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The pandemic has taken an especially heavy toll on those with mental health conditions. Is it possible ...
2021-03-05 08:55:00

Touching, Seeing, Talking
On Self-Isolating and Mental Health

Illustration by Dzana Serdarevic. Submitted for United Nations Global Call Out To Creatives – help stop the spread of COVID-19.
Touching, Seeing, Talking
Touching, Seeing, Talking

It’s 23rd August 2020, I’m in a Berlin strip bar in Mitte, slipping artificial dollars under a dancer’s strings after she finishes her pole dancing. I never thought I’d utter such words, but it’s true.

Read in 17 minutes

What is most striking about my visit to this bar is not that it is the first time I’ve left Poland (or Warsaw) at all since 10th March, not even the fact that I’m there in a strip bar, watching the strippers pole-dance, but the fact that I have touched a fellow human being, a complete stranger, for the first time in six months. It is a very peculiar and unexpected sensation: the dancer’s skin is moist and silky, probably a combination of cosmetics and sweat, and I feel, bizarrely, like I’ve profaned her skin; that as a heterosexual woman, who is there completely by chance, I am not supposed to – I shouldn’t be touching her. I saw myself as more of a threat to her health than she to mine. All the women dancing that night are disinfecting the pole before every dance. The bin is full of paper towels, there’s a bottle of disinfectant standing next to it, and the girls, sometimes wearing anti-COVID-19 headgear while dancing and stripping, are probably the weirdest sight I’ve encountered since the pandemic began.

Yet they were there and I was there, too; we shared physical space. What I hate most about this pandemic (and there’s a lot of things I hate about it) is how hyper-aware of what I’m doing it has made me. As a highly neurotic person, suffering at times from a combination of PTSD, OCD and borderline personality disorder, I try to think about what I’m doing as little as possible. Thinking has always been paralysing. Thinking stops me from doing things I want to do, just like in that Smiths song (Ask). I tend to have pervasive clusters of thoughts, which usually result in giving things up: giving up my social life, giving up seeing people, giving up chatting up somebody I fancy, giving up being silly and being myself. And only when you can be silly can you be free. You can’t be silly with COVID. You can’t fool around. You can’t spontaneously touch someone. You can’t leave the house on a whim, even if you spent the last few hours anguishing over whether you should leave the house. In order to release myself from my very strict self-control mechanisms that allow me to function in public spaces, I have to feel a certain sense of security. With this thing, there’s no more security.

Me vs. the world

Where are we truly, at this point in the pandemic? It is hard to count all the phases we have been through, both as a global public and as struggling individuals, within this both extremely long and slow and strangely quick year. Some days I can hardly remember any of the last few months; on others, I’m vividly reminded of how much time has passed, emptily, irreversibly. Every day I feel scared, bored, insecure, tired, hollowed out, increasingly apathetic. It’s amazing how far we’ve adjusted to the situation. On the one hand, I rationally understand this is the smartest thing we can do: just oblige, obey, be kind to one another or try to protect others from possibly lethal physical contact. On the other hand, I’m mortified.

Just as you were setting up your home office, trying to look composed and polite during a Zoom conversation with your bosses, you were anxious to let out how disoriented you felt. I was ashamed of how much I wanted to tell every single person that I couldn’t take it anymore. Because I knew how privileged I was, being a writer, working already mostly from home, being reclusive and suffering from social anxiety. Yes, we the anxious people, who never answer their phones when you call, who were so relieved when text messages, and then Facebook and Messenger showed up, the fact we don’t have to face other people anymore; who knows, maybe we missed human contact the most?

I hope you, reader, weren’t unlucky enough to have fallen sick yourself, that you haven’t lost a loved one, friend or family. I will completely understand if you refuse to read my piece, if it seems hopelessly erratic and trivial. Nor will I try to address how class divisions and privileges played a role in COVID exposure. As somebody with my own place to live, safe from landlords and still managing to find enough work to keep my head above water, I can’t say I’ve really felt threatened. But sometimes, when you suffer from anxieties like mine, fear is all you know. Nameless fear, fear of not doing well enough, not trying hard enough, not being there enough for other people, not helping enough in the pandemic.

