A man with cystic fibrosis who’s had to socially isolate throughout his life explains how to cope

A man with cystic fibrosis who’s had to socially isolate throughout his life explains how to cope
  • Alex, a 29-year-old in the UK, has cystic fibrosis, a chronic respiratory disease that has required him to socially isolate throughout periods of his life. 
  • Now that the rest of the world is getting to know about social isolation due to the novel coronavirus, he's sharing lessons about how to cope. 
  • Alex recommends considering the moment an opportunity to reflect and even change your life course. 
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

As a person with cystic fibrosis, a severe and chronic respiratory condition, Alex has needed to periodically halt his life — particularly, his social life — when recovering from stints in the hospital. During those times, catching a cold or the flu can worsen his lung function and accelerate a path toward transplantation.  

As a result, the 29 year-old estimates he's spent a total of one to two years in isolation. 

Now, with the novel coronavirus spreading quickly, the rest of the world is being urged, if not required, to shelter in place. 

For many people, the social-distancing experience is a terrifying play in which they did not ask to be cast and for which there's no uniform script or known ending. For Alex, though, it's a well-rehearsed routine. 

"The world we are currently experiencing is nothing new to me," he told Insider. "In fact, it's been rather amusing watching the world come to terms with the only life I have known."

Alex, a startup founder in the UK whose last name is omitted to protect his privacy, talked to Insider about what he's learned from past periods of isolation that can help others cope. 

Stock up on nonperishable foods, and find ways to move and connect 

Alex's recommendations are straightforward: Stock up on critical medicines, and buy foods that can last outside of the fridge or freezer for months. Instead of buying cereal and needing go out for milk each week, for example, buy oats, which need nothing but water. 

"If you can cut down your supermarket trips completely, great. If you can cut it down from once a week to once every other week, better," he said. "I just think you need to increase your chances of not getting this as much as possible by doing everything you can." 

Alex, who hadn't left home in three weeks as of March 30, also wears a step counter and aims to run up and down the stairs, jump up and down, and pace enough while on phone calls to hit 10,000 steps a day. 

"Each phone call lasts 1,000 steps, effectively, so if I take five phone calls a day I've hit half my tally," he said.

Finally, Alex is maintaining a robust social life through phone calls, video chats, and games. "Normally, every time I self-isolate, all my friends are out, having a good time, partying and all that," he said. "Whereas now everyone's indoors, and that's quite fun."

FILE PHOTO: A protective mask is pictured on a table world globe in this illustration

Remember the bigger picture  

Alex finds a famous Chinese proverb, "Sāi Wēng lost his horse," comforting. The story tells of a man who lost a prized horse, but Sāi Wēng said he wasn't convinced it was a bad thing. Later, the horse returned with another horse, but Sāi Wēng wasn't sure it was a good thing.

His son then broke his leg on the new horse, which turned out to be a good thing because it spared him from being recruited to war. 

"We cannot know the true, long-term consequences of this virus, and there are a number of hypothetical silver linings to what we currently face," Alex said.

For instance, the virus could better prepare countries for future pandemics and ultimately connect people around the world as we all learn to appreciate each others' humanity. 

Consider a period of pause an opportunity, not a punishment 

Each time Alex has needed to isolate himself in the past, he has emerged better in some way — for example, with a dedication to make the most of his college experience, the desire to travel more even though it means hauling around suitcases of medicine, or with the gumption to quit his job and launch his own business. 

"This isn't a punishment, this is actually a real opportunity for people to be able to reflect on themselves and their lives up to this point," he said. "It's a real opportunity to set their lives straight." 

Do you have a personal experience with the coronavirus you’d like to share? Or a tip on how your town or community is handling the pandemic? Please email [email protected] and tell us your story.

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