Quarantine Mental Health: 4 Tips from a Tiny House Family

You know that feeling when you wake up from a nightmare, and you are momentarily disoriented as you try to sort out what's real and what's not? Then you breathe a sigh of relief because you realize that the nightmare isn't real.

Only lately, the nightmare is real. And that sigh of relief doesn't come.

Mental health is tough in 2020. I have seen friends on Facebook ready to fall apart due to the stress of life right now. The tension in our own home has been ebbing and flowing for weeks, and we have a leg up on so many others because we're used to spending a lot of time together in a small space, and in general we actually enjoy it.

But even for us, this is hard. So hard.

Sunshine occasionally asks me when we'll get to go out again. "I don't know, baby. I don't know." She looks so dejected in those moments, and I feel so helpless. I want to help her. I want to help all of us. But there's not a lot I can do right now other than stay home.

One thing I can do, though, is use this platform to give some tips drawn from our extensive experience sharing a small space, and maybe that will help someone else. I hope so at least.

Tips for Maintaining Your Mental Health While Under Lockdown

(Important Disclaimer: I am not a doctor or licensed counselor. If your mental health is deteriorating to the point of self-harm or suicidal thoughts, call your doctor or get in touch with a counselor. At the very least, tell someone who can help you get the help you need. Just because you are alone doesn't mean you should suffer alone. There is help, even in the midst of all of this upheaval.)

Tip #1: Create a routine and don't just be a blob

You are human. Making yourself feel like one will help your mental health.

So what does that look like?

First, you need to create a routine for yourself. Get up at a similar time every day. Do chores and eat actual meals and go to bed at a decent(ish) hour. Try to get a full night's sleep.

You don't need to schedule every minute of the day, but having a basic order of operations will help give you some stability and make sure you actually accomplish a few things each day.

If you have kids, set aside time together to interact as a family. Take turns choosing tabletop or video games to play together or go for a (socially distanced) walk if allowed. Perhaps do a puzzle. We've added "family time" to our schedule, and Sunshine told her Nana (over Zoom) that it was her favorite thing about the lockdown.

If your kids are participating in distance/home learning, schedule a specific time to focus on that. And then be done with it when that time is over.

Part of this routine should include personal hygiene. Even if you live alone, you will feel a lot better about yourself and life if you don't feel (and look and smell) like a slob. Take showers regularly. Put on clean clothes (including pants!). Wear clothes that make you comfortable but that also contribute something to your self-outlook. Don't just put on that old holey shirt. Put on something that makes you feel a little more presentable. It doesn't have to be fancy (hardly! I'm sticking with my stretchy pants 24/7 these days), but if your mental game is on shaky ground, putting in a little effort to look and feel nice will probably go a long way to helping your mind game right now.

Tip #2: Set some goals

Set goals so your weeks (months?) don't meld into some kind of never-ending expanse of time where you can't even remember what day it is. It doesn't have to be anything even remotely important in the grand scheme of things.

Want to beat that Steam game that's been sitting in your library waiting for you? Go for it! (But please do other things too, like eat and sleep and talk to your housemates and clean up after yourself. See tip #1.)

Have a book that you've been meaning to read? Now's the time!

Have a pile of tiny projects that you've been putting off for ages? It will probably take you less time than you think to tackle it. (Does anyone else have a stack of stuff that needs glued? Or do my kids just break things more often than most?)

When I am bored or stressed, I like to channel that excess mental energy into creating something. Otherwise I'll probably just scroll Reddit all day, and that doesn't usually contribute to my mental health, especially lately.

One of my latest hobbies that gives me something on which to focus is sewing cloth masks. I started with this pattern, but I've been playing around trying to figure out a more simplified version that doesn't fog up the glasses of my family and friends, myself included. (We have a lot of vision-challenged people in our inner circle!) I know there are a bazillion mask patterns and ideas out there, but reinventing the wheel gives me something to focus on as well as a small sense of accomplishment when I'm done, and that is exactly what I need right now. I made a new prototype, and my mom* grabbed it right up, so I guess that's winning. (As much as fighting over the best homemade mask could ever be considered winning. What strange times we live in now, including an elastic shortage. I never, ever would have predicted that a year ago.) (Edit: Between when I printed the pattern at Craft Passion and now, the pattern creator has updated the pattern to address some of the issues I and others like me were having. This should help avoid the foggy glasses problem! Also, for another great post including five different homemade face mask tutorials, check out this one over at Happy DIY Home.)

We've also DIY'ed a home movie setup. We have a very nice TV that is almost too big for our space already, but our problem lately has been our lack of bandwidth. On a good day pre-COVID, our internet was not fast. We live outside the reach of wired broadband, and the cell signal here is spotty at best. After an awful experience with satellite internet in the past, we feel lucky to have a regional wireless internet provider available in our area. But add in a few trees and an indirect line of sight, and the speeds we get on a good day are laughable to a lot of people. There have not been many good days lately, and our internet speeds have been found wanting, to say the least.

