safety and for kindness.

Kate M. Nicholson is a civil rights attorney and an arts activist living in Boulder Colorado. She is a Tilt West Board Member, Editor of its Medium channel, and Editor-in-Chief of the Tilt West Journal. You can follow her on twitter at @speakingabtpain.com or at katemnicholson.com.

Tilt West is a nonprofit org based in Denver. Our mission is to promote critical discourse focused on arts and culture for our region and beyond.

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