While there are many, many people experiencing difficulty with the current situation in having to be physically distant, there are a number of us for whom the current scenario of no regular interpersonal contact – no small talk, hand shakes, cheek-kisses, unexpected visits, customer-facing work roles – is our much preferred environment.
All the focus on mental health at the moment seems to be on those who prefer life as it usually occurs and are struggling with lockdown. Can you dispense some advice for those of us experiencing increasing anxiety or distress at the idea having to leave our peaceful, physically distant existence (notwithstanding the disaster that has predicated it) and return to “normal life”?
Eleanor says: When I was 15 I started fainting a lot and was hospitalised for long enough that it felt like a big deal. One day the neurologist kindly told me I’d be able to go home soon, and I ruined what should have been a good news moment by saying, “Ugh, I don’t want real life.”
I’d become more than a little fond of lying in bed all day, excused from homework, while my friends sent me chocolates and volunteers brought big fun dogs to play with. The neurologist raised a knowing eyebrow and said “that’s what we call ‘secondary benefits’”.
Secondary benefits, as in, not the benefits my hospital stay was designed for. As in, not the kind of benefits that we care about prolonging.
You’re certainly not alone in experiencing some secondary benefits of quarantine. I heard some people referring to it as “cocooning”, since it felt more like being safely wrapped up than being deprived. Maybe for you this felt like government permission to do what you secretly always want to: go home, shut the door and be alone. Maybe it was just plain alienating to watch other people act as if this time was a cacophony of chaos when at last you felt like you had silence. And maybe now you don’t really want to open the door again.
Nobody’s surprised to find a 15-year-old kid doesn’t want to return to homework. But it is surprising that many of us don’t want to go back to the real world right now. What we’re going back to is our friends, our parties, the outdoors. These aren’t meant to be the homework of the adult world; they’re meant to be the chocolate and the dogs. They’re meant to be the things we want to lie around with all day.
So what can we do about the fact that they feel like homework? What can we do to make the prospect of opening the front door again feel less – as you describe it – like “small talk” and “unexpected visits”?
You need to realise these things should not feel so tiresome. I have a friend who thought, for a long time, that she didn’t like going to pubs. It turns out she was just going with bores who spoke over her all the time. It’s very easy to conclude “I’m an introvert” when in fact what we should conclude is “my friends are tedious and I want some new ones”.
The fact that the pre-lockdown ways of experiencing other people weren’t fun for you doesn’t mean that they can’t be. Do not conclude that you’re the variable: being out in the world should be fun. If your world makes you want to retreat, it’s worth changing that world.
The other place to start is with the knowledge that you do not actually need government permission to do the thing you most want to. When you want to go home, you can. When you want to close the door, you can. This time has reordered many people’s priorities; you won’t be alone if you want to tell people it’s reordered yours.
If this pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s that life is very fragile. It is too short to live one that doesn’t feel fun.
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