It’s been my stance throughout the coronavirus that I am absolutely A-OK. My social anxiety and my introversion make me well-suited for locking down and keeping the world at bay. Well, all right. If you insist. No pining for a hug. No wishing to be a foursome, laughing too loud at the local bistro between nibbles of the brussels sprout appie. (Well, three of us nibbling. I’d have my hands resting on my lap, cursing the fact they’ve added bacon to a veggie I loved way before cabbage became cool. When bacon becomes the standard foodie additive to ice cream flavors, I shall have to pack up and join a vegan commune thirty miles down a dirt road in Northern Idaho.) Yep, I’m in no rush for my next dine-out experience. I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine. Take as long as you want, Corona. You won’t see me blink.
Early on, I would grind my teeth as videos emerged of rebels invading Walmart, going mask-free, asserting their warped view of freedom and personal rights. You can’t stop me from being selfish! I have a right to public stupidity! (The Republican Party tells me so.)
I stopped arguing with my mother as she preemptively justified my parents’ “need” to continue eating at a booth inside their local Panera Bread. “Oh, son. They’re so good there. They make us disinfect our hands as soon as we walk in. The place is very spacious. Sometimes we have the place to ourselves.” Um, wonder why? “And your father gets the monthly all-you-can-drink coffee deal. You know he likes to get his money’s worth.” Really, how could I argue with all that?
When I called last week, she said, “We miss our friends, you know. We’re not getting any younger and they’re dying. Everyone we get together with is very careful, of course. We stick to our little group of eight.” I couldn’t respond. She didn’t give me a chance. Mom and Dad were dashing off to a unit on the second floor for a fun-filled night of playing Mexican Train. I don’t know what that is and I’m not looking it up. I’m just going to tell myself there’s more social distancing in it than a game of Twister.
Before dashing, she did toss in, “Oh, by the way, your brother has COVID.”
“From the family reunion at Christmas?” I asked. (Yep. That’s another story. I’ll spare you.)
“No, dear. From a coworker.”
“I thought he was working from home.”
“Well, he was. But they like to communicate in person, you know.”
Okay then. They live in Texas. It’s the last rocket stop before Mars.
My mom was trained as a nurse and my father was a doctor. They know how viruses spread. They know how to stay safe. But they’ve decided their need to be social and my father’s “hobby” of going to five different grocery stores every week so he can stockpile Buy-One-Get-One-Free cans of green beans from Kroger before raiding the shelves for bargain-priced All-Bran at Brookshire’s is more important. You can never have enough bran on hand. (This assumes you’ve also filled two closets with toilet paper.)
Last night I met my dear friend Katrin for a glass of wine after she finished work. As someone who lives alone, I’m allowed to meet with one, maybe two, other people. Our provincial guidelines are murky and, as people who like to do whatever they want are quick to point out, most of them are only recommendations. People justify brunch for six by saying, “It’s not illegal. They can’t put me in jail.” Sigh. Because the threat of sitting in a cell with two drunks and a shoplifter is what it takes to do the right thing.
Katrin and I are each other’s designated person though we haven’t met often since our biking and hiking outings in the summer. We met at the same seaside pub a few months ago, sitting on the outside deck under a heat lamp as the pouring rain battered the ground three feet away. Last night, the temperature dipped below freezing and we were well layered, Katrin in snowpants and me wrapped in the handmade wool blanket I’d bought in Stockholm three years ago. (Miss you, Sweden!) Just like last time, we were the only ones sitting outside, chatting at length about the global inequities regarding vaccine distribution, who should be given priority and what should (but won’t) happen to privileged people who jump the queue.
What the hell did people talk about before COVID? The Kardashians? “This Is Us”? The fact that it’s too cold and I lost all feeling in my toes thirty minutes ago? Ah, but we wouldn’t actually be sitting outside, pretending this is perfectly normal pre-COVID, would we?!
Katrin and I worked our way past coronavirus indignation and went deeper, as we’ve always done. We met three years ago as both of us attended our first group course for people with eating disorders. She’s bulimic; I’m anorexic. She’s made astounding progress; I haven’t. Every conversation we’ve ever had has been incredibly rewarding, quickly forgoing chitchat for substance.
“I’m worried I’m going to wind up back in the psych ward,” I said. “All this isolation has been too much of a good thing.”
This is where it’s important to distinguish between needs and wants. My mother’s yearning to socialize is a want, not a need. It makes her feel better, more connected, in-the-know with her friends. All good. But I know she and my father fully support themselves living together and carrying out their comfortable routines, my dad devouring every article in his paper copies of The Wall Street Journal and The Dallas Morning News, my mom scrolling through Facebook, sharing a post about Hunter Biden or, on better days, sharing a meme about the well-earned right to crankiness in old age, then liking every photo in posts from my sister and me while adding powerful comments like “Yikes!” and “Neat!” where applicable. (It’s not a cause for therapy, but I tend to get the “Yikes” and my sister the “Neat.”) They come together for meals, my father, who’s never made so much as a piece of toast in his life, pacing the kitchen helplessly five minutes before noon. In the afternoon, they take a little walk before my mother resumes reading something from her stack of library books, my father still plodding contentedly through his newspapers. After dinner and a never-missed dessert, they settle for an evening of “Wheel of Fortune,” “The Crown” and maybe an episode or two of “House Hunters International” before turning in. I’ve observed them many times, amazed at how satisfied they are with their “Groundhog Day” existence. They are happy. They are the definition of Meant for Each Other. Sure, time with friends only makes them happier. Still, a want, not a need.
