covid19 · fitness · Guest Post

Hanging on to my mental health while quarantining with COVID-19 (Guest Post)

Image: A photo-collage of several different ink and coloured pencil drawings

Past contributor Michelle Lynne Goodfellow was diagnosed with COVID-19 in November 2020. To pass the time during her quarantine, she wrote about her COVID experience.

(Content warning: Recovery from Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder)

I’ve written and re-written this post so many times over the past several days. When I’m really honest about how much I struggle with my mental health (Complex PTSD), the writing feels like it “over-shares,” to the point of self-immolation.

So then I start writing the post all over again, leaving out more of the graphic parts. This is, like, my fourth or fifth attempt at describing how I coped with having COVID-19.

I have Complex PTSD. All I’m going to say about that is, I live pretty much 24/7 with an underlying feeling of unease. And if I examine my feelings too closely, (or if something happens to trigger my lifelong, maladaptive coping mechanisms), the unease quickly escalates into existential despair, and it’s a bit of a horrorshow.

Please don’t worry about me – I have very, very good (and accessible) mental health care. We have a treatment plan, and we’re hitting some really reassuring milestones. I’m encouraged, for probably the first time in my life, that my traumatized brain can be retrained, and I can feel safer, and eventually make different choices about how to keep myself safe and relate well to others.

But for now, I’m still in the middle of things.

So getting COVID-19 was… a bit of a hiccup in the road, shall we say. Kind of like a flat tire, I guess. I could tell that the driving was rough, and it took me a bit of road to realize what was going on. And then I pulled over, and assessed the situation, and got out the spare tire, and worked on replacing the flat. And realized that there was a second flat…

And now that my quarantine is over, I’m driving back down the road again, and I have two repaired tires, but it’s kind of a little hazy how I got things sorted. I have the feeling I spent a lot of money on towing charges and the repairs on two flat tires, and I don’t want to look too closely at my bank account right now. Figuratively speaking.

If you can relate to any of the above, here’s my best recollection of how I made it through several days of quarantine in my 120-square-foot bedroom, with no face-to-face contact with my 77-year-old housemate (my mom), in order to protect her from catching the disease. (And thankfully, we were successful – she has since tested negative for COVID-19, and we’re happily sharing air again…)

Lots of sleep
I’ve suffered from very severe insomnia for nearly 15 years, and for most of that time I’ve really *been* suffering. It would probably take a whole other post to describe how I’ve solved my insomnia problem, but suffice to say, I seem to have solved it. And for two weeks before I caught COVID, I got the best sleep of the past 15 years – at least seven, and usually eight, hours per night.

And I was really noticing the benefits of all of the sleep, in many areas of my life. I was less tired, for one. I had more energy. I was also able to cope better with minor frustrations, and let things roll off my back, when in the past I would start spinning out, emotionally.

So continuing to get good sleep was a conscious priority, once I got sick. And I can report that, apart from the night immediately following my positive test result (when I got maybe five hours of sleep), I was successful in continuing my good-sleep streak. I still wake up in the middle of every night, and it’s not always easy to get back to sleep (it’s a habit that I’m still trying to instil in my brain), but I know it’s had a huge positive impact on my ability to cope with having COVID, and being stuck alone in my bedroom for days on end.

Grounding myself physically in the present moment
The first few days of my quarantine were the toughest, and I spent most of those days in a kind of frantic, mental running-away from my emotional (and physical) distress. To go back to my flat tire analogy, it’s like I drove on those flat tires for a while – probably longer than was good for my rims – before I could admit to myself that yes, I needed to get off the road and take a look at what might be wrong with my car.

And when I finally pulled to a stop, the first thing I did was, I just stopped all the frantic busywork (the phone calls to friends, the texting, the social media scrolling, the YouTube scrolling, etc.). I knew that in the past (when I was in breast cancer treatment) I’d really enjoyed doing some bodywork – especially qigong. I have some favourite qigong videos on YouTube that I like to follow along with. I watched those videos, and I did the movements.

I did some Alexander Technique lying-down work. (Again, it would probably take a whole post to describe the Alexander Technique, but I trained for a year to become an Alexander practitioner, and it’s a form of bodywork that is deeply engrained in my brain, so it was easy for me to pick it up again.)

I also did a really soothing foam rolling routine that was developed by a certified structural integrationist (Rolfer), that I learned several years ago from my registered massage therapist. And finally, I did some restorative yoga poses that I really enjoy.

All of the above calmed down my nervous system, and helped ease my constant anxiety and hyper-vigilance. I also went outside for a twenty-minute walk around my property every day, as well.

Finding healthier (for me) replacements for my compulsive behaviours
To numb my emotional distress, I turn to many different “unhealthy” diversions to block out or numb my feelings. I could see early on in my quarantine that I was getting pretty compulsive about things like napping, social media and device use, watching videos, and talking to or texting friends. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those activities – I was just bouncing from one to the other so frequently that I knew I needed to find some more grounding alternatives.

Cleaning and organizing my spaces is one of my favourite ways to calm my mind. I need to have my spaces very spare, very minimalist. Clutter (even rumpled sheets) agitates me too much. I usually have a pretty simple and tidy bedroom (I try to avoid doing anything in my room but sleep, when I am well). So I was already starting from a good place, but I got into the habit of “tidying” my bedroom several times per day during my quarantine. I would make my bed (yes, more than once every day), put away any dirty clothes, remove any garbage, and put away anything I’d been using (like my ukuleles, or my sketchbooks, or my yoga cushions, or my foam roller).

Drawing became my favourite go-to activity during quarantine. It’s slow, it requires attention (but not too much brain power or focus), and the kinds of drawing I like to do require tiny, repetitive movements that slowed down my body, and in turn, my brain. It got to the point where I cleaned out one of the drawers in my dresser, and filled it with a lot of my drawing supplies (several sketchbooks, pens, coloured pencils, markers).

When I look back over all the drawings I worked on during my quarantine, I feel proud of my ability to self-soothe, and regulate my emotions. I hadn’t done much drawing in recent months, and my quarantine reinforced to me that a daily drawing practice would probably be a good thing for me in the recovery of my mental health.

By the time my quarantine was over, I had a daily routine that felt comfortable and reassuring. If anything, it panicked me more to end my quarantine (and expose my self to my mom again, even though I knew that logically that I was no longer contagious) than it did to be in quarantine in the first place.

I think everyone who gets COVID will have a different experience with the disease; I know I definitely had a very mild case. But I hope that everyone who gets COVID can find a way (or ways) to deal with the emotional and psychological aspects of being ill during a pandemic, with a potentially life-threatening virus.

Michelle Lynne Goodfellow is a writer, artist, and maker. You can see some of her creations on her Instagram feed.