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27 March 2020

Will all this time in self-isolation make me depressed?

Social distancing guidelines mimic the way I behaved for years: staying at home all day; shut off from other people. I lived my twenties like this, by decree of my screwed-up brain.

By Eli Goldstone

It’s three in the afternoon. I am moving myself from room to room to avoid the bright sunlight of the creeping spring, a joyful thing that I have to obscure in order to stay productive. I suddenly have a vivid memory that I can situate in place — a cold, dark flat with orange curtains on the corner of Brixton Water Lane — but not in time. 2008? Whenever it was, I moved my bed into the room with the least sunlight so that I could sleep for longer.

The government guidelines on how to control infection during a pandemic mimic pretty closely the way I behaved for years: staying at home all day; shutting oneself off from contact with other people, obsessing over things beyond one’s control. I lived large swathes of my twenties like this, trapped in my physical environment by decree of my screwed-up brain.

The mandates were simple: I was no longer a person but a sickness, and exposing other people to this sickness was completely forbidden. Other things — making a living, maintaining relationships, experiencing glimpses of pleasure — were of little importance and fell by the wayside in light of my revelation that I was not just a depressed person, but a person who could ruin someone’s day – or possibly their life – if they came into contact with the deep, sad, person-shaped sickness that I had become.

During the day, people discuss the lockdown with varying degrees of concern. “Just another day in the life of an introverted misanthrope,” someone signs off an email to me. “I’m loving self isolation! It feels like normal…” I wince. I mentally sketch out the days stretching ahead of me. Of course, there are plenty of ways one can spend one’s time, even if socially isolated. I would know, because I have explored all the options.

If I walk on the beach for an hour, my dog might play with a larger dog, which reminds me of how tiny he is. I might see and put in my pocket a hag stone (good luck!). The colours of the sky might be shifting like a melting Neapolitan ice cream. I can bake something, which is not only productive but also a nice, lengthy time commitment that requires total concentration and therefore leaves less room for other, less healthy activities, such as sleeping, bingeing TV that I find stultifying rather than pleasurable, or weeping in the kitchen over the fact that my tiny dog will one day die. Yes, there’s lots to do.

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It aches. I have taught myself that these are the behaviours of a sick person. My melancholy is improved swiftly and profoundly by the presence of others, and I have learned that seeking it out is the first thing I should do when I feel the creeping urge to do the opposite. In some ways I have merely replaced one anxiety with another: will being alone for an extended period make me depressed? I feel it creeping in, observe the familiar red flags. I need outside stimulation. I am a German Shepherd in a kennel: bored, overly sensitive and aggressive.

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I listen to a doctor on LBC explain that if people don’t stop going out, touching each other, and otherwise behaving as normal, then thousands of people will die. I worry, not for the first time in my life, whether my reaching out to people is in itself a deeply antisocial act. I worry whether my friends will forget about me. I worry my parents will become sick. I worry that I either can’t or shouldn’t have children. My worries stray so far from the source that I have to steer them back like an errant toddler wandering into the road. I’m allowed to worry about this, but not this. I’m allowed to worry during my once-daily government-mandated walk, but not in the bath…

A house with a lonely person inside it is a haunted house. My sister-in-law sends me a video of their neighbours in Geneva assembling on their balconies at 9pm every night to cheer, clap and ring bells. I think as I watch it that I am witnessing an exorcism. The ways we reach out to one another, to tentatively try out new forms of love and hope, will be the ways that we expel grief from our houses and start to inhabit them again. We must not become ghosts.