In the late nineties I had a friend who became socially isolated after moving into a house by himself for the first time. One night he jumped off a bridge after having some hallucinations. As I remember it, he was the thirteenth person to fall or jump off this bridge and the only one to survive.
Then around 2000 I got a place all by myself for the first time. I got the internet and actually met a bunch of people, but those online interactions, or even the weekly parties I attended, did not stop the hallucinations. Voices started telling me to do things. Some nice things and some really twisted things. Granted, there was drugs, trauma and other factors to this, and I look at this as a valuable learning experience in my life, but I do not believe I would have had these hallucinations and destructive tendencies if not for the fact that I had no experience coping with being genuinely alone.
But then things changed. I started focusing on my career, which kept my mind too occupied for hallucinations, and I expanded my social circle and moved to a larger apartment.
Around this time I read a non-fiction book about brainwashing and torture. I remember some studies about social isolation. To be fair, I’m pulling all this from old memories, but I recall a college study on solitary confinement. All they did was put people in a room all alone with no one to talk to and nothing to do and watched how long it took them to push the panic button. Several people went days in the chamber without a problem and were pulled out before they hit their limit. Others had wildly different reactions. Some went a few hours but described horrible nightmares or other unexpected traumatic reactions afterward. The most chilling story was of a woman who had a meltdown seven minutes into the test and pushed the panic button. Then, years later, she described the experience as one of the most terrifying things she had ever done. The worrying part is the researches had no idea how much trauma their experiments would cause. They thought the panic button made them safe, but even then, the trauma from these simple tests were far beyond what anyone reasonably would expect.
What’s even more worrisome about this experiment was the wildly inconsistent and unpredictable results. A lot of people had no negative emotional consequences whatsoever, and could not even comprehend how anyone could be bothered by it. I think this difference in emotional reactions is a huge driver toward all the hate that is coming from both sides of this issue.
Now with coronavirus we are running experiments like this on millions of Americans, but for a year or more and without any sort of panic button. And we have no idea what the psychological outcome will be. Like those tests, the true harm may show itself long after the lockdown is lifted. And like those researchers, we have no backup plan to help the people who do go crazy from these experiments.
In 2008 my childhood next-door neighbor, Isaac Zamora, went on a killing spree and murdered six people around the neighborhood where I grew up. He murdered a kind man who I remember organizing neighborhood parties when I was a kid, as well as the woman who bought my parents house, right in my childhood front yard. It turned out Isaac had been living alone, isolated in the woods while recovering from multiple police brutality incidents. Again, lots of different factors involved, but at the end of the day, if he had not been socially isolated for so long, the murders likely would not have happened.
Then in 2014 I had a friend who became socially isolated, again, living all alone. He became so lonely that on a couple occasions he literally begged me to come over and visit him. I refused because I didn’t want to make my girlfriend jealous. A few months later he killed himself. I still keep his picture on my fridge to remind me how I wasn’t there for him and as a personal promise that I won’t ignore those signs again.
These experiences are why I and countless others are more terrified of the social isolation than we are of the virus.
Now in 2020, I am watching the same kind of downright terrifying emotional breakdowns happening all around me. I hear stories of family members threatening to disown each other if they step outside, people hiding in their rooms while living in terror, threats of suicide being shrugged off, parents who have simply stopped interacting with their children, skyrocketing domestic violence and child abuse statistics that are being virtually ignored, and alcoholism at an all-time high. A friend on Zoom spent all day in the hospital helping his friend recover after his wife attempted to stab him to death. He seemed thankful just to have an excuse to get out of the house and everyone on the Zoom chat just shrugged this story off as more lockdown drama. And these are just the lockdown stories I feel comfortable talking about.
I’m not saying COVID is a hoax. We should absolutely be taking it very seriously as a community. Please wear your mask and physically distance when doing so does not negatively impact anyone’s mental health. Eat lots of vegetables, get exercise, and sunlight, and otherwise do what you can to support your immune system. Lock down hard if you feel sick. Do what makes you feel safe based on the research you’ve done. Base your decisions on what’s statistically best for your community, not on your personal desire to avoid getting sick, just as we should not make decisions based solely on our desire to avoid loneliness.
But please, before you pass judgement on those of us meeting in person and those who feel that mental health should come first, please understand that many of us have seen really horrible things resulting from social isolation. Like chemotherapy and cancer, this is a balancing act between the deadliness of COVID and the deadliness of social isolation. We are terrified and are trying to do what is right for our communities based on what we’ve learned from our own personal experiences.
Here’s another article about coronavirus I wrote earlier on in the pandemic: heart disease will kill far more this year than coronavirus