The Anatomy of Lockdown Loneliness

At the end of three months of lockdown, I found myself on my bed, unable to move. My body was functional but something prevented me from getting out of my bed. There seemed to be enough space, yet I could feel the pressure around me, compressing me, squeezing me into an unknown darkness. I couldn’t comprehend what was wrong and it made me uneasy. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep. I hadn’t been able to sleep for two, perhaps three nights. I checked my phone to confirm that it was morning outside. It was time to get up. I moved slowly to the side of the bed but couldn’t get down. There was something blocking my way. I rolled on to the other side but couldn’t get down. Was there an invisible wall around me that I couldn’t see? Was I dreaming?

I closed my eyes and went over the last few days. I couldn’t remember anything I had seen, read or done. It was beginning to make me anxious. There was an image in my head. An image of me building a wall around me, an invisible wall. There were bricks staring at me, while my eyes stared back at nothingness. Videos on loop, an open book, messages on the phone. Nothingness. Day after day, I had put these bricks one over the other, while maintaining perfect silence. There were ghosts of my fears roaming in the apartment. They clapped and cheered me on as the wall was being built. I knew it was wrong. I shouldn’t have built it. But I did it anyway. And it wasn’t just the last few days. I had been slowly building the wall around me for months. Ever since the pandemic had started.

Being disabled and chronically ill, anxiety had started to take its toll at the very outset of the lockdown. How would I get groceries? How would I go to the market? But as days passed, I did what I have been doing for a long time. I started adapting. Friends helped out with groceries. I started cooking and by the end of the month became a decent cook. But it was cleaning that I could never get used to. And soon, it became a burden. Not just cleaning the room but even the sight of utensils in my kitchen sink made me nervous. So much so that I started writing about it in my digital diary.

empty vessels, loud noises  dirty utensils sit in my kitchen
abandoned but not forgotten
they can't be pieces of art
I am not wasting time over something banal
instead i paint vibrant words
with pastel colours
and put them up for display
slowly the pans and pots
pile up in the sink, tick tick
first the tower of Hogwarts
then the mountain of doom
despite valiant attempts at avoidance
heaviness starts creeping in
triggering an emotional breakdown
that no art in the world can instil

I was alone. I was completely alone. On most days, the only voice I would hear was when my mother called me. At the same time, the world outside was falling apart. There were images of migrants walking on foot. Hungry migrants. Betrayed migrants. With blisters on their feet. Walking to their homeland. To my homeland. Having a roof over my head seemed like a big privilege. Being alone in my room seemed like a privilege. Yet it was pulling me apart, brick by brick.

While the cleaning was taking a toll, cooking seemed like a therapeutic thing in the first two months. I would try out new recipes. Work on my techniques. Aim for that perfect roti. It was a matter of time before it became a chore. And when it did become a chore, I started hating the idea of cooking twice a day. I started hating the idea of cooking food altogether. Maggi and bread became staples.

“I am doing well. I am enjoying my cooking. I am used to being lonely so it’s okay.” – I said this to my mother when she called. I said this to my grandmother when she called. I said this to my friends. I had almost convinced myself that I was enjoying it.

After all, I was so connected with the world. I was learning sign language online. I was attending study groups. I was doing my research work. I was writing. As the wall came up, everything came crashing down. I would still do things but hated myself for doing them. I was still connected but hated the connection. Phone calls became a trigger. Conversations had to be manufactured. Self-hatred was in abundant supply.

My physical health wasn’t helping either. I have chronic UTI and after a severe infection which had kept me bed-ridden for almost two months at the beginning of this year, I had been on long term antibiotics. I was supposed to stop in May. But you can’t stop your long term medication during a lockdown. What if you have to be admitted to a hospital? Would they have beds? Would you be infected if you went to a hospital? There was no one to take care of me in case the infection returned.

Every morning pee brought with itself renewed fear. Has the infection returned? I called the local lab. They wouldn’t come inside the apartment. I had to go outside and give them the urine sample for testing. What if the test came back positive? Shouldn’t I just avoid testing and continue with the antibiotics? The antibiotics were tearing me apart from inside. My body had informed me of that. But this fear was also tearing my mind apart and contributed to my deteriorating mental health.

Two months into the lockdown, I started breaking down. I would wake up in the morning, curse myself for having this life, and cry for half an hour. Pointless, helpless crying. Then go back to living my life like nothing had happened. As if everything was routine.

The virus had taken a toll on my body and mind without infecting me. But it also started taking a toll on my friendships. No one knew there was an invisible wall around me. And they had built their own walls. In this game of walls, there were no winners. For me, everything was triggering. How can you tell me what to do? How can you expect me to reach out? How can you expect me to act normally? I wanted to curse the world for being unfair. I wanted to destroy the world. And those who couldn’t take this version of me, left.

In the third month, I started to realise that the wall must come down if I had to survive this. The first step was to speak out. The wall that had been built with silence must be brought down with conversation. The first conversation was with myself. I had to accept that I was depressed. So I asked a friend for a therapist’s contact. And booked an appointment. The entire process was basically about me saying it aloud to myself, “Yes, I can’t do this anymore. I am probably depressed”.

The second step was to take this conversation to people who cared, those who couldn’t see what was happening to me. After three months of drowning in silence, I finally started reaching out for help. I told my mother about my mental health. I told some of my close friends. And we all agreed that it was time to head home. Flights had started. And it was time to leave my one-room apartment which now smelled of dust and loneliness. I needed people to talk to. I needed cooked food. I needed some caring. And that can be a hard thing to accept for a disabled person.

The emotional turmoil hasn’t ended there. There is no magic trick. It took some time. Healing takes time and the process will continue as I sit on my chair and eat mangoes, contemplating how to find solitude in my loneliness. But that’s just regular me. I am thankful to those who reached out. Those who saw my pain and shared their own. Those who listened to me and never imposed themselves. Not everybody can break the wall on their own. I couldn’t. So if you feel trapped, you must speak out. You must talk to yourself. You must talk to others. Seeking help is not a sign of weakness but strength. Break the wall.

Abhishek Anicca is a writer, poet, researcher and disability rights activist. He identifies as a person with disability and chronic illness. He is currently a research scholar at Ambedkar University, Delhi where he is working on disability and masculinity.

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