How to respond to friends
May 10, 2020 2:47 PM   Subscribe

I've been disabled my whole life, but the virus greatly magnifies the role my disability plays in my day to day. I am finding myself unbelievably upset when friends or colleagues tell me that they are relaxing their social distancing guidelines. How do I navigate my own feelings around this without alienating or hurting my relationships?

My life is very small now, and will probably stay pretty small for the foreseeable future. I have no interaction with other people that is not virtual anymore. I have a few friends that I speak with on a daily basis, and colleagues that I speak with a few times a week. I live in a state with a lot of cases, although the number is decreasing now, finally.

I am finding myself reacting with a mixture of anger, sadness, jealousy, and alienation. It makes me feel incredibly isolated when my friends tell me that they are making an exception for themselves because of a holiday (like a mother's birthday) or just plain desire and traveling and spending time in enclosed spaces with others. I know that this kind of activity will only increase as the states open up, but it will not be safe for me to go out for a long while.

Right now, I just kind of wander away from the conversation or say something like "that sounds nice," which is a lie. It doesn't sound nice. It sounds foolish and selfish. I'm working with my therapist on processing all of these emotions. But I feel very far away from all of my friends now, in a psychic sense, because of this.

Is there something else I could or should be doing differently in these interactions? I'm aware that I should probably give my friends a hard time and tell them not to go out, but I feel way too sad and fragile to have arguments with the few people that I have a connection with. And it makes me feel invisible that they're telling me this: they aren't connecting the dots between their behavior and prolonging this hell for me personally. Or they know and don't particularly care. How should I deal with the anger, jealousy, and sadness this brings up? Should I respond to them differently? In what way?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (14 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Would it help to say 'I wish I could do that kind of thing, but that's not safe for me'?
You'd have gotten it off your chest, even if just in a mild form; the other person would possibly stop talking to you about such outings. They might feel a little uncomfortable, which may be a good thing here. And if they're really friends, they might realise you're feeling like shit, and they might try to think of a way to make you feel a little better.
posted by Too-Ticky at 2:59 PM on May 10 [31 favorites]

You get to do whatever feels right for you. I get what you mean about connection, and that you kinda feel like you won't have any friends if you set the bar as high as it ought to be, which is a shitty thing to realize.

I don't think you need to put them on blast if that's not right for you. I think if you want to you could say, "hey, just consider how much harder that's making it for everyone like me" and don't press them for an answer or apology, just leave it with them to consider and make their choices. It's becoming clear that a lot of people in this world just can't feel compassion (or maybe just are incapable of introspection) without a personal connection, and maybe you very mildly making the point will be enough for some people to tough this out a little longer.

I can't tell you there's a way to not feel hurt, because what they're doing is literally and emotionally harmful. Anger is occasionally useful for providing a release valve, but you can't live that way full-time.

Depending on how much time you spend on social media with these people, you might make a point of periodically offering up articles and commentary that explain the problem, not directed at anybody, as a bit of consciousness-raising.

I wish I had better answers. I've had some disagreements about this stuff, but I'm 100% ready to get mad and shun forever; then again I'm lucky because pretty much all my social circles were already stacked with people with chronic anxiety and a real love of rule-following so I'm not having to call out people I really like. Which is scary and it sucks. You have to take care of you first, so don't feel obligated to do anything you don't want to, but feel free to do whatever feels right even if it's not 100% perfectly nice.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:39 PM on May 10 [10 favorites]

I'm aware that I should probably give my friends a hard time and tell them not to go out

Many of us want to have this narrative where if we just follow the rules we will be safe, and, contrariwise, anyone who ever violates the rules places everyone in great jeopardy. That is the logic of the alien-predator movie, and in a weird way it's comforting, because it's a scenario with very bright lines for what's acceptable and what's not and it gives us a feeling of control (and an ability to make our suffering at least seem worthwhile because we can judge other people very hard).

Then there's the human tendency to think "Oh, I'm the exception," to rationalize doing whatever one wants, to fail to think at all about whether one's behavior would scale up harmfully, to underestimate risk both generally and cumulatively.

Neither of these actually works as an approach to the current situation. Neither are realistic. (The vast majority of people in the U.S. are not in anything resembling true quarantine, and so the idea that one lapse constitutes a radical increase of the risk is magical thinking. Enough people ignoring all restrictions are going to promote the spread.) Neither are good for our neighborly relationships. I've been adhering to the rules pretty carefully and I get annoyed when I see individual instances of people who are not, but what's the good in that? For you, I think the key thing is that what your friends are telling you is hurtful and would be hurtful even if in their state it was allowed--right?--because you judge it best not to go out at all. That's what you should be focusing on. Not on hectoring them for not following rules, but on not taking your feelings into account in conversation. I think it's entirely fair to tell them that when they talk about doing xyz, which you can't and won't do for the foreseeable future, it's hard for you to hear. True friends will respect those feelings and avoid those topics of conversation.
posted by praemunire at 4:44 PM on May 10 [56 favorites]

"Gee, I'd like to do that, too, once this whole coronavirus thing shakes out. But right now I can't -- so let me show you the quilt/souffle/epic poem that I am making with my pandemic 'Safer at Home' time."

