Reflections from Home in the Midst of COVID-19

Suzanne C. Danhauer, PhD

I have been a psychologist and faculty member at an academic medical center since 2003. At the present time, I direct faculty well-being and resilience initiatives (including our recently re-launched faculty peer support program) and conduct research on behavioral and mind-body interventions primarily for cancer survivors. Some of my current work in the well-being realm focuses on how to provide resources and support to providers and faculty/staff who are working from home in the midst of the uncertainty, complexity, and crisis that we all face with a global pandemic.

I am a wife and mother of four boys (ages 6-15) and a socially awkward hound dog. My family has been staying at home for about three-and-a-half weeks now. We know that we have at least three more weeks to go, likely longer. I realize my privilege in being able to work from home and not worry about finances and food. My husband has some auto-immune issues. When he gets sick, illness tends to linger and hit him more severely than the rest of us. I am the only person in my family going out for necessary errands. At this point, we are all healthy and making life work. What I struggle with the most is the sheer volume of information, much of it rapidly changing.

Like much of the world, my brain is constantly trying to process it all…

3/1/20, 30 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. (CDC data)

The backdrop for any productivity and self-care is the overwhelm of often conflicting, rapidly changing, and emotionally charged information...The shelves are empty – no meat, disinfectant cleaning products, sanitizer, or toilet paper...Don’t touch your face...You can’t see it but the virus is lurking everywhere...Assume you’ll get it...Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds...The collective grief and experience of loss (large and small) – Can’t attend family member’s funeral in another state, cancelled 5-year-old birthday party, no prom, no graduation, no running hugs for my youngest son to give to my good friend who works at Trader Joe’s, postponed weddings, no spending Easter with family (but we’re all healthy!)...Which news station to watch...Responses to a pandemic differ by political affiliation?!?...Flatten the curve. But the economy. But the economy won’t matter if you’re dead...We lose more people to the flu...Social distancing is so important. Really, it’s physical distancing. Relationships matter...We’re all in this together. And look at how great I am...Order your groceries online. But there are no online grocery slots for many days. I’ll run in the grocery store early, touch almost nothing, and use sanitizer often. Is there any way to pay with my card and not touch anything while I enter my PIN?!? More sanitizer...So thankful for all of these people still working in the grocery stores and the pharmacy...Really? The local coffee shop is closed until further notice? This is serious...We have gone from containment to mitigation...It’s all a conspiracy to impact the upcoming election...The pandemic is God’s wrath for an evil world...The local distillery is giving out free hand sanitizer. Two bottles each. It smells like whiskey...You’ll all be back at Church by Easter...Wait, maybe not...Palpable fear. Not enough ventilators or protective gear for our medical providers...Empty airports...You need to disinfect your packages and mail before bringing them into your house. They could bring in the virus...More gloves and masks. Although people seem to be wearing the gloves without realizing that they are simply spreading germs if they don’t change them as they move to different tasks and places...Thankful for Dr. Fauci, his calm presence, his courage to speak transparently in the face of great confusion, and his ability to keep returning our focus to the evidence.

3/8/20, 423 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. (CDC data)

Work. We continue with our work in an interrupted and strange way, figuring out how to move forward without direct human contact outside of our families. These past few weeks have been a crash course in using WebEx and Zoom (I’m barely passing). My husband is my office-mate; we work in our bedroom since all of our children are “at school” in various other rooms of the house. I miss my office and my two screens that make it so easy to see and work in multiple documents at once. Instead, I work from my laptop. I am grateful to have a laptop and will be even more grateful when I can return to my office.                        

April was supposed to be a busy travel month with multiple trips (including SBM). Cancelled travel is both a relief and a disappointment! Each day, I am trying to be productive and carry on “business as usual.” I received a good score on a grant and need to address some concerns to increase chances it will be funded. I am working on multiple papers that are due soon to various study teams. I am connecting with more people at my institution to develop resources around enhancing coping and emotional well-being of our employees.

But there is nothing normal about any of this. I find it difficult to focus. The messages about productivity are mixed too. On the one hand, I hear: Be more productive. You have lots of extra time to write and develop ideas. You may be at home, but you’re still working. On the other hand, I hear: Be gentle with yourself. You are working at home, among family, in the midst of a global crisis. I completely missed a meeting that I was running recently. I never miss meetings. I live by my calendar. I find it difficult to keep up and strive to be productive. At the same time, I am also listening to my body and mind when I need to disconnect.

3/15/20, 3487 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. (CDC data)

Family. All of our children are “doing school” virtually now. This change means that many of us have exponentially more time with our kids, which is wonderful (except when it’s not, which feels like a lot). This is a whole new world. The volume of e-mails from the schools is overwhelming. How am I supposed to be productive at work and make sure that the kids are doing all of their schoolwork?!? I am spending a couple of hours each day to help my struggling high schooler get organized so he has less missing work. I have appreciated the time with him and opportunity to listen to the book “Night” by Elie Wiesel, and talk about what he is hearing and learning about the Holocaust. He hasn’t had the focus to be able to read or listen to it on his own. I am so grateful for our teachers. I am looking forward to spring break but not entirely sure what that means this year other than perhaps less computer time. We are thinking of waking the boys up for a day of movies and popcorn. And then maybe we will venture out to our driveway. The boys miss their friends. In the grand scheme of things, this togetherness – and all we are each trying to accomplish in it – has been really demanding. Still, I am extremely grateful for my family and this time with them.

3/22/20, 33,404 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. (CDC data)

Self-Care. Without all of the driving and activities, there has been more time to do the things that are important to stay healthy. We usually eat dinner as a family, and during this time, even more of them have been great home-cooked meals instead of something we can pick up or put together quickly. My husband asked if we had any chocolate. I quietly brought him into our room and showed him the stash of dark chocolate and a bag of potato chips (for emergency purposes, of course). Without having to get kids up and out the door by 7:30 a.m., we are all “sleeping in.” I can’t remember the last time I had 8 hours of sleep so many nights in a row. With the restroom now about 10 feet away, I can drink more water without having to interrupt my work. This would be a great time to get back into that metabolic renewal workout 3 days a week and practice online yoga classes. But we’ve been home for nearly four weeks and neither has happened. And I’ve practiced yoga for over 20 years! Instead, walking as a family on these beautiful spring days is such a gift. I’m going to go with that and know that being outside and moving counts. I thought I had a lot of yoga pants. I ordered more to keep up with this new quarantined lifestyle. It may be a while, though, before they arrive. Non-essential items are shipping much slower. I understand.

3/29/20, 140,904 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. (CDC data)

For me (and probably many of us), disparate thoughts and feelings co-exist in a “both and” sort of way. I am concerned, and I am calm. I struggle with not doing enough, and I know I need to give myself grace and self-compassion. I want to know what new developments there are in our country and the world, and I limit the amount of news and social media I digest. These are surreal and difficult and unprecedented times. I look forward to the return of normal life. At the same time, I want to hold on to the return of much-needed time and simplicity. I want to continue to be intentional about making choices for the good and safety of all.

For now, in the middle of where we are, may we all choose to spread helpful emotions (and evidence-based information). May we choose to spread joy and calm and gratitude...and, of course, keep washing our hands.

4/5/20, 330,891 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. (CDC data)