One Life in Lockdown

One Life in Lockdown

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: Mental Health

They’re building something over the road. For months, piles of earth have appeared and disappeared, punctuating my days with clanking and drilling and the beeping of huge machines reversing.

It might sound like I’m about to complain, but I’m delighted. At the time of writing, it has been exactly fifty days since I last interacted with another human in person. I don’t personally know any of the builders, but it’s reassuring to see people, any people, even through a window.

Although, looking closer, I’m reminded that they’re standing around in their bright orange jackets at a little further distance apart than you might once have expected.

By global standards, my country has a fairly relaxed lockdown: we’re allowed out once a day, if we have a good reason. My good reason is often to take a walk. During these walks, I could, if I wanted, convince myself that the end of the world had already happened and I am one of the few survivors. The normally bustling city centre feels absolutely haunted. If anyone’s in charge, it seems to now be the pigeons.

When I get home, the construction helps me to fool myself that everything is normal. After all, life inside is normal, too. I wake, I eat breakfast, I do some work, I do some chores, I (might) exercise, I eat, I sleep. There’s nothing unusual about this list. What’s strange is that there’s nothing else. Activities which used to make up perhaps sixty percent of my life now fill every second of every day.

I find it difficult to express how this feels. It’s not bad, exactly. Bad would be my home being invaded by snakes, or slipping in a comical bath accident and breaking my ankle. Endless days at home are just… neutral. Except they’re not.

Life has changed, yet my daily routine has never been more normal. These two truths collide constantly, and the impact generates an uncomfortable—almost guilty—dissonance. I can’t square the obvious vast changes with the endless humdrum normality. Attempting just makes me feel numb.

**

This is part of my personal story, but each of us is living our own unique situation during this crisis. In some places, life is basically normal; elsewhere, it’s fully upended. Even in the same neighbourhood, daily experience varies massively. Some of us are still going to work. Some of us are locked in with partners, others with exes, some with kids, others with grandparents. As I mentioned, I’m alone, except for my construction friends through the window, and the occasional goose which swims past on the river just beyond them.

Of course, thanks to the internet, we’re rarely fully alone, and I’m blessed to have a large virtual network to call upon. But being physically isolated for fifty days is a lot even for an extreme introvert, which I am not.

Like everyone, I now video call a lot. Everyone always opens with “how are you?”…which has always been a weird conversational opening. In normal circumstances, we all know it’s more of a handshake than an actual question. But I like to try to be honest. These days I instinctively respond “Fine!” before catching myself and following up: “…well, actually, terrible!”

Most people laugh. It’s not funny, but we all seem to recognise the feeling. It’s like we’ve learned that most of our usual questions are absurd. What have you been up to? Anything exciting coming up? We should hang out sometime! All relics of a distant age… um… seven weeks ago. But we haven’t yet evolved new questions, so instead we talk about how weird everything is, exchange entertainment we’ve consumed, and enthuse about snacks.

**

Between calls, I lurch between spurts of productivity and the fridge. Or the sofa and the fridge. Or sometimes I just lie on the floor. This is what passes for variety during lockdown.

These spurts of productivity have little in common with pre-lockdown productivity. As many people have realized, it’s only in theory that this is an excellent time to be productive.

At first, I found this confusing. After years of fantasizing about open-ended free time, it felt ridiculous to virtually hide from it on my sofa as soon as it actually arrived. But I hadn’t counted on the effort required to handle the tremendous change in momentum I was facing.

Pre-lockdown, my busiest project was live comedy talks about mental health—an activity which has become mysteriously unpopular since we all got banned from being in the same room. Suddenly all that energy had to go somewhere else. Immediately.

With hindsight, it was always impossible to instantly redirect that energy into, say, writing the greatest ever novel. The first few weeks were always destined to be nothing more than a scramble for normality as I attempted to salvage whatever existing work I could while navigating the new, more restricted world.

Plus, when judging myself during the early stages of lockdown, I have to remember that nobody knew for sure how long it would last. We all thought it might just be a couple of weeks, so the rational response could be to hibernate as comfortably as possible. But as time has dragged on it has become clear that adaptation needs to go deeper.

Luckily, adaptation is partly automatic. We do it all the time, often without being able to articulate how. There’s an experiment I like to tell people about, in which a scientist—George Stratton—wore glasses which flipped his vision upside down. After a few days, everything started to look normal to him, to the point that everything looked upside down when he took the glasses off.

