Living in Isolation: Sub Lessons

I’ve watched a number of news reports on the challenges people face while living under stay-at-home directives. It is indeed difficult to live in close proximity to other people (even loved family members) for extended periods.

But after serving in the US submarine force, I believe there are rules to living in tight quarters that other people can use during the isolated living of stay-at-home orders.

Submarine life was lived in a 30-odd foot diameter steel tube with 120 to 145 other men ( in my time in the Naval Service; now women are serving proudly in the submarine force). Every square foot was and is used for something critical to the boat; the smallest apartment still provides more space than an individual’s personal space in a submarine.

We spent well over 70 days at any one time submerged. The sun and sky could only be seen when I brought the boat to periscope depth. Interestingly, I always had crewmen asking to take a look out to see the water and sky; at the same time, other crewmen did not want to be reminded there was any life outside the boat.

One had to adapt to the situation. And adaptation is required for anyone living under the current stay-at-home quarantine.

With all of that as background, consider the following recommendations:

Create Personal Space

As mentioned above, personal space in a submarine is extremely limited. It basically came down to your bunk. Every bunk had a curtain – except the Captain (who had his own stateroom) and the junior non-rated enlisted guys who had to hot bunk (share the same bunk due to working alternate watches – yes, it was as bad as it sounds; as an officer I never had to do that).

When your curtain was closed, no one would disturb you – except when required by an operational need. Generally it was for sleeping time but it was also a place to read when time allowed. It was a refuge from the stress and continued presence of other people.

Everyone needs a place where they can be left alone. If needed, agree with other family members what everyone considers their personal space and how and when they want to be left alone.

Deal with the Bad Days

I learned early on there would be days I woke up in a bad mood. Rather than fighting that mood, I learned to accept it trusting that the next day or a day after that I’d be back to feeling normal. But, and this is the key point, being in a bad mood didn’t give me the right to impose that on anyone else.

That seemed to be true for everyone onboard. Military good order and discipline had a good deal to do with it, of course. But there was also an understanding by everyone what it took to live in isolated close quarters for extended periods.

There was one exception to this behavior. And that was when someone verbalized self-pity.

If someone felt bad about their situation (e.g., being at sea on Christmas) and let others know how they felt, they would be ripped by the crew. Everyone felt the same way and no one needed to hear about it.

A certain amount of stoicism is needed at times.

Create Your Own Happiness

Being underway submerged is tough: long days, watch standing, training, drills, qualification requirements, and often too little sleep. And yet, individuals found things that made themselves happy.

When I was on a boomer (missile sub), the ship’s practice was that sailors could wear their civilian clothes on Sunday. A good number took advantage of that practice and there were always smiles from those wearing them.

For me, it wasn’t civilian clothes but sleep. My first boat was an attack boat. I stood one in three watches (six hours on, twelve off). Sleep cycles didn’t interfere with operations or training; on many occasions I’d get off the mid watch at 0600, try to get some sleep and be awakened by the executive officer for training at 0800; then there were drills in the afternoon – those were very long days.

So I looked forward to standing the 1800-2400 (6PM to midnight) watch. I knew I’d get off and get six to seven hours of sleep. I usually read for one hour before sleep. It may not seem like much, but you can’t believe how much satisfaction I got from one good night of sleep out of every three.

Maybe it’s a television show that you watch, maybe preparing and cooking a special meal – just create something for yourself that gives you happiness, and make sure you do it at least once every week.

Find Something New to Learn

There were always copies of Newsweek and Time laying around the wardroom (in particular, in the head aka toilet). For those too young to have heard of them, they were weekly print magazines.

For about the first month underway, I would read the news articles and commentary, movie reviews, and sports. Then, after about one to two months, articles I thought I would never read (e.g., fashion) became sought after. Books in the ship’s library were devoured. When one is isolated, new sources of mental stimulation were critical.

Now you at home may have cable and internet. But what are you watching? The “must-watch” series you never were able to watch might be a start. But there’s a good deal of things to learn.

Right now, if you have Comcast, they’re offering free material including Curiosity Stream and The Great Courses. I’m watching a video series on ancient history in The Great Courses, but there is a long list of topics available.

If not video, read something new. War and Peace is a good long read – if you can force yourself through about the first 100 pages. If not that book, find something else that challenges and intrigues you.

Don’t waste this time. Besides a diversion from the daily news that is terrible, learning something new will give you new perspectives.

All of the above will not change the world we live in. Mass unemployment and an economy in freefall; a dangerous virus that is still spreading; a national government appearing incapable or unwilling to show leadership – all these are realities.

But as individuals, we can do what we can do: live life the best we can – hopeful when we can be, stoic when we must be.

Please stay safe.


Author: Tom

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