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On Isolation

Warning: this was written in early April 2020. It will become dated very quickly.

In January, after three hours on a bus journey that should have taken one, standing up most of the way and nose-to-armpit with stinking farting sweating coughing humans, I woke to find my face puffed up like the Elephant Man’s. I have an overenthusiastic immune system, and it came as no surprise when, 48 hours after that bus journey, I was taken suddenly and incontrovertibly ill: feverish, fluey, coldy, exhausted. The next three weeks were a spin cycle of: collapse, recover, go into work, collapse again. At one point I tried to check into a hotel early and when the staff didn’t have a room, bedded down to sleep on the couch in the foyer. (They found that room pronto, after asking where I’d come from. At the time, ‘London’ was a reassuring answer. How quaint.) I got into the room, threw myself on the bed and slept for seventeen hours. The flu was followed by three weeks of a reaction to antibiotics which left me almost unable to walk, killing all social engagements.

During those weeks, I shunned practically everyone and subscribed to Amazon Prime. I watched the whole of Killing Eve and League of Gentlemen, as well as some truly dire films starring Robert De Niro - who knew there were so many?

And I felt lonely. Head spinning, barely able to wash, but I craved human company. I spent several weekends alone, not even a phone call, living on biscuits and crisps because cooking a meal seemed too much of a bother for just me. At times I toyed with the idea of reaching out, and then I began overthinking. Examining what I, as a human, need from other humans. Was I a pariah, was I needy? Was I using others not out of delight in their company and the love in my heart, but to fill a hole? Was I addicted to people? The answer I found was: in part, yes. I am human, therefore I a flawed, and we are all addicts, in some way. The society we live in, with its crazy hope of perpetual rise in GDP for countries, profit for companies, standard of living for families, all of this on a finite planet, requires an intellectual contortionism that drives us all to hide from the difficult emotions and complex fears of our future as a species. We cope with these fears by diving into the bottle, or the nail bar, or the online shop, or the medicine cabinet, or the arms of another – you get the picture. It’s nothing to be ashamed of: the world we have made for ourselves is difficult to live in, and mental illness, however it presents, is a rational, and universal, response.

I learnt, in those solitary weeks of winter, how to regulate my loneliness, how to feel the emotions and walk through them, like a breaking wave. I learnt a convertible skill. And I had a chance to catch my breath.

And now this.

I’m not saying I’m ideally placed to deal with an unprecedented situation. But I had a taster course in the disease of disconnection, before it became widespread.

I’m not alone in having an imagination. It’s a perk that’s not unique to writers; like many of you, I’ve imagined what it is to get ill with a disease that has no cure, that drowns you. I picture getting more and more congested, struggling to breathe. A positive test result and all of a sudden I am to be swathed in plastic. The people I love can’t see me, and as a consequence of my illness are isolated from everyone else too. I am in hospital, touched by strangers who are nothing more than a pair of eyes, their facial expression hidden behind masks. I am turned from my back to my front at regular intervals by professionals. I cannot even have my family in the room to hold my hand. The thought of this isolation when we are our time of most fills us with fear. We are a social species, and it is not natural for us to separate like this. It is bad for our health, our immune systems, our ability to cope.

And this nightmarish isolation is applied to everyone. The planet has gone contactless. At least one-third of the world’s population is in lockdown, confined to their homes. I write from Britain, where we have been directed to stay indoors, to go out only for essentials. For the time being, exercise is deemed essential, but I’m aware that this will likely be the next thing to go, and every time I escape from my house and head towards the park I am filled with joy and gratitude and an awareness of the fragility of what we have taken for granted all our lives: freedom.

This restriction upon us all is teaching us, among other things, is how essential contact is. Ideally, physical contact (the closer the better – inside, the best). My shoulder has been aching for months, I’m overdue a good massage. I’d pay serious money to hug a friend. My neighbour is a Matron at the hospital on the next road; the other night as we clapped for our carers, she was in tears and my instinct when her voice broke with sadness was to reach out and hold her.

And I can’t.

This disease has proliferated globally because we are all connected. We all know people in other countries, we’ve checked in: reports from America, Pakistan, Italy and France where friends and family are living, overseas locations we used to be able to get to in hours, now so isolated. A few weeks ago I was browsing Airbnb, trying to choose between Croatia and Morocco for the family holiday. We had forgotten how large the world really is, how long it takes to travel and how much it depends upon other people.

Technology is what enabled the disease to spread so rapidly: cheap air fares, ease of making a booking. And now that we are locked down, pared down to the essentials, yes we are finding old and wonderful values, but also it’s technology that is helping us to connect again.

For the digital natives, and even for the older tech workers like myself, this is a no brainer. I had a digital life coach on the other side of the world last year (I suspect her business is doing very well now). I’m comfortable with the idea of connecting with others at a virtual choir, or joining a ‘virtual pub’ on What’s App where we share jokes and memes. I have even started doing a weekly 30 minute silent meditation in a virtual room.

But there are non tech savvy people everywhere, those who live alone and haven’t got a handle on the internet, whose entertainment is to be with others – these people are likely to suffer the most in isolation.

And of course isolation may not be a solo project. There was a point when each of us made a choice, however implicit. Who do you live with, and who should you isolate with? The choice will have been instructive, even painful, for some. There will be people isolating with an abuser, or pushed back into a lifestyle and habits they had begun to escape from. It can be easier to be alone than to be with a person who does not have your best interests at heart. Time with each other will make us look at how we relate, what we can compromise over, and how to negotiate our relationships in a far from ideal world, at least for the duration.

There remains a separate question of what will come after. Will the technology that saved us drive us further apart? Will we be encouraged to work from home more than is good for our mental health? Will our pub night with friends remain virtual? Just as war encourages technology, so does a disaster, and the unthinkable has become possible in many workplaces, but also this pandemic has been timely. Had it come even fifteen years ago (remember dial-up, anyone?) it would have been harder to connect. And connection is what we are looking for. We are finding novel ways to do this: exercising with a friend two metres apart, bringing shopping to a neighbour, using the technology to support each other, volunteering, giving, helping.

I am sure I am not alone in examining the value of all my social connections, because at the moment we really do get to choose what we do. We are reaching out more. We are finding people from our pasts and saying hello. We are making an effort. But also, I advise you to listen to where you are not making an effort, because that will tell you something.

One final thought, before I return to some more me-time, which I have rather too much of right now:

Whether you are surrounded by screaming toddlers or alone without a pet, whether you have work or not, whether you are young or old. Whatever your situation, you are never alone. You always have yourself for company, and now you are being asked to isolate and look at what you find there. The question is, what will you do with this chance to know yourself?

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