Self-isolation in Oxford: Day 9

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Image description: a beautiful sunset scene viewed from behind a window 

It’s day 9 of my first bout of self-isolation this term. Being an international student, I’m no stranger to quarantine. Flying back to my home country in March and returning to the UK during summer, the 14 days of isolation were done at both ends.

That being said, there is a different feeling to this round of isolation. My housemate tested positive right at the start of Fresher’s Week. Having barely had the time to breathe in this “new” Oxford, being sentenced to spend the first two weeks in your room felt like a punch in the gut. The beginning of my final year was meant to be a moment of reunion with all the people I’d left behind in Hilary. Though I figured some form of lockdown would hit us all eventually, I didn’t think I’d be among the first ones impacted.

I’m extremely lucky to be living in a house with great friends. It’s thanks to them that I’ve been able to see the bright moments in every day of isolation. However, it didn’t start so bright: the first few minutes post-positive-covid-test were a mix of all the stages of grief at once. There were tears and angry outbursts aplenty; we even considered chucking all our things in a car and driving off to the coast in a great escape. As a politics student, it was painfully funny to see the arguments I’d used in a past essay on “why we obey the law” play out in real life in the stairwell between our student rooms. The calls from college came, along with emails from the NHS, and frantic texting with every single person we had seen the past weekend commenced.

For each of us, self-isolation embodied a different fear; one felt like self-isolation meant loss of control – “All our planning just went out the window.” Another felt the restriction as an acute robbing of freedom – “surely it wouldn’t hurt anyone if I went for a run in the morning.” For me, a heart-and-soul extrovert, I could already feel the energy slowly draining out of me. Meeting the new students and re-establishing a base of people in Oxford had been a bright point on my horizon for months.

Though the end of COVID might not be as clear as the end of self-isolation, there’s a comfort in remembering that this “new normal” doesn’t have to be normal forever.

Identifying those fears, however, proved to be great guides to help us through isolation. We spent the first afternoon putting together a decoupage calendar: two A4 papers covered in glitter and magazine cut-outs with our new daily routine. Taking back control; establishing set times for working out, for studying, for pursuing a new activity. There is a kind of freedom to be found in a set schedule (or so we tell ourselves). And though nothing can replace in-person meetings, phone-conversations have helped me recharge almost as well.

I was going on a steady grind until something hit me two nights ago. Bedtime Instagram-browsing led me to new music on Spotify and as I lay there in the dark with foreign beats blasting into my eardrums, I was transported back to the days of concerts and crowds of rowdy people. But instead of longing, I realized my immediate reaction was worry. This worry took me by surprise. I knew humans were good at adapting but how had I already conditioned my brain to be so afraid of other people? A small part of me secretly worries that I will never get rid of that fear again.

I know the exact date of when I am no longer lawfully bound to stay inside: the day I regain my freedom. This general new time of fear and uncertainty on the other hand – in young eyes, it seems to trail on forever.

You might not be aware of this, but as someone who comes from a different latitude, the way the light falls through the trees in Oxford around 5pm is heart-wrenching stuff. Especially if it’s seen through your window during self-isolation. I swear, the swaying branches call to me to come outside and live. The yearning nowadays isn’t just about wanting to see my friends again – it’s about wanting my world back how it was. I know this all comes from a place of immense privilege; that I was already living in a world in which I was comfortable is not something to take for granted.

I assume we’ve all seen the memes about how easy it should be for our generation to be heroes – we literally just have to stay inside. It is all too true in my case that staying in isolation should not be considered a pain: I have all that I need to live comfortably and furthermore, I arguably have a duty to my fellow citizens to stay put. Yet, part of me wants to copy the Manchester students who put “HELP” signs up in their windows. But what exactly do I need help with? This thought runs through my mind often.

In the end, self-isolation is made bearable because it has a clear end. I know the exact date of when I am no longer lawfully bound to stay inside: the day I regain my freedom. This general new time of fear and uncertainty on the other hand – in young eyes, it seems to trail on forever.

I suppose the help I need is to learn how to sit with my fear and acknowledge that I can’t get through this solely by denial. Though I hate when the phrase “new normal” is slung about, there is a truth to it and I’ve experienced first-hand how fast we humans are at adapting, even when we don’t want to. Though the end of COVID might not be as clear as the end of self-isolation, there’s a comfort in remembering that this “new normal” doesn’t have to be normal forever. Amid the fear, hope peeks through, like the Oxford sun calling me outside. More importantly, we can hope that sitting with our fear will change us for the better – to live better lives when all this is over. I, for one, can’t wait.

Image credit: Rusty Russ, CreativeCommons