Emily & Kumail on Staying In
Date Published: May 15, 2020
Like many couples, Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani have been spending a lot of time together recently, with sometimes hilarious consequences. In this episode, they talk about what they’ve learned and share tips on getting through “the weirds,” as they call these pandemic times. Emily and Kumail are the hosts of Staying In With Emily & Kumail, a podcast about making the best of living in self-quarantine. Having dealt with chronic illness and self-quarantine before, and with Emily being a former therapist, they bring a valuable perspective to an extraordinary situation.
From the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City, this is Road to Resilience, a podcast about overcoming adversity. I'm Jon Earle. Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani are my guests today. They're the husband-and-wife writing team behind the hit movie "The Big Sick," which was based on their real-life courtship. Kumail has also started as Dinesh on the HBO show, "Silicon Valley," and later this month he's appearing opposite Issa Rae in a new Netflix movie called "The Lovebirds." Emily and Kumail are also the hosts of "Staying In with Emily & Kumail." It's a podcast about the up's and down's of being stuck at home during the pandemic. It's funny and thoughtful, and Emily's insights as a former therapist, I think, are part of the show's special sauce. I caught up with Emily and Kumail recently to talk about all the "corona-feels." I hope you enjoy the conversation. Emily, Kumail, I'm so glad to have you here. Thank you so much for making the time to be on the podcast. I really appreciate it.
Kumail Nanjiani: 01:00
Well, thank you for having us.
On your podcast you talk about the phases you've been through since coronavirus really hit in force. And I was just wondering if we could start by having you kind of take us through the phases and tell me where you are right now.
Emily V. Gordon: 01:15
I would say first was—
Kumail Nanjiani: 01:16
Emily V. Gordon: 01:18
Kumail Nanjiani: 01:19
It was sort of a spiraling panic.
Emily V. Gordon: 01:22
You went sheer panic. I went into stoicism. "It's gonna be okay. It's all gonna be okay. Let's not worry. It's gonna be okay."
Kumail Nanjiani: 01:28
Right. Because we sort of switch off, and it's good that we switch off. When we don't that's hard. So I had about 10 days of pretty—
Emily V. Gordon: 01:35
Was it 10 days? It felt like a million years.
Kumail Nanjiani: 01:40
I had about a million years, 10 days to a million years of pretty much sheer panic spiraling. It was that feeling of like, "Oh, God, this big thing is coming and I don't think we're ready for it. And I don't feel like anybody's expecting it to be as big as I thought it was going to be. And as most experts thought it was going to be." So it was really that—.
Emily V. Gordon: 02:00
So just you and the experts were correct?
Kumail Nanjiani: 02:02
It was me and the experts. That's my band, Kumail and the experts.
Emily V. Gordon: 02:07
And then I think we had like—there's a band of like anger and frustration. There's the worrying about your parents phase that I think we both went through.
Kumail Nanjiani: 02:18
And then there's anger at feeling that the response has been inadequate.
Emily V. Gordon: 02:24
Then there's the global phase, which is when you kind of realize literally everyone you've ever met is experiencing this on some level. And I think that's an interesting—a lot of people are saying they're hearing from old boyfriends, old friends. We both have been in conversations with people we hadn't talked to in years, I think, partially because we're all thinking about how all of us are affected by this.
Kumail Nanjiani: 02:44
It's a lot of back and forth. I don't feel like this process has been predictable in any way.
Emily V. Gordon: 02:50
There's no linear thing to this.
Kumail Nanjiani: 02:50
Yeah, some days I feel really inexplicably hopeful and then some days I don't, and it changes within the day, too.
Emily V. Gordon: 02:58
There's so much anxiety some days, so much fear, so much freaking out. And then some days you're just like, "Oh, this is not so bad. I can bake more!" Which is obviously reductive, but yeah, there is no linear progression. I think similar to grief, the phases—those stages of grief—they list them in order, but you kind of go back and forth. You go all over the place. You're never doing it linearly.
One of the themes of your podcasts that I find so comforting is that you talk a lot about how it's okay to feel what you're feeling. It's okay to feel anger, you know, at people who are not following the rules or social distancing as they should. It's okay to feel grief. It's okay to feel overwhelmed and not be able to do anything. And it's important not to shut yourself down and say, "Well, other people are doing worse, therefore I'm not allowed to feel these things. And so I was wondering if there's a feeling that you've had to make peace with and how you did it.
