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  • Writer's pictureErika Nichols-Frazer

The New Normal: Finding Routines Amidst Chaos

Coffee Pot #2 of the Day

For people who struggle with mental illness, routines are essential. Having familiar steps can help you organize your thoughts, reduce your anxiety, and lift yourself out of depression to brush your teeth or go to work. They give us structure when our emotions feel out of control. There are days when going through the motions is all we can do, and it's comforting to have those motions, those familiar things that guide your day. Now, in this strange new world, we've lost those routines and have been thrust into an entirely unpredictable world. We're at a standstill: can't make plans, can't move forward. Things that are part of our normal lives are gone: going to the gym, getting your coffee and bagel, going to work, stopping at the store on our way home. I can't start out my week with a soccer game and end it with a hockey game. I can't grab drinks and catch up with my best friends, can't visit my grandmother, all the things I cling to for a sense of normalcy when things get hard.

I was discussing with my therapist this week (over Zoom, of course) how we've lost our transitional time. I'm used to having an hour drive to her office to reflect on what's going on with me and what I want to talk about, then an hour on the way home to decompress, think, maybe cry a little bit (maybe a lot). Now I just open the guest bedroom door and I'm back home with my husband immediately. That space for reflection is gone. There's no longer a 35-minute drive in which I listen to music, wake up, get ready for the day, or to unwind and leave the day behind. Now we're just here. All. The. Time.

It can be hard to distinguish the days when a Monday doesn't look much different than a Saturday, except that on weekends we maybe let ourselves off the hook of having to work as much (maybe) and enjoy ourselves a little more, watch movies instead of making phone calls or whatever. Gradually, we've developed new routines for these uncertain days.

As usual, I get up later than my husband, opting for the extra time to sleep in a little more. I usually do some yoga and/or toning exercises when I get up. By the time I shower (which happens most days, at least), my husband has made and drank most of the first pot of coffee. I finish it off while I check my email, then make another pot while I do a crossword puzzle. If it's Tuesday-Thursday, when I work at the Children's Literacy Foundation (CLiF), I spend the morning in my loft office working on CLiF stuff - blog posts and grant applications and articles - and drinking the rest of the coffee. Dylan plays MSNBC and usually a few news podcasts that I can hear from the loft. I'm pretty good at tuning stuff out when I want to, though. We both make breakfast mid-morning, usually a bagel or a handful of Peanut Butter Puffins for me, an egg sandwich or bacon for him. Someone checks to make sure the chickens have food and water, collect eggs, let them out if we've remembered to close up the coop the night before, which doesn't seem to be happening much.

We both work some more, he takes a break at some point to play Assassin's Creed: Odyssey for a while, which I can hear from the loft, the grunts of the characters and clash of their swords. He works downstairs, has commandeered the kitchen table with his monitor, and goes into our room when he takes calls. We have lunch between noon and one, usually leftovers from the night before - I've been cooking a lot. In the afternoon, I transition to working for New Degree Press, my other job. I read and edit students' work and have Zoom meetings with several of them (I'm supposed to meet with all 15 every week, but, I don't know if it's the virus or what, but most of them have been slacking off). I go into the guest bedroom upstairs to take my meetings. If I don't let my dog Nala in before I close the door, she'll be whining at it two minutes later, as soon as I've gotten on a call. The cat often comes in, too, so it's usually the three of us on our guest bed with the computer in my lap. Sometimes one of them makes an appearance for whomever I'm talking with. After meetings I go downstairs for a snack and we discuss whether we feel like taking a walk with the dogs together (he usually takes a little convincing, demures that he has a lot of work to do, then agrees). There always seems to be other people walking down the road at the same time. We do our best to avoid them. Even passing from the other side of the road feels too close.

When we get back, we both do some more work and eventually open a beer. Maybe I transition to working on my own writing and editing. Or I read a little and obsessively check social media while he plays more Assassin's Creed. Maybe we play a game of Scrabble. He usually beats me (though I walloped him last week and haven't forgotten it). He watches Chopped while I make dinner. Then we eat it while watching a few episodes of Newsroom, which we're re-watching (how did I forget how good it was?). We're in bed by 9:30-10:00. Maybe I read a little but mostly I just fall asleep immediately. This all is exhausting.

Then we get up and do it again. There's comfort in this structure, the steps, the familiarity found in a strange new world.

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