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How to Stay In is a series about redefining “normal” life in order to take care of ourselves and one another during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Because of the added stress of the restrictions and lifestyle changes brought on by COVID-19, this election season feels even more hellish than usual, especially depending on where and with whom a person has to live. Some of the people we care about are trapped by circumstance in homes where Fox News blares all day, QAnon is a regular subject of dinner conversation, and/or they can’t discuss even anodyne topics like getting a new phone without setting off a 20-minute shriek-a-thon about the wages of sin/the imperilment of “the suburbs”/socialism/the list goes on.
I would really like for all of our friends, siblings, and partners enduring politically exhausting home lives to live and be as well as possible through this weird, difficult, extended episode of The Circle: Pandemic Edition, made all the weirder and more difficult by a highly consequential presidential election. What can you, a layperson who cannot rent them an all-expenses-paid apartment or provide them professional counseling, do to help a friend enduring their family’s shitty politics otherwise? Here are some ideas.
(To be clear, before we start: We’re talking about upsetting or even oppressive home situations. If you fear for your loved one’s life or immediate safety, they need more direct help. The Crisis Text Line will connect them to support resources; The Trevor Project offers phone, text, and online chat to LGBT2Q people; and if a person is under 21, they can call Child Help. Calling the police is generally not the most helpful choice unless they’re facing an immediate threat. Use this as a last resort only.)
Make time for regular phone conversations.
Hearing a friend’s voice is emotionally a whole different—and much nicer— feeling than seeing their words on a screen. Does it feel awkward to just… call someone? Name the awkwardness (“Let’s pretend to be Olds and have a phone call!”) and give it a shot anyway.
You can talk while you do another task—phone calls are great for cleaning, getting ready for the day, and other not-as-fun-without-the-phone tasks. Make a phone-date with the person you’re trying to support to do chores and talk on the phone together. If they’re afraid of being overheard, there are cars to clean, leaves to rake, rock borders to weed, or dogs to walk, and keeping busy helping out around the house shuts off at least one avenue of parental complaint. (Alternatively: “I’m going for a walk!” is usually acceptable.)
Once you’re on the phone, take the temperature of their mood—what kind of call is it going to be? Sometimes it works best to keep the conversation neutral and let your beleaguered friend call the shots. However, if they’re miserable and exhausted and biting their tongue constantly, you can give them a little help. Try offering a menu of options, like: “Press one for a cheerful and distracting series of light conversational topics. Press two to access our Shouting Department, where you can yell about those assholes as much as you like to our trained staff, who will get mad with you. Press three to talk about what just happened on Real Housewives of Potomac, because I have a LOT of feelings about it.” Whatever they choose, deliver on it.
Be attentive to and account for prying eyes and ears.
Phone calls might not always be an option, though. Is your friend being watched for signs of seditious behavior? You may need to keep your comms channels under wraps, especially if your pal is reliant on their relatives for housing. Keep the text stream between you fluffy as a bunny with a pancake on her head by sending photos of cute animals, articles about children raising money for inarguably virtuous causes, and the occasional dreamy travel pic of Italy. Meanwhile, you can do your realer-deal communicating in a Google Doc, exchange files of movies and music through a shared, password-protected Dropbox, or use a Slack channel created for the express purpose of shitposting.
The more President Business your method of getting in touch looks from the outside, the better your chances at keeping your communication private. Name your chats and folders things like “Group Project Econ 201,”
“Student Government Minutes Fall/Winter 2020,” or “Clean Streets Campaign” for extra security (just not “Taxes,” because everyone knows that’s the first place to check for things a person might not want others to see).
Recommend music, movies, books and TV shows to give your loved one something else to focus on.
One of the hallmarks of this pandemic is the unrelieved sameness: same toast for breakfast, same sweatpants, same Granddad yelling about how immigrants and refugees (whom he calls several different, but all awful, racist epithets) are ruining the country.
Puncture the sameness bubble by offering new things to look at, read, and listen to, and ask them if they’ll do the same for you. Share your top 10 Star Trek, Girlfriends, or Sex and the City episodes; make a playlist of the 15 songs that made up the soundtrack of your childhoods; send each other books—basically, add new things to their world that provide comfort, care, and a sense of escape.
