How To Negotiate Living With Flatmates In India During A Pandemic

Although the lockdown is hard for everyone, it can be especially challenging for those living away from home, without family.
Image used for representational purposes only.
Image used for representational purposes only.

Ashmita, a digital marketing executive who lives in Dublin, has been crying herself to sleep ever since the international borders closed and the coronavirus pandemic unfolded across the world. “I have been missing my mother and wish I was home during this lockdown,” said the 25-year-old who lives with her flatmates in Ireland. By ‘home’, she means Kolkata, getting back to where now seems distant and uncertain.

Although she has been living away from the country for a few years, this lockdown has been especially hard, as it makes her long to be with her family instead of being with flatmates. “I haven’t been keeping well,” she said.

Narendra Kinger, a senior clinical psychologist from Mumbai, said it is natural for anxiety and stress levels to rise when one lives away from families during any period of crisis. “Everyone wants to be with loved ones during difficult times. And now that young women are unable to ‘go home’ or be with their ‘families’ and / or ‘loved ones’, it makes them feel that something is amiss. This increases stress levels and even leads to depression,” he said.

With more and more single Indian women living away from their families for work or studies, the pain of separation from loved ones during a global crisis is real. We spoke to therapists to understand how this lockdown has been affecting the mental and physical well-being of women who are living with flatmates and how they can see this phase through.

Making use of technology

It was on March 13 that Riturupa from Mumbai had last gone to her office. Initially, the self-imposed isolation didn’t feel too bad as she could step out for evening walks or groceries. “However, for the last four weeks, we have been in total lockdown. We have stocked our refrigerator and kitchen with groceries and essentials and have stopped going out completely. I am having to share all household chores with my flatmate and it can get a little tricky,” she said.

The 27-year-old analytics consultant shares a flat with two other women, one of whom left for home before the lockdown began. Since then it has been just the two girls managing the house while maintaining strict office hours for work.

Kinger said an increase in stress levels leads to the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism that causes various somatic or psychological issues, especially anxiety. In severe cases it can lead to a sense of helplessness and hopelessness and manifest as ‘panic attacks’.

“In severe cases it can lead to a sense of helplessness and hopelessness and manifest as ‘panic attacks’.”

Calling the internet a blessing in such situations, he adds that women living alone can thankfully be connected to their loved ones through phone and video calls. “Even if you are low and do not want to interact with anyone, it is advisable to call a friend or a loved one. Use technology to be virtually connected with family, friends or even therapists,” Kinger said.

For Ashmita, it has been a ‘weird isolating feeling’ to be stuck in a foreign country during the lockdown, but what has pulled her through are her weekly online sessions with her therapist. “These sessions actually bring some sense of normalcy to my life. There’s a semblance of normalcy, when everything has moved online, because my therapist has always been in India and our sessions were always over Skype,” she said.

Creating a daily routine

At a time when most of us are craving ‘normalcy’, to not be able to go out to work or college for months can be debilitating. Ruchi Ruuh, counselling psychologist and relationship coach, suggests creating a daily routine during lockdown to maintain emotional and physical wellbeing. “My advice to everyone is to create a daily plan. With all the uncertainty around us, it is wise to stick to a routine, rather than keep waiting to go back to how life was before the lockdown,” she said.

The lockdown has left Debadatta, a Ph.D student in Massachusetts, United States, demotivated and miserable. “I share my apartment with two others, but right now I am completely alone. Staying alone and away from my family is taking a toll on my mental health. It is difficult to stay focused or get work done when you’re miles away from your family in India and my plants are the only living creatures I get to talk face-to-face!” she said.

She realises her survival in her grad school and in the foreign country depends on her productivity, which has tanked miserably in these past weeks. “This lack of motivation, I think, is in part due to the shock of what is happening, coupled with the uncertainty, fear, sadness and anger. The sadness, the intense grief, sometimes feels crippling,” Debadatta said.

“She realises her survival in her grad school and in the foreign country depends on her productivity, which has tanked miserably in these past weeks”

Ruchi said although the lockdown is hard for everyone, it can be especially challenging for those living away from home. She suggests taking one day at a time, waking up on time, showering and getting dressed for work or studies, having a quick breakfast and then starting the day on a positive note. “One must also take breaks, meditate or do some form of exercise. Basically, do not treat the weekdays as holidays or spend them in despair, but treat them as normal, productive days,” she said.

Consultant clinical psychologist Sahely Gangopadhyay said our brain is wired to believe what we keep telling it. So, apart from taking one day at a time, her advice is to stop using words like ‘stuck’ or ‘hopeless’. “I have been asking women to use calming and positive sentences like ‘I am safe in my apartment or hostel’ and ‘my family members are safe in their homes’. Make a habit of saying this aloud or when talking to people on the phone, as only gratefulness can lessen our resentment of the current situation,” she said.

Dividing household chores / Communicating with flatmates

The only way to see this phase through when living with flatmates is to recognise that there is no right or wrong way of doing things. As nobody has ever had an experience of a prolonged global shutdown, it is important to be accepting of yourself if you feel overwhelmed or even irritable when you’re staying away from home and family.

