Social distancing after I ended my social isolation: A personal essay

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Content warning: mentions of suicide

October 22, 2018;

What I remember best about being in the emergency room is the incredibly annoying beeping that I blamed for not being able to sleep in that incredibly uncomfortable plastic-lined bed, as if I would have gotten sleep without said beeping. There was some terror and some relief: muted emotions, buried under the shock of being there at all. They asked me what had brought me there, why that night of all times; I told them I didn’t want to go outside anymore. 

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The semicolon is a symbol for suicide survivors because it signifies a continuation instead of an end, just as we have continued to live; I like semicolons, I think they’re quite nifty.

“Helplessness Blues”;

Some people have astrology, others have religion; I, for one, have lyrics that uncannily mirror the circumstances of my life.

A few days into my hospital stay, during an art therapy session, the facilitator said everyone could have a turn choosing a song to play with the caveat that it couldn’t be a “negative” song. I would’ve killed to listen to “Helplessness Blues” by Fleet Foxes, my favorite song, a song where Robin Pecknold cries, “If I know only one thing, it’s that everything that I see / Of the world outside is so inconceivable, often I barely can speak.”

Too related to what got me there, not “positive” enough; so, I didn’t suggest it at all, though I thought about arguing for it by pointing out it’s in a major key. Instead I played “Blue Ridge Mountains” by Fleet Foxes, which isn’t exactly a “positive” song, either. But nobody really paid attention to the lyrics, anyway. So I could’ve gotten away with “Helplessness Blues.”

Recovery;

Since October 2018, I’ve been in what we call “recovery,” which is a preciously succinct way of saying: I wanted to force-quit my existence for a long time, and now, thanks to a miracle combination of psychotropic medication and treatment by doctors who understand mood disorders, that part of my life is, like, super yester-year. 

Mind you, it still took me a hot minute and a half thereafter to truly embrace the nebulous happy label, but for the first time in what feels like maybe my whole life I finally understand what that label entails.

People of California, social distance!;

Which is why, and pardon how self-absorbed this sounds, social distancing feels like the universe is spitting directly in the face of my hard-earned recovery. I find that just a little bit rude! Look at how much I’ve groveled to earn that recovery — it nearly cost me my life more than once. I would like to keep it, please and thank you. “It” being both recovery and my life. Take your pick, but I still want both.

Before social distancing became necessary in the context of a global pandemic, social isolation was my go-to coping mechanism for dealing with anything and everything. At my worst, I experience auditory overload that causes attention issues that cause frustration that cause — you can see where I’m going with this, right? On top of that, my thoughts race, my brain unproductively goes a million miles per hour. By the time I ended up in the emergency room I was a paranoid shell of a person, convinced I was going crazy because I was convinced complete strangers could tell I was going crazy. The world was too loud, and I wanted a volume switch to turn it all off.

Before social distancing became necessary in the context of a global pandemic, social isolation was my go-to coping mechanism for dealing with anything and everything.

In the months that followed I wasn’t exactly 100% “cured.” I curbed my suicidal ideations with a strict regime of medicines that finally made me capable of sleeping, but the social isolation didn’t stop. I’d grown so used to being afraid of the world and the people in it that I had absolutely no basis for how to fully integrate myself back into that world.

“Came Out Swinging”;

“I spent this year as a ghost and I’m not sure what I’m looking for,” sings Dan “Soupy” Campbell of the Wonder Years on “Came Out Swinging,” and because I’m really just that on-the-nose, I spent the second half of 2019 listening to this song on repeat. It’s a song that means so much to me that I now have a Redbubble sticker with the lyrics on my water bottle — the highest honor I can bestow upon anything.

The last lines of the song are, “I spent the winter writing songs about getting better / And if I’m being honest, I’m getting there.”

So it goes — so it went!

What a phony;

After the weird limbo of the liminal space that 2019 was for me, I’m a wholehearted believer in the Fake It ‘Till You Make It mentality. Last year I had zero motivation to perform well academically — I arranged my schedule so that I was able to leave my apartment as little as possible, only attending classes two days a week. I didn’t make many real efforts to maintain friendships, so the ones who have stuck around are true martyrs.

I spent most of 2019 wondering when I would finally be happy, truly happy, in my post-suicidal life; then, at the end of last year, it occurred to me that my “I’m doing uber dandy” act of one year had ceased to be an act. It didn’t happen overnight, but quietly, over time. I pretended to be more than just okay, and finally, I could comfortably say I was. I can comfortably say I am.

