How I Fought Quarantine Depression by Learning Something New

Trying new things can help you feel more purposeful and sure of yourself

Quy Ma
Quy Ma
Oct 27, 2020 · 12 min read
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Photo by Good Free Photos on Unsplash

One Long Road

Maybe all of the above.

I remember when we moved to Utah a few years ago, we drove through West Texas to get there. And let me tell you — It’s a very long, very boring drive. It’s 10 hours of everything looking the same. Same road. Same bush. Same desert. Same sky. Same everything.

To me, pandemic life reminds me of that long drive through West Texas. Life has become one long road in the middle of a desert that never ends. There’s no beginning. There’s no end. There’s just the road and you moving forward.

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Photo by Greg Schneider on Unsplash

I’m a homebody, also known as a person “whose life centers on the home.” For hobbies, I enjoy watching TV on my comfy couch, playing video games in my office, and working out at home as opposed to going to the gym. The feeling of dread brought about from being home all day at the start of the pandemic that everyone else felt didn’t hit me too badly at the beginning.

Regarding COVID-19, we didn’t want to risk infecting anyone on accident and having that guilt weigh on us nor risk burdening the healthcare system. During the pandemic, we wanted to do our part to help protect our community. We stayed home.

We ordered delivery on everything, worked from home, and stopped going out to eat. I thought to myself, “I could get used to this!”

But eventually, cabin fever kicked in. Hard.

Quarantine Blues

But it wasn’t enough.

These were physical solutions for my physical needs during this pandemic. What I needed were mental solutions. I wanted to keep my mental health sound and my mind purposeful. And COVID-19 was testing my sanity.

I got bored so I bought more stuff online. A few months in, I quickly realized the damage I was inflicting on my bank account and stopped. I put in more hours at work so I could bury myself with something to do. I burned myself out.

I yearned for traveling. Fly off to a beach or an ocean somewhere. Somewhere warm since winter is coming soon here in Utah. Winters here are gloomy, dark, and cloudy and the skies are devoid of sunshine.

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Photo by Jessica Pamp on Unsplash

Depression overwhelmed me throughout the rest of the summer. I became more irritable. More tired. I fought with my wife more frequently. I sulked and felt sorry for myself. Felt sorry for me and everyone else that we had to deal with anti-mask idiots who were prolonging the situation.

Sometimes, I even forgot what day of the week it was. Work projects and home life had blended. Checking my emails in the mornings felt the same as checking my emails in the evening hours. I was feeling overwhelmed by reading the constant barrage of news daily. And nothing good ever comes from reading the news in 2020.

I felt trapped.

Learning Something New

Like many of you during this time, I sought an outlet. I needed to escape my mind. I needed to channel my stress, anxiety, and depression elsewhere. I didn’t want to feel trapped anymore, but I had trouble trying to figure out what to do.

I remember my boss telling me that she made a New Year’s Resolution at the start of the year. She wanted to learn something new every year. This year, she took singing lessons. She explained that she to do something she never tried before and to push her growth boundaries. I admired her courage!

Recently, I read in a depression-fighting article about how “when you do the same thing day after day, you use the same parts of your brain.” The article references a study from the NHS and states that “learning new skills can also improve your mental wellbeing.” The article details the benefits of learning new skills:

“Boosting self-confidence and raising self-esteem.”

“Helping you to build a sense of purpose.”

“Helping you to connect with others.”

In another article, HBR says learning new things helps us “develop feelings of competence and self-efficacy.” Learning something new increases self-worth. In other words, it gives us purpose. Goals.

Learning new things was the solution. But some questions remain in my head: What new skills should I learn? Can I even do it? Where do I even start?

Astrophotography

I dreamed of becoming an astronomer badly. That dream was dashed when I took Astronomy 101 in college and nearly failed. In school, science was never really my strong suit and I didn’t realize how much physics there was in Astronomy. I thought we would be pointing out constellations in the night sky. Instead, we were calculating planets’ orbit trajectories! Get me out!

But my awe for the starry nights never stopped. A few months ago, I found a person on Instagram that was very talented with space art. And when I say very talented, I mean extremely talented.

