Why do I find myself so sad and unfocused? Why is the blank page suddenly so intimidating? And why have I, a neatnik and control freak, disregarded the dishes in the sink and the unread magazines strewn everywhere?
I don’t want to say we were cocky.
But when Americans first became aware that the novel coronavirus was here and that social isolation was the way to fight it, introverts were a little smug. “Our time has come,” we proudly posted on social media. “This is what we’ve been waiting for.”
I laughed at the memes: “When you find out your daily lifestyle is actually called ‘quarantine.’” And “Look who’s suddenly cool – the introverts.”
I was more smug than most. As an introvert who has worked from home for nearly nine years, I had the temerity to offer unsolicited advice. (“Make your bed every day” and “set and stay on a schedule” were among my edicts.)
So, why do I find myself so sad and unfocused? Why is the blank page suddenly so intimidating? And why have I, a neatnik and control freak, disregarded the dishes in the sink and the unread magazines strewn everywhere?
I’m not alone. “Roughly two-thirds of Americans say they felt nervous, depressed, lonely or hopeless on at least one of their past seven days,” an Associated Press poll released yesterday found.
“Introverts are comfortable being by themselves,” said Adrianne Pinkney, an integrative wellness and life coach and founder of B. Well in Charlotte, North Carolina. “But in a predictable environment. There’s nothing predictable about what’s happening now.”
So, essentially, I crave order, and now there’s just chaos.
Pinkney said these times are particularly tough for introverts who are suddenly forced to be around their family—with no escape hatch—all the time. “You may not be the only one home,” she said. “Many people are sharing spaces they’re not used to sharing. College kids are home. In some cases, elderly parents may be sheltering with their grown children. Even our pets are having to make adjustments. It’s like they’re looking up and asking: ‘Y’all haven’t left yet?’”
Under those conditions, it’s crucial that people carve out space—physical space—for themselves, Pinkney said.
Inertia takes hold
What I find particularly perplexing right now is that some of my friends seem to be actually thriving in captivity. They’re organizing closets, making boeuf Bourguignonne, meditating.
“Most people aren’t taking on big projects,” Pinkney assured me. “There are people who are just trying to make it out of this with their mental health intact. It’s OK if you come out of quarantine without writing your novel or whatever you had hoped to do.”
Write a novel? If I brush my teeth, I feel a sense of (unearned) pride.
I’ve also discovered there’s a limit—and a low one—to how many Zoom and WebEx happy hours I can attend. They’re a sad substitute for what we’re all missing. I’m ignoring the phone even more now than I did pre-lockdown. There’s only one topic on my mind—on everyone’s mind—and to discuss that would only send me deeper into a grief spiral.
“I know you’re there,” my sister’s voice says on my voicemail. “I mean, where else would you be?”
On April 9—just 11 days after the stay-at-order order took effect in North Carolina—I posted on Facebook: Does every mundane task feel Herculean to anyone else? I want to award myself a medal if I discard the pizza box from two nights ago.
My friends shared their own stories of taking unusual pride in taking out the trash. I felt better about my lethargy once I realized I wasn’t alone. One of the last people to comment was a friend I last saw in person in the late 1980s. She’s a Presbyterian minister now, and her succinct, insightful reply brought me to tears: “Yep—it’s grief.”
But I haven’t lost anyone
I had assumed the lethargy, the inertia, these unshakable blues were signs of depression, a sly monster I’m well-acquainted with. But grief? I haven’t lost anyone. I haven’t earned the right to mourn, I thought.
Someone described this feeling as “survivor’s guilt.” That sounds about right. Healthcare workers, delivery people, and grocery store employees are risking and losing their lives to serve humankind, and all I’ve been asked to do is stay home. And I’m not even doing that well.
“We have all lost something,” Pinkney said. “We’ve lost money, lost jobs, maybe lost loved ones. Some people are grieving for the lost NBA season, and that’s a legitimate feeling. I led an online workshop recently with high school seniors who were mourning the proms they’d never attend.”
Mourning is necessary, she continued, and so is dealing with your feelings. “Nothing now is more important than your mind,” Pinkney explained. “It’s good to be hyper-aware of your thoughts. If you’re constantly anxious but not dealing with the anxiety, your body can put itself into ‘fear mode.’”
Isolation is sort of forcing introspection, too—and that’s not always comfortable. “Now, there’s no avoiding the work you needed to do on you,” Pinkney said.
Avoiding? That word struck a nerve. If nothing else, this pandemic has allowed me to fine-tune my avoidance behaviors. I’m avoiding any sort of encounter like—dare I say it?—the plague.
“It’s OK to experience loss and sadness,” Pinkney said. “Give yourself space to fully experience those things. But don’t let it become the essence of your being.”
“Practice gratitude,” she offered. “Choose to find joy. It can be in the smallest thing—the fuzzy socks that make your feet feel good. Disease penetrates the bodies of people whose immune systems are down. Stress literally puts you in a position where you’re more susceptible to disease.”
It’s been a month since forced isolation took hold. (And I agree with the social distancing guidelines, by the way. I think they’re saving lives.) I am not living my best life as I had assumed I would. I’m no longer doling out advice on how to be productive at home, either.
COVID hasn’t physically impacted me. But it has taught me a lesson about gloating.