In 2016 Kathryn Wilson was a typical 30-year-old in inner Sydney; she lived in a sharehouse, worked as a graphic designer and had an arts degree gathering dust somewhere. After being diagnosed with a rare and advanced tumour near her pelvis, she endured complex and highly aggressive treatments that meant that for the next two years she was confined to hospital beds or within the four walls of her home. Adapting an outgoing social life into something that would fit inside a two-bedroom terrace was challenging, but narrowing her focus proved crucial to finding satisfaction in a compacted life.
“Firstly, you need to make your world smaller,” Wilson says. “You need to learn to value things and people that are in your immediate field more highly than things that are inaccessible for you right now, so surround yourself with things you care about – that is your bubble.” For Wilson, that list included houseplants, the full Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson back catalogue and working out which two-minute noodle was superior – shout out to Gourmet Spicy.
For the majority of people, home is where we are going to be spending all our time until lockdown restrictions are eased, which is why you need to make it somewhere you want to be, she advises. “Put up artwork you like; if you hate your old sheets buy crisp new ones. I’m not saying you can shop your way out of this, but you’re going to be clocking a lot of time on your bed so upgrade anything you use daily that irks you.”
Loneliness was an undeniable part of her reality. Keeping her partner and a small handful of close friends in daily contact helped, but distraction was how Wilson got through the moments in between. There’s a lot of reality renovation shows available and other people’s problems, especially design failures, are more fun than your own, she found.
But just because your physical world has shrunk doesn’t mean you can’t still be a tourist. “The internet is boundless so now is the time to watch documentaries, play video games, and explore a weird subculture.” Wilson really got into Scandiavian noir (fun fact: they only film on cloudy days) and Ru Paul’s Drag Race. She didn’t just watch the shows, she read histories, think pieces and watched commentary. “Embrace the gravitational force of the click hole and your trivia game will never be stronger.”
And if you’ve never gamed before, there’s so much more than first-person shooting games out there. Wilson recommends the soothing qualities of programs like Monument Valley, a puzzle game that involves Escher-like mazes set against beautiful pastels, or Skyrim, an epic, open-world fantasy game where you can choose whether you’re in a monster-slaying mood or just want to stroll the mountains collecting flowers and building a thatched hut.
“You need to readjust your thinking: you don’t want to save time, you want to fill it,” she says. “When you don’t have anywhere to be you might as well take your time over a sandwich. Don’t be utilitarian about your lunch, apply relishes, make your own mayo. Meals are an important way of marking the passage of the day so make them something to look forward to.”
Having purpose is helpful, and many people find it in reaching out and offering assistance to others, but since staying home is all the help some of us can give our community, Wilson recommends marking one small achievement off each day. Maybe it’s emailing a relative, or soaking a difficult stain, or sewing a button back on. It doesn’t have to be much, but forward momentum is cumulative and it prevents each day slipping into the next in a cloud of Netflix and snacks.
A lot of the advice on surviving isolation has focused on maintaining routine, especially when it comes to exercise and healthy eating, and sure, if you too are suddenly gripped with the urge to bake your own bread, you’ve never had more people with whom to compare crumbs. But Wilson’s daily checklist was more foundational. “It’s important to distinguish between pyjamas and daywear. I’m not saying wear jeans around the house, but you might like to invest in some quality loungewear.”
As we head into the winter months Wilson also suggests you consider a pair of slides. Not just for poolside reclining, they allow you to wear socks and keep them clean. Slides are part of her hospital go-bag, which also includes a three-metre phone charging cable, a good pillow, noise-cancelling headphones, a robe and a device pre-loaded with TV and movies.
In hospital and at home, delivery services were a lifeline to the outside world. “Now is not the time to balk at shipping and delivery costs. I once got a coffee delivered from McDonald’s at 6am and a lemonade at 10pm. The drinks were $3.35 and delivery was $5, but it gets you what you need.”
Now, Wilson is doing well. In remission, she is relearning to ride a bicycle. And although her life is very different now, she’s still eating two-minute noodles. In times of unprecedented crisis, like the one we are now living through, she urges everyone to give themselves a break. “I thought I should use my treatment time to learn German but actually I just watched a lot of TV. It’s OK to be protective of yourself, to live in your bubble and only do the things that make you feel good – isolation doesn’t have to be part of your side hustle.”