openDemocracyUK: Opinion

For me, social distancing brings back difficult memories

Many of us quietly self-isolate, every day. Coronavirus has brought back a darkness I’d long buried. But this time, I know I’m not alone.

Peter Geoghegan
Peter Geoghegan
16 March 2020
Aine McMahon/PA Wire/PA Images

When I was nineteen, I moved back into my mum’s house. It was the winter of 1999. I had just been discharged from a six-week stint in a psychiatric hospital, into a rainy Dublin car park with a box of Lithium in my pocket and a warning that I would spend most of my life in and out of the dank corridors and airless rooms of Irish mental health facilities.

(Excuse me if I tell this story badly. I’ve never written a word of it before. For a decade after it happened, I barely ever spoke of it, for the shame. When I told a long ago girlfriend, she thought I was joking. I pretended that I was and never mentioned it to her again.)

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, I was nineteen and back living in rural Ireland. A place I had spent most of my previous years dreaming of escaping. I had dropped out of university. My friends had moved on. I spent my days watching daytime TV, chewing endless sweets in a vain attempt to rid my mouth of the dull, metallic taste left by the drugs.

I read. A lot. I didn’t go out much. (Try having a social life in rural Ireland when you’ve been told to avoid alcohol!) I was, in short, a master of self-isolation, a black belt in social distancing. Which feels like it might come in handy now.

As a journalist, there are subjects you’d rather not write about. Some hate sport. Others anything that looks like celebrity gossip. Some even baulk at writing about politics.

For me, there is one topic I always try to avoid: myself. I would write about almost anything else.

But in recent days I have found my mind returning over and over to my enforced quarantining two decades ago. Little snippets of it keep coming back to me. How the hours dragged on forever while the weeks flew by. Memories come in shards, of waking up, oversized in my childhood bedroom, nothingness stretching out in front of me.

I’m not writing all this to “tell my story”. There’s isn’t much to tell to be truthful. I stopped taking the meds years ago. I never went back into psychiatric care. My life has not been plagued by dark days and interruptions. I’ve built a successful career, and I’m quite sanguine by disposition.

I’m writing about this now because I’m back in my mum’s house again. Like twenty years ago, I have come on my own, with a small bag and a deep sense of dread and uncertainty. As then, I sleep fitfully, waking unmoored and uncertain in a strange bed.

My hair is shorter now, and greyer. My mum is older. We are easier around each other than when I was a teenager lost in the world.

These, of course, are not the only differences. This time I did not come back to convalesce. I returned to prepare my mum for the uncertainties we all face. Now, I am the one who is hoping to provide help and support, although I am worried, too – just as she must have been as I sat sullenly in the passenger seat while her small car rattled down the long road from the psych ward in St Patrick’s Hospital.

Covid19 should force us to ask major questions of the world we live in. How has the United States, the richest nation in human history, reached a point where so many of its people lack basic healthcare and social security? What effect has a decade of austerity had on the National Health Service’s ability to withstand the crisis?

But the pandemic sweeping the world also forces us to reflect, to take stock, to ask more personal questions, too.

I have found myself doing that recently. When I arrived back home less than two weeks ago, you could have fit every Irish Covid patient in the back of a taxi. (Not that you have wanted to, of course). My mum thought the virus was “just like the seasonal flu”.

Now, the daily ticker of cases on the Irish evening news rises exponentially. Every school is shut. St Patrick’s day is cancelled. Even the pubs have closed.

My mum has become an evangelist for precaution and preparation. This morning, I overheard her telling a neighbour on the phone that the virus “did not come from God, it came from a wet market in Wuhan”. They were agreeing to bring food to each other if they fall ill.

She has convinced her sceptical partner of the ferocity of the virus among their age group. He’s now isolating himself in his own home, close to the Irish border.

All of this gives me hope. My mum lives in a region with a single intensive care bed for a hundred thousand people. If anyone around her gets seriously ill, they cannot rely on the already threadbare Irish health care sector (it is hardly a ‘service’). They must help themselves.

After I left psychiatric care, I spent more than six months recovering. Disability benefit allowed me to piece my life back together slowly. An illness exemption gave me a fresh start in university for no cost. But more than anything it was the love and shelter that saved me.

Now that the roles are reversed, I can’t help but feel inadequate. I have prepared my mum as best I could but I keep feeling I could do more.

I am in an incredibly privileged position: I have a job that allows me to work from home and no other family commitments. I could, as I did two decades ago, spend months on end in the house where I grew up, helping my mother as she helped me.

Decision time is coming. Whether to stay here or to go back to my own flat, to my own life, in another country. Already borders are being closed across Europe.

There is an additional complication. For the first time in I can’t remember how long, I feel a long shadow casting over me. A darkness. A foreboding emptiness. Days, weeks, months stretching out, empty and inert. I worry about my capacity to cope with isolation, again.

I am not alone, I’m sure. Countless others must feel the same, whether they share some part of my history or not.

Whatever choice I face now, I know I am one of the lucky ones. I never thought I would be back in this place again, but I have a huge network of social support. Wherever I am, I have friends and colleagues, even if they’re on the other end of a phone line.

Many are not so fortunate. For many, social distancing was part of life long before Covid19.

The coming weeks and months will try us all in different ways. It will bring pain and suffering. Hopefully we will find ways, creative ways, to be there for each other.

But for me, it has made real again a part of my life I have tried so hard to bury. Maybe it’s time to stop digging and just accept it.

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