We love our Netflix. And YouTube. And Prime Video. And Disney+. But lately, it's a struggle to stream anything, especially in the evenings when the whole neighborhood must be trying to use the internet as well.

Our solution? Well, about a year ago, we bought a cheap projector that hooks up to Chris's phone. (It was mostly a fun toy that we've used a few times as a novelty but not much beyond that.) Since Chris takes his phone with him to his essential job five days a week, it's easy for him to download some content for us to watch together later as a family.

The problem was we needed a screen because that first night staring at the ceiling reminded us that we are not as young as we used to be, and our necks aren't either. Ahem.

Something we have learned in our decade+ of tiny house living is that it is often really hard to retrofit new items to fit in such a small space. If the house wasn't designed with certain furnishings in mind, it can be nearly impossible to just buy items off the shelf to add later. This was the scenario we found ourselves in when every projector screen or alternative that we could afford and easily obtain was too awkward to mount in our space or too big or too hard to store or keep unwrinkled.

We've DIY'ed a lot of home furnishings over the years, including desks and trundles and toddler beds and shelving. How hard could it be to make our own projector screen? Well, it took us a couple of days and some troubleshooting, but we have a makeshift screen now that is happily meeting our needs at a price we could afford with minimal social contact.

And the best thing? Those couple of days gave us a goal to work toward together, and having a shared project is good for morale. Now every time I look at that screen, I smile because I'm proud of the ingenuity we used to make it happen, and that feeling of accomplishment is a huge mental boost these days.

These are just examples from our own lives right now. The point is that you should find something--anything--that you can work towards to give you a goal in life beyond just existing, especially if you are not working right now.

*Note: we live on my parents' property and share most of our utilities, including laundry facilities. In the absence of any reliable way to survive for months without washing our clothes, we've ended up not social distancing from them, though I do my extra best to keep up good hygiene practices when I am in their house.

Tip #3: Take time for yourself everyday, scheduled, so you can depend on it

I've written about finding solitude a lot (here and here and here for starters) because when you live in a tiny house with homeschooled kids, solitary time doesn't happen unless you make it happen. When you are surrounded by the same people in a confined space for weeks on end, you are going to lose your mind. Especially of some of those people are needy. Like kids.

So what do you do? You find a way to make time alone happen. Do it every day if possible. I recommend an hour, but if you can't manage that, take what you can, even if it's just five minutes locked in the bathroom with a piece of chocolate that you don't have to share. If you are quarantined with a partner and kids, trade time with your partner so you each get regularly scheduled breaks. If you are winging it solo, instigate "quiet time" (assuming your kids are old enough to more or less survive quietly without bothering you for an hour). Have them go to a safe place in the house and tell them not to bother you unless it's an emergency. Use screens to keep them there if you have to do so, and don't spend one moment feeling guilty about it.

If you don't have kids but you are quarantined with other adults even if they are adults that you are very, very fond of being around, you should still schedule time apart. No one needs to be attached at the hip 24/7. You'll appreciate all the extra time together more if you actually spend some time apart.

However you manage to make it happen, get some time to yourself, and if you have a significant other, make sure that your partner gets some time, too. Put it on the schedule, because knowing that every day at 4 pm is your time to check out, without anyone needing anything from you, is going to be a huge mental boost in getting through all the hours that come before and after.

Tip #4: Give each other grace and be quick to apologize and quick to forgive

Everyone is on edge these days, and if you are feeling it, your family is probably feeling it keenly, too. You are going to lose your cool, and so are your loved ones. People will snap at each other and kids will whine. (You may whine, too. Or cry. I won't judge.) Give each other grace. Be slow to speak, quick to apologize, and quick to forgive. Remember that you are on the same side and part of the same team, and you're all in this together.

To help you maintain your own calm demeanor, do your best to get enough sleep and eat regular, healthy meals. Add in exercise and sunshine as much as you can. Take deep breaths, count, pray, meditate, or do whatever you need to in the moment to keep your cool. Remember that you love each other, and focus on that. And when your loved one needs to do their own calm-down routine, give them space and grace and treat them the way you want to be treated. Repentance and forgiveness go a long way in any healthy relationship.

(Note: I am not condoning any kind of violence whatsoever, so if you find yourself on the receiving end of an abusive relationship, get help. You deserve to be treated like a worthwhile human being because that's exactly what you are. Check out the domestic violence hotline at https://www.thehotline.org or call 1-800-799-7233 to speak with someone who can help you.

I hope that some some of these tips are helpful to you during this crazy time. Life is hard right now, and no one knows what going to happen in the days to come. You've got this, though.