Kumail Nanjiani: 03:53
Wow. See, for me the weirdest thing is—and just speaks to perhaps how self-involved I am—but it feels, it almost feels personal. I'll catch myself—
Emily V. Gordon: 04:06
That's so true for you. Sorry!
Kumail Nanjiani: 04:07
Thank you. It just feels like sometimes like when I'm like, "Why is this happening?" And I almost take it as like, I don't know, it feels unfair, you know, this sort of feeling that it feels unfair then I'm like, "Actually, everyone is going through it." And I sometimes will start feeling sorry for myself, and that's the feeling that's been, honestly been sorta tough to reconcile. The other thing I have is feeling anxious and not knowing what it is, even though I do know what it is, but then putting it in different things. I've found that that's been not the most productive thing, where I'm feeling tension and just putting it in the wrong place when really I think it's healthier for me to know like, "Okay, this big crazy thing is happening and that's why I'm feeling tension and not because I can't find my Bruce Springsteen shirt."
Emily V. Gordon: 05:07
That's how I'm kind of feeling, too. I find I'll be really anxious about a phone call or a Zoom and I'm like, my brain knows that I'm not really anxious about that Zoom. I'm anxious about everything, but I think it's almost like my brain is bored with being anxious with the same thing over and over. That's maybe, it's like maybe, maybe trauma fatigue isn't the right [sic], but it's like anxiety boredom. My anxiety is like, "Oh, come on! This again? We're still worried about this?"
Kumail Nanjiani: 05:32
Still worried about this global pandemic?
Emily V. Gordon: 05:34
What about this phone call? It's a pretty important phone call. And my brain's like, "Yeah, yeah, you're right! Pretty important phone call." And then I, kind of, go off on that tangent. But after the phone call, I realize, "Nope, it's still just this." And I think that's a little hard to contend with.
Yeah, it's like you're describing this like roving ball of anxiety that's just picking things out to get anxious about.
Emily V. Gordon: 05:52
Yeah. It needs a hook to be hung on.
I keep on hearing that.
Kumail Nanjiani: 05:56
Yeah, but it finds the wrong hooks all the time.
Emily V. Gordon: 06:00
You've been hearing that?
Yeah, people are saying—like who I'm Zooming with—they'll be like, "Oh, this person in my life is behaving in the strangest way. They're getting hung up on this little thing that in normal times they wouldn't care about. And I think that gets into compassion. That gets into then, okay, so what do you do with that? What do you do with people around you behaving strangely and in ways that can be really frustrating?
Emily V. Gordon: 06:21
I think we all need to be a little easy with each other now. I think that's a big part of it. I know that the ways that I respond to things feel completely rational and justified to me. They may look bonkers on the outside, but they've, kind of, that's what I've figured out in my head, and every single person feels that way. Every person feels like, "Well this is the best way I have to take care of this." Everybody thinks that they're handling things the best way they can. Some of them are, some of them are not. But I think understanding that, like, having a bit of, like, a step back and being, like, "Oh, this is an extraordinary time. This person is handling things the best they can." Whether or not you pointed out to them, that's a completely different thing altogether. I have said to friends, been like, "You know, it may be that you're just freaked out because there's a global pandemic." You know? That might actually, it might be that, I don't know. It could also be, like, you don't want to talk to your mom. But also it could be that there's a global pandemic. But I think us just being aware that the way that we cope isn't the way that everyone copes, and that everyone has their own method, that they're working on the best they can.
Yeah. How are you doing with compassion these days? Like especially compassion for the people who are not taking it seriously, still not wearing masks, still not social distancing, you know—.
Kumail Nanjiani: 07:38
Or actively protesting?
Yeah, that too. I'm struggling with that.