I’m the opposite. I don’t want to socialize. Let me write. Allow me to read. Set me off on a hiking trail and, please, let no one come my way. I don’t hate people. I just struggle in environments with people. Isolation makes my attempts to cope rustier. I need to be with people even if I still haven’t gained any more sophisticated skills from back when I was four and my mother would nudge—no, push—me to go sit in the sandbox with the other kids. My inevitable tantrum didn’t endear me to my peers, but I didn’t feel like I was missing out as they offered sand “cakes” to everyone else but me. I mean, really, why would I pretend to eat a fistful of sand? (And why is Tammy actually doing it?) Also, why does Jimmy keep running over everyone’s legs with his Tonka truck? May he never get a driver’s license.
Fifteen years ago, I moved to a rural area, idealizing it as the optimal setting for my writing with frequent breaks ambling through the forest just up the hill with my schnauzers. Peace and quiet...except when my neighbor was pressure washing microscopic blemishes on his driveway. Again. And again. Out, damned spot! The endeavor required great patience and, by that, I’m talking about mine.
My time living in rural isolation—a decade—nearly killed me. I wound up severely depressed and suicidal, locked up in a psych ward. (I swear it had nothing to do with the pressure washer, but we all need our scapegoats.) My psychiatrist, my family doctor and my counselor all ordered me to move. I would not survive more time in isolation.
And here I am once more, the past eight months, in particular, in solitary. Like my parents, I have my own routines to give me purpose. I track every minute of time writing to ensure that I’m not wasting too much time checking out who is the person it’s trendy to hate today on Twitter. I have stacks of books on my coffee table that are urgent must-reads since they’re checked out from the library and I have five more Holds waiting for me. I also have my exercise compulsion, part of my eating disorder, that consumes large chunks of my day six days a week. Days pass quickly. I’m content or, at least, safe.
That changes as soon as I step out. My runs and hikes and bike rides and timed walks are fine because they are tasks that fulfill an exercise requirement. If, however, I walk to a grocery store or to watch a sunset or to meet Katrin for a drink, I’m unhinged. I’m like that kid from “The Sixth Sense:” I see people. Not dead, thankfully, because that would have me screaming hysterically and get me fast tracked back to the psych ward. Seeing living people freaks me out just as much as dead folks traumatize that poor Haley Joel Osment.
It’s hard to explain—too much for a blog entry that’s already running long—but something overwhelms me in being among other people as they go about the significant and mundane parts of their day. They are able (or, at least, that’s the assumption I make). Many are talking to a coworker, a friend or a partner. They are connected. They aren’t faced with a well of tears suddenly pooled in each of their eyes, panicked that, if anyone should even glance their way, it would be so obvious that they are falling apart, longing to turn back after only half a block, willing to subsist on another can of black beans to put off grocery shopping for another day. I can’t be certain, but I’m guessing being out in public hasn’t led to three ways of killing themselves to pop in their head in the past minute. Bridge. Bus. Bayonet. It’s not willful thought; the “suggestions” just appear. These people I pass can’t see the billboard I envision draped from the building across the street: YOU BLEW IT. NOTHING WILL EVER BE RIGHT AGAIN. They don’t see the one up the next block: WHY ARE YOU STILL HERE ANYWAY?
These aren’t the voices in one’s head that doctors ask me about from time to time, wondering if I’ve earned another mental health label as if they’re like Boy Scout badges. Thanks, but no thanks. I don’t have multiple personalities and I don’t have Satan or anyone else squatting in some otherwise unused space in my brain. It’s just my solitary inner voice, with all its tainted takes on failure and worthlessness honed by prolonged periods of isolation. Socializing doesn’t fulfill some deep yearning to connect; rather, it distracts my brain from dark, hopeless thinking. Like I said, I need to socialize as much as I don’t want to.
Seeing Katrin was like releasing a pressure valve, letting out just enough of a dangerous substance to bide me some time. It was painful and embarrassing. I’m lucky because it didn’t faze her. Her nods weren’t perfunctory. She’s thought my thoughts. When the server braved the cold to ask if we would like another glass of wine, Katrin didn’t see the interruption as a welcome opportunity to move on to a lighter topic. (Whew! Enough of that!) Instead, she took the conversation right back to where we were. “You were saying that...” She completed the sentence with precisely the last thing I said. Such a skilled listener. Not just skilled but invested. That makes all the difference.
After three hours of sitting outside under a heat lamp that, if it was still on, it had all but raised the white flag as if to say, “You win, arctic front. I was designed for warming up Floridians when the temps dip below 75.” We surrendered to the cold too, and began a race-walk uphill toward our respective condos, still conversing, but now it was mostly about hot showers and ways to treat minor frostbite. We didn’t hug when we reached the street where our paths diverge. She’s the only person I like to hug but we haven’t done that for nearly a year now. We once did a weird elbow tap, but that offered nothing as a hug alternative. A hand wave had to suffice.
A night out came to a close. I had feeling in my toes an hour later. I texted Katrin, apologizing (needlessly) for my mood and thanking her (profusely) for her company. It’s all too clear I needed that.