When social isolation becomes the norm

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Self-isolation and quarantine. No large gatherings, ‘stay apart’. The announcement of this new way of life made me laugh in the same ironic way that had me increasingly afraid as the previous term progressed.

‘Regressed’ might be more accurate. I knew that speaking less and less over the years was abnormal. So too was the fear and distrust of people around me, the conviction that someone around me might hurt themselves beyond repair – and that it would be my fault, having been silent when people were being bullied, were crying, self-harming.

Still, resentful of labels, I rationalised my behaviour as a choice. It triggered creativity. It was cheap. Reducing your intake of friends does that.

This worked until the panic attacks started and I found myself hyperventilating and crying with my hand over my mouth, terrified that someone would hear. My counsellor suggested social anxiety. I spent the second half of term participating in one of the university’s Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) sessions.

That must be why I laughed. Be social, be outgoing – those ever-echoed precepts for a happier life were abruptly overturned by a virus that shut down schools, closed tourist attractions, and forced thousands to stay at home. College events were cancelled with a rapidity I exulted in (no more worrying about missing out or being asked ‘why didn’t you go?’). And remote learning is an appealing prospect when you have been wishing for a suspension so far as to wonder how many visible scars that required.

You may not understand when I say how reassuring it is to see your fears cohere into something ‘real’

New and unexpected scars arise across the country in the form of the empty shelves in our stores. Empty chairs too, empty places where the loved ones so blithely dismissed by the prime minister have really truly gone.

Suddenly, self-isolation means safety. In a bizarre inversion, it is crowds that are stigmatised, and going to the pub can somehow mean a dealing a death sentence to your friends.

I settled into hibernation. Watched the anxiety levels of England rise. This was strangely, grotesquely fascinating, on some level like becoming audience to a real-life enactment of my mental landscape. My old metaphors for my mind – poisonous, infectious, necessitating quarantine – almost seemed to be realised. Think Inside Out but darker. The nation as a kind of psychological parody where social anxiety is sensible and self-isolation compulsory. That sarcastic meme, ‘introverts unite separately in your own homes’, starts to sound like Boris Johnson’s daily briefing. When insanity is normalised, it makes you question what sanity really is.

You may not understand when I say how reassuring it is to see your fears cohere into something ‘real’. In the same way that I felt safer with a storm raging outside – a physical threat which others shared with you – the retreat caused by Covid-19 constructed a solidarity, however superficial, where it is normal and sincere for anyone to say to a stranger ‘Keep well.’ A flood of articles appear on dealing with self-isolation, from what TV shows to binge on to the methods of making a home gym using household items. My college, with the happy optimism I always admired, set about inventing ways to keep us together online.

When insanity is normalised, it makes you question what sanity really is.

Outside, the furore over social distancing continues with an intensity that made me realise I must have stumbled past some mental health boundary beyond what I had imagined. Are most people’s delight in large gatherings so much greater than their awareness of the danger? For me, crowds are suffocating – amorphous and awful. They make me want to run away and hide, like a cowardly child. In this strange, warped world, these ‘extraordinary times’, this instinct is nearly a strength and I breathe a sigh of relief as life feels put on hold.

I get out my watercolours, read fat cosy books, plant vegetables in vague preparation for the end of the world. Bake chocolate cookies with my family, video-call an old friend. The panic attacks have stopped. Maybe they will return when I go back to Oxford, maybe not.

You may not understand when I say the prospect of going back frightens me, that as much as I love Oxford it also feels like a glorious dream from which you wake up and, irrationally, recognise as a nightmare. I know that my relative comfort in this moment is a luxury; elsewhere are students whose mental health has become worse, not better, by being away from our university, with no knowledge of when they might return.

I am hoping that collective self-isolation will help us find a common language, that it becomes easier to understand and connect with each other in crisis when the alternative seems to be chaos.

And perhaps, sometime when we are back, I can be foolishly brave enough to speak.

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