The coronavirus pandemic has brought mental health to the fore. Everyone has had to endure some kind of social-distancing or lockdown effect, and a great many - all kinds of people, young and old - have had to cope with being solitary.
If you are not used to being on your own, this must be awful to bear. I'm thinking not so much of the old and widowed. University students only lately living with Mum and Dad and brothers and sisters must find being cooped up alone in a little room in an unfamiliar city especially grim. Some must pine for the bosom of their family, or the comfort of friends. And yet the key to stopping infection spreading, and to protect yourself if vulnerable, is to be isolated. That means minimum social contact, no social life, and coping with the kind of mental challenges one might face if wintering at an Antarctic ice station.
It's not at all surprising that some can't deal with it. Nor is it surprising that most of us can accept a voluntary renunciation of normal life for only so long.
Where there is no effective official compulsion, and a personal choice exists as to whether to comply with the rules or not, then many will at some point decide that, for the sake of their sanity, they need to get back to a semblance of their normal life. Even if they can't have quite all of it. Some might even decide that it's time to party and be damned.
I think that all across the country, but particularly in urban areas where a lot of socialising used to go on, people have lately become willing to bend the rules - or ignore them - simply to feel better. I don't know how they square that (ordinarily) reasonable wish with the duty to keep other people safe. But whether the motivation is self-preservation, or selfishness, or just a gut revolt against government rules they can't agree with, they feel compelled go ahead and get their fix of normality. And only personal experience of a resulting bad illness - or a coronavirus death in the family - will stop them.
Not everyone has thrown their hand in. Not by any means. And people like me can't afford to. I think it's odds-on that if I picked up an infection I would be in for a bad time. I don't think it would necessarily be a fatal one, but the risk of hospitalisation can't be waived away. And whether I suffer much or not, there's still the chance of contracting that ongoing malady called Long Covid. It's not worth the risk. Nor would I want to get infected and pass the virus on to somebody else.
So, speaking for myself, I'm prepared to see this through and limit my social contact indefinitely. That means an ongoing life largely spent entirely on my own, whether I'm in my house, or the caravan, or driving around in my car. Yes, I can see local friends in my social bubble, for as long as the rules say I can. They are mostly of a similar age, with a similar need to be careful. And there will still be fleeting chats and quips with supermarket staff, and passing strangers, and serving staff if I lunch out. So far, such contact has been sufficient.
Given that I have a reduced social life nowadays - no evening pub and village hall quizzes, for example - I was interested to work out just what proportion of my time is spent in the company of other human beings.
Nearly all the occasions for contact are recorded in the electronic diary on my phone. I reached for my fountain pen and a notepad, and jotted down the duration in minutes for each occasion, ever since since returning from my last holiday on 30th September, today included. That's eighteen days. There are 27,000 minutes in those eighteen days. The total number of minutes for face-to-face contact came out at 1,480. So 1,480 mins/27,000 mins x 100 = 5.9% of my life was spent in the company of other people.
But of course it would be fairer to exclude the time spent asleep, so that the computation deals with only my waking life under the current conditions. My Fitbit tells me that since 30th September I have averaged 6 hours and fifteen minutes (that's 375 mins) of sleep per day. So I need to exclude 375 mins x 18 days = 6,750 minutes. Which brings my waking minutes down to 20,250. And those 1,480 minutes of face-to-face contact represent just over 7% of that.
In other words, almost 93% of my waking, conscious existence is spent completely on my own. That seems an awful lot of my time!
My limited social life has been added to, in a way, by passing exchanges with my neighbours. But a wave isn't the same as a properly shared moment closer-up. There were also two hour-long voice calls on my phone (both by prior arrangement, both with friends far away), and two more much briefer local calls. But again these do not count as face-to-face contact any more than a satellite call from that Antarctic ice station would be. I also sent and received a few dozen texts, and there were a number of emails, again with the same rider that while this is valuable contact, it's not face-to-face.
Can I continue with just 7% of my waking life in the close vicinity of fellow human beings? And as much as 93% all alone, with only my teddy bear and china cat for significant company? I think I can. I know it's almost the same as solitary confinement, but at least I can get around in the car and see places, and walk free in beautiful spots.
The thing that disturbs me is how I'm getting used to this reduced level of social contact. In particular, how I am not seeing what's left of my family. I dare not. For both their sake and mine. It's too risky. And yet, as the months pass without even an exchange of emails, I feel that the bonds are slipping away and we will grow apart.
It doesn't help that I lack much family feeling. I'm the Eldest Family Member in my section of the family tree. Great Aunt Lucy. But I don't behave like a family leader. Frankly, I don't want to; it's not my thing. I want to spend the rest of my life getting as much out of it as I feel inclined, and I don't want to be saddled with family responsibilities and concerns. Is that bad of me? A serious failing? I'm sure that many family-minded people would accuse me of evading my responsibilities. But, really, there aren't any that I can see. I am neither a parent nor a grandparent. Just someone older in the family, living on her own. Putting it another way, I have no claim on anyone else, and will not expect any family support in later life. Nor do I see how it could be provided. Conversely, I don't see how anyone is close enough to have a claim on me. I am self-sufficient; and I need to remain so. All this said, families should stick together, and I am setting a terrible example. But it would be against my nature to behave differently. Still, how disappointed Mum and Dad would have been. They'd be relieved that I had thrived, but perturbed that I hadn't stepped into their shoes.
I like my life. It looks lonely and exposed, and it may be, but it doesn't feel like that. I don't mind confessing that living with the pandemic has come naturally to me. Apart from travel restrictions, it's been no great bother. I'm organised. I can hunker down. I can get around on my own. I don't need crowds. I rather like quiet streets. I can feel exultant on a completely empty beach. I can enjoy listening to the crows in the biting wind, alone at the bleak corner of a high South Downs wood. All I need is freedom and a camera in my hands, and a cosy home to return to.
I suppose I'd be an Ideal Candidate for that polar ice station!