More Ben

Dolor sit amet

The Recluse

Does anyone else think the pandemic was kinda lame?

I feel weird using past tense verbs to describe it. I’m still locked up. I don’t go out for much. Now’s the stage of this thing that I worried about, where I’m still a little freaked out by the outside world, but where that level of caution is no longer in vogue. It’s crossed the pathological threshold. Yesterday’s reservations are today’s paranoia.

I’m not here to look down on anyone else. Not this time. You’re out enjoying your lives, and I don’t blame you. Numbers are down. People are vaccinated and boosted. The sun’s coming out again. I’m a little peeved that the powers that be are calling it quits so early, but you? It’s been long enough for you. I get it. And honestly, at this point, if you’re not like me, if the energy you run off of isn’t liquefied anxiety, the pros of going outside probably outweigh the cons. They probably have for a while.

And we’re not so different there. I see the numbers too. I’m vaccinated. Almost everyone I know is. The outside world looks more and more attractive by the day. But it doesn’t look how it used to. And I’m worried that, in my eyes, it never will.

The pandemic fucked me up. I think it fucked a lot of us up. But it kinda ruined people for me, made me worry about my friends and family, what the virus could do to them.

And then it made me worry about what they could do, to me and those around me. My brain started cataloguing instances where those around me failed to take necessary precautions. I’d gone all in on the lockdown lifestyle. If we all did, maybe we could beat this thing.

But I understand not everyone lives the life I do. In recent years, I’d pulled back from a lot of the friends I’d once had. I’d become more reserved and quiet. I’d kinda given in and let that anxiety solidify some. In the first months of 2020, I’d rationalized that I was ready to reengage. Then this thing happened. And for a while, it didn’t really feel like a bad thing. I understand that for some, that impact was harsh and immediate. Maybe a family member contracted the virus. Maybe they themselves did. Maybe they worked in the medical sector and had to put themselves at risk every day. Maybe they had roommates who experienced spontaneous aneurysms whenever liberty-boiling face masks made their appearance in conversation.

Me, I was lucky. I lived with my partner, a person the pandemic didn’t inspire me to hate, an effect we may somehow be lucky to have escaped. We’d just moved out of a house where the cracking and crumbling walls were held up in part by the carcasses of the squirrels that hid behind them, where our most frequent guests were the freakishly huge and criminally quick house centipedes that helped me roleplay Captain Ahab. I’d been holding a stable job, even though it required me to continue interacting face-to-face with disease-incubating children.

In those early months of the pandemic, I remember feeling kind of excited, the sorta morbid flavor of excitement I used to feel as a child when a big storm would roll through Sioux Falls and my family members living in single-story outskirt dwellings would make their way to my family’s basement-having home. The point was for safety, to escape potential devastation, but my kid brain just saw it as an opportunity to play with more people.

And, as fortunate as I am to have experienced it that way, that’s kinda how this time felt, at least early on. Of course, there were new stresses from work and from the rest of the world, but there was also Animal Crossing. There was Tiger King. And then when that sucked, there was more Animal Crossing. I started interacting with people with whom I hadn’t spoken in years to trade my virtual red chairs for their virtual blue chairs. We visited each other’s islands, talked about getting back together when this was all over.

The Animal Crossing era wasn’t going to last forever. It couldn’t. It’s just one game. But I thought that maybe something else would take its place, that we’d experience some sort of renaissance of online content.

I thought we’d turn to our more creative sides, that we’d move quickly from accepting this new, temporary phase of our lives and transition into a new phase where we collectively figure out how to fill that social void we’re all feeling without putting each other in jeopardy.

And, again, I feel like I have to take a moment to check myself. Some people weren’t going to be able to do this no matter what. I’m lucky. I have a sizable group of friends for whom playing games and conversing over the internet is a native experience. Even for those around me who aren’t used to that level of internet dwelling, digital communication was never difficult. I have long phone conversations with my parents. I know some of my friends can’t do that. The conversations fizzle out, or are killed before they can really begin. Some people just do better in person. And I think in all my anger about the pandemic not going to plan, I never really acknowledged that.