“Have you tried … going somewhere else?”;

Here’s a template of an exchange I’ve had with every therapist I’ve ever had, written for my convenience in case I need it after all of this is over:

Me: I just, like, can’t concentrate, you know? I feel like I can’t get anything done at home! I’m going crazy! (blah blah, ramble ramble)

Therapist: Have you tried … going somewhere else?

October 21, 2018; 

I don’t know how to entirely quantify or qualify it now that I’m a full and functioning person again. I just know that I was going to waste away in bed, ironically sleepless, or I was going to have to ask for help, because nothing was enough anymore and the simple thought of walking down Bancroft to get to campus from my apartment was making my head hurt so much I was worried that brains are capable of spontaneous combustion. 

P.S. That’d be quite a way to go out, though. Think of the headlines.

Where I went;

I love Berkeley. I knew I wanted to live here the minute I stepped out of my dad’s car when I was 15, the summer he brought me to see campus for the first time; I worked so hard to live here. I spent most of high school working for the sake of being able to live here. So it’s sad in a very profound way, you see, that I have spent so much of my time in Berkeley at home — whether “home” was my freshman dorm or subsequent apartments — self-isolating.

Thus I took on spring 2020 with a vengeance. It wasn’t that I was determined to make up for lost time, per se, because that’s a futile effort. More than anything I just needed to prove — to myself, not to anyone else — that I was capable of doing something other than self-isolating and wasting away.

I’m lucky — I have a great apartment and roommates, but since mid-January I haven’t spent much time here. I’ve been exploring libraries to write essays at, I’ve been reading books at different coffee shops, I’ve been discovering new bookstores and above all, I’ve been experiencing the outside world the way I was incapable of experiencing it for so long. Sure, OK, I also spent a lot of time at Main Stacks, but there’s no beating that level of absolute silence when I’m such a naturally distractible person.

I love Berkeley. For this reason, and a few others, my off-campus Berkeley apartment is where I have decided to social distance as we’ve all been instructed to do. And though I am privileged, and though I am just one tiny speck in this global crisis where so many other people are so much worse off than I am, I’m a little worried. For myself, and for everyone else living with a mental health condition.

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All I can do is believe in my own resilience and continue asking for help when I need it. And while I’m worried about being diabetic and thus immunocompromised, making it critical for me to stay indoors right now, I’m also worried about the people living in that same headspace I used to occupy — what are the effects on mental health going to be during all of this? What can anyone do to address something this monumentally unprecedented? 

All I can do is believe in my own resilience and continue asking for help when I need it.

Look at it this way. Two weeks ago one of my critical lifelines was weekly, individual in-person therapy. I’ll adapt; I think I’m strong enough now to do that. But I think it’s okay to be uncomfortable with having to adapt. It has to be okay that it will take a moment or several to adapt. 

I want to believe that this isn’t the end of recovery; I have to believe that this is just another opportunity to punctuate with a semicolon. The journey isn’t ending; it’s going to continue.

“Santa Clara”;

When I’m really lucky, the lyrics that mirror my life adapt to more than one situation. My recovery started in a Santa Clara hospital, and since then I’ve found a great deal of solace in the song “Santa Clara” by the National, my favorite band. Long drives are free therapy, and I’m always comforted when I’m able to sing along to Matt Berninger’s not-quite-singing baritone. “I don’t worry anymore, nothing like I did before,” is the first line.

For a long time I’ve been fixated on that first verse, that intense absolutist proclamation that Berninger’s persona in that song doesn’t worry anymore. As if he’s speaking it into existence, the way I acted my happiness into existence.

“Same here, Berninger,” is what I’m saying when I sing along, “I don’t worry the way I used to, either.”

Now I’m listening to “Santa Clara,” and it turns out the second verse has a message for me, too. After his last “I don’t worry anymore,” Berninger sings, “’Cause it’s alright, alright to see a ghost.”

Here I am, looking the ghost of social isolation in the face. I used to be so afraid of the world outside, I spent so long living as that ghost. But I guess it’s alright to see it. If the ghost reaches out, its hand will go right through me; I’m speaking untouchability into existence.

Contact Alex Jiménez at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @alexluceli.