A digression on (social) media

This brings me to the writings of Mark Fisher, the late thinker who spent so much time drawing connections between mental health, financial crisis and late capitalism. In his most succinct text on that subject, “Good for Nothing”, he describes depression felt from the inside. He describes how central to it was the impossibility of seeing the intrinsic value in himself. The most terrifying and darkest element of depression is the incapacity of seeing value in things. Rationally and humanistically – and altruistically, of course – we can ascribe worth to other human beings, but I guess it’s much more difficult when one is left to their own devices, alone with themselves. Then there’s little chance of escaping the void that eclipses us.

One of the literary figures Mark Fisher frequently quoted on his blog, literally or implicitly, was Dostoevsky, and his novel Notes from the Underground. I guess many things appealed to him in this work (as well as in Kafka’s), but here it’s interesting how he made it a clear reference to how he was seeing himself. As much as blogging and an online presence could be liberating and enabled communication, they were never about reaching out to a particular person, but rather about establishing previously unknown fields of communication, in a space that was not regarded as especially warm or friendly.

What I appreciated about Mark’s philosophy was that he never suggested he was online to provide some kind of consolation or therapy or to give his readers a warm hug. He was not there to make them feel better about themselves – his idea was to create an online community, which would then emerge into the public sphere and try to change it. Given that he gravitated towards pretty old-school social democracy towards the end of his writing life, engaging in politics (in the UK, the Corbyn movement was starting to gain momentum), his ultimate goal was definitely the public, offline sphere. If he became a ‘prophet’ online, this was despite himself. He was raised on paper music magazines in the late 1970s and 1980s, which were his portals to academic knowledge (a very upper-class-guarded area when he grew up, back in the 1980s), but in an accessible and populist way. He approached the internet in a similar fashion – it was about creating an alternative space, when within late capitalism, voices of dissent or subversion that had anything interesting to say in public have been virtually removed from the popular press.

It’s important to stress how the goal of the early blogging scene was not staying online, but, at least for Mark (who, only by his blog’s sheer accomplishment, has become its reluctant ‘figurehead’), it was a necessary step in taking on the public sphere, the physical world. Seeing the aftermath of Thatcherism and its impact on the various types of media, he understood that what was needed was the re-establishment of the public sphere for sharing ideas elsewhere, in an alternative space. Then he found the internet and blogging, which for him coalesced his favourite forms: trying out ideas, in a public, albeit anonymous area, harnessing the exciting underground feeling of the music scenes he experienced first-hand, such as jungle.

I often thought, what would he have made of the coronavirus lockdown and the necessity, or even the obligation, to retreat online? To me, a restless and neurotic person, when internet life has become obligatory, it has lost all the original attraction it held when I used it to avoid the real presence of people. If before the pandemic, however, I could be in denial about spending the majority of my day online, since the lockdown it’s been an unbearable burden. The cacophony of social media, Twitter especially, already hard to bear for years, as it drifted towards enabling abusers and the alt right – has increasingly become a purely masochist machine, which one walks into only to realize that, no matter how much the world is suffering, how horrible the news is, how difficult the politics and the last decade in general have been – also the decade of social media’s greatest popularity – people never learn much of anything, and even in the darkest moments, can endlessly split hairs over the smallest nuisances.

Perhaps what has happened since March has made us realize what kind of world we have been building online for the last decade. This is not a world devoted to greater safety and comfort, it is a world of increasing cruelty and ruthlessness.

Mark Fisher would no doubt be terrified, even if a little fascinated, by developments during the pandemic. The increasing privatization of higher education which he went on about, and the further precarization of working conditions, both for lecturers and students, with deteriorating online education. This has been coupled with more damage to healthcare and distortion of the facts over the coronavirus. If anything, the failure of social healthcare (both in the UK and in Poland) to contain the virus because of political mismanagement will almost inevitably lead to more privatization, something Mark lamented. He would also have lamented this in relation to mental health. And we can only imagine the catastrophic impact the pandemic – the lockdown, the proximity and reality of death, the anxiety – will have on our communal mental health. The greatest precarity of all is how, as he described it, we have internalized the workings of capital by relentlessly obliging ourselves to declare how we ‘love what we do’. Just as in those astounding declarations from my friends on Facebook (at least in communities of cultural workers), who were busy demonstrating how they thrive in the pandemic – how they were catching up on their reading, exercise, yoga or DIY projects. As someone with a mild mental condition (borderline spectrum), stabilized by anti-depressants for the past three years, I can tell you the psychological price I had to pay for these few months was that work came to an almost total stop – I could not read, I could not write, I could not really do my job, as I could barely think, I felt relentlessly unproductive. I had to pay in full for occasional psychiatric consultations over the phone (while my income was obviously damaged by all of the above) and actively lied to my consultant about feeling better than I actually did, not wanting to risk additional consultations I couldn’t afford.