Kumail Nanjiani: 07:44
I am struggling with that as well. I know that that type of anger, I know, is not constructive for me, I know it's destructive. But when I see pictures and videos of people protesting, they're like literally pro-coronavirus protests, or whatever—I don't know how to even describe them! I find it very challenging, honestly, to even look at those stories because it sort of sets me down a bad path. Emily, how do you—
Emily V. Gordon: 08:17
I've been trying really hard to think of it as a, to be like, "These are people that are frightened." And I think that helps me to kind of think of—it's weird to say it helps me to think of them being frightened, but—and then that's a hard emotion to feel. So they're, instead of feeling frightened, they're kind of like, "What can I do? What productive thing can I do?" And maybe a fault that I have sometimes where I try to empathize with people that I disagree with maybe too much.
Kumail Nanjiani: 08:45
I would say there are very few people who are too empathetic. Emily, you might be one of them! The other thing, honey, that you're saying that you have this privilege, which is true we are privileged that we can stay at home, um, not go out. However, you are in a higher-risk group. So in that way you—.
Emily V. Gordon: 09:07
I don't have that much of a choice.
Kumail Nanjiani: 09:07
—have to be way more careful than most people. That's true.
I actually wanted to ask you about that because I know you've been very public about having a chronic illness. And I have a close family member who also has a chronic illness and he said that it strangely prepared him for this. Like, not leaving the house a lot, being really conscious of his environment, being really conscious of what he eats and knowing that his body can, kind of, turn on him at any moment, that he's not in control of his body, entirely. And I'm wondering whether you, kind of, empathize with that or whether you feel the same way?
Emily V. Gordon: 09:44
That completely resonates with me. That is exactly how I feel. I've been not touching my face for years, because I have a higher risk of infection from things in the environment. So I've had to be careful for a long time. I've had to be a bit germaphobic for a while, and I also have had the experience of my body betraying me and, kind of, turning on me. And I think that can be a very scary—that's a terrifying thing. It was awful the first time it happened, and it's just something that I've gotten comfortable with. And I think for a lot of people who have not had the wondrous joy of not being seriously ill, this is something that kind of flies in the face of that. Your body can betray you. And, yeah, I do feel oddly prepared. I have felt oddly calm for a lot of it. I have my moments of freaking out, obviously, but I've kind of been calm. I'm used to, like, when I get sick, I have to stay home sometimes for like a two-week period. And Kumail knows this. Kumail's had to, kind of, hunker down here with me. And we're both kind of anxious people, and I think overall anxious people might be overly prepared for this.
Kumail Nanjiani: 10:47
What was that movie? Was it "The Last Starfighter," where he's playing the video game, and then when the aliens, like it prepares him to fight aliens.
Emily V. Gordon: 10:55
Kumail Nanjiani: 10:55
That's how you are! You've been playing the video game. Not that that's a video game, that was also very real. But now that it's this big global thing, you have the practice and the mental—you're ready for it mentally and physically in ways that most people are not.
Emily V. Gordon: 11:12
Nobody's ever really ready for it, but I did notice, I get an infusion every month, and last month, which was the first month I got one in the pandemic, I noticed the calmest people I'd met were the other patients that were in the infusion room. They were the calmest people I'd encountered the entire time. And I just thought, I was like, "Yeah, that's right. We're all pretty calm because we're all used to, like, our bodies being like, 'Not today. This is not happening for you today.'" And it's been an odd perk. I don't even know if I would call it a "perk," but it's been nice to like feel like a Boy Scout for this.
Kumail Nanjiani: 11:45
I don't even want to call it a silver lining, because it really isn't, because you also are in a higher risk group.
Emily V. Gordon: 11:54
But it's been good for mentally preparing and being ready for this.
Right, and you've worked from home for a long time, right?
Emily V. Gordon: 12:03
Absolutely. Yeah, I've got a whole setup! I am ready to go for that.
I want to ask you guys about personal growth. And I want to preface this by saying that obviously getting through the day right now is way more than enough. And nobody should feel bad if they're not working or if they can't work, or if they're not getting anything done. But if you do have the head space to talk about personal growth, I think it's an interesting thing to think about. And I'm wondering if you guys have been able to, and if so where that's taking you?
