I was at my parents’ house when the president ruined my weekend. Let me explain. When the president invaded my private life, a lockdown had not been imposed on my New Jersey–based family by public officials. No, we began our withdrawal from public life voluntarily. In early March, with dispatches about a novel coronavirus pandemic swallowing whole societies abroad increasingly dominating the news, my wife and I took it upon ourselves to scale back our social lives. Trips to the gym, eating out, and commuting to the office were the first to go. We knew the kids were not going back to their schools before they were formally closed (they were in kindergarten and nursery school). By the time our state indefinitely shuttered broad swaths of society, we had been in self-imposed lockdown for more than a week.
We knew that these conditions would become psychologically intolerable. And so, we prepared to ease the burden as soon and as safely as possible. To the extent that expert guidance was available, we sought it out. On March 14, Politico reporter Tina Nguyen shared an exchange she had had with a public-health researcher at an unspecified nongovernmental organization who had some pointers. “Basically,” Nguyen’s source advised, “in a week or two, when you know exactly which of your friends have been isolated, you can isolate together.” I grabbed on to the notion like flotsam after a shipwreck. In coordination with my parents, we stocked our respective houses for two weeks of uninterrupted quarantine—determined not even to go outside our home into a neighborhood where our neighbors were more lax—and resolved to reunite at the end of this period.
We achieved our well-planned objective, but my children’s contact with anyone other than my wife and me was short-lived.
We arrived at my parents’ house on the morning of March 28 at roughly the same time Donald Trump spoke with reporters outside Joint Base Andrews ahead of a trip to Norfolk, Virginia. There, the president would see off the USNS Comfort on its well-publicized journey to New York harbor. Amid this gaggle, Trump began musing about the prospect of sealing off the hard-hit tristate area of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. “We might not have to do it, but there’s a possibility that sometime today we’ll do a quarantine,” the president speculated. He then took to Twitter to elaborate: “I am giving consideration to a QUARANTINE of developing ‘hot spots,’ New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut,” Trump declared. “A decision will be made, one way or another, shortly.”
It was of no consequence to me that the Constitution would not allow Trump to seal off a region of the country this way. His edict was certain to elicit panic throughout these three states, and we were running out of supplies at home. We’d had a glorious 90 minutes, but we had to bolt to the stores to restock. We scurried back to our bunker and to our local supermarket (which was mobbed, as anticipated) and reset the isolation clock.
In retrospect, the experience of having the president pull the rug out from under us—even though, of course, he declared no such regional quarantine—created a psychological moat for my wife and me. It wasn’t just the virus that was conspiring to keep us in a state of unabated trepidation but our elected officials, too. At any time, the shifting and fragile consensus around whatever public policy pertained to whatever ill-defined phase of the lockdown we were in could shatter. We should prepare accordingly.
And so it came to pass. In the first week of April, the lockdown was extended by New Jersey’s Phil Murphy, for “many more weeks.” Then more regimentation was imposed on us by institutions such as our two children’s respective schools. The kids were expected to produce—schoolwork, art projects, whatever—with the implicit understanding that my wife and I were to supervise and ensure that the deliverables were delivered.
Self-isolation became not just public guidance but an outgrowth of the increased demands on our time presented by two young children and their unique talents for dismantling an orderly home. That demand was compounded by the obligations associated with working remotely, preparing every meal, and maintaining relationships with family and friends. It was a struggle to get out of the house, the paucity of viable destinations notwithstanding. And yet we still managed the occasional weekend trip to local wooded parks. There, tight-knit groups meandered through pastoral settings, getting some fresh air and trying to remind themselves of the existence of community even in its disaggregated state. And then Murphy closed all state and county parks. “We are further limiting public interactions to only the most essential purposes,” the governor decreed. The “curve” was flattening, he conceded, but his goal wasn’t to bend the curve anymore. It was to break it. “We must continue our push to flatten it to the point where our day-over-day increase is zero,” the governor asserted.
The contradictions associated with the lockdown were enough to drive you insane. The seamless transition public officials made from advocating extraordinary measures designed to spare the health-care system from catastrophic collapse to the unceasing perpetuation of those measures until the risk of new infections became negligible was just the latest exasperation.
Don’t leave your house unless it is absolutely necessary, we were told. “This is the moment to not be going to the grocery store, not going to the pharmacy,” Dr. Deborah Birx advised the public on April 5. But, if it is necessary, you should feel free to stock up on food and medicine. And make sure you support your local businesses as much as possible. They’re hurting.
You should not wear face masks, we were informed. They do not help prevent the spread of this infection and can provide wearers with a false sense of security. But sometimes, they do help. In fact, they’re now mandatory, even though they were long ago sold out and are available only on backorder. Don’t go out without one.
