“I hope you are taking good care during these stressful and uncertain times.”
We’ve all likely received many emails containing this phrase in the past year. What does it mean to take good care and maintain wellbeing in general? During a pandemic? During a prolonged period of civil unrest?
We began interviewing for the Tobacco Harm Reduction study two months after San Francisco’s shelter-in-place order took effect in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. One year later, with the pandemic ongoing, interviews continue to take place, online, with LGBTQ+ young adults (18-25) who smoke or used to smoke cigarettes. Each participant provides a window into their unique pandemic experience, and I became deeply interested in hearing how people talked about their mental health and personal wellbeing during this time.
There is no doubt that the pandemic has presented a number of challenges to mental health. As a society, we’ve had to navigate varying degrees of loss and grief, unprecedented stress and uncertainty, economic decline and social isolation. Uncertainty is always hard to manage, and while ideally there would be a communal or collective way to manage pandemic stress, in our society the responsibility ultimately falls on the individual to be proactive, to focus on what’s in their control, to move their body and to prioritize the “self” in self-care.
Daily life during the pandemic looks different for everyone, and as participants described shifts in daily routines, rituals and priorities, I noticed that several participants discussed the value of having time for themselves that did not exist pre-pandemic. While some were struggling with newly unstructured time, many were also engaging in healing practices. For instance, Jade, a 23-year-old, queer Chicana cis woman, is a college student whose employment ended with the pandemic, but who had some money saved. Prior to the pandemic, Jade had a busy social life and would regularly get dressed up and go out dancing with friends to unwind. She described how the pandemic shifted things for her:
One of the major things that I do to let off steam and kind of socialize with my friends, is gone. […] I’ve been really ramping up my own mental health, healing journey. So, I started therapy about a year ago now. And so, just this week actually, I joined a support group for adult survivors of child abuse. And it’s my first time ever going to a support group. It was like a really big deal. So, I guess, kind of just like focusing more on my mental health and stuff, because I finally – you know, I can’t distract myself with other people.
This sentiment was echoed by several participants who had similarly focused their energy on other people, jobs, etc. instead of their own wellbeing. Vanessa, a 24 year-old demisexual African American cis woman, became unemployed during the pandemic when the restaurant she worked at closed for a long period of time. She owed back rent due to unemployment and was dealing with a lot of financial stress. But, she also described shelter in place as a mixed blessing in some ways, a chance to pause and prioritize herself:
I’m really introverted and know that I highly need so much alone time or downtime or whatever. And I just was kind of torturing myself, just not giving it to myself at all. I get a little bit of energy and pour it into something else or trying to be as productive as possible, but kind of just constantly running close to “E” and just doing a lot of stuff.
So, with the shelter in place, it literally forced me to like – I was so upset about it. But it forced me to calm down and slow down […] I started little art projects for myself and was getting up and cooking for myself every day. Because I had no money to order food. So, I was just like, cooking all the time and forgot how much I loved to do that. And I was like, baking whenever I felt like it […] And there were days where I was like, I’m not doing anything. I can’t. Or I felt like I couldn’t do anything, and I was able to grant myself the opportunity to do nothing.
In a world where self-care has become a multi-billion dollar industry geared more towards self improvement than “self preservation”, and pampering than surviving, I was curious how people were caring for themselves during this time. Stewart, a 20 year-old, queer, nonbinary white person who works while going to school full time, explained:
I take care of myself by making sure that I’m taking time for self-care. And I’m not just talking about like, skincare or treating myself to a nail session, but like, making sure that I’m being consistent with like, my hygiene routine, making sure that I’m eating consistently, making sure that I’m keeping track with my medications and everything, in addition to my school work and homework and things. And just maintaining the boundaries between work mode and relax mode, and just ensuring that one isn’t overcoming the other.
These narratives, from participants who have experienced marginalization based on sexual identity, gender, race and/or ethnicity, evoke Audre Lorde’s seminal writings on radical self-care during the time that she was battling cancer. Lorde emphasized everyday survival, and preserving herself in a hostile society.
Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.– Audre Lorde
For Zephyr Breeze, a 21 year old bigender, bisexual, Black visual artist, the pandemic has allowed them much needed time and space to be alone. During the interview, they reflected on how their tobacco use had been a tool to create barriers to separate and protect themselves from others — an escape. This need had diminished during the pandemic and they could care for themselves in different ways:
So, being able to be by myself, I have more time to meditate. I have more time to bird watch. Things have been getting better. And I have the time to notice how much I’m smoking and not feel the need to rush. So, I tend to stay outside near the ashtray more often, but I also find myself smoking less because I need less breaks […] So, yeah. I’m around people less, which means that I’m able to focus on myself more, just be able to relax and being able to medicate – meditate and rest. And that leads to me feeling the need to smoke less. Of course, it also kind of highlights the fact that I do smoke due to other people’s influences.
The pandemic has both blurred and created boundaries between our homes, work, and other responsibilities. Because the pandemic has fundamentally altered the rhythms of everyday life, an important question becomes how to maintain these practices, and continue to prioritize personal wellbeing when we as a society return to “normal”. What will happen when people are constrained by time and the need to be “on” again? How can people continue to carve out time for themselves particularly in the race to constantly “get ahead”? Vanessa shared that she had hoped to maintain these practices when she returned to work. She found herself “giving into the cycle again” but noted feeling a bit more balanced, knowing she can also grant herself days off to rest.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shed light on a pre-Covid world plagued by mental health issues and daily stressors. When we think about emerging from the pandemic, we’ll need to consider the mental health effects of the pandemic itself, as well as the issues that may arise as people return to operating at high levels of stress in under-resourced settings. This will require a shift from relying on individuals to modify their behaviors and prioritize their own self-care, to addressing the structures and systems that perpetuate harm.