If your friends know you, they know you can't break isolation. You are one of the prime examples of why every single positive decision they make is worth the extra work. That guilty nudge might be the difference when going into a bar after work... or not.

Just being in their lives reminds them that they can make a difference. I'd have them on speed-dial to let them know that if they play their cards wrong, this multi-week adventure in isolation can be theirs, too. How fun!

But my friends know I am happy to send guilt trips their way, so they should expect it.

"We can't quarantine together -- my health, sorry -- but we can be Skype buddies. We can watch Netflix together, bake cookies together, I'll show you how I made a walking trail in my home. I'll tell you all about it once you have a fever -- we will have such good times together!"
posted by TrishaU at 5:49 PM on May 10 [1 favorite]

The established public health narrative is that if we act with the community in mind, the community will be safer as a result, and, contrariwise, anyone who prioritizes their nonessential convenience places the community in greater jeopardy. That is the logic of "flattening the curve" and mitigating the worst possible outcomes of this pandemic. In a weird way, it is comforting, because it gives us a reassuring reason for our self-sacrifice, and a sense of solidarity and shared undertaking in managing a public health emergency that nearly defies comprehension.

Then there is a human tendency (WaPo, May 6, 2020) "to anticipate positive outcomes, says Tali Sharot, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University College London who studies optimism and expectations. “When there is something we want to believe, we are very good at interpreting the evidence in a way that would support that belief,” Sharot says." I've also been thinking about how ableism may contribute to this, and wondering if that privilege is at work when some seem to try to consider themselves "lower risk," despite news to the contrary. Given my high-risk status and disability, I don't get to indulge in that kind of wishful thinking. My optimism and expectations run more towards the historically vast capacity of human resilience and the progress our society has previously made as evidence of what we may be able to accomplish in the future.

I think that if there was coherent political leadership and an emphasis on public health expertise, it might not feel as challenging as it does to have conversations about public and personal health precautions. I also think it is okay to acknowledge that someone is going to do what they are going to do, but to also gently note that you are concerned about the potential risks (while avoiding terms like "foolish and selfish" and avoiding a debate), because then you are just expressing that you care about them, and two things might happen as a result: 1) in the worst future case scenario, you at least tried to warn them, and 2) they will probably stop talking to you about their plans because you aren't providing positive reinforcement with a "that sounds nice" response.

YMMV, of course. Your question resonates with me because I have thought a lot recently about how to approach this kind of issue. I personally ruled out making it about my feelings, because I don't want to reinforce the perception that the risk is only limited to people like you and me, or to signal that my judgment is purely emotional and not based on what public health experts are saying.
posted by katra at 6:12 PM on May 10 [17 favorites]

Well, I would say partially it depends on what your goals and priorities are. If what feels most important to you is to attempt to persuade them to shift their behaviors, you might find some of the frameworks and tools described here and here to be helpful.

If what feels more important (or just feasible) is to express your feelings or simply have a less painful conversation, there's a few things you might try. Depending on how much you trust and feel safe with these friends, you might simply share some of the feelings you've outlined above. You could also say something brief but honest, like, "You know, that's hard for me to hear." That could be a form of testing the waters, seeing if a particular friend will hear you in a kind and respectful way. You could test the waters more explicitly, like, "Would you be open to hearing some difficult feelings I'm having about what you just shared?" Or like, "I'm noticing some painful feelings coming up for me right now, are you available to hold space for them?"

I also like TrishaU's idea of using humor to communicate around this, though that feels like could go very differently depending on the cultural and interpersonal norms you and your friends have.
posted by overglow at 9:11 PM on May 10 [2 favorites]

Or they know and don't particularly care

...or they are so wrapped up in their own crisis that they aren't able to process yours as well.

This is a bad time to expect consideration from other people, even the most considerate people you know. It is a good time to give yourself and others a lot of slack. Even when that means letting them make bad decisions.

I have friends, dear friends, in their seventies who aren't taking quarantine very seriously. I expect I'll lose at least one of them to this and I am absolutely eff-ing furious that they are going to leave a gaping hole in my life because they're too bored to stay inside.

I've advised, I've tut-tutted, I've wagged my head at them. It's had no effect. They're dealing with the crisis in their own way I just have to respect that.

I'd suggest you do the same. Despite the fact that they are not acting considerately, or even rationally, respect the process your friends are going through as much as you respect your own.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:23 PM on May 10 [14 favorites]

As someone who is quite afraid of ever having my quarantine lapses "found out" by some of my friends it is WILD to me that your friends would just blithely report about them to you. I don't know what your friends are like otherwise, but it really just sounds like they don't know where you stand on this. I like the suggestion of getting very (generally, non specifically) judgmental about people who violate social distancing protocols, either on social media or one-on-one, and likely they will stop feeling comfortable relaying those tales to you.