Her name is Cathrin Machin, an artist from Australia. Seeing her beautiful pieces of space art mesmerized me and brought back nostalgic memories of my childhood love for all things space. It reignited my passion for astronomy (I highly recommend for everyone to follow her work on Instagram, by the way. She’s amazing!)

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Kickstarter — Cathrin Machin, Glowing Galaxies

Because of the newly acquired inspirations for the beauty of the cosmos, I went on a space documentary binge, eating up shows such as Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey and Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking.

During the pandemic, I spent more evenings staring up at the stars at night on my patio, wondering if I could capture the same beauty of space on camera as Cathrin does with her art. I thought about taking up astrophotography as a new hobby. But self-doubt gripped me…Me? An astrophotographer? Get out of here!

Growing up, I never experienced a good opportunity to practice amateur astronomy. I grew up in a major metropolitan area in Texas. Light pollution dominated the night skies, making it hard for the stars to shine through. My father bought me a telescope, but he didn’t understand the instructions well enough to help me use it. The telescope sat idly in our storage room for years.

Now that I live in Utah as an adult, where the population is smaller and light pollution is substantially less than Southeast Texas, the possibilities to capture the night sky opened up for me.

But I ran into problems before I could begin my new hobby: First, I didn’t have any of the equipment.

Two, I’m not a good photographer. I had never taken a picture with anything other than smartphones.

Third, I was an analyst by trade. I seriously doubted I had an ounce of creativity zen in me. Spreadsheets, rows of data, and information overload filled my professional life. I don’t know the first thing about picture taking, art, or techniques. But I kicked those thoughts aside.

“Dude, just see if you can do it,” I thought to myself.

Astrophotography is notoriously expensive as far as hobbies go. For years, the pricing served as a deterrent for me to enter into the hobby. Additionally, learning astrophotography can be quite intimidating for beginners. I combed through Reddit, watched YouTube video guides, and read as much as I could about using the equipment and steps to becoming an astrophotographer.

I bought a DSLR camera off eBay, an ultrawide lens from someone locally, and everything else online. I bought used where I could. But many of the merchants for my new stuff were backlogged on orders or out of inventory. It took weeks for some stuff to get to my house. I guess I wasn’t the only one trying to learn something new!

I continued to study astrophotography techniques as I waited for my stuff. I taught myself basic photoshop skills for post-processing, something that seemed foreign to me months prior.

I read up on information for my incoming DSLR camera and how to use it properly. I learned all about aperture, ISO settings, and how long an exposure shot should be.

When I finally got my equipment together in one place, I was ecstatic! Using an app called Light Pollution Map, I looked up an area near my city that looked ideal and set out, eager to capture a stunning shot of the Milky Way galaxy.

When I found the spot, I nervously set up my tripod, fumbling through a few shots. An hour later, clouds ended up covering the sky and I went home. After some image processing, here was my first shot ever of the Milky Way:

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Thistle, Utah : Picture Provided by Author — Quy Ma

“Okay, not bad. Not the best, but not bad,” I told myself. “At least I got a meteor by accident!”

I posted my first picture on my social media profiles and got a few admirers. My wife even proudly printed out the photo to hang in our house!

I was encouraged, motivated, and most importantly, pleased with myself. Something had sparked inside me. I vowed to get better at astrophotography. I read up on more astrophotography techniques, insistent on improving my methods.

When I felt that the time was right, I ventured out again and tried again. I was more sure, more confident this time around. I set up the tripod in a secluded campground in the middle of the Utah desert. I snapped away.

Here was the outcome of the second photoshoot:

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Milky Way Galaxy in Utah : Picture Provided by Author — Quy Ma

It came out beautifully. I grinned from ear-to-ear when I posted it on my social media profiles. I thought to myself, “I created this.”

It felt liberating.

I received compliments and praise from friends and family about my newfound skills. My friend, who happened to practice photography as a hobby, noticed and asked me for tips on how to begin dabbling in astrophotography. I offered to take him out with me for a trip and teach him about astrophotography if he taught me a few tips about regular photography.

My next goal is to capture the Andromeda Galaxy, the closest galaxy to our Milky Way, with my DSLR. After that, maybe a trailing star photo. Or maybe a cool shot of the moon! Nebulas? The possibilities are endless!

