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Illustration by Brittany England

Let it go on record that never has a phrase been so agonizingly unhelpful as “It gets better.”

It’s like being told “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel” without regard for how “the tunnel” was still in process of being dug. “It gets better” turns hope into decree: work hard and at the end of a painful day, you’ll (magically) enjoy the sun.

So instead, I offer: “Take it one day at a time.”

My friend Sam advised this while I struggled after a break up. And sometimes it was the only thing he’d say to me. It became a shortcut phrase for: stop digging and be gentle with yourself.

Being gentle, at the time, mostly meant sleeping for 12 hours a day. From 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. When I got a little stronger, I cleaned to hide reminders of the past, rearranged my apartment just enough, and then spent every hour after that outside. I would linger at work, the movies, beauty appointments, restaurants, therapy, and cafes. If I wasn’t at home, I couldn’t conjure ghosts.

And then the pandemic came.

In early March, for the sake of my grandma’s health, I began preparing for self-isolation. When the Bay Area announced shelter-in-place a few days later, I felt oddly panic-free. Now I just have to wait this out, I thought.

The first week my anxiety went haywire. It felt like part of my tunnel had collapsed and I wasn’t sure if I should keep digging forward or go back to clean up the mess. By the second week, sleep had eluded me to a point where I took a sleeping pill out of desperation. I woke up the next day with a migraine.

Comfort is a coping mechanism.

None of my comfort tricks worked; not just because they were unavailable to me but also because, when lives are risked for non-essential items, the idea of exorbitant skin care and indulgent meals didn’t soothe like it used to. Instead, they felt laborious. My brain was struggling to breathe.

Participating in late capitalism feels much more like trivial escapism than a coping mechanism when you read the harsh realities of people forced to choose between health or paycheck. (That said, if an item truly helps your health, like cookware, books, or an air purifier, my therapist has said to get it.)

But then my face broke out in hives, something that’d happened to my entire body in 2017 due to stress (I had tested negative for all allergies), and I realized my “wait this out” mantra was “it gets better” hidden behind a surgical mask.

I was digging again, too fast and too hard. Survivalist mode except with the luxury lens on, where I sought comfort as an answering machine for joy.

But that’s not what comfort is during a pandemic.

Comfort is a coping mechanism, and the spectrum ranges from distraction to relief. It’s not meant to promise a happy ending or necessarily save your day. It’s what you do to get through one moment to the next — or, as my therapist reminds me, the kindness I extend to myself by doing, or asking for, what I need.

Then there are no good or bad days. Just good or bad moments that make up a day.

Once I also accepted the pandemic as a harbinger of grief, all I had to do was slip back into the familiar pattern of wallowing, healing, and rebuilding. I’ve also readjusted my expectations for comfort from things I wanted to things I needed.

I’ve accepted crying spontaneously as a treat.

Instead of scrubbing and rushing, I spent time watching noodles of exfoliated skin float down the drain. I cleared off an old desk, littered with old mail and junk, so I wouldn’t have to work on the floor for my indefinite work-from-home future. I cross-stitched for hours of virtual silence with my friend to combat loneliness. I binged a show and, after three hours, recognized when it was starting to numb me, instead of distract or relieve. So I paused to binge another day.

I pulled out old photos to remind me I’ve thrived through many pasts. I felt alive for the first time during self-isolation listening to “Cherry Wine” by Hozier with the sound of rain edited into the background, because, as Jia Tolentino wrote about these songs-from-elsewhere edits, “hearing a song you love when it’s playing from elsewhere is a reassuring, isolating experience: you feel solitary and cared for at the same time.”

I’ve accepted crying spontaneously as a treat.

Recalibrating your definition of comfort is the best advice I have for this tunnel we’re all part of. It might look like stress eating or turning digital worlds off to enjoy a new book. It could be tending to your house plants or finally joining an online fitness class that doesn’t make you feel bad about your body.

It’s whatever ground us in reality rather than pretense, so you come out without too deep of scars from anxiety and loneliness.

There are so many things out of our control right now but if we remind ourselves that the power to soothe comes first from within, then we’ll find comfort in times of uncertainty.

The other day, I reached, on tiptoe, to the highest shelf where I had hidden a framed rhinoceros beetle behind a set of books. Copies of drafted letters to my ex fell out with it and, because they still made me sad, I put them back on the shelf. Three months ago, the beetle did the same too, but enough time has passed and it now sits facing sunlight, soothing me with a reminder of how, for a beautiful stretch of time elsewhere, someone cared for me.

Christal Yuen is a senior editor at Greatist, covering all things beauty and wellness. Find her musing about therapy on Twitter.