It doesn't make them behave better (though I guess it might, on a small scale, make them rethink a choice or two), but it may bring your conversations back to a more bearable level.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:38 PM on May 10 [1 favorite]

Here's the thing: aspects of this are inevitable. If there's something that there's extremely broad consensus on, among experts and policy-makers, it's that we will be entering a months-long period, prior to the availability of a vaccine, where some aspects of life will gradually approach relative normality for lower-risk people, while remaining much more restricted for higher-risk people. It's not equitable, but it's also not avoidable.

Maybe your friends are slightly jumping the gun, depending on local conditions and current medical advice, and that's obviously not great. But the reality that some of your friends' pandemic experiences will begin to diverge from yours is something I suggest trying to make peace with, sooner than later.
posted by kickingtheground at 11:03 PM on May 10 [12 favorites]

It may help to share credible sources with your friends, because misinformation is rampant and could be contributing to some of their attitudes. Public health experts appear to be worried about "quarantine fatigue," because "staying home remains the most effective way to limit the spread of the virus until widespread testing and contact tracing become available," and "the math is unfortunately pretty simple. It’s not a matter of whether infections will increase but by how much,” said Jeffrey Shaman, a leading epidemiologist at Columbia University." Also, tracking the virus may require 300,000 workers, and we're nowhere close, and it has been estimated that testing will need to be expanded at least fivefold and made as accessible and convenient as possible, without the need for a doctor’s referral, and free of charge, but supply chain problems continue to interfere with expanded testing.

In addition, nearly seven weeks into the shutdown, the coronavirus is "infecting people who cannot afford to miss work or telecommute," and appears to be "a pandemic that increasingly is infecting those who have limited ability to socially distance." We also know that young and middle-aged people, barely sick with covid-19, are dying from strokes. In addition, there are big unknowns about the virus that complicate getting back to "normal", including understanding why "plenty of 20- and 30-somethings, and even some children, get infected and occasionally die." The reason why it won’t work to just isolate the elderly and vulnerable is "younger people get sick, too — often very sick," and "middle-aged people face a risk of dying that is lower than among the elderly, but still substantial." I think it is terribly sad that people you care about are making choices that create real risk for themselves and others, especially if they think they are being safe or only "slightly" getting ahead of what they hope public health guidance will be in a future that does not actually appear capable of existing anytime soon.
posted by katra at 12:09 AM on May 11 [9 favorites]

I think it’s absolutely acceptable to ask them not to tell you about quarantine breaking because it upsets you. Refusing to normalize or engage with it may be enough to change their behavior, honestly, and it is certainly the least they can do for someone who is going to need to self-isolate for longer than them even if things go well.
posted by tchemgrrl at 4:58 AM on May 11 [9 favorites]

i don't have a lot of positive coping strategies for you unfortunately, my predominant way of having dealt with similar things in the past has always been to flip the fuck out and then sulk about it for 10,000 years. but i wanted to tell you that you are so fucking valid, 100%. the regular commonplace everyday ableism of the abled is being hugely exacerbated by the current crisis and i don't see that changing any time soon.

if you have even just one particularly empathetic friend who you think might respond... if not well, then at least not with intense resentment and defensiveness? then it might be worth trying to explain how it feels to you when they talk about stuff like that, talk about things that will literally risk your actual life as though it means nothing. but it's so hard and the outcome is so uncertain in such an ugly way. god.
posted by poffin boffin at 5:19 AM on May 11 [14 favorites]

Not comparable, but I had a lot of these feelings when I was cooped up with a newborn in a gorgeous Texas spring (and this was before COVID-19) and all of my friends were telling me of their fantastic outings while I was literally covered in breast milk and close to sleeping standing up. I was extremely bitter and jealous and was annoyed that they had the temerity to tell me about their lives when I was so immersed in a Major Life Change.

What I wish I had done in these situations, is give some guidelines for the conversation ahead of time. Like, "Hey. I'm really struggling today with being cooped up alone with a newborn so can you save the details about your fantastic trip for some other time?" Just setting out that boundary ahead of time with the explanation for why its necessary I think would have alleviated alot of my feelings and helped them know what open for conversation.
posted by tafetta, darling! at 6:05 PM on May 11 [4 favorites]

Hey OP, I have continued thinking about your question, as well as poffin boffin and kanata's responses. And then I posted an FPP: COVID-19 has created a panic-tier system Some of us are being told that we shouldn’t concern ourselves with the pandemic. We’re privileged enough to not care, while others have to shoulder the burden of worrying all the time. This is ableist. The discussion includes brainstorming of constructive responses, and some additional expressions of solidarity and validation of your feelings.
posted by katra at 10:51 AM on May 19 [2 favorites]

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