illustration of person wearing headphones surrounded by arguing parents and barking dog
Illustration by Hunter French
health mind

How to Get Through Isolation With Your Family When They Are a Bit Much

This might not be the crisis team you would have picked, but it's the one you've got.
04 May 2020, 6:41am

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Remember in the before-times, when we were just trying to "survive" holiday visits with difficult families?

Hello again, it's time to talk about when survival (no air quotes) means staying with that same family, in close quarters, for an indefinite amount of time during a global pandemic. Your family might not be the crisis team you would have picked, but it's the one you've got, so it's time to look for ways to care for yourself and ways to be good to the people around you while you ride this out together.

Think about why, specifically, you’re doing this.

Given that holiday visits are a family relations touchstone for many of us, there are a lot of coping mechanisms and strategies that can be brought over to fairly sudden, longer-term situations, like isolation or quarantine.

One of the recommendations for staying positive at the holidays was to really think about the reason for your visit. Who did you want to see, why was it important to you to show up, and could you conjure those things when the going got tough? That still very much applies. There's a reason that you're here, with your family; what is that reason?

The obvious answer is that we’re all trying to not get sick and die and trying to help our communities and neighbors avoid getting sick and dying. A+, excellent reason!

If you're there because you're needed as a caregiver for relatives, give yourself credit for doing a good and kind thing.

If you're there because you needed a place to go after a job loss, because your college or university shut down, or because you decided it was better than being alone in your apartment, yes, you're probably lucky that you have someplace to go where people will welcome you, but you don't have to feel lucky about it all the time. It's OK to grieve for what you lost and to not be happy about your current circumstances every moment of every day.

Think of survival as a shared project built on kindness and care.

Since the coronavirus began spreading in the U.S., I have been asking myself, What do I want to do and who do I want to be during this chaotic and scary time? The answer that keeps coming up is: I want to be kind and good, whatever that means.

Since early March, I cycle between being terribly anxious about the future (thanks, anxiety!); terribly frightened about being in a high-risk category (thanks, asthma!); worried for my loved ones who work in hospitals and in the jobs that keep us fed and safe; incandescently angry at the daily parade of political incompetence; and grieving the loss of so many lives while knowing there is more to come. No matter how low I feel, that question doesn’t go away: Even though I feel terrible, can I try to make my actions kind and good?

Social distancing is itself an act of service and care; you're doing what you can to slow the spread of the virus in your community and mitigate the load on health care systems and caregivers. Being kind and good to the people in your immediate household and social circles can mean not nit-picking or poking people’s sore spots, de-escalating arguments and cutting everyone (including yourself) a lot of slack, pitching in around the house, and thinking before you speak. "I really, really wish I could be at school, but thank you for putting me up for a while" is a kind thing to tell your relatives even when the gratitude supply feels as picked over as the paper towels at the supermarket.

You can lead with kindness even if it feels like your pandemic co-passengers are not returning the favor. Sometimes treating people as you want to be treated gives them a model and a map for what to do when they’re feeling at a loss. If it doesn’t, hopefully you can at least know that you tried your best not to make it worse.

If you are feeling stuck for what to do and how to behave, "How can I be good to myself?" and "How can I be a good friend and housemate right now?" are two questions that can lead you to "the next right thing."

When in doubt, use “guest manners” and “housemate effort.”

It can be surprisingly awkward to return to a place that used to be home but isn't anymore—a persistent feeling of displacement that comes from being not quite a guest and not quite at home that’s made worse when the usual couple of days stretches out indefinitely.

If you were strictly a guest in this house, with people you didn't know well, you'd probably say a lot of "please" and "thank you." You'd knock on doors and wait for an answer before opening them, and get permission to use or touch things that aren't yours. If you saw one of your hosts doing a household chore, you'd ask how you could help. If your hosts wanted to do or eat something you don't like, you wouldn't roll your eyes at what they wanted to do or tell them it sucks; you'd just politely decline. You'd probably do your best to be pretty self-amusing and self-sufficient and give them a lot of space and privacy and hope they'd be good hosts and do the same. And if you needed something you wouldn't assume that your hosts already knew what that was, so you'd tell them. Yes? Right?

Meanwhile, if this were still your home, you'd know that those dishes in the dishwasher are your dishes, the garbage overflowing in the bathroom trash can is your garbage, that there is no dish sprite or garbage fairy to take care of them for you. Since you’re going to be here for a while, it's time to contribute to making the shared living space comfortable. Good places to start: returning the bathroom to factory settings after you use it, handling all garbage and recycling, and keeping on top of mail, laundry, and dishes (i.e., anything that tends to pile up if neglected, and where having an extra person around makes more of it).

If household chores were a source of conflict when you were younger or you get the sense that your current approach to chores differs from your family’s, a reset question might be, "__Is there a certain way you like this done? Can you show me? Even if you think I know? It's been a long time and I want to get it right."

This is both a logistical and an emotional question. Some families have a culture of "We love each other, so it's OK to skip politeness when we're together, that's stuff we dress up in for outsiders, we should be able to talk about anything because we're family!" That kind of informality can feel incredibly warm and relaxing, and it works great… until it doesn't. My strong opinion is that politeness may not be strictly necessary but it rarely makes things worse, so why not try it?