Emily V. Gordon: 12:33
Let's see. I'm kind of not, I'm not super focusing on personal growth. That's not a goal that I've set for myself for this. I think just by nature of being at home with Kumail as much as—I mean we see each other a lot, but we definitely have been together more than we have been for the most part for, like, we're together all the time now. And I think that has—out of necessity you end up creating good, kind of, we've gotten better at arguing, we've gotten better at, kind of, relating to each other. We've gotten more honest. Like, a lot of stuff about our marriage has gotten a lot better, I think, just because it's a Malcolm Gladwell "10,000-hours" situation. We're just in it. And I think that's the part that I'm trying to, like, I'm trying to say you don't need to do any growth, but it's like, if we're doing something for a long period of time, we can stagnate, we can go backwards, or we can move forwards. The only direction I'm not interested in is moving backwards. I don't care about the others. I'll do either one.
Kumail Nanjiani: 13:33
I think people are inevitably going to go through changes right now. Just surviving through this might lead to personal growth, you know? So I would say I am honestly, right now, only—just because so much is out of my control—I'm playing to my strengths. I'm not looking to learn to paint or anything. I'm doing what I know I'm good at or what I wanna do. So I'm doing a lot of writing. I'm watching movies. I'm exercising.
Emily V. Gordon: 14:02
Playing video games.
Kumail Nanjiani: 14:03
I'm playing video games. I'm sort of really, in this period, trying to stay in my comfort zone, honestly. I just have so much anxiety that I'm truly just trying to do the things that will make me feel more confident.
Emily V. Gordon: 14:19
Yeah, I think you said a very good point. We're all going to change through this. If you can steer it in one direction or the other, great. But you are going to change through this and that's okay. However you change is going to be okay.
Kumail Nanjiani: 14:31
Here's the other thing that we, you know, I've heard my friend in New York calls it, he said they've been calling it, "the pause." I've certainly been thinking about it as this hiatus from life, and then my friend was, like, "No, this is life, too. Time is still moving. This is part of it." And that really changed my thinking because I really had been, I'd been productive—.
Emily V. Gordon: 14:53
Just get your head down, get through this.
Kumail Nanjiani: 14:57
Right, but it's not about that.
Emily V. Gordon: 14:57
It's just adapting.
Kumail Nanjiani: 15:02
You mentioned, you talked about relationships a second ago, and I think we're kind of in a wave of people really thinking hard about what it means to spend so much time with another person and how to navigate that. Um, what have you guys learned about each other? Or about navigating being together so, so much?
Emily V. Gordon: 15:27
No, no, no! Kumail was starting to say something he's learned about me.
Kumail Nanjiani: 15:31
No, I just had this weird epiphany when we were actually recording the podcast, and you were talking about being sick, and for me, even though it's crazy to say this, I was like, "Oh, there are parts of what that experience was like for you that I will never understand. I'll just never understand." And the other thing is I've become a little more aware of your coping strategies. I don't mean that in a bad way. I just mean I always was like, "Oh, Emily's always got her stuff together! She's always got it together."
Emily V. Gordon: 16:08
You're seeing the man behind the—the, like, little tiny man.
Kumail Nanjiani: 16:11
A little bit! But I'm seeing the effort that goes into having it together.
Emily V. Gordon: 16:15
Oh, there's so much effort into this.
Kumail Nanjiani: 16:16
And that's commendable. I'm not saying that in a negative way.
Emily V. Gordon: 16:21
No, I don't take it badly.
Kumail Nanjiani: 16:21
I always thought—because in our relationship, I have been the one who's been allowed to have breakdowns and stuff, and Emily's always the one who's really put together, and now I'm realizing, "Oh, that's unfair for many, many reasons. One of them being that Emily—"
Emily V. Gordon: 16:39
I freak out, too!
Kumail Nanjiani: 16:39
—has anxiety and freak outs, and she has all these thoughts. She just has ways to, sort of, deal with it. And now that it's sort of unrelenting, obviously the effort that she has to put in is a little more than in the past. And so now, we're switching off more, right? We actually had this talk where we're like, "Hey, it's my turn to freak out."
Emily V. Gordon: 17:05
"Can I have the freak out now?"
Oh, my God, I can totally relate to that!
Emily V. Gordon: 17:05
And you just tell me everything's going to be okay. I don't wanna hear any questions, any thoughts about like what's gonna happen, I just want to hear everything's going to be okay.
