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  • Writer's pictureColleen Markley

How to Prep for Pandemic Apocalypse without Looking Like a Wacko -and keep your relationships intact

A guide for anxious people who want to at least pretend they are normal

What I really should be doing right now is editing the book I’m trying to get published. You know, the one I wrote about a pandemic virus that ends the world (and only the women survive). In answer to your potential questions: Yes, my husband and I are happily married. No, I didn’t know we would be facing a real global pandemic that affected men more than women when I wrote it. I have often wondered about the gender differences in immunity. I am hoping to publish my book before we have an actual end to the world.

The funny thing is that a whole bunch of my friends (who either have read a draft of my book or know that I’m writing it) have asked me the last few days for advice about prepping for this potential apocalypse, or “significant disruption” to life. Apparently they know I am going to have a response when I read things like this:

“We are asking the American public to work with us to prepare, in the expectation that this could be bad,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the head of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This could be “bad”? A “significant disruption”? Now, many humans heard this and moved on with their lives. They accepted the main advice from the CDC to wash your hands and they went back to work. The rest of us did a double-take. Wash your hands? Haven’t you already been doing that? Were you raised by wolves that washing hands is a new idea?

Those of us with anxiety about pandemics (and politics and climate change and everything else we read in the news) have raw, red, cracked and bleeding hands because we have been washing and using antibacterial hand sanitizers every time we touch a grocery cart or the pen to sign our credit card slip in a store. We are the ones sneaking hand sanitizer in our pocket after we shake hands at church during the exchange of the peace (and I admit I have little mental peace after I shake hands with half a dozen people, even church people). Just washing hands is not a helpful directive. We anxious humans need something to do. We need to prepare. To try to make sure that we’ve done everything possible to avoid all types of illness, so that when they create the made-for-tv movie about this pandemic we are not the character who ignores all the warnings and goes about their regular life and winds up dying in act one.

Preparation keeps us anxious people safe because it gives us control. However, we anxious souls often need to live with the non-anxious people.

I’m married to one of the calmer humans, and despite ours being a happy marriage, our tug of war about what we should be doing in case of emergency is very different. When my children were small I was the one organizing “go-bags” and trying to remember to update their toddler sized clothing in case we needed to leave home in a hurry to escape hurricane, or flood, or zombies. The husband nodded and ignored me. We haven’t needed the go bag (yet), and it sat on a high shelf until the dog grew tall enough to jump up and grab it, open the zipper with his furry snout and paws, and eat 10,000 calories of emergency rations. The husband raised an eyebrow. I ordered dog food for the next go bag. Obviously I had forgotten my furry companion needed emergency rations also. I learned from my prepping lesson.

So, in order to create space between the place that my brain lives (a constant heightened sense of impending doom), along with the space that my husband lives (“don’t worry — it will be fine”) here is my list of things I will be doing that will make me feel prepared for apocalypse, but also not threaten the bonds of our marriage. Opposites attract, but can also polarize toward grounds for divorce. I will save my family from pandemic apocalypse and keep my marriage intact, as I am prepper, planner, and sanity-savior rolled into one.

The Basics:

1. Prescription medication. The humans in my house pretty much just take vitamins and are medication-free. The dog, however, has a long list of meds. If I’m trapped in my house I need to make sure the anxious dog doesn’t turn into Cujo. I’m ordering three months of meds and tucking them in the kitchen cabinet. Small item, doesn’t take up much space, and we will eventually use it anyway. Done.

2. Regular meds. I sort of needed to restock these anyway. I couldn’t figure out why my headache wasn’t going away the other day, and then realized that my bottle of Tylenol expired in 2013. We also only have bandaids with Dora the Explorer on them leftover from around the same time period. I am replenishing the basic first aid kit stuff as well as Tylenol, Advil, Immodium (see also #3), Benadryl, Mucinex D, Robitussin Cough, and the good kind of Sudafed that you can only get in my homestate of New Jersey with a retinal scan and a note from your mom that you’re not making meth.

3. Toilet paper. This was the story out of Hong Kong that started my freakout radar. There were fistfights over TP? OMG. What if I couldn’t find my environmentally correct brand of TP? What if I had to buy something that would remind me of how much wood pulp I am consuming when I wipe my scared tush? What if I got to the store and there was nothing left except that horrible safe-for-septic one-ply? I’m stockpiling a bunch of TP. Larger and harder to find storage for it in my house, but worth it. And again, we’ll eventually use it, apocalypse or not.

