When Crisis Strikes: Finding Connection Amidst COVID-Isolation
By Jennifer Love, MD
As time marches on, and we try to adjust to seeing masks on people everywhere we go (will we ever really get used to that?), COVID-isolation is growing. Yesterday at my neighborhood market a shopper was wearing a gas mask, which totally freaked me out since I recently watched Season 3 of The Tunnel on PBS Passport. But that aside, I observed two extremes at the store that day.
First, I noticed an eerie solitude, a somber atmosphere, with people disconnected from faces, from expressions, from smiles. People turned inward, watching the scene in silence, avoiding eye contact. The atmosphere was heavy, anxious, apocalyptic.
Then a woman rode up on her bicycle and started talking to the people in line as she removed her helmet and locked up the bike. I made a place for her in the long line in front of me. Behind her homemade bandana mask was a smile. No one could see it, but it was obvious. What makes her so different from the rest? And how can we learn to be more like her?
As I’ve been caught up in my own COVID-isolation—feeling challenged every day to avoid feeling the impact of not having hugged another human being in a month, keeping myself busy seeing patients, writing, making my environment cozy—I’ve discovered a new type of creative connection. And once I opened myself up to these new COVID-connections, I felt less isolated and less lonely.
Let me share my COVID-connections with you.
I’ll admit my first attempt was a little rough around the edges. I read a post online written by a doctor in Michigan about the importance of social distancing before it was really catching on. My office was still open at the time, so I reached out, introduced myself, and thanked him for the info. I communicate with doctors and researchers all the time, but this time this introvert uncharacteristically (and quite frankly nervously) added a postscript: “I requested to follow you on Instagram. I’m not a crazy stalker—it’s my non-professional page I use to connect to non-work things.” (OMG!)
What ensued were a few days of engaging conversation, ranging from COVID safety to jokes about alcohol consumption, to graphs of sleep patterns (his, not mine, but clearly, I had found a fellow nerd). After about a week it petered out; we’re busy doctors after all. But it was my first COVID connection.
Soon following were messages from a friend I knew and adored in high school, who is now a traveling hospice nurse in rural Montana, helping people die with love and grace and the support of her kind and gentle spirit, in the comfort of their homes, without a single piece of personal protective equipment. We’ve been discussing her fears, her asthma, her daughters, her vulnerabilities, and I’m trying to remind her of her strengths and resilience. I’m also sending her my emergency N95 mask. She needs it more.
My best friend’s brother-in-law is also a physician. His life is overflowing with work and family and responsibilities, but as a sensitive human, he saw through my humor into my isolation and started making me laugh via text. He’s a musician in a band, and I call him Sgt. Pepper. He sends me tracks from his band, and they’re really weird and creative. They are also always appreciated.
A woman I’ve known since we were in Brownies together in kindergarten (!) recently moved to Morro Bay with her wife and opened a coffee shop called Skippers Brew. They were just hitting their stride when social distancing started, and soon California was put under “shelter in place” orders. They were scrambling—limiting their hours and taking on side jobs to stay afloat. But instead of thinking only about themselves, they started a campaign for people in their community who suddenly couldn’t afford the luxury of stepping out for a coffee-to-go. Did they ask for donations? You betcha! But not for themselves.
They started a “skip it forward coffee giving campaign” so that when people go online and pay for a drink option, a coupon for that drink is posted on the wall. So all anyone has to do is walk in, take a coupon, and enjoy a latte or cappuccino thanks to the kindness of another human. Even during this time when small businesses are crashing, these women are trying to make it work and supporting their community in the process.
It’s COVID-kindness at its best.
Yesterday I was contacted by a stranger online (always sketchy—I mean, look what I said to the Michigan doc!), who had a package of cookies delivered to her door for someone who shares my last name (I use a different name on my private social media accounts). She wanted to know whether I knew this person, so she could have the cookies redirected. She said she kept them on her porch in case she found the rightful recipient, so they could easily be picked up and redirected with minimal handling. I referred her to a second cousin of mine, who lives in this woman’s area. She signed off with, “Thank you so much for answering me, and stay well with your loved ones,” with a little heart emoji. Just a kind stranger from across the country, trying to help a neighbor get her cookies.
Two nights this week I stayed up texting until one in the morning with a friend from high school I haven’t seen or heard from since the early ’90s. It was completely random, unexpected, and ended up being quite heart-fulfilling.
Are you experiencing COVID-isolation? It certainly isn’t easy. But as my own experience shows, it is possible to connect while sheltering at home. Here are a few strategies that even introverts like me can try:
- Try something new.
- Write a brief note to your favorite author.
- Make a kind comment (or 10) on social media to friends or people you follow.
- Reach out.
- Don’t hide misery behind cheerful fabricated posts. Be honest about your feelings.
- Ask a friend for dinner over an online video chat.
- Smile behind your mask.
- Speak kindness.
Go ahead, create some COVID-connections. I’d love to hear about them!
About the Author: Jennifer Love, MD, Amen Clinics Orange County, CA
Dr. Jennifer Love is board-certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry, and addiction medicine, and is a Diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and the American Board of Addiction Medicine. Dr. Love is an award-winning researcher and international speaker, interested in the interface between cultural and spiritual factors and overall mental health. She is also suboxone certified. Dr. Love’s work focuses on restoring life balance, brain and body health, and helping her patients improve their functionality and satisfaction in life. She considers a wide range of interventions including nutraceuticals, medication, exercise, yoga, psychotherapy, and sleep/relaxation training. Her specialties include mood disorders, substance use disorders, anxiety disorders, anger and irritability, behavioral addictions, co-occurring pain, and opioid dependence.
Dr. Love is the co-author of When Crisis Strikes: 5 Steps to Heal Your Brain, Body, and Life from Chronic Stress. Stay up to date by following @dr_author_jennifer_love on Instagram.
If isolation and loneliness are causing you to feel depressed or suicidal, or if it’s causing you to relapse or to think about relapsing, Amen Clinics is here for you. We offer remote clinical evaluations as well as mental telehealth sessions to help you. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834. If all our specialists are busy helping others, you can also schedule a time to talk.
Note: If you are suicidal, in the U.S. you can call 9-1-1, or text the word “home” to 741741, or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for support.