The descriptions of the conditions are stark. “No sunlight for long periods.” “No personal space whatsoever.” “No escape from workplace conflicts.”
What is this? Some depressing document from the Department of Public Health, describing the gloom Bostonians will face this winter, as cold and dark confine us to our homes, without even daylight saving time or patio dining to save us?
Actually, it’s not about us, not technically anyway. It’s an analysis of the psychological challenges of submarine life facing Navy recruits.
The good news for sailors: No one gets assigned to a submarine who doesn’t want to be there.
The bad news for Bostonians, above sea level though we may be: Most of us can’t simply opt out.
The isolation brought on by the pandemic already has been unbearable, and that’s with good weather, when we could chat with neighbors, eat outside, send kids on bike rides, and get a lift from nature. It’s frightening to think how much harder the mental battle will become when there’s four hours of daylight, our cars are snowed in, the siren call of food and drink is that much louder, and we can’t even enjoy the moral superiority of shaming people caught in viral beach videos.
With therapists already working overtime and the restorative limits of sourdough apparent, it’s time to turn to experts with particularly relevant experience for what we’re facing. Namely, submariners, a NASA psychologist, and crews who have wintered at one of the most remote spots on Earth, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.
Harvard astronomer and physicist John Kovac has made 28 trips to the South Pole, one that lasted 14 months and spanned the winter, when it’s dark 24 hours a day.
“You want to avoid what they call down there ‘getting toasty,’” he said.
Toasty sounds so cozy, but in fact it’s a phenomenon that reportedly derives its name from a piece of toast that’s burnt (out), and it sets in during the last half or third of the winter when personnel at the South Pole station become fixated on “When is it going to be over? When is it going to be over?” Kovac said.
“It becomes very debilitating,” he said.
Asked how to avoid it here on the 42nd parallel north, he said having a sense of mission helps.
Note to self: Find a mission.
Creating events to look forward to also can reduce Groundhog Day syndrome, said Bill Coughran, the South Pole area manager. He has spent six winters in Antarctica, and says it’s a “gulper” when the last plane out for the season leaves, meaning there’s no way out until the summer crew returns nine months later.
“You should have something you are looking forward to that is soon enough you can get excited about,” he said. “The thing you are really waiting for is November — the end point of a South Pole winter — but in two weeks it’s going to be a full moon.”
A full moon?? Save the date!
The midwinter conditions at the South Pole station are so dark and isolated that NASA is studying their effects to help astronauts on a future Mars mission, said Thomas Williams, a clinical psychologist for the Human Factors and Behavioral Performance Element in NASA’s Human Research Program.
NASA-funded researchers have noticed something that Bostonians should keep in mind as we struggle to fight creeping grouchiness: When isolation worsens your mood, it seems to have more to do with the loss of positive thoughts than a growth in negative thoughts.
And the more isolated we become, he warned, the more likely we are to lose those crucial positive thoughts.
From her desolate perch at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in Arizona’s desolate Sonoran Desert, public affairs officer Amy C. Oliver said the key is to keep busy, but not by working 20 hours a day. “You need to focus on something that is not related to your job,” she said.
She, for example, has started learning about whales. “I’ve been really stuck on the mother whale to baby relationship,” she said. She mentioned that Tahlequah, an orca who gained international fame when she swam with her dead calf for 17 days in 2018, is experiencing better times. “She is pregnant again,” Oliver said.
Closer to home, people are dreading winter already, in the heat of August, and dreaming up means of escape: building in-home workout spaces, buying outdoor winter gear, putting in fire pits, and ordering outdoor heat lamps, the must-have patio accessory in COVID times.
“I’m starting to freak out about Hanukkah and Christmas,” said Kelley Cabral, a preschool teacher in Brookline, who is researching heat lamps so she can socialize with friends and family when it turns cold.
As if more proof were needed of the similarity between life on a submarine and in a Boston home in pandemic times, here’s a diary entry from Peter Kochera, who served on the USS Growler, a cruise missile submarine, from 1962-63.
“For a while my biggest problem was eating constantly,” he wrote in his diary, “but I’m in the process of shrinking my stomach + exercising. I probably weigh 175 # with my beard, that is.”
And perhaps the best advice for family harmony in close quarters comes from another 1960s Growler veteran.
“The biggest thing is being mellow,” said Michael Perrett, now a retired senior fellow from Raytheon. “There’s going to be things that happen that you have no control over, so there’s no sense getting aggravated.”