The dishes don't care about anybody's feelings and that's good news, actually. "What do we need to do to get through today and how can I help?" is a question that needs answering whether or not everyone likes each other. Noticing and appreciating the work the people around you do to make your life easier, and finding ways you can make life easier for the people you live with is a way to be kind even if you don't feel particularly connected.

Take control of your daily routines and needs.

You’re not alone if time is moving weirdly for you right now or if you’re struggling to rebuild your daily life or hold onto healthy habits when the things that gave you structure and independence—work, school, friends, your own living space—are suddenly gone.

If you were all alone right now in your own space, what would you need to be OK? How would you want to spend your days? There's a great guide to thinking through this here, and I suggest using it even if you're holed up with family. You are the one person you can control, and when life feels chaotic, it's worthwhile to return to basic principles like "What, specifically, do I need?" and "What can I do about it?"

One place to start is making a routine for yourself. Your household is going to have its own rhythms and rituals around mealtimes, togetherness, and quiet time, and part of thinking like a guest is adapting to those somewhat so you’re not disturbing other people’s sleep. Within that structure you get to decide when you wake up, when you go to sleep, when and how you want to exercise, and when is the best time for you to be social with your family or talk to faraway friends. Open up that calendar or scheduling app—the one that’s looking all sad and empty now (or sad and full of ghost events you can’t do)—and build yourself a new schedule.

Take responsibility for feeding yourself.

Does food have a good chance of bringing out every single control issue and territorial dispute your family has ever had? Probably yes. Do you want to convince them to see things your way or do you want to eat? Probably, you want to eat. If you eat stuff that's different from what your family likes to eat and it’s causing problems, I recommend three strategies:

  1. Take responsibility for preparing your own meals wherever possible (vs. expecting someone to prepare a separate meal for you) and offer to cook for others if they'll let you. "Cooking for myself is one of the things that really soothes me, and I promise I'll leave the kitchen spotless."
  1. Make sure there is some shelf-stable, easy-to-eat stuff in the house (or in your room, away from others who might help themselves) so you can have a no-fuss alternative. Offer to make a grocery list, chip in for your almond milk, or even be the family’s designated shopper from time-to-time. “ "Let's get some [shelf-stable things I can always definitely eat], that way if you're making something I can't eat you can just enjoy it and I'll be fine."
  1. If your dietary needs and preferences are a source of family conflict, simply embrace the "picky eater" label for the time being.

Yes, I know you're technically a gluten-free vegan with occasional pescatarian "cheat" days and a serious mushroom allergy, and you've made this clear to your family many, many times, but some parents will never really "get" food allergies or changes in taste that occurred after you turned 8.

However, they likely remember when certain foods caused tiny–you to react in ways that are still referred to as "The Egg Salad Incident." If you have to use that memory to get your needs met? Do it. "Yes, you're right, I am a regular 'princess and the pea' here, thanks for getting me X and leaving out Y!"

If the idea of constant forced togetherness with no end in sight is stressing you out, make sure your routine includes regular bouts of solo time.

Hopefully you are staying in a room with a door you can shut and own a decent pair of headphones. If not, is there anything to be done about that? We're going to be in this for the long haul, so it might make sense to rearrange furniture so it’s more comfortable for you, or take over the part of the basement no one cares about.

The usual advice about getting out of the house for long periods isn't as useful without movie theaters and libraries, but is it possible to take long (mask-on, socially-distanced) walks, volunteer to be the grocery shopper and errand runner for household necessities, or do every single piece of yard-work or outside chore (if your household nemesis is an inside person) or vice versa?

If you grew up in a contentious household or one where your parents really leaned into supervising you, you probably already do a whole bunch of Being Slightly Elsewhere Even When You Can't Leave instinctively.

But even if you have a pretty harmonious relationship, it's good to take space for yourself and give your hosts theirs. Your folks may be delighted to have you with them and still feel just as weird as you do about the loss of privacy. Telling the people you live with "I'm going for a walk, be back in about an hour" and then effing off for at least 60 minutes gives them a chance to watch their guilty-pleasure show or get to work on that quarantine baby brother or sister you never knew you wanted.

Some ways to politely and gently put some social distancing into your social distancing, if you know what I mean (and I think you do):

  • Is a family argument brewing in the kitchen? Are your parents turning on the show they love and you hate? Sounds like the perfect time for a spontaneous luxurious bath or a catch-up call with a faraway friend. No need to ask permission or call attention to it—just grab your towel and go.
  • If quarters are cramped, can you take your phone and sit in the family car for private conversations? If you’re worried about this inviting too many nosy questions, vagueness can be your friend; "Oh, I'm catching up with a friend who needs to talk about some personal stuff so I'm going to head out back and give everybody some privacy" can cover everything from your weekly video therapy appointments to texting your crush without someone looking over your shoulder.
  • Do you need to do work, look for work, study, or keep up with online coursework? Would saying that you are doing these things buy you some daily uninterrupted door-closed headphones time? Would actually doing at least some of those things for a little while each day give you a way to answer "So…how was your day" conversations at dinner? Then your path is clear.
  • You may not be going to sleep at 9:00 p.m. every night, but saying "good night" and going to your room "to read" at that time every day is a way of clocking out of family fun or the distinct lack of fun. Tomorrow is another day.
  • I can't do morning chitchat, so on visits home the time I actually wake up vs. the time I am visibly downstairs and awake is carefully timed to when nobody else is likely to be eating breakfast. I had planned to take that one to the grave, but for you, I will reveal all.

