Reconnecting and returning to the norm: the social element of COVID-19

By Izzy Sturges

There is a certain freedom to the constraints of lockdown. It is the freedom to put the phone down, to leave the Zoom call, to deny the large gathering of friends who are carefree and careless- “sorry, social distancing! Can’t make this one”.

As someone who would generally consider themselves a true extravert (Gemini sun AND Gemini rising- you get the picture) I was surprised by the early pleasures of isolation. Post-deadlines, the empty day stretched out in front of me like a comfortable, lazy river; I was free to meander as I pleased. 

Away from the intensity of university life, filled with endless pints and even more endless library trips, the pace changed. At first, with nothing to do, I went for long walks, listened to hours of thoughtful podcasts and made fiddly, delicious doughnuts that filled the kitchen with the smell of sugar and yeast. I tried to switch off, and step back. 

The end and the beginning

A month or so before lockdown, my relationship ended in an explosion of upset that reached epic, soap-opera levels of drama. A series of morbidly comical revelations of cheating, and then more cheating, were followed by subsequent filmic arguments, long teary phone calls and some rather elaborate fantasies of plastering posters around my hometown emblazoned with ‘STAY AWAY FROM THIS MAN’. 

It was surreal and seemingly all-encompassing, but soon enough my mini soap-opera was overshadowed by a worldwide descent into dystopia. I watched the TV show ‘DEVS’ with my Dad, and we joked about how we must be in one of the most random, disturbing alternative timelines of them all. 

I frequently read headlines and double-checked to see that they weren’t written by the Onion- a recent favourite being ‘Boris Johnson says Britain should clap for bankers and won’t promise pay rise for nurses’. 

Although the deterioration of the outside world seemed only to be accelerating, for a long time we were all stuck still, our physical horizons limited to however far our legs could take us within our one hour of state-mandated exercise. When sitting in the garden, I would look over the street across the neighbouring houses and think how much they looked flat and fake, like a film-set or a toy town.

Stuck inside and switching off

On a personal level, this stuck-ness in a strange new world was comforting. The isolation meant that the sadness I was feeling around my breakup could be hidden, kept away and perhaps more easily felt; I didn’t have to go to parties and feel frustrated that I was low, or be embarrassed by the sudden waves of tears that would present themselves whenever they were most inappropriate.

I could sit in the sadness, unburdened by the normal pressures of social upkeep, still able to reach out to friends through long text conversations that didn’t require you to be fully present. It also meant that I could literally hide away from anything or anyone that reminded me of the relationship; I had an excuse not to venture into the small town that held the possibility of an unwelcome encounter down every street. 

A pandemic that requires you to stay indoors invites a kind of socialising that can be turned off with the touch of a button, as your capacity within the world is reduced to the four walls you live in. Your scope for socialising becomes ‘would you like to join this Zoom call? Yes or No’. When the momentum of everyday life slows down, it becomes easier and easier to say no. 

And when you do say yes, as anyone who had a long-distance relationship or friendship – and now, I guess, all of us – will know, video calls can often have a hollow quality. When friends and family take pixel form on-screen, they seem tantalisingly out of reach; their presence in a shared physical space is replaced by a device held in your hand. Where you go, they go, as the flow of conversation is disrupted by bad connections and poor signal. 

On Zoom no one can see you surreptitiously scrolling through Twitter on another tab, or your bottom half, clad in pyjama bottoms on their sixth consecutive wear of the week. You are free to try and hide the messiness by moving it out of sight, leaving it just outside of the frame. 

A slow return to something new

As things slowly shifted towards a new normal, those first tentative moves out of total isolation and into the realm of face to face contact seemed to hold so much weight. They felt frustratingly almost-right – a dog walk from six feet apart, or me and three friends sitting in the garden for my birthday, all in our designated chairs that my Mum had measured out with a meter stick. 

Sometimes after these interactions, I would notice I felt mildly irritated. Like the way things used to be was in our grasp, but just out of reach. My friends were there, real and material in front of me, but meters apart. Life was regaining its dimensions again, but slowly. 

I got the bus for the first time in months, wearing my homemade mask and choosing a seat that wasn’t covered in yellow warning tape. As the bus had approached, I could read the message scrolling on the ticker screen on the front: “control the virus/stay alert/save lives”.

I started waitressing again, adding some black plastic gloves to my all-black uniform and a freshly bought hand sanitiser into my apron. I bumped into my ex-boyfriend before a shift and cried in the street, exhausted, frustrated, and now late for work. It all seemed too much; while adjusting to this strange new pace of life, here was that mess which I had been trying so hard not to focus on. It was the pain of that relationship right in front of me with no way to switch off, no way to hide it from myself. 

But with this came other moments. On a blisteringly hot June day, I went with some friends to a nearby nature park, with our towels, swimming costumes and beers at the ready. We ate ice lollies and swam up and down the river. I looked at my friends, glowing in the sun, and thought how much I loved them. 

I met my friend on a bench in the middle of a busy square, where we sat drinking a proper coffee, shop coffee, and chatted for hours. As we talked, I watched people walking across the street, on their way somewhere to meet someone, propelled by unknown motivations – all moving along the invisible lines of their lives towards their now extended horizons. The world was slowly unsticking itself. 

The question that real life connection invites

As life has picked up speed again, I’ve found it hard to readjust. There is still a part of me that wants to hide away from everything that makes everyday life difficult; the frustrating conversations, the uncertainty of your own personal future, disappointment and damaged relationships. 

It can feel like an insurmountable task, as the bruises that come from trying to find your position in the world are uncomfortable. Switching off and staying stuck can seem like the easier option. But it doesn’t allow for the type of connection and feeling that a video call can’t capture: of standing together in the same room, looking at each other and asking, what now?

Leave a Reply