What living with mental illness has taught me about self-isolation
The key to maintaining our mental well-being during the coming months lies in transforming loneliness into a space of solitude.
I didn’t expect much to change in my life with the new decade. Most of my twenties have been overshadowed with depression and that colours my view on everything. More precisely, it denudes it; creating a monochromatic emotional lens through which every aspiration and optimistic impulse is tempered.
However, even during my worst bouts of melancholy, I never expected by March to have not only been forced to self-isolate because of a mysterious virus but also eschew contact with anyone. This seems to be the new status-quo for the foreseeable future; in late March, we in Britain were informed that this lockdown would continue for at least 6 months — if not longer.
This is not unique to the UK; on the mainland, countries like France, Spain and Italy were ahead of the game and had imposed their own lockdowns earlier in the month. As the world awakens to the threat that Covid-19 poses more nations have fallen into a familiar global pattern; first panic, then begrudging curfews, and now a period of indefinite extension. The raison d’etre for these measures, unseen in Western Europe since the Second World War, is to “flatten the curve” (here’s a helpful info-graphic by Harry Stevens of The Washington Post on what that means).
Being forced indoors, however, is taking its toll. In countries with necessarily harsher restrictions like Italy, social distancing has led to frayed tempers. Across the board our emotional and mental health is being impacted by being cooped up; the initial bonhomie at the chance to finally watch that series on Netflix your mate has been banging on about has steadily depleted like the contents of your kitchen cupboards.
The things we once took completely for granted — like even stepping outside for a walk — have to now be planned out in advance. I remember my last excursion outside prior to the pandemic; a commute into Central London to consult some archives for work and followed by a quick pint with a mate. It was completely unmemorable because I had done it a hundred times before and, mentally, assumed I would do it again. But that’s no longer the case in this new frozen world we find ourselves in; the casualness which infused our past seems almost grotesque given our uncertain present.
Weird times lead to weird emotional states. Anxiety and depression levels have risen in every affected country (or at least those that try to monitor public mental health). In Britain, research conducted by the University of Sheffield and Ulster University found that there has been a steady rise of about 15% in people reporting either; and of those, the majority were under 35, living in a city, alone or with children, or with incomes affected by the pandemic.
Work has dried up; agency is gone; hiring prospects are grim. And yet this feeling of profound disconnect with not only others but also your inner self that many appear to be experiencing for the first time is familiar to me.
People often think that having depression means a constant oscillation between intense states of sorrow and despair. That does occur but in my experience the more mundane reality is a persistent and deeper kind of loneliness. It is an estrangement from not only others but aspects of yourself; a glitch in the machine that is your consciousness. I find some version of this present now whenever I speak to a friend or colleague; a palpable undertone of anxiety as they try to stick to a daily routine and claim some sort of normalcy.
Loneliness was already considered to be a public health issue in many parts of the world before the coronavirus pandemic. It’s a relatively modern concept — as this excellent article by Amelia Worsely, Assistant Professor of English at Amherst University details — originating in the late 16th century to denote a separation from civilisation as opposed to a specific emotional state. The first “lonely” character in English literature oddly enough is Satan in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. As the fallen angel describes his isolation — “From them I go/This uncouth errand sole, and one for all/Myself expose, with lonely steps to tread/Th’ unfounded deep” — he is describing his damnation from the civilisation of heaven to the wilderness of hell he now finds himself in.
A comparison with Lucifer, literary or otherwise, might seem puzzling but bear with me. Contemporary loneliness is a different beast altogether, but social distancing coupled with self-isolation has affected a similar separation from our societies for many of us now. We are now forced to confront our own interior wildernesses. Every action and piece of information inflames our worry; a walk is now a cause for feverish strategy; coming across another person on a narrow pavement, a tense moment. In the midst of all this how can you surmount this increasing feeling of dread and anxiety?
You can mitigate it with digital connectivity to a certain extent. Satan, after all, never had the Internet (or if he did, it would be a suitably infernal version; like dial-up with Bing). Making the time to speak to your friends and family instead of just texting can be a huge boon.
But I would argue basing your mental well-being on maintaining these social connections is a rather precarious solution. None of us are sure exactly when we will be able to emerge from our homes and resume a normal lifestyle (if indeed there is scope for such a thing when this is all over). Something more stable than Zoom is needed for the long haul.
I’ve found through my own struggles with loneliness in my adult life that attempting to cultivate a space of solitude is ultimately a more rewarding and healthy space than relentless social contact which is unreliable at best. This is a task that others who struggle with mental illness know well; and a perspective that arguably can help shore our collective and individual health in the coming days, weeks and months.
What do I mean by solitude? The French essayist Michel Eyquem de Montaigne encapsulated it best in his Essais (1570–92), a rambling collection of thoughts on esoteric subjects (the literal translation is “attempts” — a brutally honest title for any writer to adopt).
The Frenchman wrote the following; “We should have wife, children, goods, and above all health if we can, but we must not bind ourselves to them so strongly that our happiness depends on them — we must reserve a back-shop all our own.”
The term “back-shop” sounds markedly inelegant (especially when compared to the original French arriere-boutique) but the idea has always seemed sound to me. If our happiness is invested in things we cannot control it is always in flux. This is helpful advice at the best of times; during the worst it can be downright essential.
It is important to note that de Montaigne was not advocating a stoic detachment (or at least popular culture’s bowdlerised understanding of stoicism) from life and others. Instead, his advice was to spend time on the things we always wanted to do and achieve a sort of convivial relationship with our internal dialogue. Cultivating and maintaining relationships is important, yes; but what happens when we can no longer access them?
It may seem appalling to suggest that we all take a deep breath and carve time for ourselves in the midst of this crisis. Only the truly privileged can literally afford to work from home (perhaps one good thing about a global issue is that it may encourage people to start thinking about the world in terms of other people and not products). But striving for some semblance of inner balance doesn’t necessarily mean turning a blind eye to these issues.
We can’t go down to the Winchester, have a nice cold pint, and wait for all this to blow over. But we can take care of ourselves by striving for some sort of contentment sans company; if only to make sure we triumph, and not merely survive, during this pandemic.