[this article was originally written for Puttylike]
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.
Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. 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.