Take a moment to absorb that. His brain reprogrammed itself to flip his entire vision upside-down after just a few days. Just from wearing some special glasses. Human brains can make anything normal, even the current abnormality—built as it is out of loneliness, routine, and endless, tedious normality itself.

I imagine it’s tiring for a brain to adjust to a new reality, which might explain the difficulty in being productive. It also explains the periods when I abruptly have spare energy, when my brain has finished some of the adjustments, so there’s suddenly capacity to code and write and create and search for work and do work and maybe learn a new programming language and—

—oh wait, the energy has disappeared again, and I suddenly feel claustrophobic and trapped. I’d go outside, but the agoraphobia of being constantly indoors makes that hard too, but—

—ah I feel better again.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been having these mood swings regularly for weeks. They make sense now that I understand the need for adaption even to excessive normality, but at first I was really upset by them. It took some time to accept that, some days, the most productive thing I could do was to just handle the feelings and trust this would lead to more productive time later.

I’ve done a lot of goal-revising, lately. “This month I’ll give a whole bunch of exciting talks” became “I’ll get through a few weeks at home” which became “I’ll just be flexible and do the best I can every single day.”

So: today. Today I’m writing this during a Zoom video café with some friends and some strangers. I’ve managed to write a whole article. It’s not been a bad day. Thanks for spending some time with me! I appreciate it more than I can say. Now I’m going to make another cup of tea and look outside and see how the builders are getting on. I might even give one of them a wave.

Take care.

Your Turn

How’s lockdown going for you? Whether you’re lonely, fed up, brimming with enthusiasm or barely even noticing the difference, your story is welcome in the comments.

neil_2017_2Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a hilarious and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a novel set in the prelife. He also spends his time on humorous talks about mental health, standup comedy, physics, computer programming, and everything from music, video games, languages and pub quizzes. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you said hello at enhughesiasm.com.

23 Comments

  1. I totally share your feeling, especially during these past 2 weeks.
    I am french, leaving in Madrid for 10 years now, and during this lockdown, I really enjoyed creativity moments and took the time to re think my career and wanna go for a project on my own. But as the situation is moving on (and will be better hope so), I am feeling anxious and stressful, not sleeping so well… I am scared about missing something, missing my life and waiting too many “signs” to finally quit and start my new era.
    Right now I am looking out the window, it is raining, windy and I am feeling a bit lost. But it is said that lost is necessary sometimes to find your own way. So wait and see :)

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Yes, the loss of what we might of had is also quite heavy, and is an angle I didn’t have time to explore in the article. Like you said, it’s important to balance it out with gratitude that we are alive and surviving and safe, and hope that this situation won’t last too long, and we can emerge on the other side energised and ready to build our lives towards being the way we want them.

      I hope you’re doing well this week :)

  2. Catherine says:

    I absolutely loved your post, you always have the ability to put your feelings into writing in a delightful way.

    I’m still working, which is good because I have my job but I’ve come to hate my job most days. I miss the interaction.
    I too have lots of moods swings, a mix of being home for such a long time plus no longer having a comfortable position in my desk (a mix of wrist and knee pain – hoping that some wrist exercises and a footrest that I ordered will fix this – because I honestly love to be in my computer) has been triggering for me and also the question “shouldn’t i do more?”, without commute or any social obligations, I should be finally pushing out content like madness but I don’t seem to be doing that.
    Having said that, I’m also terrified of the lift of the lockdown – the world seems dangerous like everything I touch might be contaminated. As someone who never was very picky about germs I feel anxious about what life will be like. Perhaps it’s me being paranoid after spending so much time locked in my home :)

    • Neil Hughes says:

      I fully feel ALL of this – “shouldn’t I be doing more?”, “what will it be like when it’s lifted?”, “why is my mood so up and down?”

      Like I said in the article, I think all of these questions are sensible responses to what’s happening. I’m happy to say I’m finding more of a routine that allows me to be productive, a little, and also to take the pressure off and handle the emotions from the situation. As for the lifting of lockdown, I think there’ll be a period of adaptation but we’ll soon find a new equilibrium where we can enjoy life fully but with a new understanding of caution about diseases. Humans have been through many plagues before and adapted and I’m confident our generation will manage. (In the meantime I totally get the paranoia! I try to console myself with the thought that it’s fun to imagine how things might be different, and that any differences don’t have to be scary.)