Mark saw a collusion between (mental) health care, capitalism and precariousness while looking for ideas to establish a new kind of working-class intellectual community, which would be busy transforming the social world (as he certainly hoped would happen if a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn had won an election). We can only imagine how he would see 2020, with its triumph of conservative, xenophobic nationalistic turbocapitalism, just as humanity was hit by a global pandemic. No doubt it would have struck him as a perfect, if atrocious, conclusion.

Staying sane on the internet

As we have established, the internet should not in any way be seen as a cuddly medium where human contact can flourish, especially in such trying times. I even prefer the ‘dark’ approach of the early bloggers such as Mark Fisher, seeing the Web as a Lovecraftian area full of hidden, hungry monstrosities, where we make precarious steps in learning how not to kill each other. I realize some might see potential in the internet for creating ‘safe spaces’ where we can learn how to love one another and provide comfort. While I appreciate some of the efforts by queer Instagram, I realize that as is, it can hardly provide the necessary alternative.

But perhaps it’s my age? As an old millennial (born in 1983), my perception of the internet follows a trajectory which, I suppose, was also that of the early pioneers: first, a belief that it was possible to trick the official channels and establish new ways of contact, without the mediation of big capital, in a space that couldn’t be controlled. Then came the obvious realization that the internet was a hyper-controlled play space, not least by the secret services. But as a tool, just like the universe, the internet is indifferent. Now, unfortunately, it is easily controlled. Speaking of the internet as a safe space to provide mutual care, I encounter such possibilities closing on a daily basis after COVID-19. For instance, several secret Facebook groups I’m in, where people would have previously casually helped each other by, for example, supplying antidepressants or contraceptives to one another in an emergency, had to shut down. As the ideological war on the left, so-called ‘gender ideology’, and LGBT people has accelerated in Poland over the past few months, the secret services began to infiltrate the internet, hunting for certain words (e.g. the names of medications). This has led the admins of the remaining groups to ban such words or the offering of such assistance, in fear of what they saw as an existential threat.

Having a wonderful pandemic time

Exploitation by capital can very easily be turned into self-exploitation. The pandemic is used as a handy pretext for controlling our private spaces, turning our homes into an extension of a workplace. That’s why, while, of course, glued to my screen, especially in the first total lockdown period (what else was I supposed to do?), I looked with disbelief at my friends’ announcements about how they were using this time productively. I realized it was a very thin line between mere mutual support, absolutely vital at such a time, and a dramatic need to demonstrate to the world that I’m fine.

I felt only more uprooted from reality, as our private spaces were being successively penetrated and invaded. The first victim of the pandemic was the so-called third space, coined by American sociologist Ray Oldenburg in his 1989 book The Great Good Place. The third space was neither home nor work; it was public spaces like churches, cafes, clubs, public libraries, bookstores or parks, community centres, all with public wi-fi and co-working spaces, theatres, cinemas, etc. With the exemption of churches, I have greatly missed these spaces during the pandemic. And even if since June some of them have reopened in a limited sense, in masks or PPE headgear – obviously, six feet from one another – they are mostly extremely disappointing and stressful, so I for one have not dared to return to them.

The third places were where I, a reclusive, socially anxious person, have always thrived. I was always scared of spaces where you were supposed to behave in a certain way (e.g. school, university) but not the common spaces where a set of often complete strangers could briefly co-exist. With the deeper effects of the pandemic (one of the more horrific being how other people are seen as contagious), how can we meet outside of the strict family or work units?