4. Clean-Up in Aisle Seven. I’ve been through the routine before of one family member getting sick and trying desperately to make sure it doesn’t go any further in the household. If someone does get sick, I need to have all my cleaning supplies ready to go. Bleach wipes. Nitrile gloves. Hand sanitizer. Paper towels. Tissues. Garbage bags to get rid of all of the previous items once they have contagious germs on them. Laundry detergent. Dishwasher detergent. The basics for showering and returning to cleaner selves in shampoo, soap, etc. Pandemic apocalypse? I want to make sure my hair looks amazing. Again, all of these things will eventually be used anyway. I just need to make a little room in the closet to fit them in here. This is why we left the apartment in the city and moved to the suburbs anyway, right? So I could buy more than one roll of paper towels at a time? And didn’t have to store the toaster under the bed?

5. A Few of My Favorite Things. So I spent the last two days thinking about what I would miss if the world economy stopped working. Just kidding, I spent the last two years thinking about this as I wrote my book about what the world looks like twenty years after a global pandemic and only the women are in charge of everything — government, education, climate change decisions…. It’s a lovely place in my head. But what are the things they do without? What would I want to have on hand if I couldn’t just order everything from the internet and have it delivered in 48 hours? I’m a simple human. I want my favorite tea. My favorite lip balm. My favorite tampons for my least favorite time of the month. Popcorn, my kryptonite snack. Wine for me. Whisky for the husband. Cinnamon for my oatmeal. Again, I’ll use it all eventually, apocalypse or not. This is the refrain I tell my (calm) husband when he asks about the closet door that doesn’t close because there is a lot of stuff bursting out of the bottom. But if I’m quarantined in my house for three months (where I go in my disaster brain), I’m going to want to be able to keep smiling, and that means I need my lip balm to prevent cracked and chapped lips. I have priorities. And I’m good with that.

Next Level: Ok, up to now, you’re probably all with me. From here out, only the truly anxious are going to keep nodding and taking notes on their shopping list.

For one thing, most of us don’t have unlimited budgets to satisfy every whim purchase. If we need to make a decision between upgrading our iphone (and btw, anything other than the new 11 is really hard to get, because, hello, China) and buying a hazmat suit, we’re gonna weigh the possibilities and probabilities and go with…

6. Masks. These are not expensive, but are hard to find. 3M makes the best of these (the gold standard is called N95 and they are sold out all over the place). If you have them already, awesome. If you have extras, consider sharing with your neighbors, friends, family. How many do you really need? If your entire town comes down with a pandemic virus, are you really going to be going out that much anyway, changing your mask more often than you change your underwear? Sharing, I know, America just flinched. I’m not a communist. But I do like kindness and generosity. Can’t find a legit mask? Bandanas, neck gaitors, scarves and turtlenecks covering your face all work better than nothing and can all be laundered. Does it block out 95% of tiny airborne particles? No. But will it make you feel a wee bit better? Duh.

7. Shelf-stable food. Ok, here’s the thing. You can order MREs online and go hardcore, or you can buy some canned food and tuck it away. If you like canned soups and spam, great. You can eventually just eat it as part of your regular meal planning. Add to your shopping list: rice, beans, protein bars, canned soups vegetables and fruits, nuts and nut butters, baking essentials, applesauce, cookies, oils, crackers, cereal and oatmeal, bouillon cubes, pasta and instant potatoes. If you’re not a big fan of these, then when the apocalypse is all over, you can donate them later to your local food pantry. In fact, donate some now while you’re stocking up for yourself. One in nine Americans is food insecure. Wuhan has been on lockdown since January 23rd. That’s a lot of tuna fish.

8. Cover Ups. Not like the bathing suit kind, the whole body kind. If you’re someone who works in healthcare, you’ve probably already bought a Coverall and shoe booties. Think about how much spittle is on the floor of a hospital. You want to bring that home to your kitchen? If you want to buy someone a present this is a lovely thing to send them. Nothing says romance like a haz mat suit.

Communicate - Not Communicable

The important thing to remember and reaffirm for those of us in mixed-anxiety relationships is that like any other issue we face, we need to do so with respect and appreciation for the other’s opinion. Obviously, I think my prepper attitude is going to save my family and humanity. I think my husband should be grateful for all the mental energy I’m putting into this work. He might think I’m overreacting. He’s smart enough to keep that to himself. Besides, if he wants any of my canned spam he’s going to need to be on my good side.

Note to the skeptics: None of these are affiliate links. I have no paid partners. I’m not making any money off anything you buy on this list. I don’t care if you buy Advil or generic ibuprofen (although the super anxious just reminded everyone to check if their drugs were made in China).

What else did I miss that my anxious brethren would like to add? Comment and let me know! And in the meantime, wash your freaking hands. Stay the F home if you’re sick. Happy prepping!

Colleen Markley is a novelist, blogger, and freelance writer living in New Jersey. Her latest novel, Lilith Land, is a story about the end of the world where only the women survive. (It’s a novel, not an action plan). Find her at or sign up here for her newsletter and updates.

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