The Buddy System: Coping in the Era of Coronavirus

When I was a kid, I spent many of my summers attending YMCA Day Camp programs. I grew up in Frederick, MD, and the region is blessed with abundant parks and forests. For each session of summer camp I attended, I had a buddy assigned to me.  One of the camp field trips I went on was to Cunningham Falls State Park. Back in the 1980’s, U.S. culture wasn’t quite as litigious as it is now, so bear that in mind here. Our camp group hiked to the waterfall and we were told we could climb the falls, but to listen for a whistle to sound when it was time to come back.

I was part mountain goat as a child and already familiar with scaling the falls courtesy of family visits, so my buddy and I took off up the boulders immediately. We climbed to the top of the falls and then decided to explore some of the stream that feeds the waterfall.  We were having a wonderful time – pointing out interesting patterns in the water, exploring little pools, stuffing our pockets with cool pebbles, and petting the moss that grew near the stream as we clambered over rocks and trees on our way.

You can probably see where this is going. At some point, I’m sure they sounded the whistle.  We, of course, did not hear it and continued exploring, moving ever further away from the waterfall and our camp group.

I don’t know how long we hiked the stream, or how far we got. I do know that I wasn’t frightened at all.  I was having a grand adventure with my buddy. At some point, we rounded a bend in the stream and suddenly found a member of the park service standing on the bank on one side. I remember shifting from a mindset of ‘this is great!’ to ‘Mom is gonna kill me!’ in about 2.5 seconds flat.

Actual footage of my reaction

I’ve been thinking about that adventure a bit these days. About the way the right company can help a situation that might have been scary be a lot less so.  At that age, I would never have explored so far or so confidently by myself.

As I am writing this blog, it is December of 2020.  Or, as a friend is fond of putting it, today is the 246th day of March, 2020. It is, hands down, a tough year.  My past includes an abusive marriage, a somewhat scandalous divorce, Marine Corps boot camp (and subsequent service), and a whole host of less thoroughly flashy challenges.  Despite all of that, I still end up on the struggle bus pretty regularly courtesy of the plague currently sweeping the earth and the necessary changes to our lives it wrought.  Surviving adversity hasn’t made me impermeable to current challenges, sadly. Quite frankly, I really feel that my history ought to grant carte blanche for other things that suck, but it just hasn’t worked out that way.

Seriously. How do I file a complaint about 2020?

One of my saving graces right now is a particular kind of friendship.  You see, I have a Pandemic Buddy – a friendship that has taken on a specific pattern to keep both people in the friendship on more stable ground.  We built our buddy system based on what we need, but it’s been such an incredible support to me this year that I want to share the way we’re approaching it with you.

Choosing Your Pandemic Buddy

The right buddy is really important here, and there are a few specifications.

  • Your buddy should not live with you. Our intimate family – our partners, housemates, and even our children are already doing a lot of emotional lifting for those they live with.  Also, having a buddy outside your direct sphere allows a more objective view on their part.
  • You and your buddy should be able to hold space. Holding Space is a specific form of active listening where we pay attention to the concerns of the person we are talking to without trying to fix their situation or intrude our own narrative on their experience. This is especially important during the pandemic – everyone responds to trauma and challenge differently. Remember that your coping mechanisms, no matter how effective they are for you, may not work for others in the same way. Problem solving is great, but only if you or your buddy ask for help. The ability to listen is vital for both buddies here.
  • Your buddy should be someone whose discretion you trust. This is someone you are going to tell the truth to. Choose wisely.


The Buddy Check-in

My buddy and I have a daily check-in. This is most effective if you are using a platform that enables you to both see and hear your buddy.  We use the Marco Polo app – it’s a little bit like voice mail with video. By using something that enables asynchronous messages, it supports connection without putting too large a burden on an existing schedule.  For my buddy and I, a daily phone call/Zoom/Skype would not work simply because of our schedules.

During your check-in, do two specific things:

  • Do an honest check-in. This is the truthfulness part, as well as the part we hold space for when listening to our buddy.  How are you feeling today, really?  Let go of trying to put a positive spin on things and just be honest.  How does your heart feel?
  • Name three things you are grateful for. Gratitude practice takes a lot of kicking around but I have found it to be incredibly useful when it is not an attempt at spiritual bypassing. That’s part of why we do a true check-in first.  You can be struggling AND grateful for indoor plumbing at the same time.  Remembering to name the small blessings in your life can help shift the lens you’re viewing your situation through.


There may be a pandemic, but at least I can drink vodka in the bathtub

My buddy and I rarely miss a day.  We sometimes skip weekends and over the course of the pandemic, both of us have escaped to places with little to no signal at various points. However, almost every day, I pick up my phone, open the Marco Polo app and check in. Then, I hold space when the message from my buddy comes through. Sometimes we send more messages back and forth, sometimes we don’t. We help each other remember to take care of ourselves.  We praise each other when we participate in self-care. We call each other out (gently and lovingly) when we are being too hard on ourselves.  My buddy has sometimes been the sole reason I’ve stopped struggling and let myself rest on my bad days, and I do not have enough words to express the gratitude I have for them because of it.

I honestly don’t know how I would have gotten through the past year without my buddy and our structured check-ins. My childhood day camp buddy and I helped each other over big trees and boulders and kept each other safe and confident while navigating a stream out in the forest.  My pandemic buddy and I help each other get through hard days, mood swings, family issues, and work challenges and keep each other more grounded and confident than we would be otherwise.

December is a tough month for people most years and this year it will include some new stressors. Maybe it’s time to find a buddy for this part of the stream hike. If you try it out, let me know how this take on the buddy system works for you.

Do you already have a buddy?  What do your check-ins include?  If you’ve noticed something that works that I haven’t stumbled into, please share it in the comments. You never know when the simple thing you’re already doing is the puzzle piece another person needs.






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