Tuesday night in locked-down Sydney, I felt discombobulated at the local Woolworths as Daft Punk’s party anthem Get Lucky played loudly throughout the aisles and all the shoppers were socially distanced, masked and had sad/dead/scared-looking eyes. It’s hard to get a read on people’s mood when they are standing far away, or hurrying away and wearing masks – but the vibe was low.
The pain of lockdown consists of several distinct elements: a big headline-style pain that is understood by all but distributed unevenly. This pain includes financial loss and suffering, unemployment, not being able to access vaccines, being a frontline worker, and of course Covid itself. This is the pain we acknowledge when those of us able to earn from home say that we are privileged, that it could always be worse.
Then there is the low-level, alternating chronic and acute pain that we all face in lockdown – fear of getting ill and dying, constraints on freedom, movement, the ability to socialise and travel, the ability to connect with friends and family, and the anxiety that comes with the uncertainty of an ending. We all more or less share those broad, specific pain points.
Then there is a third and weirder sort of pain. It feels existential in its origin, specific to you alone, as if one has been visited by one’s own personal demons.
In lockdown, people who live alone – who actually have chosen to live alone and usually love it – are haunted by their 24/7 aloneness. A studio apartment where you slept between social engagements suddenly takes on the dimensions and psychological complexion of a prison cell. People with children, who love their children dearly, would make any kind of bargain to have an hour of studio-apartment solitude. They wonder if perhaps the third child was a mistake. Their entire waking life revolves around schooling and parenting. Nothing exists outside this except a second-by-second feeling of servitude to one’s children.
People in sharehouses are suddenly engaged in mentally draining turf wars over bench spaces, or the bathroom or internet bandwidth that previously did not even cross their minds to care about. They wonder: who are these randoms I’m condemned to be stuck with … maybe forever?
And what modern marriage (or any marriage really) was designed to withstand both people with each other, in the house, all day and all night together? You can’t even flirt at the office to give your brain a break from the spectre of them … them … always them, always at home.
What is specifically cruel and canny about the virus is its ability to make you acutely aware of your own specific, individual life circumstances – good and bad. This awareness can then spiral into an identity crisis. The anguish and angsty teenage vibes are real.
Almost everyone’s circumstances – their partner, their lack of partner, their children, their vocation, the layout of their living room, the pattern on their carpet – conspires against them when they’re shut inside.
Decisions made long in the past, when to have children for example (if you’d started earlier, you wouldn’t be now homeschooling someone in year 3 and surely life would be easier!), or housing, or if you should get married because you are turning 32, suddenly have sharp consequences in lockdown. You are left to “sit in your shit” as the old psychotherapy saying goes. But the sitting is unrelenting. You don’t get a break from it. You might be sitting forever at this rate.
And the shit is, well, shit.
No wonder astrology is having a moment. There is someone (an astrologer) telling you not to marry the man you met while high at a music festival. There is a clairvoyant saying to stay away from buying an apartment … Have you perhaps considered a farm?
Some sort of guidance, even if it’s based on nothing, now seems important. After all, in six years hence what job we take up or city we move to or husband we marry could have such a profound impact on our misery or joy that consequences are now being considered in a way they weren’t before. (Of course everything we do always has consequences, but it tends to be incorporated into the flow of life – it is not something we necessarily literally sit with 20 hours a day, contemplating.)
Reckoning with this highly individual and specific pain is what caused huge demographic upheavals in the last 12 months around the world. Rural property prices jumped, people got divorced, they quit their jobs in droves.
The pain was both creative and destructive.
Of all my friends who seemed the most suited to lockdown, it is the newly coupled, who were single or poorly partnered in the first lockdown, then hit the apps hard when restrictions lifted, and fell in love before they went inside again.
For them, lockdown is just an extension of those early weekends of being in love – having sex all day, not leaving the house, ordering in food, drinking wine in bed, being mostly nude. Lockdown is suited to these circumstances, but few others.
For everyone else but the newly in love, there is some angst – even if it is minor, even if you are mostly happy. When you’re stuck inside, the angst is like a pebble in the shoe. It’s small, but it’s there, and it’s annoying. You can’t ignore it.
In low moments it’s difficult to not think that the virus is some sort of malevolent entity that has entered into the world with a personal vendetta to destabilise you, and you alone.
Zadie Smith has written about this phenomenon in her most recent essay collection Intimations: “But when the bad day in your week finally arrives – and it comes to all – by which I mean, that particular moment when your sufferings, as puny as they may be in the wider scheme of things, direct themselves absolutely and only to you, as if precisely designed to destroy you and only you, at that point it might be worth allowing yourself the admission of the reality of suffering … ”
I remember reading this – not in lockdown, in a crowded cafe, choosing my choices and loving my choices – thinking “Hmm, interesting. It’s always sad to read about people who are suffering, even if they are kinda privileged.”
Now, of course, we are them.