Back to the Surface

When I say my apartment is a prison cell, I’m not exaggerating.

It isn’t just the self-isolation. It’s the fear of leaving my home as the number of cases climbs daily in St. Louis. It’s the fear I might be responsible for giving a neighbor or a loved one a potentially lethal illness.

It’s the vicious cycle that took over my life as the 16 hours I’m awake for becomes a chore to fill up with things to do. Time becomes less and less comprehensible and everything melts together. 6 months passed in a blink of an eye.

After coming back to the US from my Canada trip in March, I immediately went into quarantine: 14 days of not leaving the house. I ordered all of my food and groceries in and had people pick up mail I needed to send out.

But 14 days was just enough for me to get comfortable with the fact I could operate in my own apartment indefinitely. No need to leave the house to do anything, really.

And so, two weeks became two months. And two months became half a year.

Even after being “allowed” to go outside, the fear and lack of motivation kept me inside.

I don’t know how much money I spent on UberEats, Instacart, and DoorDash, but I will never want to see that number added up in front of me.

Mt. Ashland at twilight, covered in smoke from California wildfires.

Midsummer, I hit rock bottom.

There was a good chance I only ate half a meal a day, if that. I lost over 20 pounds. With a “pre-quarantine” weight of 165 and my current build being as skinny as it is, that was a significant amount of mass starved off.

My brain didn’t function. I would often cycle into being nocturnal, going to sleep at around noon and waking up at 8pm just to pull an all-nighter into the next day.

The vicious cycle no food in, no energy out took out my social life. Exercising wasn’t even a consideration. The quality of my work suffered and I stopped enjoying just about everything. “Depression” as a label hardly scratched the surface.

I’ve hit a lot of rock bottoms before, and among all this talk of mental health during quarantine, there are really only two options: up and giving up.

I remember mental health being a hot topic before everything collapsed. And when the world slowly ground to a halt, there was sort of a toss-up between following pandemic protocol or doing what you needed to keep yourself afloat.

Self-isolation was just about the perfect place for mental health to crash and burn. And it was either that or risk getting sick (or ridiculed for risking it). I don’t know if following guidelines to the point of wasting away was what the CDC had in mind, but that was the outcome.

So, we have the first component in the recipe for disaster: self-isolation.

Then comes the next ingredient: a world in turmoil. Nothing to do? Why not turn to social media? You can feel “connected” to the outside world!

The reason why I stopped reading the news was journalism today is centered around grabbing attention with negative stories. Who was killed? Who killed who? What awful thing did this country do this time? How are cities handling reopening? Riots? Protests?

COVID-19 is nowhere as destructive a virus as being constantly fed negative emotions. Headlines telling us how to feel, how pissed off we should be, who we should want dead, and what we should be burning to the ground.

At first, I was just spending time researching and following the George Floyd protests. Simple enough, yet soon it just evolved into this mass of hatred towards the United States government.

Before I knew it, I was going to bed stressed out and waking up stressed out.

“Be mad! Be mad! Be mad! Be mad! BE MAD!” was constantly being funneled into my brain. So many Instagram stories saying “you should CARE about THIS!” were being posted daily. I only have 24 hours a day, there are too many things I should be caring about.

After catching myself wanting to punch walls, I had to force myself off of the 24-hour news cycle. As much as I’d like for the world to fix itself overnight, change unfortunately happens at a painstakingly slow pace.

I think my walls would agree punching them is not a productive use of my energy (or my fists).

On August 27th, I decided to take a trip to the Pacific Northwest.

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic, you idiot.”

Is there a line where mental health trumps physical health? Is it considered selfish to take time away from nearly 6 months of quarantine? How many safety precautions can be taken before it’s considered “safe” to travel?

Unfortunately, there are a lot of lessons to learn the hard way. Doubled up on masks, armed with hand sanitizer and picking low-populated areas, I made my way to the Pacific Northwest — Idaho and Oregon.

I flew Delta, which guaranteed sanization between flights and blocked off middle rows. Boarding the rear of the plane first, I was the first one on the plane and the last one off.

I wore masks on strenuous hikes, in the car, and anywhere I was near people in or outdoors.

What I was looking for wasn’t necessarily a vacation. I still had to work (and quite a bit, at that) while I was away from St. Louis. Juggling time to spend out exploring nature or a new city had to be balanced with getting stuff done which resulted in a lot of late night work sessions.

I just wanted an opportunity to do what I loved most: create. And while there were things I could do from home, the suffocating sense of being locked up stifled every sense of inspiration.

How many photos of my keyboards and dying succulents could I fit into my camera before it really didn’t mean anything anymore?

Combined with going weeks without seeing another human being, there’s little I can say for those who want to pummel my head into the ground for leaving my home besides, “sorry, I guess.”

I stand by the sentiment that I was not whimsical about leaving Saint Louis. This was not a impulse decision. Of course, the risk for myself was continuing the never ending unhealthy cycle of self-starvation and mental illness.

As I write this from the plane home from Salt Lake City, I can only say the last 10 days away from home were necessary. Not only for my mental and physical health, but for routine aspects of my life like work and friendships.

The Midwest lacks the sense of awe Idaho and Oregon brought. I felt absolutely tiny looking over massive waterfalls, standing underneath towering trees, and staring over the horizon at Crater Lake.

It’s sights like this that that make me say, “I don’t want to die.”

For months, I planned this trip. I booked and unbooked plane tickets as travel restrictions got tighter. When I finally committed, it was a calculated decision to save my sanity.

In the end, I hope everyone can also find their solace as the days start getting shorter. Artificial light will start to dominate our lives even more, and as the cold sets in, I can only hope we can make it through possibly the most difficult winter to date.

I’m not advocating we all hop on a plane and fly everywhere at once, but rather find what you really need and make a calculated, mindful decision to save your sanity.

Even if it’s just a little bit. Cheers to another two weeks of isolation.

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