Make a point to stay in touch with people outside of the house.

First, hang on tight to your favorite people and trusted, safe support networks. Use every tool you've got: Zoom, phone calls, letters, carrier pigeons if that's your thing, skywriting if you've got the cash, online communities, social media, virtual date nights, whatever it takes. You need a place you can relax, be yourself, and feel your feelings—even if that place is the Internet—and your friends need the same.

Lots of mental health providers are offering telemedicine and secure video therapy; it’s worth checking with your existing providers to see if you can maintain your care, or seeing if your health plan can connect you with someone new. Many addiction support and recovery groups have taken operations online; there’s a good rundown here that might help you get started.

Need to hang out somewhere you can be sure people will use your correct pronouns and be supportive of your identity and/or sexuality? The Trevor Project and Trans Lifeline offer crisis support; Scarleteen has moderated, friendly forums for teens and young adults; and here is a guide to local and regional LGBTQ* centers, many of which host virtual support groups and social hangouts. LoveIsRespect.org runs a free domestic violence hotline and can connect people in unsafe home situations with local organizations. Even if you must shelter-in-place for now, they can often help you work on a safety plan for de-escalating conflicts and planning for when you can safely leave.

Have a plan for socializing with your family.

You've got to come out of your room eventually, even if your family stresses you out. I can't tell you that this pandemic and forced togetherness are going to smooth out the rough spots or bring you all closer together, but there are a few things you can try that might help you have more positive interactions.

If there’s a bunch of stuff you don't want to talk about (or listen to other people talk about), what do you want to discuss instead? Think of a few safe, neutral topics for each person you're living with. Good options to consider: :

  • One piece of media, interest, or hobby that you have in common. There has to be something. If there's nothing? I guess you have a new quarantine hobby now; the Civil War Chess Set is yours to keep and enjoy.
  • Memories and old family stories. "Who's in these old photos?" "What were you like when you were my age?" “Are my baby albums around? I wanted to scan some of the pictures while I’m here.” If you’re with in-laws: "What was spouse/partner like when they were small?" "Did you or your parents ever have to quarantine or stay home for a long period of time like this when you were a kid?"
  • Topics the other person is an expert in and you are not. "Can you teach me how to hem my pants?" "Will you show me how to make that old family recipe?" People like to feel like experts and like they have something to share.

Having these topics in mind doesn't mean that you will never have uncomfortable conversations or talk about upsetting things, and you can't ever control whether someone will be mean or abusive (nor should you take that on as a project right now).

But when you desperately need a subject change, having something to change the subject to can be a way of throwing yourself and everyone in the conversation a lifeline. And just because your relatives are older than you, they might not be any better at feelings or social skills than you are. Taking the lead and saying, "Hey can we watch that documentary you were talking about" or "Our old Scrabble score sheet is still in the game box, is it time for a rematch?" or “I keep hearing about the You’re Wrong About podcast, I’m going to put it on now if that’s cool” can be a gift you give everyone.

Sometimes the kindest thing we can do for ourselves and someone we have a difficult relationship with is to treat each day like a fresh start, where we definitely haven't forgotten the past bad things, but we're giving everybody an opportunity to not repeat that, starting now. If they don't grab your lifelines, they don't; give yourself a gold star for effort and try again another day. If they do? Maybe you get one tiny good memory to push the bad ones down... or at least a brief shining respite from doom-scrolling through your news source of choice followed by a thorough, competitive, all-hands recounting of your failures, past and present.

Remember that this isn’t forever and let yourself envision the future.

I don’t know what the world will be like when all of this is over, but I’m making a list of all the things I will do when the danger lifts: GET AN EXCELLENT HAIRCUT. MAKE OUT WITH EACH INDIVIDUAL APPLE AND EACH INDIVIDUAL FARMER AT THE FARMER’S MARKET. ATTEND SUMMER STREET FESTIVALS THAT I USED TO AVOID GOING TO. SOB INTO THE SHOULDER-NECK REGION OF EACH AND EVERY ONE OF MY FRIENDS AND TELL THEM I LOVE THEM.

Ahem. What I mean to say is, the last time you lived here, you probably had lots of plans for all the things you’d do someday when you moved out, and I can think of worse ways to spend this time than daydreaming about the world you want to live in.

If daydreams are too hard and you’re really in survival mode, consider that you are the world’s greatest living expert on surviving life in this exact house with these exact people. You’ve done the hard thing already, which is a pretty good sign that you can do it again.

Get more of Jennifer Peepas on her advice blog, Captain Awkward, and follow her on Twitter.