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My private COVID prison

Everything was going well through the pandemic
until the real isolation set in

The chair became a refuge, a hiding place and, finally, something like a home. (Ben Hollihan)

Personal essay
By Benjamin Hollihan

I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN a relationship person. My partner, Ada, has constantly been my first priority. Friends, family, bosses, everyone else comes second. I rely on her for everything, and she mostly does the same with me.

This may sound annoying, but 2020 was an amazing year for us. We spent all our time together, including a stint of summer seasonal work in Lake Louise, and our relationship grew stronger and deeper than ever.

When circumstances separated us, I came to understand the impact COVID-19 was having on my mental health.

Until then, I hadn’t been able to relate to the feelings of isolation, loneliness and anxiety I had been hearing so much about during the pandemic. I had to learn how to fulfil emotional needs alone. That led to a breakdown of sorts.


→  Mental health: the hidden cost of COVID


Now, I find I’ve changed, and I’m stronger for it – although it’s an ongoing process,

At the beginning of January, Ada took a contract in the Northwest Territories that’s due to end this month. She’s a chef, and she wanted something to pass the time, while I finished my final term at MacEwan.

So, I agreed to stay back, get this thing done, save some money and renovate the camper – the Mystery Machine – that we had bought together to live in.

I also moved back in with my parents, in hindsight, perhaps not such a good idea. I felt as if I had lost the identity I had forged living on my own for four years.

At first, everything seemed fine. I forced myself into a routine of staying active, eating healthy and filling my time with hobbies and homework – anything to keep my mind off what seemed like an endless amount of time Ada and I were going to be apart. I tried to lock myself into self-improvement activities: learning French; teaching myself to play viola; renovating the camper.

Alberta was still in lockdown, and my classes were online, so I was alone 99 per cent of the time, save for when I would occasionally see my parents. Through January and February, my life carried on in an eerie isolation, broken only by ersatz connection with the people I love.

I made improvements – the van became a tiny mobile home, I’m learning French and viola rapidly, and I’ve saved some money – but there was always this hollow feeling, as if I were waiting for something, but didn’t know what. No matter what I did, I couldn’t shake that feeling, so I suppressed it, covered it up with a multitude of distractions.

The isolation, the work
and the loneliness slammed me

Then, last month, the isolation, the work and the loneliness slammed me with something I had never experienced: panic attacks.

At first, I had no idea what they were. I called 811, because I was struggling to breathe, I had chills, and there was this strange numbing sensation in my limbs. It felt like I was losing control of my motor functions.

I went to the ER, where I was swabbed for COVID-19. They only had the nose swab available. The plastic probed farther into my nose than I thought was possible. It hurt. A lot.

The medical staff told me there wasn’t much they could do, and they sent me home with a single tranquilizer, which I was afraid to take. I just lay in bed trying to breathe until sleep took over.

Over the course of the week, I was having panic attacks several times a day. I was afraid to leave my bed. Trying to work was out of the question. Finally, I called a general practitioner, who agreed to squeeze me into his schedule immediately.

He prescribed more tranquilizers and, this time, I took one.

Now, I understand how people get hooked on them. It felt as though someone else were controlling my body, and I was just a passenger. The drug gave me this strange sensation of contentment – and I hated it.

I was dealing with the symptoms, not the cause of my anxiety, and I knew, if I carried on like this, I’d only get worse. So, I stopped taking the tranks.

There was one thing I was certain was causing problems: my lifestyle.

I was spending all my time online and indoors, brooding.  Between digital communication and online schooling and my insecure drive for self-improvement, I had dug myself into a dark hole.

Meanwhile, I was desperately seeking love and contact from Ada, who wasn’t in a position to give it, being hundreds of kilometres away. I was pulling her too hard, demanding that she make me feel secure and content.

My schedule was too rigid, and eventually it snapped. Clearly, I needed some kind of new plan.

The first step was to get away with from such a strict routine. Whenever I missed even a single day, or a single task, I was wracked with guilt, and it would send me spinning about how I was wasting my time. It would also bring to mind how much time apart I was spending from Ada.

I still keep a list of things I want to accomplish every day, but I don’t worry if I don’t get it all done. Rather, I use the time to get outside and breathe.

I’ve learned to live
in the present

Most important, I’ve learned to live in the present.

I had spent two months preoccupied with things that had been, would be and might be, rather than simply enjoying time in which I could do whatever I wanted all day. That freedom carries uncertainty, and that may be part of the reason I was afraid of it.

Then, there was the lack of physical contact. People are social creatures, and I had been denying that fact for too long. I had to figure out a way to see real people in real life.

Although we’re still in a COVID-19 lockdown, I have convinced some friends to meet me outside regularly – following all the protocols. I also started what some people call meditation, and others “mindfulness,” and found that focusing on my breathing worked wonders for my panic attacks, which have mostly stopped. I limit my time on the computer each day – even if it hurts my grades.

At this point, grades, accomplishments, hobbies, self-improvement – they’re all useless to me. They haven’t brought me happiness, and I understand they likely never will. Now, I do what feels right in the moment.

I’m still searching for contentment, but I’m searching for it, and not just sitting around waiting for it to come to me.

We don’t spend enough time listening to our bodies and minds – which makes sense, because we exist in a society where productivity and deadlines rule all else. We forget that, sometime, we need to blow it all off for a day, go outside, see a friend and see where the day will take you.

April 1, I moved to Banff, with no plans.

And Ada? I’m giving her the space she was trying to tell me she wanted. I was crowding her and harming our relationship.

I’ll see her when she wants to see me.

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