Lockdown: hints from a former hostage

In my early years as a manager I was captured and held hostage by Colombian guerillas. In spite of the sharp contrast with the lockdown most of us are facing today I apply some lessons learned, even from the comfort of my own home.

The Corona virus is a scary and invisible enemy. There is this illness looming, possible loss of income and social isolation. We do not know how long the ordeal will last and for how long we will be confined to our homes, or other places where we happened to be. The initial sensation of being grounded gave a sense of excitement, even happiness. Empty agendas, time to spend together or catching up with the unending to-do list. But as the days pass, discomfort, anxiety, boredom and irritations remind us that this is not something to take lightly. We are locked down. We need to protect our mental and physical health.


When I was held hostage, I did not have a real reason to rise early. No meetings to go to, no activities planned, no targets. My mission was to survive. To stay sane and not go nuts. My mission drove me to get up early and create structure in my day. Today, tomorrow and every other of the 248 days. What worked for me was that I had no real bed, so staying in the sack (yes, literally) was not very appealing. There I got lucky.

I started the day with exercises, which I repeated throughout the day and picked-up doing again now. Push-ups, running-in-place, crunches, lunges, yoga poses. Today, at home, the drill also includes running up and down the stairs. There are apps like 7minutes to support us and set targets. Twenty-five push-ups today and when you make the 75 push-ups, well, you never know, the virus may have come under control and you are free to go out again. One of the most important lessons I learned in isolation was to set goals.


In this lockdown we often find our agendas empty with Netflix and the fridge calling; the day disappears like sand through our fingers. This is fine for a few days, we enjoy the break, but after a while the lackluster starts nagging. When this test is over, we want to be proud over what we have accomplished. Setting a (realistic) goal and achieving it makes you proud and looking forward to the next achievement. Create a mind map. The article or book you always wanted write, the book that has been eyeing you all this time, the painting you never painted. These are special times. Keep a diary. Your children and grandchildren will love to read how you experienced this historic episode. In my solitary confinement I wrote a book about my ordeal (published in Dutch and Spanish); I designed crossword puzzles; memorized the German grammatical cases and started drawing once I was finally given my first pencil. Each page I wrote, each drawing I completed or puzzle I designed filled me with pride and joy.

Denial and acceptance

When I was captured, I hoped that I would be set free after the weekend, next week, maybe one week later, early next month. Not knowing how long the confinement will take is frustrating. It is okay to be frustrated. It does not make sense to deny negative sentiments. It does help, however, not to see your lockdown as one big setback. Sitting in my cell, suffering from the cold, getting a blue butt because I had no chair, being annoyed with the stupid conversations of the guards and missing my wife and kids; I still tried to avoid being mad at the kidnap itself. I tried to focus on only one of the many misfortunes and come to peace with it. ‘I hate the cold, yes, and it is fine to detest it. But I have a pencil to draw with, I am supplied with some food (lentils…again!!) and I am still fit.’

Try to stay away from the avalanche of news which only creates negative energy. Turn off the internet every once in a while. Read news only twice a day and never before going to sleep. Trust the experts, not the social media. The future is uncertain. We have to release control. My adage is: I accept life as it is, but I try to let it be as I like it. This is the moment to contemplate on our pre-Corona lives. The moment to tune in with your feelings and perhaps the moment to look forward to transformation. When I was set free it was my first step away from the corporate world and a first step towards social entrepreneurship.

A small world

Make your world as small as the home you are confined to. Appreciate what you have. Appreciate the silence, the sounds, nature however remote. I will never forget the sound of the rustling leaves of the eucalyptus trees around the finca where I was held. The sound was soothing and the faint smell gave me a sense of peace and confidence. Do not forget to laugh. Humor was a lifesaver to me, in spite of all the hardship. LOL.

My experience is from solitary confinement. Being in isolation with a partner and children provides different dynamics. Much is written about how to stay on speaking terms, how to address individual and family needs, how to manage frustrations. Being married for more than 35 years qualifies me to say a few things on keeping the relationship healthy as well. However, I will not do that: your own sanity will contribute to that of your partner.

Het Meisje van Tota (published in Dutch)