The calm ones amid the COVID-19 storm | Feature | Chicago Reader

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The calm ones amid the COVID-19 storm

For some, the self-isolation and shutdowns have been a welcome change of pace.

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"“The best thing to do under stress is to take a deep breath. It's going to work out one way or the other." - BEN WHITE / UNSPLASH
  • Ben White / Unsplash
  • "“The best thing to do under stress is to take a deep breath. It's going to work out one way or the other."

Not everyone has found the social restrictions of shutdown unwelcome amid the pandemic. Some have prepared materially with survival gear compiled for months or even years. Others are easing into a much-needed break from a compulsory social calendar, giving themselves permission to turn inward toward their own quiet reserves for emotional refueling. Some have thrived in their newfound isolation, including those who have been through harsher times in more challenging environments, such as a war or a major loss, and have savored this time to embrace solitude without stigma.

Chicago clinical psychologist Ella Yung, who specializes in trauma, grief, and loss, says some trauma survivors would be expected to feel OK or even in their element amid the pandemic. Although experiencing loss is not the same as surviving war or a disaster, the biological and psychological responses are similar, involving similar brain processing mechanisms. For those who have not experienced a trauma or sudden life change, the pandemic may be very dysregulating, “but for some who have already gone through something like this, they know what to do and their body is already prepared,” Yung says. A person who has experienced trauma is better able to detach from an initial shock by recognizing the threat earlier than others and use their energy to prepare for survival. 

Elaine Misonzhnik

Eight-year-old Elaine Misonzhnik was living in Kiev when the Chernobyl disaster hit. Now 41, she carries a calm disposition about the virus, even while living in Brooklyn, one of the hardest-hit geographies.

Both of her parents passed away in the last decade from the same rare form of brain cancer attributed to radiation exposure. Misonzhnik finds comfort in being prepared for things to get worse, while she believes the American mindset is more along the lines of everything is going to be fine. In a similar fashion to current quarantines, she was forbidden to go outside and stayed in with all the windows closed after Chernobyl. Soon after the accident, she moved to Odessa to stay with her uncle’s friends, who kindly took her in while the government coerced many to remain, insisting that the radiation levels were not dangerous. Meanwhile her parents continued working in Kiev, unaware of the extent of the contamination, not knowing if the water was safe for drinking. 

“We didn't know when we would come back, or at a certain point, if we would come back. So it kind of prepares you for another stressor like that because you're like, ‘OK, I've kind of already been through that, and I can get through it again,’” Misonzhnik says. By age nine, she became fascinated with the Black Death when reading a series of historical novels set in the 14th century. As a young girl, she envisioned the plague resulting in the breakdown of western Europe. “Because I was a little at the time, it made a huge impression on me. Ever since then, I was terrified of another pandemic,” she says. In recent years, Misonzhnik remained attuned to the strong possibility of another pandemic and was vigilant about avoiding touching public surfaces, such as subway polls and stirrups. Part of her protective regimen involved washing her hands and showering “however many times a day, before the virus even hit.” 

Overall, Misonzhnik has found the virus to be less threatening than Chernobyl. “Back then, you basically didn't know if you would survive or your city would be blown up. During the pandemic, you might get a virus that has—depending on your age and health level—a mortality rate around four percent, and that's a lot more manageable than a nuclear explosion.” She is more concerned about long-term effects on the U.S. financial landscape. 

“I'm anxious that the virus is going to completely destroy the U.S. economy and that I'm going to be back in a version of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.”

Erich Eicher

After 47-year-old Erich Eicher concluded his 27-year stint in the military, he began meandering around the west coast alone, in a trailer with an abundance of survival supplies. After five cumulative years in the Middle East and experiencing difficult combat scenarios, Eicher is also not surprised about the pandemic. He travels between secluded campsites with his ex-wife’s dog for the time being.

“Whether it's the Spanish flu or the Black Plague or whatever it may have been, it's already occurred within our species about every 100 years,” he says. “I knew something was going to happen.” Although he claims to be physically prepared for survival, he finds social isolation emotionally challenging. “I'd like to be able to go out and socialize with people, but if I had to, I would be able to survive until somebody bigger, stronger, with more weapons came along and took all my supplies and killed me.” With decades of experience as a chief warrant officer in special forces who served in IT, he feels very prepared for the current climate. Eicher chooses a crossbow over a gun, and he has enough arrows in his quiver to hunt for food. He touts skills such as making his own shoes, a fish basket, arrows, and string, and keeps enough dried food that won’t expire for 25 years. He carries supplies for desalinating water.

Because he’s easily able to avoid large gatherings due to the pandemic and his lifestyle, his anxiety is fairly low. “Anybody that was in the military that spent time in some type of combat arms will go into a place and are always looking for the exits and evaluating everything. You're always hypervigilant. Those things can be emotionally very taxing.”

Although loneliness can creep up on him, the isolation can bring relief from PTSD symptoms that may arise when Eicher is in large group settings. Since his time in the military, he’s been working on being less reactive and living a healthier lifestyle. He’s quit smoking, has limited drinking, and generally is focused on slowing down. “The best thing to do under stress is to take a deep breath. It's going to work out one way or the other. Way too many veterans have committed suicide because they don't think that there's any other way out. And there's many ways out,” he says, pointing to Serbian-American inventor and philosopher Nikola Tesla’s assertion that the universe is based on frequency vibration and energy.

“When someone says, ‘I really like your vibe,’ they're talking about your vibration. We need to calm our brains down. Yeah, we need to stop.” 

Erika Snell

Erika Snell, 40-year-old creative director living in Chicago, lost her mother in December, and has found that working at home is comforting during her grief. Erika’s mother, Judy, a philanthropist and Erika’s best friend, passed away from lung cancer. Judy volunteered for the Rotary Club and Meals on Wheels until the end of her life. Isolating at home creates a sense of peace for Erika, since coronavirus and lung cancer both result in respiratory failure. 

“I started reading more about how COVID actually works, and it’s frighteningly similar to how my mom passed away. So it’s been nice not having to go outside as much.” Soon after the death of her mother, Erika was put on a new team of employees at her job, and the company moved offices. She recalls that so many things in her life changed too quickly and felt out of her control. Now that she’s able to work from home, and with her commute eliminated, she has more time for morning runs with her dog that she describes as a bonding experience. 

“I was kind of concerned because I'm used to being around people, and I guess distractions or ways of being therapeutic for myself,” Snell says. But now she makes her own routines versus being on someone else’s schedule. Snell has been cooking more complicated meals and picking up new hobbies such as design and watercolors and attending remote spiritual yoga groups. She’s been getting to know more online communities in general, such as groups of out-of-work chefs and restaurant employees on Facebook, and is beginning to enjoy taking care of herself.

“I like my new pace, and it's weird because it’s almost like I’m meeting new people, but from my house,” she says. “I used to over commit myself to too many things sometimes. And now I just have that really easy excuse where everyone knows you can't.”  v

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