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Why 'Survivor' Is My Lifeline During COVID-19 Isolation

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March 12, 2020 was the beginning of lockdown for me. At the time we were told the isolation measures would be two weeks, but my heightened fear response and anticipatory dread told me it would be much longer. I felt physically sick, not knowing when I would see the people I care about in person again, worrying that perhaps I would never see them again. I told myself that my brain stem was overreacting as usual and everyone just needed to stay at home for a little while. Everything would be OK, I repeated. My insides felt knotted and my heart threatened to leave my body. I didn’t believe things would ever be OK again, no matter how much I said it.

That weekend I fell apart. 

At the outset of lockdown, I knew I needed a plan for managing this situation, something to help me carry on day to day. One part of this plan was thinking about distractions that might offer me some relief from the volley of intense emotions and intrusive thoughts I was sure to experience (and have experienced). Sure there were a lot of creative activities I could do, but it wasn’t reasonable to expect I would have the energy or inclination to do those kinds of things all the time. Sometimes I’d need to rest and simply be in my apartment.  

I signed up for Disney Plus and Hulu, initially thinking that watching Disney movies during downtimes might help take my mind off things, but I quickly discovered that many Disney movies and shows stir up too many intense emotions, memories and trigger out younger parts.

During this particular time I need to be extra careful about watching anything triggering. The problem is sometimes I don’t know if something will trigger me until it’s too late. I can’t avoid triggers in life and I do attempt work through them when I encounter them, but there’s so much I’m already dealing with in this moment that I don’t think it’s wise to needlessly add to my stress levels if I can help it. That’s just good self care. 

Back in February, I saw an ad that “Survivor” was in its 40th season. That sparked my curiosity because although at the time I didn’t consider myself a diehard “Survivor fan,” I did really enjoy the show when I had watched it many years ago. A little searching around and I found that there were 34 seasons of “Survivor” on Hulu and the rest on CBS Access. I told myself that the lockdown would be over before I got through all the seasons and posted a joke about it on Instagram saying to send help and/or cats if it wasn’t. The idea of having something consistent to watch while isolating on my own was appealing because it offered a kind of regulation that I find difficult to achieve even at the best of times. I also knew, from experience, that “Survivor” wouldn’t trigger me so it felt like a safe choice. That’s not to say I don’t have reactions to certain seasons and episodes, but they are manageable.

Two months into this lockdown I’m just starting Season 22: Redemption Island, and I would proudly call myself a diehard fan of the show and happily talk about it to anyone. But what is it about “Survivor” that I’m connecting to and how is it helping me through these challenging times?

Human Connection and Interaction

I miss people! It’s really hitting me hard how much spending time with people and exploring the city helped me to cope. I very rarely stayed home on weekends, even after a busy work week. Some people think of me as being quiet, and I guess I can be depending on what part is out or what’s going on with me emotionally, but I’m a very social person. I love one on one time with friends or getting together in small groups. It feels very healing and necessary to me.

The social aspect of “Survivor” is a big draw for me. I love when people on it connect and form natural alliances. I love seeing people make lasting friendships or romantic connections, such as Rob Mariano and Amber Brkich who fell in love on “Survivor All-Stars” and are still happily married and have four children. And yes, it’s “Survivor,” so there is a lot of backstabbing and blindsiding that happens, but there are also very authentic connections that emerge. It’s pretty great just hearing people talk too. The unscripted banter between people feels comforting to me. Sometimes harsh words are exchanged but I generally don’t feel too triggered by it, perhaps because within the perimeters of the game it feels safe. There have been people on “Survivor” who I feel are genuinely good humans and some who I can’t even fathom being around, but that’s how it is in life too. 

Contestants on “Survivor” come from all walks of life, one reason why the show is so compelling. The diversity of life experiences, abilities, jobs, ages, genders, cultures, races, faiths, values and motivations in one season of “Survivor” is noticeable, and when looked at over the years it’s impressive. I love that this game attracts so many different types of people and that people who might not normally interact with one another come together, for better or worse. Sometimes the most unlikely bonds are formed and that is beautiful to see. There is not one type of person who wins “Survivor.” There is not one strategy that works every time. Everything is so dependent on the group of people who are assembled for a particular season, the interactions that happen and so many other variables. Anything can happen and that element of surprise is captivating.

There are many inspiring stories that emerge from “Survivor,” from people with touching backstories and reasons for being on the show, people who surprise you by beating all the odds and people who seem to transform with each episode. On day one of each season you cannot tell who will win. No one can tell the potential of each person by looking at someone. This is true on “Survivor,” and in life.