Psychotherapist Mansi Poddar’s advice is to communicate with your flatmates and not assume they can read your mind. “Express your needs and let them know if you need help or support,” she said.

It is important to be flexible and not expect your life inside your house to be as it was before lockdown. “Don’t expect ‘fancy food’ everyday or to have a ‘perfectly clean home’, as this will put added pressure on you and your flatmates. And, most importantly treat yourself and your flatmates with kindness, as you are all in the same boat,” Poddar said.

Sanchari, who lives with two flatmates in Mumbai, said they were used to going out for work and getting most chores done by the help, which no longer is the case. So, now forcing flatmates to do what they don’t like can lead to tension in the house. “Although we haven’t laid down rules or divided housework yet, everything is voluntary. If one wants to clean, she cleans. If someone wants to cook dinner, she makes it. When it comes to getting groceries, whoever is going out gets things for the others as well,” said the 31-year-old, who works with the ad industry.

“Women sharing their space with flatmates should ensure that work is either equally divided or rotated on a daily basis to have an arrangement that feels like living in a family,”

Therapists however feel that though it is important to behave like responsible adults during lockdown, it is best if flatmates discuss expectations and divide duties. “Women sharing their space with flatmates should ensure that work is either equally divided or rotated on a daily basis to have an arrangement that feels like living in a family, where everyone has a role to play,” Kinger said. This makes sense when different flatmates have different work or study schedules.

Riturupa agrees that office work and meetings take up most of her time, as well as that of her flatmate’s, and it gets impossible to get chores done together. “Of course that leads to dissatisfaction with how something has been done around the house. Often, I don’t know what she expects and I do it my way, which can be annoying for her. So, we have decided to alternate our chores to reduce the monotony of either only cooking or only cleaning,” she said.

Treating the flat as your home

One of the ways the lockdown has impacted everyone is that it has left us with no avenues of escape. One cannot travel or visit friends or loved ones, go out for movies or shopping or even eat out. In this strange and difficult time, women who live with flatmates need to reassess the concept of ‘home’.

In most cases when people live in rented apartments or hostels they don’t always treat the place as their ‘permanent home’. “Women staying with flatmates, where earlier one only came home to sleep or at the most have one meal, are now having to spend 24x7 indoors with people who may have their own idiosyncrasies. This can lead to furthering a sense of isolation in the absence of warmth and affection from family,” Kinger said.

“He tells us of a client whose flatmate keeps the room locked and pretends to be busy while playing video games or using gadgets the entire day.”

He tells us of a client whose flatmate keeps the room locked and pretends to be busy while playing video games or using gadgets the entire day. He hardly communicates with his flatmates and responds in monosyllables when asked something. “I know this affects my client’s mental health as not having a supportive flatmate can feel overwhelming, more so now. One has to understand that a roommate or flatmate may need to have a conversation or plan how to divide the house chores during lockdown,” Kinger said.

“This lockdown reaffirmed the need of us staying with understanding and caring people, even if they are not family members. It also made sure that we start investing time and thought into the houses we live in and the people we share our space with,” Gangopadhyay adds.

Looking forward to weekends

Experts advise treating weekends like fun days, where flatmates can come together to watch movies or cook or play games or even just hang out and talk.

Gangopadhyay said it is time to revisit our favourite hobbies or activities that spark joy! “If you and your flatmates have had different interests, it is a nice way to introduce them to your favourite music or movies. You could also cultivate a hobby, with available resources, on weekends,” she said.

Varsha, who lives in Hyderabad with a flatmate, was used to throwing parties for friends, and now misses that vibe at home. “Hence, we dress up on weekends, cook something nice for the two of us and bring out a bottle of wine. We have some music and take pretty photos of each other. This brings a sense of normalcy to our weekends,” she said.

Poddar said this can actually be a great time to know your flatmate better. “In these uncertain times, we have to get along with those we live with. Plan movie nights on weekends and have a heart-to-heart conversation with your flatmates, as you might have with a friend. Remember, you are all in the same situation and so it’s best to be kind to each other,” she said.

As a therapist who’s been inundated with calls and emails from clients during lockdown, Ruchi has observed that single women are doing their best to remain optimistic and productive. “It is such a positive trend! Single Indian women living with flatmates are cooking, singing or even working out together on weekends. Their efforts are uplifting, not only for themselves but also for their flatmates and their families, who worry about their wellbeing all the time,” she said.

Stay prepared for health emergencies

Dr Ranjana Sharma, senior consultant obstetrics and gynecology, Indraprastha Apollo Hospital, New Delhi, says women staying away from families during lockdown need to consider all aspects of health: physical, mental and social well-being.
Dr Sharma’s suggestions:

— Pre-empt health emergencies to stay prepared for when they erupt
— Chalk out list of existing health conditions that you might have like migraine, and keep your doctor aware about your condition over tele-communication
— Keep emergency numbers ready on fast dial. These could be numbers of family or local friends, your doctor, ambulance, or any SOS contact.
— Speak to a lifestyle management expert to tone down possible health risks. This should include healthy diets, management of physical activities like yoga, focus on stress, sleep, sexual and behavioural changes.

For the latest news and more, follow HuffPost India on Twitter, Facebook, and subscribe to our newsletter.