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An illustration of a woman with curly hair sitting on a blue sofa. An open laptop and mug are on a coffee table and there is a window with a view of greenery behind her. Alyssa Nassner

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What I learned from living a socially isolated life for the past two years

“It will get easier after you adjust,” says Amanda Chicago Lewis

After receiving a traumatic brain injury from a car crash two years ago, the Los Angeles-based journalist Amanda Chicago Lewis has lived in social isolation. Because of stay-at-home orders to reduce the spread of COVID-19, more people are now living in similar circumstances. Below, Lewis shares how she’s adapted her apartment, her routine, and her habits to cope with being at home for extended periods of time.

This as-told-to has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I was in a car crash in May 2018. I sustained a traumatic brain injury as well as injuries to my neck and back. My life did change overnight from the crash, but I didn’t make the adjustments I needed to make immediately. My general instinct as a person is to forge ahead, so I did not immediately stop doing all of the things that were making my symptoms worse because I didn’t understand what was making it worse. And also I wasn’t thinking clearly.

A traumatic brain injury is different for everyone. The way it manifests for me is headaches, nausea, really bad insomnia, tinnitus, and emotional lability, which is basically like too-intense sadness or too-intense rage.

For those first few months after the crash, I would go to birthday parties and events hopeful that I could enjoy them, but would have to leave because I was in so much pain. It almost feels like operant conditioning. The conditioning of having physical pain every time you do something really discourages you in the long run from doing it.

Eventually, I figured out what my Kryptonite was. It’s noise, light, stress, and concentrating. I was hard pressed to find an aspect of my life that didn’t involve one of those four things. Being in a room or an enclosed outdoor space with more than five or six people makes me feel sick pretty quickly.

Three months after the crash, I quit all social media, all television, all music, all attempts at going to parties and restaurants. I was living a socially isolated life. I was spending enormous stretches of time at home by myself or going on long walks by myself, which are sort of the two things everyone is finding themselves dealing with because of coronavirus stay-at-home orders.

As I’ve been watching everyone else living in the way that I have been living for the past two years, what’s occurred to me is that the adjustment period is the hardest period. Now that I’ve sort of adjusted to a quieter life, and a smaller life, I developed this understanding that the initial phase where you take something away is really scary and really difficult. It gets better, though. Humans have this bananas ability to adjust. After I was forced to self-isolate because of my circumstances, I started intentionally, as a practice, trying to make myself as well as I could feel.

For the past five years, I’ve been living in Silver Lake in courtyard housing. Since the crash, I basically do two things now: I spend time at home and then I go on long walks in the neighborhood. My home is so much better than it used to be. I think that what you see in your space does affect how you feel.

Spending much more time in my home made me much more physically aware of all of the deficits that it had. I noticed things like, “Hey, why is this area so inefficient? Why does this area look so messy? Why do I have this duvet cover that isn’t very soft?”

Figuring out how to set up a space to make it cozy is not something that comes naturally to me at all. My best friend is an architectural historian and it does come quite naturally to him. I would tell him: “I look at my bookshelf and it just looks messy and chaotic. How do I make the bookshelf not look so crazy? Or what about this corner, it looks weird! I am not getting good vibes over here.” So he’s like: “Organize the books by color and size.” He pointed out stuff like storing things in drawers or in boxes so you don’t see all the stuff, which is a lot easier on the eyes.

I prioritized soft linens, a better duvet cover, and better towels. I took things off the walls. Anything that was being stored in a way it was visible, I put into some kind of more contained thing. I got really into the Container Store. I reorganized and maximized space in my pantry and bathroom.

After the crash, I started making my bed everyday, which involves so little effort—just covering the bed with the comforter so it’s not mussed up. That really small visual difference can affect how stressful and chaotic your space feels. I’ve also become much more committed to doing the dishes. The dishes are less likely to stack up now because I am less busy and less all over the place, but also because doing the dishes is a non-stressful activity to my brain. So standing there and doing the dishes feels good.

These are things that sound almost dumb in retrospect. But after I started making the changes, I started physically feeling how much easier it was to exist in a space that was more calming and better organized. It made a huge difference in my time at home.

If you’re not going to leave the house very much, it’s important to have a routine. It keeps you sane. It gives you structure. It makes you feel like you know what you are doing. The routine I have now is I make coffee, I stretch, I meditate, and then I consult the I Ching every day, which is part of my spiritual practice.

The advice to develop a routine can feel really intense and overwhelming for people who are confronting huge amounts of change and stress. I advise friends to think about a routine and structure, but also to give themselves a lot of space to develop and adapt it. You’re not going to be like: “I am going to write my routine on a piece of paper and tomorrow I am going to do the whole routine perfectly and that’s going to be my whole routine for the whole time we’re isolating.” That’s just not going to happen. Everyone’s routine needs to be very personalized to their needs.

How I fill my time at home has changed. I went through a pretty serious coloring phase. I would spend like four hours coloring a single page. But like, it’s really not that engaging. You’re like, “This is fun! I did a lot of coloring!” But at the end of the day, I am not a visual artist. The really big hobby I picked up that I never had before was I got really into art books and coffee table books from the library—libraries are closed now, so I’m not sure how helpful this piece of advice is—and looking at the images. But compared to scrolling through Instagram, it’s so much more enjoyable. I enjoyed cooking before the crash and I do it more since it’s not a new skill that’s stressful on my brain. It’s a really great way to spend time on a wonderful sort of sensory joy.

It’s hard for me to separate social isolation from my brain also being a little messed up. I miss my old life because it was really fun. I am in touch with significantly fewer people than I was two years ago. I am not able to follow up with people in the ways that I might be able to normally. I still feel really bad about friends I haven’t spoken to in a really long time.

However, the best thing about social isolation is that it forces you to become more present. And I think emotional health comes from presence. If you aren’t distracting yourself with substances or people or parties or TV or social media or whatever shit all the time, it’s much easier to be clearer with yourself about how you physically feel, how you emotionally feel, what you actually need, what you actually want. And a lot of people don’t want to confront stuff like that. It’s really hard.