For a long time, I ignored parts of my brain that stressed me out too much. I powered through, deeming them minor setbacks or inconveniences — my autism and ADHD symptoms, the chronic illnesses and pain problems I ignored in favor of running around New York City and spending more time with friends, the disordered eating patterns I fostered because they weren’t “that bad.”
Before last year, I was a flower forcing myself to try to grow in the wrong kind of dirt without the right nutrients — planted in an area with not enough sun and too much water, wondering why I felt stunted.
Then, February 2020 came, and everything changed.
The pandemic caused many of us to grieve our “normal” lives while feeling disconnected from our realities and suddenly confused about where to go next. All of the subsequent changes have required us to start fresh in ways we may not have imagined before.
I’ve personally had to confront many of the harmful ways I’d been living my life. When I finally had weekends at home to myself and wasn’t waking up at the crack of dawn every Saturday morning to go to the gym and the grocery store, I realized how much my body needed the experience of sleeping in for the first time.
When I could no longer plan several hangouts with friends each weekend, I started watching movies more, got back into meditation, and fully began to realize personal projects that I wanted to work on.
When I wasn’t forcing myself to stick to a strict diet, I discovered how much I truly love pesto pasta, and that it was okay to eat it twice (or three times) a week without having to leave my apartment at all. Food isn’t an enemy. And neither is my body.
Spending so much time with myself and my thoughts has forced me to ask, “Who am I without this? And this? And that?” Over the last 10 months, I’ve slowly been working on expelling those behaviors and lifestyles that weren’t good for me. Some of them went without making a fuss. Others require me to push them out the door.
It’s work that I’m willing to do. But I’m not alone. Many have had to reassess the habits that felt quintessential to who they are. Those I’ve spoken with about some of their lifestyle habits that were broken in 2020 have generally felt the same kind of motivation to make the changes permanent.
“Helping professionals are so often adept at helping clients develop self-care and self-compassion strategies, but unfortunately, many of us aren’t as adept at ensuring that we are developing and deploying our own self-care inventories,” said Lucie Fielding, therapist and author of Trans Sex: Clinical Approaches to Trans Sexualities and Erotic Embodiments.
So many of the changes made us recognize that many of the things we did before just don’t need to be a part of post-pandemic life.
Prior to the pandemic, Fielding says they weren’t as good at prioritizing self-care as they could have been. But when they began working from home and offering telehealth in March 2020, they quickly had to grapple with being in the “same trauma soup” as their clients. “Pre-pandemic, I was already pretty good at maintaining work/life boundaries,” they noted. “But I suppose I just became more intentional about those boundaries, particularly in a context where so many of us were asking, rhetorically, ‘what even IS time now?’”
That’s when they began adding morning rituals like making tea for themselves and their wife, setting goals for writing between 6:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. every morning, and more. “I became really good at reading and responding to work emails/messages only between the hours of 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday, too,” they explained. These were all habits they had struggled to build before the pandemic.
“Beyond how I organized and bounded time, I would also note the ways that my partner and I reorganized and re-thought our home spaces and how we oriented ourselves to them,” Fielding explained. Pre-pandemic, they were always rushing from one place, one event, one appointment, one errand, to another, and hadn’t made their home feel like a true home.
“With COVID, we realized that we needed to reorient ourselves, given that we were going to be spending a f**kton more time with one another at home,” they said. “So first, we [added] a garden in our front lawn and planted all sorts of greens, tomatoes, herbs, and peppers. This allowed us to cut down on grocery runs, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic when each grocery run felt like a trip to the Thunderdome, and supply chains were so disrupted with all the panicked hoarding.
“And it felt so good to be able to cook entire meals directly from our garden save for maybe fats, salts, or acids,” they added. After repainting, too, their home now feels like a cozy place they actually want to spend time in.
Fielding acknowledged that some of the lifestyle changes are of course temporary and pandemic stress-bound — like taking off from client work or not seeing clients on weekends. But they hope most of the changes are here to stay.
“So many of the changes made us recognize that many of the things we did before just don’t need to be a part of post-pandemic life,” they said. “I very much miss traveling or being in fabulous dyke and leather spaces, or being able to hang out spontaneously with, cook for, and hug friends! But I’ve also learned how much I love being at home with my partner and how I love being intentional about how I use my time and energies.”
Cat Wheeler, a former healthcare worker says the biggest change she’s made in the last year was getting a new job that allows her to work from home.
There are definitely lifestyle changes that I’m going to keep.
She, like many other former healthcare workers I spoke with, became disillusioned with their careers in 2020 and found them unsustainable.
“[Getting a new job] allowed me to control more of my time, which let me do things like cook more, read more, and play and listen to more music,” said Wheeler. “I’ve also taken up running since I otherwise wouldn’t see the sun more than once a week. I’ve been spending more time with my kitties, catching up with old friends, budgeting, going through therapy, and have [sought support] for my previously undiagnosed depression.
“I would say that every one of these was a change directly related to COVID. The biggest change was of course getting a new job, which happened because I felt my work at the hospital was not good for me emotionally or physically.”
Though Wheeler had known that she was already underpaid, seeing other administrative people like herself as well as nurses and custodial staff not receive hazard pay while being denied paid leave and risk COVID exposure was the last straw.
“There are definitely lifestyle changes that I’m going to keep,” she noted. “My work is permanently remote, which is amazing, and I now feel a level of financial comfortability I previously only dreamed about, in large part due to me cooking most meals instead of buying them. I am definitely going to continue to cook, explore my hobbies, and enjoy spending time alone.”
I too have learned how to take better care of myself — and see more clearly the things I can never go back to. Prior to 2020, I tried to stay so busy that I often ended up not prioritizing my well-being to accommodate the distractions I felt I needed. Like a hamster running on a wheel, I was going fast but not really moving anywhere.
Over the last 10 months, I’ve been able to figure out the exact kinds of people I want to have relationships with, both platonic and romantic, and what kind of relationship I want to have with myself. And I am not forcing myself to grow in circumstances that I know will actually only make me shrink.
So yes, there are plenty of habits that 2020 broke — and many of us can say we’re thankful for it.
Elly is a New York-based writer, journalist, and poet who also loves to host parties for her friends. Primarily, she’s Brooklyn’s resident pun enthusiast. Read more of her writing here or follow her on Twitter.