I want to open it up to tips, because you guys, on the podcast, offer some tips, but I know you've also been hearing a lot from listeners. And I'm wondering if you could give us three things that you've integrated into your life that you think are really cool and would like to share.
Kumail Nanjiani: 17:33
I'll say this—for me, the difference in my mood for the whole day on days when I get up and look at the news immediately and on days where I wait 15-20 minutes to look at the news, is so massive. And I'm not saying I can always resist it. Sometimes I get up and I just look right at the news even though I know what it's going to do to me. That is the single biggest thing that affects my mood every single day.
Emily V. Gordon: 18:02
That's a good one. I would say a good tip is differentiating, setting up ways to differentiate your day, like arbitrary things to differentiate your day. So, for me, there's "workday" versus "non-workday." Having a definite, if you're working from home, having a definite start time and end time. And then differentiating your weekends from your weekdays has been really important. And then making sure you do something to make the weekend special. That's been a big thing for us is, like, the only time we get takeout is we do a takeout meal over the weekend. That's when we don't work. That's when we're kind of just hanging out all day, maybe wearing pajamas all day. I think that's a big one. And then, yesterday, a friend—I don't drink—but a friend yesterday said, "Wait until 9:00 PM and then decide if you want a drink." I thought that was a very smart little tip. Because I know a lot of people are finding that they're drinking more, they're kind of consuming more, but her tip was just wait until 9:00 PM, if you still want to drink, that means you probably need one. But if you find you've made it to 9:00 PM without a drink, then that's fine.
Kumail Nanjiani: 19:03
Yeah, and I don't want to knock on people's coping strategies, whatever it is, certainly not here to judge, but just know that what you're doing, just know whether it's helping you or hurting you, right? So I know people have been saying like, "I get up in the morning and I kind of drink all day." Just know, just be at least aware of whether or not that's doing you harm, or if that's actually getting you through, right? And I know people who—I've heard this argument online, like, "Get up and change," versus "Stay in your pajamas." Again, just know what that's doing for you.
Emily V. Gordon: 19:35
Just do it with intention, I think, either way.
Kumail Nanjiani: 19:36
Whatever it is, do it with intention because usually, as Emily's saying, the day's sort of set up for you, right? You go, you do this, you do this, you do this, and now suddenly we're all left to our own devices. So we just have to have more intentionality and know—Are you doing something that's going to help you or hurt you?
Emily V. Gordon: 19:53
It doesn't mean that you always make the best choice. In fact, a lot of times you're going to make a bad choice and a choice that isn't great for you, but just making that choice on purpose rather than letting it happen.
Kumail Nanjiani: 20:01
And just be okay that you made a bad choice.
Emily, can you talk a little bit about "the wallow"?
Emily V. Gordon: 20:10
"The wallow" is a thing that I made up for Rookie magazine, an online magazine for young women that I wrote for years ago, and the idea of it is if you're a person who is similar to how I have been in many times in my life, that you are highly emotional, highly anxious, kind of fret and freak out, that instead of doing it a little bit all day and fighting it, that you instead set aside a period of time in your day to just sit in those awful feelings. Twenty minutes, 30 minutes—set a timer, but actually set a timer on your phone, and then you just sit and fret. You do nothing else. You don't look at your phone. You don't do anything else and you sit with those feelings. And I found, personally, that if I gave those uncomfortable feelings their space and room to breathe, they would not bother me as much throughout the day. What's also cool about it is you'll get to, like, you'll be like, "I've definitely been doing this for 20 minutes!" And you look down and it's like, "Oh, four minutes! I've been going four minutes!" But this idea of like—the idea that you can get tired of feeling anxious is kind of a cool idea to me. So, yeah, I started implementing the wallow when I was a young woman, and I found that it has come back out during "the weirds," as we call them on our podcast. It's basically just giving room to your uncomfortable feelings instead of pushing them away, covering them up, or letting them kind of hang out all day long, giving them space to be florid for a little bit.
So in our last few minutes, I have two things that I want to talk about. The first are book, movie, TV, or other entertainment recommendations. Like your favorite, favorite.
Kumail Nanjiani: 21:52
So we've been watching, of the new stuff, we didn't get to "The Mandalorian," so we're watching "The Mandalorian."
Emily V. Gordon: 21:59
Oh, it's fun.