  3. Brenda Newberry says:

    As wonderful as this whole writing is, the last sentence is the one that got me. It is poignant and so funny. Your sense of humor is delightful.

  4. Sarah Young says:

    I relate to this SO MUCH. My day-to-day seems so routine, so normal, yet there is this undercurrent of strangeness because of the pandemic and how it has changed everything.

    Also, I am remembering how much work it is to interact with people. Like, as an introvert, interacting with people can be difficult, but if I do it with enough frequency, then I build up a tolerance for it. But now, the only IRL person I see is my mom, so I feel like I’m losing the ability to interact with anyone but her. Even the interaction of Zoom calls seems to heighten my social anxiety.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      I’m so glad you relate. It’s a relief to know there are so many others going through the same thing.

      I agree – I’m happy that the likes of Zoom exist, but it is exhausting to speak over a screen for any length of time, in a way that it isn’t when you’re physically with another person. I’ve also had the fleeting thought of “what if I forget how to talk to people”, but thinking about it I’m sure our ability to interact will return! Perhaps differently, at first, but it won’t take long before we’re enjoying the social experience of being human again – and perhaps allowing ourselves to appreciate it even more than before! Thanks for sharing!

  5. Rachel says:

    Heartwarming post, Neil. I’m now in week 9 of “shelter in place,” which is a bit more lenient than lockdown, for which I’m very grateful. We’re not limited in the number of times we can leave our homes per day, or the length of time we can take to exercise or shop for essentials. But there are still plenty of restrictions, and, as Catherine mentioned above, there’s a new normal for a lot of us around how much interaction we’re willing to have and how much risk we’re willing to take. I live alone, too, and have no pets (allergies), which makes me very sad at the moment. I am an introvert and, in some ways, my life hasn’t changed that drastically either—except that I was laid off from my job in early April (nothing to do with Covid-19 and, in fact, my manager actually kept me working two weeks longer than expected, for which I’m also very grateful).

    The biggest challenge for me is simply trying not to think about what the future will bring. I’ve been job-hunting for months, which is an extremely discouraging activity now, even more than usual, and there’s been a major screw-up with my unemployment benefits so it’s not clear if I will even receive them, or when, or how much. Thinking about the future—the near future, like later this year—is frightening and the questions are unanswerable.

    So, like everyone, I have good days and bad days. We do adapt, quite easily in some unexpected ways, but there are ways we can help ourselves adapt better. Being flexible and doing the best we can every single day, as you wrote, is absolutely key. Focusing on making the best decision we can for ourselves right now, instead of worrying about tomorrow or next week or next October. Practicing gratitude is also really helpful. My situation is tough, but there are tons of people who have it tougher right now. My heart goes out to them, and to all of us. Do wave to those construction workers. I’m sure they would appreciate it.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Our lockdown here has become slightly more lenient in the days since I wrote this–but only slightly! (Technically, we’re now allowed “unlimited exercise”, which honestly sounds exhausting..!)

      I agree that the total uncertainty about the future is extremely hard. It’s impossible to plan, which I struggle with. As you said so eloquently, learning to accept that there is only the present and I have to allow the future to take care of itself has been a challenge. Thank you for sharing :)

  6. Marika says:

    This article gave me comfort. To recognise so many aspects of dealing with the situation, especially the last 2-3 weeks. It makes me judge myself less, for the ways I handle the everyday life in quarantine.

    In the beginning of the lockdown I was super inspired. So many cool new ways do find with all normality turned upside down! From having been losing myself in trying to get employment in an extremely competitive field, I could now just let go of that, and only focus on what projects I wanted to create – a space for creativity I never gave myself during the job hunt.

    I had at least five drafts of different projects that were now uniquely possible in these circumstances, and I decided to go for one of them: Quarantine Opera. I created this online opera platform, publishing an open invitation to musicians all over the world to send recordings of their instrumental/vocal part of an opera piece, which me and a production team I’d gathered put together into full orchestra, choir and cast. It did become a great success, and we’ve now recently launched the second production, with a whole season planned ahead of us.

    However, even though the first weeks were full of inspiration and astonishment of finally daring to create something from scratch and go through with a project, there came a point when it all became heavy, and the abnormality which was so intriguing for me, became a normality. Everything I put on my agenda is totally up to me, and there are no outer frames to hold on to whenever the inner inspiration is not guiding me (as it of course does in the start of a project, and later only in waves). What is a workday? What is time off? What hour is it? The lit up screen looks back at me, telling me: all lines are blurred.