Whatever you do, we were notified, don’t go to a hospital. “If you are sick, don’t walk into a doctor’s office or an ER without calling ahead,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo asserted on March 20. “Only leave your home if directed to after a #telehealth consultation.” All elective and preventive medical services were put on hold for the foreseeable future. That is, unless you’re homeless. In which case, you have the option of either going to a shelter or the hospital, and you should probably choose the latter.
It’s important to get exercise, we were instructed. The last thing you want to do right now is become sedentary and risk the associated health complications. But with the parks closed, you’ll just have to walk down the middle of the street. And we hope you got one of those masks, because you could be criminally liable if you’re seen without one. At the very least, make sure you get a mask ahead of your municipal court appearance.
And, most important, it’s critical that you preserve your sanity. After all, extreme stress is an immunosuppressant.
To contemplate all these inconsistencies was to risk a brain hemorrhage. The smartest thing to do, then, was to decline to think. A sense of resignation washed over us. And the deeper we went into our self-imposed isolation, the harder it became to escape it. The clock on our two-week quarantines would be continually reset, since the need for ever scarcer store-bought supplies became more frequent. Thus, the guidance that had once theoretically allowed us to socialize safely with those in similarly prolonged isolation no longer pertained.
As curve-flattening transitioned into curve-crushing, the public policy focus moved on from relieving the burden on hospitals in favor of overall caseload reduction. But how to achieve that objective beyond keeping as many Americans from leaving their homes for as long as possible was never defined. In the interim, the unseen scaffolding that supports the minimal common functions of American society began to buckle.
Hospitals and family practices began to teeter. Without profitable activities such as elective surgeries to perform, medical centers and rural care providers began to furlough staff. Child vaccination rates collapsed. Cancer therapies were not administered. Chronic medical conditions threatened to become preventable deaths.
The federal government’s attempt to freeze existing payrolls in place—an effort that had already seen tens of millions fall through the cracks—was threatened by the collapse of consumer confidence. Layoffs accelerated, and overwhelmed food pantries and charitable institutions began seeking the assistance of the National Guard just to satisfy the demand of the newly needy.
The pivotal supply chain that keeps supermarkets stocked began suffering tremendous strain. Major producers, which had tailored operations to meet the demands of wholesalers and restaurants, saw their customer base disappear overnight. Meat-processing plants began to close, threatening the individual market, too. They faced a terrible conundrum. These essential facilities could not shutter, or their absence would threaten social stability. Keep them open, though, and their employees would become sick. And you cannot practice social distancing in these facilities without effectively breaking the production line.
The self-perpetuating cycle of broadening institutional closures and movement restrictions was accelerating. But something unanticipated was happening at the same time. Even as the nation’s problems sprawled and complexified, our world contracted. A kind of Stockholm syndrome had taken hold of us.
The comfort and routine that we experienced at home had become a precious source of stability. The conscious understanding that we were imprisoned for the greater good did not obviate the nagging notion that it was all too much to endure in perpetuity. But no matter how much we resented the conditions into which we had been consigned, the idea of breaking out of this routine—of defying the contradictory orders, since they made no sense—grew ever more daunting. Maybe it was our material circumstances, or perhaps it was a lack of suitable candidates, but we were no longer particularly interested in the meticulous preparation and planning required to expand our “isolation circles.”
In the early days of the lockdown, we participated in numerous calls with friends and relatives with whom we had not spoken in years, but that initial burst of social enthusiasm proved ephemeral. The calls we made grew less frequent, and our interest in accepting them faded. The “Zoom happy hour” was a particularly short-lived phenomenon, though that is not to say that our alcohol consumption decreased. Our once highly social children became more insular and dependent. They lost the desire to reach out to their friends and playmates over video-chat programs, becoming ever more rooted to our home and to us. Though the tranquilizing lotus of lockdown had dulled our senses, I could not escape the fleeting but terrible recognition that this would all have dreadful consequences.
This was not my experience alone. An April 25 New York Times dispatch demonstrated that the anxieties and contradictions we were wrestling with were shared by millions of Americans whose banal contribution to resolving this crisis involved nothing more than being inactive. The New Yorkers with whom reporter Michael Wilson spoke captured the mundane sacrifices that nevertheless tore at your soul.
For example, there are the casual lies you would tell your children when they asked when they might next see their friends or the inside of their school. You might convince yourself that the hope you’re giving them is palliative and aspirational, but that, too, is a lie. This dispatch also crystalized the anxieties associated with the emotional whiplash of lockdown. There are days that are defined by crippling agoraphobia only to be succeeded by days that are characterized by suffocating claustrophobia. All of those days are dominated by profound sadness for the life you left behind just weeks ago, to say nothing of the desperate effort to rationalize away the feeling that it may never return. For the most apprehensive among us, the coping mechanism of least resistance was also ours: to surrender to it all.
