I first read about the coronavirus on Christmas day here in Corvallis, Oregon. It was barely a byline on CNN that day, but I had an intuition it would soon be “above the fold,” so to speak.
I began following the progress of the situation in China on a daily basis, partly because intuition told me this was likely the pandemic I’d been anticipating since seeing Outbreak in 1995.
I, like many other autists, seem to get cues from movies I watch. Decades of disaster movies have caused me to create dozens of fairly elaborate plans for when a disaster actually hits, and pandemics fall into this category.
I’ve been waiting for years for this to come— whilst in undergrad in the early 2000s, my ears perked up at the SARS and avian flu epidemics, but they were quashed early on. This new one I read about on Christmas morning seemed to be moving faster and more uncontrolled, like a wildfire at the end of summer in Montana, except Montana was a city/province in China, and the wildfire was a severe respiratory illness with a high mortality rate.
By the middle of February, when our president was telling tales about how it was barely going to affect us, I was already saying to my wife we were going to need to get ready to hunker down. I’d also seen the movie Contagion last fall and knew where we were headed.
By the final weekend of February, we went to Costco on a panic buy.
No one was there.
The horde descended two weeks later. I stopped leaving my home on March 1 and, with the exception of a few long and isolated drives and regular walks around my neighborhood, I have not left our red house on the corner for any reason.
The first three weeks went well. I have no problem being isolated from other people. Like many autists, I prefer the solitude. I have everything I need for entertainment and work in my home. My wife has been working from home since 2018, so we’re quite used to this dynamic.
In those first weeks, I felt confident: I was writing new music, I had plans to complete a couple new albums, I was working on my prose. I was watching TV and movies and not being bored. These are superficial results of the work I was doing with my autism.
I was filling out my routine sheets every night for the following day. This way I knew what to expect in my own little world, even if the outside world was wholly unpredictable. I was waking at my normal time, six a.m., and going to bed at my normal time, ten p.m.
Each morning, I meditated for 20 minutes and repeated this before going to bed at night. I wrote in my journal each day, kept up with my hygiene and all other necessary daily tasks. The house remained tidy all over.
I changed my clothes each day, even if I was changing from one pair of drawstring pants to another– I’m a huge fan of drawstring pants, anyway, so I have a good stock. My meltdowns were in check, and I had a generally positive outlook on the whole quarantine situation.
I saw it coming. I was mentally prepared for it. We were three weeks ahead of everyone else and didn’t get caught up in the panic buys that happened in the final three weekends of March. We felt like we had a handle on this thing, and we did.
For about two weeks.
Then the cracks began to show.
My sleep was the first to go. I have struggled with insomnia since I was a baby, so I’m no stranger to its murky depths, but I have to admit, I’ve been shocked at its irregularity and persistence in the face of sleeping medication (sometimes delivered in copious amounts).
After the sleep went my commitment to my physical health. I had dropped fifteen pounds since the beginning of the year, a goal I felt quite good about, and it was all back due to stress eating and ordering comfort foods from Door Dash on the regular.
My hygiene first started to slip, then eventually went into a free-fall. All creative steam I had built up was vented, leaving me with no ambition to create for the first time in a long time. I began living on the knife’s edge of meltdown.
I’m still there. Things haven’t changed much. I’m no longer doing the things that helped me in the beginning, and it obviously shows. My routine sheet displays a date in early-April, not today’s.
After a thirty-day streak of meditation, it has been relegated to something I do here and there, when I think about it or feel like I have time (all I have is time right now, by the way). I go into my studio, set up my mics and console, and then I have a meltdown because one small thing goes wrong. It doesn’t take much to tip me over the edge.
Because of these rapid escalations and hair-trigger meltdowns, I have taken to spending entire days at a time in bed. I keep everything I need in there with me, and I trade watching movies or playing Animal Crossing with long, cannabis-induced naps.
Last week I didn’t change any of my clothes for 3 days straight. I have been trying to stick to a regular live-streaming schedule, but this week I had to cancel that as well. I have no steam. No gas left. I’m on empty the moment I awaken.
Not to mention, I’m barred from quite a few of my wellness routines: all the state and national parks, beaches, campgrounds, and national forest trails are closed here in Oregon. Even if they were open, it would take a lot for me to feel confident being around people on a regular basis.
I don’t know when I’ll feel safe enough to begin playing gigs again… probably not until a vaccine is developed. I have three high risk factors for COVID, and I’m not messing around.
However, there is wisdom in the adage, “A glass must be emptied before it can be filled,” and I know exactly how to fill my glass: by doing all of those things I was doing in the first few weeks of the shutdown.
Meditation, journaling, daily routine sheets, eating according to my best diet, doing my best to sleep regularly, walking each day, delegating certain days to be “TV-free” (does not include Animal Crossing or FaceTime). Take showers, brush my teeth, change my clothes. Tidy up around the house, spend time in the backyard, get out of bed more often.
As I write this, I am on the cusp of May, the two-month marker from when I began quarantining myself. I’m left thinking about how I want the summer to go. Do I want to be wallowing in the mire of my depression and inaction? Do I want to be stuck in a routine where I’m unable to fulfill any of my basic needs?
I may not be able to live the summer I want. Oregon summers are a national treasure and the whole reason we moved up here, but I think it’s important to think about the summer I can have: a summer of reasonable expectations.
There are still trails I can hike in solitude. There are still dispersed camping areas without another soul around. There is still life to be lived. As Thich Nhat Hahn says, “Happiness is available.” In the month of May, I’m going to try and train my eye to find it.