By Jennifer Crystal
In the best of times, late winter can drag for people. Cabin fever and a longing for sunshine and warmth make us feel like we’re in the movie Groundhog Day, repeating the same scene over and over and over. The pandemic has only made the usual winter blues worse. We’ve already been repeating the same isolated days, with many people working or learning from home, for a year.
Now the dismal weather makes it seem like this period will never end.
This is a feeling that tick-borne illness patients understood long before the pandemic.
For many patients, especially those with late-stage Lyme disease, days, months, and even years blend together into a bedridden monotony. As I explained in my post “Groundhog Day: Casting a Shadow on Lyme Disease”, for several years my own life revolved around sleeping, taking medications, and going to the pharmacy or doctor’s appointments. Every day was the same, with symptoms sometimes improving and sometimes getting worse. I didn’t know if it was Monday or Wednesday. There was no differentiation between weekdays and weekends. Battling Herxheimer reactions, brain fog, burning extremities, systemic hives, headaches, and aching muscles and joints, I wondered if the suffering would ever end.
At times, the monotony was worse than the symptoms themselves. Staring at the same walls, interacting with the same people (or experiencing total isolation if you live alone), not being able to do your usual activities, can make a person want to scream. Sometimes, I did scream. Sometimes I still do.
But surviving tick-borne illness has taught me some important lessons for getting through the pandemic, as I outline in my posts “What Lyme Patients Can Teach Us About the New Normal” and “Lessons From Lyme: Lockdown Isn’t Forever”. My illness journey also gave me some tools for getting through long, isolating winters. Below are some ideas for beating the winter blues during a pandemic:
Change your scenery: This may seem easier said than done when you’re stuck at home. Sometimes, though, we make ourselves more stuck than we need to be. I mostly convalesced in my bedroom. Even moving to the couch could be a welcome change of scenery. Try working in a different room in the house, taking a walk in a different direction each day, or even eating at a different seat at the kitchen table. A small shift in scenery can make a big shift in perspective.
Redecorate: Whether you order a new comforter, knit a new blanket, or paint a wall a new color, a change in scenery, rather than just a change of scenery, can be refreshing. If you are a caretaker for a Lyme patient, think about ways you can do some redecorating for them (with their permission, of course).
Keep some routine: Part of the difficulty of the pandemic is many people feel their days are unstructured. When I was sick, the day dragged most when there was nothing to do but just lie in bed. Once I started to get a bit better, I appreciated having a set routine of physical therapy twice a week, neurofeedback twice a week, talk therapy once a week, etc. Now, Zoom meetings and remote or hybrid schooling give at-home workers or students some semblance of a schedule, but it’s not always enough. Having set meal times, stretch breaks, or reading hours can lend more structure to an otherwise open-ended day. Think about fun routines that can give you something to look forward to as well: weekly Zoom game nights with friends, pizza nights with the family, or home manicures.
…and also add some variety to that routine: Variety is the spice of life, even when you’re stuck in bed or at home. If you’re able, try a new type of exercise once or twice a week. Watch a new show. Try a new recipe (or, if you’re took sick to cook, have a caretaker make one for you). Paint your nails a wild color. Novelty breaks up monotony and helps you feel like you’re controlling some aspect of an otherwise uncontrollable situation.
Get outside: I know it’s cold. I know it’s dreary. I know you might not feel well enough to exercise (and you shouldn’t, if you’re sick with tick-borne illness and aren’t ready). If you are able, think about trying a new winter sport like snowshoeing. Build a snow fort, no matter how old you are. If you feel awful, perhaps just sit on a front stoop or back porch for five minutes in a mask. Or open the window for five minutes.
Be cozy: Hibernation doesn’t have to mean huddling inside miserable. Make yourself as comfortable as possible. Try a weighted blanket. Put on fuzzy socks and slippers. Make some hot tea. Pampering yourself is part of self-care, and self-care is a critical part of healing and survival.
Sunbathe: You don’t have to be on a beach, or even outside, to soak up some rays. Think like a cat: find a sunny patch of couch or floor in your house, and curl up there, pointing your face to the light. You might even set up a beach chair inside and soak your feet in a bucket of water to pretend you’re at the beach. When I was sick, I took these “staycations” indoors. Now, I have scoped out a sunny, isolated spot in my neighborhood where I sit at lunch time. Vitamin D is healing!
Listen to sounds or watch images of nature: If you’re too sick to get outside, or you live in a city where you can’t do so in a socially distanced manner, you can still reap the benefits of nature virtually. Nature sounds calm the nervous system. Just listening to a soundtrack of a waterfall or birds chirping, or looking at images of mountains, can help elicit the feelings you would have while actually experiencing nature.
Talk to someone outside your pod: No matter how much you love the people you live with, being home with them all the time can be stifling. It’s hard to make time for phone calls when you’re managing a family, working from home, or feeling too sick to talk for long. But even carving out ten minutes per week to talk to an old friend can be revitalizing.
And finally, the most important lesson I learned from my journey with Lyme is that spring always does come, no matter how long the winter lasts.
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Opinions expressed by contributors are their own.
Jennifer Crystal is a writer and educator in Boston. Her memoir about her medical journey is forthcoming. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.