Seasoned bicycle traveler and writer Hilary Oliver has spent some time isolated from the rest of the world. Take a note or two out of her handbook to endure the social distancing of COVID-19, and check out her other article for Adventure Cyclist magazine, Huckleberry Bike Tour.
Before employees can work a winter at a U.S. Antarctic research station, they have to prove they can handle the isolation by passing a psychological evaluation. Right now, I’m betting a lot of us wish our partners, roommates, and spouses had passed that test or something like it before we wound up social distancing with them. Working from home or being stuck inside can be tough if you’re not used to it. Especially if you’re just now realizing that your housemate is actually that person who microwaves their tuna sandwich at the office.
Some of us, like freelancers who work from home, have a bit more experience handling the isolation than others — but throw in a partner who’s usually at work all day and all bets are off. One of my fellow freelancers recently tweeted about shocking her boyfriend when she got caught “‘drinking’ Cheez-Its out of a coffee mug.” And, really, that’s the tip of the iceberg.
I spent a season working at an Antarctic research station myself — albeit during the summer — and I can confirm: isolation can make you crazy, probably more easily if it’s with other people. You hear the same stories over and over. And it’s tough to ever feel like you’re really alone. (I’ve backpacked, traveled, and bike toured alone too, and dealing with true solitude can be just as testing.)
Some lessons I took from Antarctica have helped me along my way — first, living and working out of a Chevy Astrovan with my then-boyfriend for a year and a half. (Talk about no alone time!) Then, working from home together for another six years after that. Now married, we still work at home in a house smaller than 900 square feet. If Brendan and I each leaned back to stretch at our desks simultaneously, we’d knock into each other.
This is all to say that I’ve learned a few things about staying sane and getting work done in isolation — both alone and together. And if all else fails, take a note from us Antarctic employees and watch John Carpenter’s The Thing. It’s an Antarctic tradition that should make even your loud-chewing, tuna-microwaving roommate seem a little more tolerable.
The managers at McMurdo Station in Antarctica know something about human nature: sometimes too much free time with “nothing” to do can lead to trouble. That’s part of the reason the work week is six 10-hour days. With no place to go and little to do on days off, boredom can lead to, shall we say, self-destructive behaviors. (See the classic Antarctic memoir Big Dead Place.)
Sometimes the bureaucratic task of keeping everyone on station busy led to mindless, often meaningless, busy work being assigned. Which, psychologically, can be pretty unsatisfying. We all know that sometimes it feels good to get lost in a mindless task like vacuuming, knitting, reorganizing the hardware drawer — but usually when we’re doing it for ourselves and not “the man.” If you’re feeling restless at home, giving yourself an assignment with meaning, a larger goal, can feel more satisfying than just whiling away the time. Maybe it’s time to take apart your bike, clean it, and prep it for adventures to come. Or learn Spanish like you’ve always wanted to. Or memorize campfire songs on the ukulele. With respect to roommates, of course.
Working from home removes some of the healthy boundaries we have between work and life, so it can help to build some back in. Otherwise it’s easy to get the Sunday Scaries every single day.
I use a super basic technique my therapist shared with me: take a little time on Sunday (or whenever) to write down all the things you need and want to accomplish during the week. Then take the time to literally block out the time when you’ll do each task — even the “wants” like strumming the guitar, going for a bike ride, or painting your nails. Even if you don’t follow your calendar to a T, seeing it all laid out shows that it can all get done. This helps ease my anxiety every time I do it.
At McMurdo Station, you can’t just jaunt off on a hike or bike ride. Crevasses and treacherous sea ice surround the settlement in all directions. Off-station travel is limited to only a few flagged hiking routes. And let me tell you, those routes get traffic. Because moving in the fresh air helps. It helps just about everything. So even if you’re just beating a path around your block, lean into it. When Brendan and I lived in the van together, we’d occasionally take off on solo runs or bike rides simply for the alone time, and it was crucial.
If you can’t get outdoors, embrace indoor movement. I certainly made friends with the treadmill and indoor bouldering room during my time at McMurdo. But you actually don’t need fancy equipment to get a good sweat. It might take some creativity, but it’s worth it. Follow your own style, and look on social media for inspiration from what others are doing, whether it’s a push-up contest or a long-distance dance-off.
Speaking of dance-offs, one of the most powerful tools for my sanity in Antarctica — and, now, working from home — has been a good pair of headphones. At McMurdo, we all had roommates, but mine worked nights, so I couldn’t go back to our tiny room after work without waking her up. That meant I spent almost all my free time in common spaces like dorm lounges, the station coffee shop and bars, and the gym. It was enough to make this introvert nearly lose her marbles. But wearing headphones created just enough of a sense of privacy to keep me this side of insanity.
Isolated at home, it’s easy to mistake social media scrolling for actual human interaction. And the constant stream of messaging about the virus and the economy certainly makes my blood pressure rise, so I’m taking to heart a lesson I learned from Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism: Social media interactions with people are actually very poor quality communications. Likes, shares, and comments come and go so fleetingly, they can leave us feeling empty and alone instead of hopeful and supported. It’s not that technology is evil, we just don’t use it well.
To fight anxiety and actually build real connections, shut down the scrolling apps and connect directly with people you care about. Text, email, or call your friends and family. Ask how they’re doing. Give them your undivided attention. As we’re all separated physically, that’s one of the most valuable things we can give each other, and it pays dividends.