For those accustomed to an interior life—that is, living without need for external stimulation—the enforced isolation of a lockdown has been little more than an inconvenience. However by now, everyone has had to confront the grim surge of Covid cases; and anxiety and fear have mounted.
The darks days will be plenty, whatever your outlook.
In my own cloistered way, it has been a surprisingly liberating feeling to be left alone to my own devices. Within the confines of my home and my yard, I have been fortunate to engage in the activities which bring me pleasure.
I am focusing productively on my writing and research; I do a bit of gardening; far less cooking than I was accustomed to—because I no longer have friends over, something I miss—and I am catching up on reading.
I often feel guilty about my sanguine state, especially when I talk to people who are drastically affected by the removal of their freedoms.
An unexpected call from a friend I had not talked to for a couple of years, startled me into a different reality. He’s always been an extraordinarily extroverted person; gregarious and sociable, buzzing around with the kind of animated air that makes you exhausted just witnessing all that cheerful energy.
They used to call him a saltfish when I first met him 12 years ago. I didn’t know then that it was an affectionate term used to describe someone who was everywhere and in everything.
So when he bubbled forth on the phone, I was delighted to hear him, expecting that he would be coasting through this pandemic with aplomb. It turned out he wasn’t; and as I probed to understand the nature of his misery, I realised that he was experiencing what the majority of people must be, and that it is not a state of mind to be taken lightly.
At first I thought his problem was that he was left at loose ends, given the various levels of shutdown we have experienced. I thought time was hanging heavy, so I began suggesting different forms of activity.
He had been a fitness buff; maybe he could set up an exercise routine to incorporate his wife and daughter. That had failed, he said, but it was also that his immersion in sports was a part of the social interaction he needs to sustain him.
Football had always been his mainstay, getting out there, knocking the ball around, knowing that on the field social status was irrelevant. What mattered was how you could run the ball, and if yesterday you played badly, today you could still be a star.
I’d forgotten how competitive he was. He is a complete athlete; 5ks, track and field, anything that involved people and ‘Saltfish’ was in it.
My fitful exercise regimes depend on me being alone so I could quirk about as I please, but he needs to measure up against others.
I was wrong, it wasn’t that he had time on his hands. He was still working; but now he was at home, desk-bound, attending virtual meetings.
My days were full of social interactions, he explained. I would start early, meet a client in the morning before heading off to my day job; run away for another lunchtime meeting, and then drop in on another after work. Then sports.
This was what stimulated him, the physical engagement. Now, he is ‘zooming along’ reluctantly because the meetings feel restrictive. I suspect a lot of his charm offensives are watered down on-screen.
He tried to explain how it wasn’t that he lacked things to occupy his time, it was that he felt like he was wrapped in a plastic bubble and it was stifling him. I’m obeying the laws, he said, but it is sucking out my life.
Knowing how I enjoy my solitude, he struggled to get me to understand. Imagine how you would feel if someone told you that you had to live indefinitely in a house with five or six garrulous, hyperactive, outgoing people, who were always engaged in some bustling activity (I’m paraphrasing him); how would you feel?
Suddenly, I understood what I had failed to grasp. His entire core has been stripped away. His life has not been easy; these social engagements have been his escape. “Carnival for me is Carnival Tuesday,” he said. “I don’t have to play mas, I feed off the energy.”
He loved going to the beaches, to immerse himself in the water and the ambience, to watch people. Where he could be, ‘a fella on the beach on a chair’.
I suppose you are one of those people who wants a porch overlooking a busy street, so you could watch people and cars go by, I asked—knowing that would be a nightmare for me.
He is like a tiger, pacing restlessly in his cage, and his spirit is suffering, because his essential self feels smothered. He is trying to be stoic. Two recent Covid deaths were people he knew.
The figures that used to be abstract numbers now have faces and families. Soon, he said, we will all know someone. It keeps him from breaking out, because he is aware the cost is high.
Hearing him helped me to better understand another kind of pandemic struggle, one that must be contributing to growing depression globally.
We must not dismiss its severity.
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