A comfortable chair, in a bookstore or coffee shop. Maybe just a hard, splintery bench in a park.
A conversation with a stranger, or even an old friend. Someone you haven’t seen in awhile.
Mostly gone, now. Not lost, really. We know where to find them.
Rather, as my friend and colleague Kari Travis told me, these things were taken.
Stolen as we paused to blink. Taken, seemingly forever, in an emergency lockdown now seven months old.
Because of government orders and edicts. Because of science and data. Numbers that still, after all these months, remain indistinct and vague. Under the thumb of a governor who lectures us in condescending tones and with elementary words. As though he’s scolding a third-grader who dared step out of line. As if we’re all kittens and he’s passing out treats, morsels of manufactured food that will eventually liquify our organs.
Be quiet and enjoy, he tells us. He knows what’s best.
And people believe him. A lot of them.
So, we avoid one another, because we’re afraid. Relationships fade then disappear. We’re alone, no matter how many quirky commercials, PSAs, or sitcoms we produce. Quarantines aren’t amusing. Depression isn’t funny. We’re lonely, and it hurts.
Older people, most affected by the disease and confined to their homes, are suffering most.
In July, a Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll says, a majority of U.S. adults 18 and older (53%) said worry and stress related to coronavirus has had a negative effect on their mental health, up from 39% in May, according to a recent KFF poll. Similarly, among older adults (65 and older), close to half (46%) in July said that worry and stress related to coronavirus has had a negative effect on their mental health, up from 31% in May, KFF says.
Previous KFF research, the nonprofit says, has found the share of adults reporting anxiety or depression has increased since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, with four in 10 adults 18 and older (40%) reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression in July.
Dr. Vivek Murthy, surgeon general of the U.S. under President Obama, traveled across the country listening to people talk about their health. He writes about it in a book published this year: Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.
“I found that people who struggle with loneliness, that that’s associated with an increased risk of heart disease, dementia, depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances and even premature death,” he told NPR.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has, too, written about people struggling with substance abuse and mental health because of what it calls “mitigation activities,” including the effects of social distancing and stay-at-home orders.
We cower behind masks, as if they’re some sort of impenetrable security blanket. Our social circles, if we’re fortunate, are limited to our families and work colleagues. Maybe a few friends here, a few there.
Social gatherings of any sort are laboratories for stress, anxiety, and doubt. We navigate invisible borders and measure people not by their eyes or expressions but by whether they’re wearing a mask.
Dr. Mandy Cohen, state health department secretary, said Tuesday, Oct. 13, that COVID-19 trends are going the wrong way. The state doesn’t want to go backward, she said in terms of Gov. Roy Cooper’s mangled reopening schedule. Cohen says this as though it’s a threat.
My family and I moved to the Triangle a few years ago, and we knew few people here outside of work. My wife and I quickly visited a local brewery, and we became fast friends with a bartender. And then another.
“Our first friends in Cary,” she likes to say. We met more people there, and we made more friends.
One night we noticed a woman sitting alone at the bar. We saw her again on another night. And then again. She was lonely, shy. My wife struck up a conversation, and the woman told her she had just moved here from New York for a job in the Research Triangle Park. She was looking to meet people, to have fun. You know, to live.
The shutdowns came and the brewery closed, at least for several months. We returned not so long ago, to drink beer in strategically placed tables in a parking lot. We asked about our bartender friends, who no longer work there. Where are they now? No one knew for sure. The woman? Haven’t seen her, either.
People who got together to play music, or cards. To attend class. People who visited the bookstores and coffee shops, just to talk to someone. People trying to maintain friendships and make new ones. Without fear or reservation.
Maybe even just to say, ‘Hey, I’m here. I’m still alive.’
As Kari would say, taken.