You can use this to show interest in them-the-person, which might not feel possible for them at home. Explain your choices and vice versa: Of course they want to know which song was playing when you and [redacted] were just about to [redacted] in [redacted]’s dad’s cabin junior year.
Whatever you choose, the point is to give your friend concrete, fun things to focus on besides another night of spaghetti alla MAGA.
Encourage them to talk about the news with you, their friend and a reasonable human being.
Being constantly overridden and shouted down can make anyone feel like shutting up, or even giving up, and we do not want that. You don’t even have to agree with everything that your friend believes, but I’m confident you can discuss it with them better than their family is.
Talk about news, politics, and current events—who won a recent prize for literature or music or sportsing, and how do we feel about it? Which powerful cabinet member of the Often Wrong, But Never Uncertain Brigade has proposed some new brutally misogynist legislation? And so on. What can you two do to quietly support the causes you believe in, as a form of quiet insurrection, even while they’re surrounded by bigots? Can you organize online against racist violence or in support of Black trans people? Can you text bank together or caption protest videos to make them more accessible?
Come to these conversations with some pragmatism, and at least a little good news in your back pocket. Everything is so hard right now, so make sure you’ve got a way to climb back up if you sense that the conversation is more dispiriting than invigorating.
Build up your stuck-at-home friend.
It’s disheartening for a person to hear that their beliefs are foolish, and even worse if they’re suffering the brutal chill of knowing that their family thinks they are bad or broken because of, say, their gender or sexual orientation. Marinating in that acid is corrosive to the spirit, so your loved one needs all the restoration you can give. Remind them of times they’ve been effective (they probably feel constantly thwarted now) and/or reasons that you value them in the world. Make them feel as perceptive, competent, and delightful as they are, including by giving them credit for resisting the temptation to hack their parent’s Facebook account and change the password to “R0EvW4DE.”
Should you join their rage-filled roasts of their homophobic parents or racist uncles? Yes, of course, and let me encourage you to use and enjoy these modern versions of Yiddish curses as a gift from my people. But also: Realize that your job for the next little while is also to protect and tend to your person by fluffing them back up.
Dedicate a space in your home to your friend.
This is woo-woo, but I’m not afraid of it if it helps someone. Set up a little area in your house for your friend, perhaps on a sunny windowsill or a small shelf, with a photo of them and something nice, like fruit, flowers, or crystals. Ask for design tips: What do they want their space to look and feel like? Every so often, add a good book, an interesting bit of lichen, a shot of tequila, or whatever else they like and send photos to them.
Tell them that you’re keeping a space in the world to represent their joy. Encourage them to visualize entering that space while they’re tuning out another diatribe about Those People (aka, probably everyone you’d both like to have over for brunch). Blow bubbles over it, play it good music, and generally just vibe sweetness really hard over your friend’s space in your house. Send videos of that, too.
Plan—or fantasize about—their escape.
Research strongly indicates that humans crave choices. When we feel like we have no agency, we’re unhappy. It may be that the best thing you can do for a friend who’s suffering is help them plan to bail, even if it feels hard. Weirdly, it might help them hang in safely for longer knowing that there is an option to leave if things become unsustainable.
Offer to help them think through how to scrape up some cash, figure out the route or method by which they might leave, and decide what they’d take with them and how. (Again, if your friend is in actual danger either mentally or physically, go back to the top of this page and find help.)
If they’re more fed up than approaching an emotional breaking point, ask them what they’re looking forward to when restrictions lift. Thinking about the future can remind them that this moment isn’t forever, and that there will come a time when they’re not enduring constant headache-inducing opinions and all the unfortunate feelings and interactions that come with them. This doesn’t mean denying or minimizing the fact that their present living situation sucks, to be clear. It just means taking a beat to flip on the light at the end of the tunnel.
Your consistent, positive presence is going to matter more than anything else to a friend who is routinely aggravated or invalidated by their relatives with no immediate way to get away. Just being safe, supportive, and a little mischievous will go a long way toward keeping your person OK enough to return to their regularly scheduled wickedness (supporting unions! working for equity and justice! recycling!) as soon as they possibly can.
Follow S. Bear Bergman on Twitter.