In lockdown I’ve developed a habit of wistfully looking over my Google Calendar, an artefact from my former life. It’s packed right up until early March, where the blocks of green give way to abrupt emptiness. I was very busy, once, I remember abstractly.
The stereotype of a writer is that we are generally solitary, but the truth is that I thrived on interaction with others. Yes to “one last drink”, to parties full of strangers, to staring dreamily out of the window of 3am night buses. I should be excited at any slight return to normality. And yet now, as we emerge from lockdown, I’m understanding that it’s not so simple. I’m realising, with a kind of grief, that a switch in my brain has turned off, and I’m not sure how to switch it back on again.
When a close friend called at the weekend to suggest a walk in the forest near my house – that same day! – I actually couldn’t do it. I wanted to see her so much, but the idea of doing something on impulse, even a “safe” activity, now feels completely alien. I realised early on in lockdown that routine was going to get me through. I wake at six, I go to bed at 10, and in between I take comfort in portioning out my day. The trade-off has been a total loss in the ability to be spontaneous.
Every act must be weighed up. Part of this is logistical – I’m not getting public transport, and I must accommodate the level of risk that my partner, who I share a home with, is comfortable with. The rest is wrestling with my own needs and concerns: a push-pull of guilt, social longing and fear that I may just have forgotten how to be in the world.
It works the other way around, too. When plans fall through it gives me a sense of disproportionate rage, rather than the former mix of mild annoyance and secret relief. Every social interaction now feels impossibly high-stakes, a carefully orchestrated occasion of risk assessment. I build my day around these rare occasions, and if they’re cancelled the day collapses. How could I possibly be spontaneous under these conditions? I miss my friends. But I miss myself, too.
There is a strange pressure now in trying hard to appear normal to others, when I am far from my normal, and fearing that I may never return. When my friend rang that day and said, “You’ve probably made plans already, but just in case you’re free!”, cheerfully, I wondered if I’d hallucinated the last four months. When I first saw a friend, in April, just after the rules were relaxed on meeting outside, I thought I would feel euphoric, back to my usual self. Instead, walking home I felt strangely flat – tearful, like a toddler overstimulated after a party. If anything it drew a line under my glorious and tactile former reality.
My reliance on routine was only emphasised when I went over the handlebars of my bike on a busy road a few weeks ago. Adrenaline temporarily blanketed the fact that I had fractured my elbow; I pushed my bike over a mile to the repair shop before walking home covered in blood. Twelve agonising hours later, via A&E, my arm was immobilised, and I was essentially back in lockdown just as it was easing, except without my routine. I couldn’t brush my teeth, let alone type or do a burpee. It turned out everything in the world I liked to do – needed to do – involved my right hand and arm. In the old world I probably would have welcomed the enforced break to lie on my sofa in front of Real Housewives, but in this new world my panic only grew.
The strangeness of these feelings has precedent. In my late teens I went through a period of near-constant panic attacks and derealisation – where the boundaries between you and the world become warped, and everything feels unreal – which I had no tools to cope with, or even understand. All I knew was that the world was unsafe, and if I stepped out of my prescribed activity and environments, I would die. In a shrunken world where a colour or smell could trigger the hot-air balloon feeling of leaving my body, the routine of known, tested things gave me comfort.
The people around me didn’t always understand then, as they may not understand now. Why should they? Suddenly I was empty, fearful, and it wasn’t fun for anyone. But it was easier to pretend that I was boring than to admit that I had seen how flimsy reality was, and needed to, somehow, claw my way back through control.
It may feel familiar, but things are different now. The danger this time is known, at least, and exists outside of my mind. I can recognise that, in a world where caution is the new normal, a lack of spontaneity is protective. I can see that my routines, though sometimes restrictive, have kept me on an even keel and kept me focused. My old, impulsive life was always fun, but not always stable (and I no longer exist on a diet of negronis and the occasional Happy Meal, for now anyway). Back when I was a teenager my sense of self came back, with time and with care, and so did flexibility, and so did joy. My friends, once they got used to the new me, were patient. I hope now, even if it takes me longer to catch up, it’s all waiting there for me still.
• Sophie Mackintosh is the author of The Water Cure (longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker) and The Blue Ticket