Kumail Nanjiani: 22:00
It's fun and it's an easy watch, you know, it's like—a lot of sci-fi gets so heavy, this is sort of, I don't think if it's light sci-fi, but it's not taxing, it's not emotionally taxing.
Emily V. Gordon: 22:15
And you don't have to be a huge Star Wars fan to like the show.
Kumail Nanjiani: 22:17
You don't have to be a huge Star Wars fan. I find it a very easy watch. We also have been watching old "Seinfeld" episodes. That's been very, very comforting to watch. Again, we both love that show, so that's a good one to watch. And a show called "High Maintenance" on HBO, which I've never seen. Emily had seen some of it. I'd never seen it. And I just find that show—I love it because it's truly genius, but it's also a very kind show. It's a calming—.
Emily V. Gordon: 22:44
No marijuana joke. Pun intended.
Kumail Nanjiani: 22:49
Yes. Emily, anything for you? Oh, you've been watching—What shows do you watch on your computer?
Emily V. Gordon: 22:55
I watch a lot of like your "Project Runway," your "RuPaul's Drag Race." I highly recommend those. They are old seasons of those available everywhere. And I like watching people make things beautiful, like beautiful things. I actually don't like cooking shows as much, like Kumail does.
Kumail Nanjiani: 23:11
Oh, I've been watching a lot of cooking shows, right.
Emily V. Gordon: 23:13
I get a little jealous of what they're eating, and I'm like, "Oh, I just want to eat that." So I instead like watching—I like clothing being creative. I like watching people be creative as a contest. So a lot of that for me.
Kumail Nanjiani: 23:26
So for me, I would say it's "Top Chef" and—not "Top Chef," "A Chef's Table" or "Ugly Delicious" or "Salt Fat Acid Heat," like really shows about people who are like artists.
Emily V. Gordon: 23:40
See, I love that, but I need a little bit of s--t-talking as well. I need them to gossip amongst each other.
Kumail Nanjiani: 23:45
I like someone being like, "Oh, I've been trying to make this thing for a year. And I finally figured it out!" And you just look at it and you're like, "Wow, that looks great. I trust that it tastes pretty good, too." But I really, I find that very calming and inspiring.
So, lastly, our audience is a general audience, but there's obviously lots of people in and around healthcare who listen. And I was just wondering if you wanted to take this moment to speak directly to that audience.
Emily V. Gordon: 24:14
Kumail Nanjiani: 24:15
No, go ahead, honey.
Emily V. Gordon: 24:16
We're already, like, tearing up. I can't, you'll have to.
Kumail Nanjiani: 24:23
Emily V. Gordon: 24:23
Kumail Nanjiani: 24:25
Okay. I just, it's, we're so incredibly thankful and grateful that we have so many people who are really, really on the front lines fighting this thing and, uh—I mean, I couldn't do it. And I just feel incredibly, incredibly grateful that there are such selfless people that we can trust to get us through this.
Emily V. Gordon: 24:56
Yeah, we've—medical people, medical professionals, doctors, nurses, radiologists have a, phlebotomists, even, have literally changed my life. I spend a lot of time with them. And, you know, my infusion nurses that I see every month are incredibly important people in my life. And it's such an intimate, intimate relationship that you have with someone, and I can't imagine what it's like to have what you're doing now to be dealing with people that so often have a poor prognosis. And um, we're all gonna do our best to take care of you when this is all over. And it's okay. You're doing a great job. You're doing a great job. Thank you. Thank you.
That was Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani. Their podcast is called "Staying In with Emily & Kumail." Road to Resilience is a production of the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City. It's made by Katie Ullman, Nicci Hudson, and me, Jon Earle. Lucia Lee is our executive producer. Help fight COVID-19 here in New York by donating to Mount Sinai's response fund. Your donations help support front-line clinicians and pioneering researchers. Follow the link in the show notes to find out how. And thank you. I'll also put a link in the show notes to our podcast e-newsletter. Sign up, and we'll keep you in the loop about new episodes. And lastly, if you've enjoyed this episode, please leave us a rating and a review on Apple Podcasts. It helps other listeners find us. We'll be back soon with more episodes of Road to Resilience, and until then, stay safe and be well.