Cirie Fields is one contestant who comes to mind. She was a self-described coach potato who had never been camping  and yet the first time she appeared on “Survivor” she finished forth. She went out to compete on “Survivor” three more times after that, her life forever changed by the show. She may not have been the strongest physically but she was mentally sharp, played a savvy social game and had the emotional presence to ride out the ups and downs of being in a tribe on “Survivor”. Some Survivors go on to do good things after the show, inspired by their experience in it. For some this includes motivational speaking, charity work, mentoring and more. Ethan Zohn, winner of “Survivor: Africa,” co-founded Grassroots Soccer to raise money and awareness in the fight against HIV/AIDS after winning a reward to deliver medical supplies and HIV test kits to a hospital in Kenya. Rupert Boneham, who first appeared in “Survivor: Pearl Islands,” established Rupert’s Kids for “at-risk teens” after being declared a fan favorite and awarded one million on “Survivor: America’s Tribal Council.” There are good people in this world and “Survivor” reminds me of this.

Travel and Adventure

From a visual perspective, there is a lot of gorgeous scenery in “Survivor” to take in. With every season a new destination, I feel like I’m traveling the world in my mind. Due to social distancing and sheltering in place measures, I haven’t gone beyond my own neighborhood since early March so it’s wonderful to escape to locations across the globe. I’m in awe of the beautiful diversity of cultures and ecosystems captured in “Survivor” and it fills me with so much wonder and joy. Some of my favorite moments on “Survivor” are when contestants stop to take in the landscape they find themselves in, being in the moment and setting aside the game for awhile in appreciation of what’s around them. Sometimes this takes the form of one person getting up early to watch the sun rise or going on a hike on their last day. Over the years more than one person has acknowledged the once in a lifetime opportunity “Survivor” gave them, as they stop to reflect on the amazing things they were able to see and experience. Other times, several contestants choose to pause the game and take in the moment together, whether it it’s picnicking on the edge of a volcano in Vanuatu, swimming with stingless jellyfish in Palau, living amongst Aztec ruins in Guatemala or dining in Shaolin Temple in China, their delight in the moment and gratitude for the experience is palatable.  

I haven’t travelled internationally for several years as health concerns and complex PTSD have got in the way, but I love traveling and have been lucky to visit many places in the past, including many parts of the U.S. and Canada, Greece, Israel, Egypt, Taiwan, Cyprus, France, England and more. Watching “Survivor” has re-kindled my desire to travel and motivates me to keep healing so that one day I can safely and confidently travel again. Panic attacks, flashbacks and many other symptoms of Complex PTSD leave me feeling stuck and keep me from living the life I imagine for myself. Once I’ve done more trauma work and I’m better able to manage those symptoms I can’t wait to nurture my adventurous spirit.

Essentials, Uncertainty and Gratitude

In the early days of lockdown so many items that many of us take for granted were next to impossible to find. Previously well-stocked grocery and drug stores become a thing of a past, and certain items, like toilet paper and cleaning supplies, seemed to be permanently out of stock. Food staples were in short supply as people rushed to get supplies in to comply with the stay at home order. Slots for food delivery service disappeared in the blink of an eye. I left my apartment once a week to go for a short walk and get essentials from the grocery store, pharmacy and hardware store. Every time I stepped over the threshold and shut the door behind me I immediately began a disinfecting process which became a carefully choreographed routine over the weeks. My apartment became a sanitized bubble. My heart would beat fast as I stepped outside, but once back in my apartment I could let my guard down a little. I appreciated my living environment in a whole new way. I also appreciated warm showers and found them helpful for calming down, but my gratitude for them has magnified in the past few weeks. The ability to get clean and to feel soothed by the warm water is such a simple but extraordinary pleasure. Peanut butter sandwiches have become one of my favorite meals, easy in my stomach yet still nourishing. It’s the simple things that feel like luxuries. Essentials are blessings. 

On “Survivor” fire is life, without it contestants cannot boil water for drinking or cook food, and they have no way to keep warm. Their makeshift shelters, some so broken and unstable that they offer little to no protection, become their haven, even if only symbolically. When they win supplies to improve their shelters, for example tools, bedding and tarps, they suddenly have a safe place to retreat to. In some seasons, the pride and gratitude contestants feel for the shelters they’ve made together is obvious. Experiencing the coronavirus pandemic while watching people on “Survivor” ration rice, competing for items such as flint, food, toilet paper, blankets and soap is surreal. There were times when things hit a little too close to home. Obviously there are major differences. I’m in an apartment unit, I can turn on my tap for water, I have more access to essentials. The experience on “Survivor” lasts a maximum of 39 days for anyone who makes it to the end whereas I don’t know how much longer NYC will be in lockdown for. Still I can’t help but notice the parallels between the game “Survivor” and the realities of this time. 

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We are all living with an uncertainty that is stronger than what most of us face in our day-to-day lives. Some of us have experienced intense periods of uncertainty before, but there’s something about this that feels worse, perhaps a combination of the scale, variables and mix of unknowns. There are some things in our control but many of the larger decisions are out of our hands. I don’t know when NYC will reopen. I don’t know when I will be able to see my friends, colleagues and therapist again. I don’t know if I will lose my job. I don’t know if loved ones will get sick and if they do, whether they will recover. I can’t prevent bad things from happening.