This made me reconsider the idea of the ‘underground’ that was so important for Mark Fisher, not only because he sympathized with the abject and social rejects in Dostoevsky’s or Kafka’s novels. I think he also strongly identified with Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis or other creatures from Kafka’s world who had to hide (like the badger from The Burrow or the Hunger Artist), where the metamorphosis was not meant to be seen as strictly negative. This is the other meaning of the underground, doing something without the control of capital. It reminds me of Marks’s most controversial text, “Exiting the Vampire Castle” (‘castle’ was a recurring theme in Kafka’s novels and short stories), a clear argument against identity politics as the wrong source of leftist political radicalism. Mark’s vulnerable side made him a warrior for classical social democracy towards the end of his life, when he clearly understood how capital works, and that our obligation, as the left, is to protect the vulnerable. But “Exiting the Vampire Castle” also had an obvious dark streak, which meant that only embracing conflict (which also means sometimes hurting and disagreeing with each other) might bring us a richer, more energized and equal society. Still, completely disowning a politics based on conflict, while understandable, means laying down our weapons to right-wing extremists. Look at social media today and it seems as if it was constructed to spread hate, not love.

Without a doubt, the pandemic has helped a deeper neoliberalization of every aspect of life, an even deeper precarization of everyday life. But I guess the scary reverse reaction is the Joker-ish fascination and relish in the spectacle: look at the anti-masker demos in Berlin, again in the name of ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom of expression’. Are we in such a bad shape as a society that the last remaining privilege of those who have been deeply hurt by the system is to rail against health and safety rules?

For me personally, the pandemic has meant that I feel even further removed from the so-called normal world and the society of daily obligations. This is because I can somehow continue my work, but as my work means working with ideas and closely observing the changing world, it instigates a deep sense of panic. That’s basically where I have been. Looking at a world I no longer understand and feeling more disoriented with each day. Suddenly having more time on my hands was like the opposite of liberation.

Still, I am shocked at the extent to which the pandemic has been used as a tool to question the rules of rationality, safety and science, just to minimize economic loss. We have been exposed to what we have known for some time, that capitalism can continue even without people. Quite often, academics and intellectuals have seconded the cynical expressions of power in supporting the notion of ‘freedom’ in the face of health restrictions barring people from a quick return to work. The ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ have been exposed as endlessly prone to political and rhetorical manipulation.

The real

As much as moving further to an internet life has meant increasingly losing touch with the world (to my great shame), it has also meant a strange interruption of the Real. Many thought the dominance of the virtual meant it would be even harder to realize COVID was real, that it has real consequences, that it’s not an internet hoax. After a decade of popular political upheavals, with COVID as the crowning event, we might be finally done with the conviction that the crisis always happens somewhere else, not here in the rich Western world. While the West has no choice but to recognize the pandemic partly as its crisis, I am not sure if and when the ‘second wave’ of the virus passes and the vaccine (hopefully) becomes available, there won’t be clear signals to keep calm and carry on yet again. Which probably means we are going to see much more of such ‘real’ events invading our lives. World inequalities are not going to magically disappear in the face of the pandemic, nor is the size of the catastrophe going to automatically prompt reflection on how the system should be changed.

At the end of the day, I understand that my job is to look deep into myself, however dangerous it might be, and renegotiate my wishes, my desires, my need to express myself in this world. I need to demand less, require less, try to fit into a smaller space, make smaller steps. The only, or main reason for doing so is to protect others, as, just like plenty of others, I obsess over whether the slightest cough or increase in temperature might be ‘it’. So as the ‘third space’ has dangerously evaporated from our social worlds and we have turned into hordes of masked people, trying not even to look at each other or acknowledge each other’s presence, to me that special moment was riding on Warsaw’s public transport. The fact that, with each day, more people covered their mouths and noses meant they acknowledged each other as real.

And it kind of works. The only moment in which I feel like a part of the collective, a society, is when I’m on public transport, and almost everybody is wearing a mask. To me, it’s like an expression of care, meaning that I don’t want to become a threat to others, I don’t want to make other people even more scared. And maybe that’s a good thing, and maybe a sense of caring for others’ well-being is going to stay with us after the pandemic, to overcome the intense fear and sense of being lost and disoriented that feels inescapable right now.

This text is part of the book Intermission, published in English by the organizers of the Unsound music festival. The book premieres on 5th March 2021, alongside a downloadable music album.