“There is this grieving of life as we once knew it that wasn’t there before, as we try to come to terms with the new reality,” one practicing psychologist told Wilson. “People are really starting to get more depressed.” By late April, one New Yorker confessed, the “denial phase” had passed. “Things that are super important to me and make the rest of life bearable may not be physically possible for a very long time,” she said.
“This is the week where I feel like I have accepted this, and given up,” a Brooklynite told Wilson. “My daily commute to the couch feels ‘normal.’” These anecdotes could be quantified into something more representative: After weeks of intense public interest in media outlets, Web traffic for media outlets began to decline precipitously. The pandemic was no longer a developing news story. It was just the way things were now.
The psychology to which we were becoming accustomed was a form of institutionalization. In fact, the psychological profile of an individual who acclimates himself to confinement closely aligned with our experience.
The process of adapting to stress brought about by disaster, loss of life, sudden destitution, or any number of suboptimal conditions involves various coping mechanisms, some of which are healthier than others. The psychologist Richard Lazarus argues that stress is a product of the individual’s relationship to his environment, and that condition intensifies when coping mechanisms are overrun by adverse conditions. When those mechanisms—defined by Lazarus and his colleague, Susan Folkman, as “the cognitive and behavioral efforts made to master, tolerate, or reduce external and internal demands and conflicts among them”—are stretched to the breaking point and personal objectives are thwarted by exogenous conditions, anxiety intensifies.
At this point, you can either change the environmental circumstances that have contributed to stress, or you can focus on mitigating your negative emotional state by changing your appraisal of the demanding situation you’re in. Since we had no way to change our circumstances, we had no choice but to take comfort in following the most basic rules.
For the institutionalized, the path of least psychological resistance is to surrender the desire for freedom and autonomy and defer instead to authority figures—our captors who surely know what’s best for all of us. Unlike in penal institutions, the undefined boundaries and limits (to say nothing of physical safety) of the lockdown conflicts with and prolongs this adaptive process, but all the same elements are present. To navigate the new demands of a more isolated life, we found ourselves engaging in emotional suppression. We sacrificed spontaneity, in part, because it was incompatible with this new life, but also because it sufficed for a form of control over the external environment. We succumbed to feeling alienated from the outside world, a subconscious detachment that is a necessary accompaniment to the dogma of “social distancing.”
All of this is a rather bloodless way to describe the descent into madness, but the recognition of that condition only contributed to the onset of emotional instability. How could we, free of illness, be so self-indulgent? The scale of the death and economic disaster brought about by the pandemic had devastated so many families. We were the relatively lucky ones. What right did we have to experience, much less express, discomfort amid such universal hardships? All that is true, of course, but it is no help.
As the open-ended lockdowns were extended and extended again, the burden on the millions of Americans who are not on front lines of this crisis—the governed from whom the authority to implement these Draconian policies is derived—started to preoccupy the thoughts of policymakers. With good reason. Though poll after poll showed that the majority of Americans approved of social distancing and “safer at home” policies, the University of Maryland’s Maryland Transportation Institute amassed cellphone data suggesting that obedience to authority was on the wane. “The percentage of Americans who are staying at home is down 18 points in the last two weeks,” the Hill reported on April 29. “Non-work-related trips are up 13 percent over the same time span.”
“There’s a sanity equation here also that we have to take into consideration,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo conceded. “You can’t tell people in a dense urban environment all through the summer months: ‘We don’t have anything for you to do. Stay in your apartment with the three kids.’” In places such as Florida and California, where the beaches were open at the municipal or state level, thousands of citizens with nothing else to do began to congregate. In California’s case, this was thought to be such a threat to public health that Sacramento overruled the cities that had relaxed restrictions and closed off the entire coast. “I wish I could give you a set timeline for when this was going to end,” said Santa Clara County Health Director Dr. Sara Cody, adding that “we are going to need to have protections in place for a very, very long time.” As a resident of a state governed by an executive who had also warned residents that lockdowns and curfews would continue for “the foreseeable future,” this was familiar language. It was, at long last, too much.
A modest psychological rebellion was brewing in our little platoon. We rediscovered our resolve and, aided by a relatively restored supply chain in the Northeast, once again provisioned our home for an extended period of isolation with a date-certain objective in mind to break out of lockdown. We coordinated with the people in our lives who could take similar steps to navigate this hostile new environment as safely as possible.
At the end of April, my parents saw their grandchildren again.
As of this writing, we have all survived.
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