On “Survivor” no one knows what will take them out of the game. Someone could be doing great one day and the next they are pulled from the game because of an injury or illness. People can think they are secure in the game and suddenly get blindsided at Tribal Council and are sent home. A contestant can start off being thrilled to be on “Survivor” and then one day mentally breakdown and end up asking to quit the game. I relate to the emotional upheavals, particularly these past few weeks. The fight to keep going and stay one more day resonates with me strongly as I often find myself battling suicide ideation. Determining what and who to trust, clinging onto hope and never giving up are all part of the daily grind for me. I’m almost constantly in “Survivor” mode.


My brain registers the gritty aspects of “Survivor” that feel so familiar to me, but I also crave lightness. Humor is a weapon against the darkness that can creep in the hours I spend alone, particularly at night when the quiet and stillness are too much. I’ve laughed out loud watching “Survivor” this time, something I don’t remember doing before. I’m not sure if my sense of humor has shifted over the years or if nervous system is so desperate for a release but I am thankful for it.

Watching Rupert Boneham pillage the other teams supplies in the opening of Pearl Islands spoke to a mischievous part of me. It was fun watching the tribes trying to barter for supplies, competing against one another. The all-woman alliance, led by Parvati Shallow, in “Fans vs. Favorites “had me laughing aloud on numerous occasions, in particular when Natalie Bolton talked Erik Reichenbach into giving her his immunity necklace only for herself and three other women to vote him out. Even Erik laughed a little at tribal council because the ridiculousness of the situation was too funny not to react to. And every time a season comes to a close I find myself laughing at the cheesy ending as Jeff Probst leaves tribal council with the votes and goes on a highly dramatized journey back to the U.S. Video of him climbing onto a jet ski, boarding a helicopter, hopping on a boat, waving to the Statue of Liberty, flying over the Brooklyn Bridge, hailing a taxi, getting on the subway all while clutching the container holding the final votes brings a smile to my face every time. There’s so much joy in the silliness of it.

Consistency Is Reassuring

“Survivor” would not be “Survivor” without the host, Jeff Probst. His presence is dependable and welcome. You can count on him to ask the right questions and listen attentively at tribal council, call for medical if someone is sick or injured, congratulate contestants when they win reward or immunity, give people a boost when they are falling behind in a challenge and to always be a witness to the game over its 39 days. In every season you can find him wearing a “Survivor” baseball cap and clothes that look like he’s ready to head out on an archaeological dig. The way he interacts with people is genuine, but also has consistent patterns, kind and concerned at times, provoking at other times, good natured and sharp always. And of course, all the catch phrases that have become a part of pop culture, such as “the tribe has spoken.”

Anyone who has experienced trauma and is undertaking the grueling work to heal knows how critical consistency is and how much a familiar presence can settle an activated nervous system. There’s something soothing about knowing anytime I watch “Survivor,” Jeff Probst will be there and that I can count on him to be the person I’ve come to expect and admire since the first season, “Survivor: Borneo.” There’s reassurance in that. Even as the game has changed over the years with new challenges and many twists and turns (e.g. Exile Island, hidden immunity idols etc.), Jeff Probst is still a constant and that feels very grounding to me. 

I could write about “Survivor” for a lot longer, talking about the brilliance of it, the creativity and forward thinking of producer Mark Burnett and the impact the show has had on culture across the world. I could write more about my favorite (and least favorite) players, moments and locations, the challenges I love and loathe, but for now I will leave it at this, a glimpse into the very real and powerful part the show has played in my ability to manage during lockdown. There is something deeper than all of this that I’m relating to so much right now.

Currently I’m still sheltering in place in NYC. Back in March, I feared this would be the case while simultaneously telling myself there’s no way this could happen. I’m OK sometimes and not OK at other times, managing as best as I can moment to moment, but each week that goes by feels a little harder. There have been some moments of crisis, low moods and severe distress, as well as moments of healing and overcoming, and everything in between. During this time, I’ve reached out to crisis lines and almost was sent to the ER during a time of peak activation where I cried hysterically for hours and felt abandoned and in danger. Alternately, at times I have experienced quiet calm, clarity and resilience inside, reaching out to others and trying to be there for them. 

Throughout it all, “Survivor” has been the backdrop to each day that has gone by, a familiar companion at night when the busyness of the work day ends and the loneliness is unbearable, a lifeline when no other coping strategy seems to calm me down, and a reminder that the simple things in life and what we sometimes take for granted are the most important. “Survivor” connects to the resilience and fight within me, reminding me to never give up and open my heart to the limitless possibilities that exist in life. Each of us as human beings are capable of immense resilience and have more capacity than we know to endure the challenges that come our way, survive and overcome.

Lead image via Survivor Facebook page

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