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How we took care of ourselves in 2021

When 2021 rolled around, the availability of COVID vaccines brought hope, relief and protection, but it wasn’t a cure-all for the emotional turmoil many felt. If 2020 had been gripped by fear over the novel coronavirus, 2021 was heavy with exhaustion.

Since the early days of the pandemic, the PBS NewsHour has been asking its online community the same question every week: How are you taking care of yourself? The answers in those initial months often leaned into “self-care”: Rest. A walk. A virtual call. Some artmaking. Keeping a pet closer. Maybe some coffee. Or a single episode of a favorite TV show after work, whatever work looked like at that point.

As isolation altered our relationships to others and ourselves, and we sat with uncertainty and the sense of a cycling crisis, the responses to the weekly check-in changed. Often they tilted toward connection-building or something more emotionally meaningful. Some would turn the question on its head to ask how we were taking care of someone else. Others emphasized how they were maintaining a network of friends and family. More left jobs or left relationships. Sometimes, the answer was simply: “Nothing.”

As we enter another year of pandemic living, we asked our readers and viewers to look back at how they took care of themselves in 2021. We wanted to know if there was a moment, a decision, a change — big or small — that was significant for them.

In their own words, here are 10 meaningful changes our readers made this year.

These responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

A new space for sisters

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Photo courtesy of Chriss Wilson

This year, I finally made a move that both my sister and I have been envisioning for years. Ages ago, we talked of purchasing a house so we could spend some of our senior years together. We were able to do it in April. We are now enjoying every minute of one another’s company and so the adventure continues.

— Chriss Wilson of Forest City, North Carolina

A new armor

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Using watercolor and ink, Diane Denton created this artwork, “Protecting the Self,” in early 2021. Denton said the artwork is “about healthy changes that empower the self to fly.” Image courtesy of the artist

I walked away from a confining religion and connected with nature in a more intentional way. This has inspired me to create artworks that encourage one to protect the self and be kind and open, to laugh more.

— Diane Denton of Springfield, Missouri

The gift of ‘unhurried’ time

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Photo courtesy of Meg Nakagawa

Cooking is seemingly such an insignificant thing, and yet such a big part of our lives. I can cook while listening to podcasts about COVID or a fantastical story or turn everything off altogether. In an unhurried and uncrowded life, it’s been so lovely to be able to concentrate, cook well and eat slowly.

— Meg Nakagawa of Nelson, New Zealand

A daily connection

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A September post Jo Carter posted to her Facebook page. Image courtesy of Jo Carter

Ever since March 2020, I’ve written a daily Facebook post to wrap up the day. It started as a way to put my own whirling thoughts into a summary so I could sleep, but it’s become a way to keep some connections going that otherwise just wouldn’t.

— Jo Carter of Madison, Wisconsin

Staying busy, staying sane

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Brian Easley puts the finishing touches on an assignment for one of his MBA courses with his three children — (left to right) Emily, Robbie and Bridges — nearby. Photo courtesy of Brian Easley

I was going a little stir crazy during the pandemic, and after we had our third child — she was born in July 2020 during the pandemic — I thought I needed a way to keep myself busy and have something to show for this time period. On top of my day job, I signed up for a MBA program and then joined a documentary film production to help raise funds and produce.

— Brian Easley of Louisville, Kentucky

A change of address

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Cheri Trimble and her mother, Rosanna, are seen at an assisted living facility in Penfield, New York, several years ago. Rosanna died in July. She was 89. Photo courtesy of Cheri Trimble

I left my husband of 27 years just before the pandemic. That meaningful change of address, literally and figuratively, catapulted me to a new life. I also continued to oversee my mother’s health and living arrangements. New grief emerged with her increased dementia from chemotherapy and lockdowns. I began to focus on day-to-day moments of activity and rest, filled with hilarity and frustration, and a profoundly renewed love for my mother through dignity and degradation. Seeing her through her suffering to her release and transition at an area hospice, I opted for total rest for myself. I had no idea that would mean buying a home and finding a real neighborhood, which is adding to my healing journey. I’ve lived here since October and could not be more satisfied. I belong again and am an integral part of a community.

— Cheri Trimble of Ontario, New York

Recommitting to treatment

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Malinda Hill, a trained art therapist, used colored pencil to create this blue-and-red figure on her last day of in-person treatment for an eating disorder. Photo courtesy of Malinda Hill

In order to take care of myself, I made the difficult decision to re-enter treatment for an eating disorder, depression, anxiety and PTSD. I first entered treatment at the beginning of the pandemic but returned to work too soon and suffered the consequences. Additionally, I’ve been sharing my experience with mental illness on social media in hopes that others will know they are not alone and it’s important to take care of your mental health.

— Malinda Hill of Charlottesville, Virginia

Sharing ‘little bites of life’

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In Patricia Williams’ photo, taken from her vehicle and edited for Instagram, a flock of turkeys are seen in the hills around Parkville, Missouri. Williams said local turkeys seek refuge in local cemeteries because of increasing development in the area. Photo by Patricia Williams

My work in art has always been in a collective: telling the stories of others for others and with others. Then the pandemic ripped the collectives apart, forced audiences to disband, and left me treading water without work and in isolation. I traveled in the way that was possible. Exploring nearby areas and sites. It always involved a good drive and experimental photography. And I began writing little bites of life; storytelling my own stories as a way to continued sanity. It was perhaps attempting what poet Derek Wolcott directed in “Love After Love”: “peel your own image from the mirror. Sit. Feast on your life.”

— Patricia Williams of Kansas City, Missouri

Keeping the ‘fun’ alive

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Lara Petitclerc-Stokes and her husband, Perry, and dog, Fergus, have a snack after a hike around Lake Crescent near Mt. Hood in Oregon. Photo courtesy of Lara Petitclerc-Stokes

In 2021, I made plans for summer holidays that would not get cancelled — driving within my state, eating “picnic-style,” camping in the back of my 4Runner, hiking in old growth forests and visiting Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens and the Oregon coast. Having something to look forward to and be excited about was very important to my (and my husband’s) mental well-being. I worked hard to keep “fun” alive. We will see what year three (2022) brings.

— Lara Petitclerc-Stokes of Baker City, Oregon

Accepting what’s washed away

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The Skagit River, seen in mid-November, floods Don Robertson’s campground, which is on the edge of North Cascades National Park. Robertson’s home, pictured on the right, is normally some 200 yards from the river. Photo courtesy of Don Robertson

I started a small, private campground on my homestead last year, where I grow organic berries and other fruit and vegetables. I also raise quail and free range chickens for eggs. This year, the campground started to take off. We are on the edge of a river that’s very unpredictable. Just two weeks ago, a flood washed away two years worth of work. I’m very fortunate that I didn’t lose my house as well. Everything is transitional. Everything changes all the time, and all I can try to do is keep moving forward.

— Don Robertson of Marblemount, Washington

The PBS NewsHour’s Megan McGrew and Daniel Cooney contributed to this report.

Correction: Contributor Brian Easley’s name was previously misspelled.

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