    When the inspiration doesn’t guide me, I feel an uncomfortable standstill. Neutrality, as you put it… When there is nothing that pulls me in any direction. I can get as terrified of that, as of The Awkward Silence. The clock ticks and I do nothing. This was ok in the beginning of the lockdown, but something now keeps telling me I should be “beyond” that by now, I should have built myself a way of living with a system of routines to keep me productive.

    Yet I find those standstill moments interesting. They either turn into mildly destructive or escapist actions, or they can open me to truly face myself and start producing art from a true source in me.

    The latter is what I’m currently working on becoming a habit, and the first step is to be ok with life standing still in these times. That the high tempo we were forced to have before lockdown blessed us with a slower, wasn’t necessarily healthy or good just because it was normal. When I accept stillness, I can find a presence, and from that presence things can evolve from the nothing.

    And, reading your article, recognising my situation in what you write, is adding to the path towards that acceptance.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Wow! Thank you so much for sharing this, Marika. I’m delighted that the article helped you judge yourself less, and I’m also inspired by your reflections on your own experience. It’s interesting to me that you experienced a surge in productivity and STILL ended up struggling with self-judgement… I think it shows how arbitrary all of our reasons are for self-criticism.

      I hope you find that balance of creation and stillness and acceptance. As you say, it’s hard to build your own routine without any external forces, and I hope you manage to build healthy habits that allow you to flourish without encouraging any more self-doubt.

  7. Marie says:

    Wow Neil! Thank you for sharing your experience so honnestly with us. You describe quite accurstely the situation that many of us live and it is very nice to see I’m not alone feeling like that.

  8. Maria Corey says:

    I loved this. All of it. I, too, feel the creeping sense of agoraphobia, so thank you for letting me know I’m not alone. I have an appointment for a haircut in two weeks and I’m already feeling anxious about leaving the house to do anything besides walk down the country lanes of my neighborhood.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Thank you Maria! I’m very happy it resonated. I’m planning to write more about the strange mix of claustrophobia and agoraphobia I’m experiencing. Neither of them have overwhelmed me in any way, but I think exploring the emotions might help me once the lockdown lifts, and my hope is that something useful will come out of the exploration for others who are feeling the same.

      I think anxiety about appointments sounds very rational, and I hope you are reassured by whatever precautions they are taking to limit your risk during the appointment. I’ve found that several times my anxiety about something I planned to do was because deep down I knew I didn’t need to do it, so it was an unnecessary risk. Of course, a life filled only with what is strictly necessary isn’t a particularly fulfilling life, so it’s a tricky balance to find! Take care :)

  9. Gabriela says:

    Thank you for this snapshot of the reality we are currently living in. I think the undercurrent of anxiety for me is what finally gets me outside, I live in a very rural location and could spend many days outside with only seeing my family and our farm animals. I know I have it pretty good, my job is now work from home and I am actually working more hours than I should.. I think partly in reaction to thinking if I work harder and longer then things will get better. Reading stories of families losing their loved ones is something I need to stop doing because the fear of it coming closer becomes a rising wave of fear. We have not been touched much by the virus but I do have family in NYC and I watch the news and hear about my other family across the country who are less careful.. and my gut clenches and then I go outside and play with the lambs recently born and feel guilt for being happy with so much death and horror in the cities. So I go inside and work and keep going.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Thanks Gabriela. Coming from an urban area I’ve been wondering what life may be like out in the countryside, so this is fascinating to hear. I get that in some ways it’s a lucky place to be, and in other ways it’s not ideal. The temptation to throw ourselves into work is high – maybe we need distraction, or to feel like we need to justify ourselves, or just to make time pass.

      I also agree that it’s hard to find the ‘right’ amount of fear. No fear at all is silly and would lead to everybody behaving in ways which helps the virus spread. But total gibbering terror is also not helpful! I think all we can do is try to walk that fine line of acting cautiously while leaving enough room to live our lives as best we can.

      Please don’t feel guilty about enjoying time with the lambs! It makes me smile that you’re able to do that, so perhaps see it as a service you can give all of us who are not able to do so – it’s nice to know there are people out there smiling with lambs! Maybe you could share videos to your friends and family to cheer them up, if you don’t already!

      Take care :)

  10. K.C. says:

    Hi Neil,

    I love reading your posts, you never disappoint. I so appreciate your ability to connect with the subject at hand in a way that is both empathetic and humorous. Who couldn’t use a little bit of that everyday, but especially now.