Motivation and purpose are integral to mental health. I can’t help but think about how fulfilling this new hobby has been for me. It’s been helpful to channel my quarantine negative energy into something I had never thought I could do in a million years!

Writing a Book

I had written many essays, arguments, and papers for my major, Political Science, back in college before. I had always figured I was destined to write for work, not for leisure.

I wanted to get into the habit of writing. But what to write about? I needed an easy idea. I looked around the room for ideas and rested my eyes upon my two Siberian Huskies, who were panting at me happily. The idea clicked. My pups!

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Iggy(L) & Crixus (R) : Picture Provided by Author

I wrote a quick, short book about training Siberian Huskies. To be honest, the finished product was mediocre writing and the content was a little dry. But hey, it was my first time writing something for fun! The fact that I was writing this book was empowering in itself.

I had written the book just to see how self-publishing on the Amazon Kindle store worked. However, after I completed the first draft, I hesitated. I wanted a break.

I didn’t go through the editing process and ended up putting the draft away for months, mistakenly thinking I would pick it back up only after a few weeks.

Months later, when the quarantine depression started to overwhelm me, I decided it was time to revisit the editing process after a friend’s encouragement. After editing it, I designed my book cover and self-published it on Amazon.

I smiled to myself when Amazon sent me an email, congratulating me for publishing it on their store. Filled with satisfaction, I was proud of myself and proud of my accomplishment.

I waited for my first sale anxiously. Within 24 hours, I got an email, letting me know someone had bought and reviewed my book. Wow! I eagerly zipped to Amazon to read my first customer’s review:

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Amazon, Screenshot Provided by Author

Ouch! I felt demoralized. Defeated. Humiliated. I thought to myself, “And you thought you had a chance of writing? Ha!”

After a day of self-pity, I started to see a few more sales trickle in. Really? People are still buying this? They want to read my stuff? A thought came to me:

It was about the fact that I created this. Me. I did something new.

Even if the book didn’t perform to my expectations, the fact that I took a chance on myself and self-published a book on Amazon brought about an immense boost to my self-confidence. Who cares about what that one critical reviewer said? I set out on a goal to write a book and I completed it!

Writing a book gave me purpose and gave me the motivation I needed to continue writing more stuff. It eventually led to my eventual foray into blogging. A few months later, here I am!

I’m eager to continue writing. I’m motivated to push out more quality articles, more quality books, and more quality emails. I plan on writing every single day, even if it’s just for 15 minutes a day, to improve my skills.

By practicing mindful growth as I move forward, I’ll be able to turn around and see how far I’ve progressed. I’ll see all the roadblocks I’ve overcome to get to where I am. This will help fuel a sense of purpose and direction, making it easier to break up the monotonous direction of the life I described earlier.

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Photo by Chris Spiegl on Unsplash

Teachings

But the quarantine proved me wrong. I learned more about myself in this process. The quarantine taught me I had the potential to learn new things that are outside of my comfort zone. It taught me that I was capable of doing things I could never see myself doing in the first place.

By day, I’m a data analyst — crunching numbers, processing information, and interpreting my findings. By night, I’m a creator — capturing glimpses of the cosmos and writing my random thoughts to a bunch of strangers online.

The quarantine has taught me to never give up on learning something new, even when the world seems like one long road in a sea of sameness. It has taught me coping mechanisms to overcome any self-doubt about my potential and heavy stress that could impact my mental well-being.

It has made me feel more purposeful and sure of myself. It’s taught me the importance of learning new things, making mistakes, and establishing a growth mindset, no matter the circumstances we find ourselves in.

It has taught me how to be a better me.

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness and fulfillment.

Quy Ma

Written by

Quy Ma

Texan living in Utah. Market Researcher. INFJ. 1st Gen Child of Refugees. Empath. 6x Top Writer. Obsessed with unlocking people’s potential. Pragmatist.

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment. Join thousands of others making the climb on Medium.

Quy Ma

Written by

Quy Ma

Texan living in Utah. Market Researcher. INFJ. 1st Gen Child of Refugees. Empath. 6x Top Writer. Obsessed with unlocking people’s potential. Pragmatist.

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment. Join thousands of others making the climb on Medium.

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