The honeymoon phase of the pandemic ended quickly. Even pre-vaccine, people were starting to get itchy, talking about going back to normal. The earliest, of course, were the conservatives and libertarians who never quite warmed to the idea of masking in public. To be fair, I don’t think any of us expected them to. It’s a miracle being required to cover your balls at the gas station isn’t looked on as some particularly oppressive form of tyranny.

But then, after the conservatives, people across the political spectrum began to grow uneasy and fall off. Once the initial scare faded, it seemed that people’s levels of precaution were less imposed by their knowledge of the virus and more by the precautions taken by those around them. I admit, I’ve given in more to that impulse recently.

I judged mindsets like these a lot. And maybe that’s unfair too. I grew up in a place where this sort of thinking was (and is) commonplace. If you could tell me that half of the men in Sioux Falls, South Dakota reliably washed their hands after using the bathroom pre-pandemic, I’d have built a larger-than-life statue of you surrounded by vengeful children outside the T. Denny Sanford State Execution Supersphere. Honestly I’d probably be just as shocked now. I remember the feeling the people around me had when Swine Flu swept the nation. It was unremarkable. Of course, compared to the apocalypse that was (and is) the coronavirus, Swine Flu was unremarkable. More than that. But I think it’s easy for people like me, who go away for college and then hide in a closet for several years after graduation, to forget how people operate out in the real world, how societies naturally move. I don’t mean to sound like a pretentious dick. I don’t know everything about immunology. I don’t know anything about immunology. When doctors say it’s not safe, these people scoff. When doctors say it is safe, I scoff. Who’s better?

I started to feel the world closing in on me. The “we’re all in this together” signs stayed up in yards across Minneapolis, but it had become increasingly evident that we weren’t in this together. Some of us were more willing to sacrifice than others. Of course, as I still struggle to admit, some of us weren’t required to sacrifice quite as much. But as those around me relaxed their borders, I redoubled mine. First for safety, but then against them. Those more comfortable with reengaging than me posed a viral risk, for sure, but they also put my ego in jeopardy. Did I really want to invite people who were back to having fun with friends in person into my digital dojo where they could laugh at my barriers of insecurity? Everything became a worry. Everything became a potential sleight.

And so I pulled back further. My circle became more limited than it had been even before the pandemic. I closed myself off from the world more and more. As social media turned its capricious face away from the woes of the pando to the cheers of those who transcended it, I moved further away. That change hasn’t been entirely unhealthy. But it’s made me more disconnected for sure. Just what I needed.

I took some solace in writing, but my handle on the skill fluctuated. I went back and forth from enjoying it and basking in the anxiety of it, worrying about whether anyone would read what I wrote and whether the words were worth reading. Eventually, I stopped sharing most of it. I still struggle with this. This is the most I’ve written in one sitting in months. I’ll probably read it again in the morning and hate it.

I’ve spent a lot of time looking back on pictures, videos, and conversations with friends from years past. I feel a longing for the old days like one I’ve never known. And yet, I’m still locked inside by my own imposition. My worries have long since traversed that threshold that separates the concerns about when things will get back to normal from those that ask whether they ever will. The past two years have started to feel more and more like blood sacrifice, like a time coma from which I’ll never recover. I’m scared the relationships that I’ve lost are damned.

And even now, I’m scared to reach out, to try to establish contact with anyone who might ask about what I’ve been doing for the past twenty-four months or about what I’m doing now. I’m worried about grimacing through stories of success and debauchery and preparing a way to wriggle out of describing months of personal despair.

And that feeling of despair is one of the worst things, because I don’t feel like I’ve earned it. I haven’t lost a limb. I haven’t lost a parent. My problems are minor. But I feel lost in the world, like I’ll never be able to claw my way back. Some anxieties are easy to resolve, easy to call temporary fluctuations, chemical mistakes.

But some of them last. And I guess I don’t know how long this one will.


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