Bozelko column: It’s not you, it’s your brain
Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
Right now 30 states operate under stay-at-home orders. Three out of four Americans are living under some type of lockdown.
But this is no lockdown.
If it were a lockdown, you’d be restricted to one room about the size of a parking space with a toilet. You’d live in your bathroom. You wouldn’t have any phones or devices, not even an old school tube TV. No books or newspapers - no news at all, actually. You don’t know if it’s warm or cold outside. In fact, you wouldn’t be sure that it was sunny or overcast because the window would be clouded.
You would have one pair of underwear and one set of clothes, top and bottom. You couldn’t walk outside except for 15 minutes three times a week, and you’d be shackled at the ankles. You could bathe three times a week. You’d follow two of those showers with the same dirty clothes and underwear; you get a fresh set on the third. The scent of anything that contains onions stays for days. It’s locked down with you.
I can relay all of the details because on more than a few occasions I was one of at least 80,000 people living in those conditions in prison. I spent 75 days aggregate in solitary confinement.
I know that when the United Nations says it’s torture, they ain’t whistlin’ Dixie. The sensory and social deprivation of a real lockdown make it a human rights violation.
Even if what we’re experiencing isn’t a true lockdown, it’s still going to affect us. It probably already has.
You swear at the people still crowding beaches even though you never yell at the TV. You chuckle a little harder than you expect at things that are funny, but the force in your laughter surprises even you when it comes out. You take orange juice out of the refrigerator and leave it out - in the living room. You look at the Zoom screen, and muse that all your co-workers sit incarcerated in their own boxes and imagine that you’re the warden until you see your cowlick and forget what you were supposed to say to your boss.
You imagine what that belt around your chest feels like that COVID-19 patients describe, what it’s like in the hospitals. You scan YouTube for workouts you never do. You rub your eyes and then wash your hands instead of the other way around. You envision yourself in some lifesaving act, like sneaking your family out from a nuclear holocaust, making moves like a Tom Clancy hero. You forget to pay a bill. You hear something in the trash but nothing’s there when you kick it. You overshoot the entrance to the grocery store by 200 yards before you miss it. You nap for two hours. No, it was six. You clean the kitchen furiously to rid it of the virus but there’s no chance it’s landed since you last cleaned which was earlier - or was it yesterday? You check the news. And check it again. Several times more. The only thing that’s changed is the count. But you check it again. Stare at the headlines. You order three boxes of cereal to be delivered but when you put them away you see another three you already have. You tell your spouse that you forgot to pay a bill. And he says “You were sitting next to me when I paid it.”
You’re not crazy. It’s not you. It’s your brain and how it reacts - how it’s supposed to react - when you’re isolated. We’re not hardwired for this. Our minds were designed for a certain level of variety, interaction and community and when we don’t get it, our neurons shrink. Your brain is atrophying like your thighs.
You’ll be all right when this breaks. But you’ll have been tortured. You won’t be exactly the same.
Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at email@example.com.