    For the last six years-and this one in particular- I haven’t been able to move forward in the way that I had hoped , after surviving Cancer. I have long desired to be a professional author, among other things,and after writing a novelette three years ago-yeah you read that right- it still isn’t published due to my financial status and wanting to get everything just right.

    I’m ‘in between homes’ the euphemism I started using so as not to loose hope of regaining the part of me that was so vibrant and adventurous and creative. But having ALL of this free time-well before the virus-and still struggling amid Everything that I’ve gone through and continue to go through, leaves me wondering if that dream and the passion for it has found a new home with someone else and left me for… I dare not say it.

    I hold on because I want to see the reason God spared my life from Cancer, while He has called home others. So I do my best to stay hopeful as I look out the sunroof of my car at night-my cat Na’Tiri by my side- into the star filled Vegas sky, and pray that my efforts to get in alignment with the Universe have not gone in vein. And, that the added loneliness of it all doesn’t eventually eat me alive as I wonder what, if anything, is the impact I’m meant to leave on this world.

    Rest assured Neil that you have made yours, and I am grateful! Take care and be safe.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Hi KC! Thanks for sharing your story, I appreciate it greatly. I couldn’t help but be struck by the way you dismissed your own accomplishment of having actually written a novelette… so many people long to do that but never get so far. It sounds like you’re putting a lot of pressure on yourself, which is sometimes a helpful spur to move forwards, and sometimes acts as more of an obstacle. I wonder whether that’s something you might explore?

      My experience is that any impact I may have made – and there are days when it’s easy to doubt that there is one – has come entirely from days of no apparent consequence. Just sitting alone and working on a book, or article, or similar, and feeling at the end of the day that nothing was achieved. But adding all of those up led to finishing things and putting them out in the world (to be mostly ignored, admittedly, but also to be enjoyed by a few!)

      I’m sharing this just to say that I absolutely empathise with how you describe your feelings, and that I have no doubt that you have already made a great impact on the lives of those you’ve met, and that you will continue to do so. Perhaps that will include finding a way to share your novelette, perhaps it’ll be a different writing project, perhaps something entirely different again!

      I hope you find a way to lift the loneliness during lockdown. I share that with you too, and am sending lots of positivity your way, for now and the future :)

  11. Sam says:

    Hi Neil. Lovely post. Thanks for sharing. I relate! What’s strange for me is that I invited a pretty big upheaval to my daily routine only a few weeks before lockdown by packing in my job as a teacher (with no career to replace it). I planned to pick up a job at a pub and devote the rest of my time to job hunting and upskilling. Only, now ‘the rest of my time’ is all of my time. I hadn’t planned for that and am experiencing the same spurts of motivation and paralysis as you. Its good to read someone feeling the same way, as its so easy to beat myself up by estimating the percentage of my day I have used productively.I have to say though, considering I left my teaching career half way through the academic year and on anxiety medication (story for another time) my actual anxiety levels are pretty low, for which I am grateful for every day. Oh, and if I haven’t said this before, thank you so much for writing ‘walking on custard’ , the memory of which really helped me get through that ‘story for another time’

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Hi Sam! Thanks for the kind words. I absolutely get the strangeness of ‘the rest of your time’ suddenly being everything – it’s both helpful and daunting to suddenly have the way we’re spending time being changed beneath our feet. Curious question: do you count the time you spend estimating the time you spent productively as productive or unproductive?! ;) (I’m kidding, but there’s a serious point that shining the light on the activity itself might show up the absurdity, and perhaps you’ll be less tempted to do it. I find that just ensuring I do something productive each day, however small, is a much healthier mindset and paradoxically leads to much more productivity!

      Very pleased to hear you’re doing well with the anxiety. Stay safe and keep pushing on towards your goals and I’m sure you’ll get there :)

  12. Paulina says:

    It was a pleasure to read your article. I’m the lucky one that I have my great life partner with me. Even I (introvert, yep) feel the need to be around people and hang out with friends. Let’s hope that it will be possible soon.
    I was in the middle of searching for a new job when all of it started, but the reality changed my plans and I decided to try to do everything what I’ve ever wanted and start my own business and still work on social projects (in NGOs). By making final decision (even without telling it out loud) I somehow attract people who I can cooperate with so I feel it is high time and the universe is supporting this idea!
    I’m sending you positive energy :)
    Paulina

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