Reflecting on isolation: ‘Hey Covid, thank you, but I’ll choose my own “normal”‘

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70 consecutive days isolated, alone, in a 12 square metre hotel room, and my best takeaway was an obsession with sleep. Every day was a rendition of yesterday, and a depressing indicator of tomorrow – a hazy blend of napping, snacking, reading and the occasional Chloe Ting workout. 

I spent most of my time asleep, which was why it was shocking when the notification came from my smartwatch alerting me that my sleep scores were unusually poor.  I wouldn’t consider myself health-conscious, but my curiosity was piqued. This tidbit of information logged a new checkbox on my otherwise mundane to-do list. Could the technology be inaccurate? The data manipulated? Or was a sinister entity messing with me while I sleep? I had to know! And thus began my obsession with sleep. 

My brain was activated when it was supposed to be resting; I was dreaming too much, too intensely.

How long? How deep? How consistent? Each morning, as my eyes snap open, I rush to check the little digital screen, now permanently attached to my wrist, desperate for a little triumph of attaining a sleep score higher than that of yesterday. And each time, my unconscious-self disappoints. The average sleep score for women my age is 77%, but mine ranged from 20-40. The trained student in me couldn’t help but be a little distressed at the failing score. The health app attributed my poor sleep to an abnormally high rate of REM cycle – my brain was activated when it was supposed to be resting; I was dreaming too much, too intensely. I recalled that, indeed, I was having a proliferation of unhinged and increasingly vivid nightmares. 

In one nightmare, civilization as we knew it dissipated. The dream was set in an I Am Legend-esque backdrop, with a yellowish hue for the added cinematic effect. Dressed in nothing but a surgical mask and scrubs, I frantically looked around for signs of human life, only to find my Mom standing 10 metres away from me. My legs wanted to lunge over, but inertia came in the form of: “Please observe social distancing. Violating the  will subject you to a fine or jail term.” An alarm blared overhead while a spotlight fell on me. Instinctively, I backed away, afraid that even with the consolidated effort of a surgical mask and the distance, I still posed a deadly health hazard to my Mom.  “Is this enough?” I mumbled with each step I took further and further back, till she was just a speck in the faraway. 

Silence has truly become golden, everyone protective over the bubble of space and peace that they can now right fully claim as theirs.

In another, I’m at Durham. Starting the first class of University in a socially distanced lecture hall, where each student was armed with a gigantic headphone, those only possessed by professional gamers. I let out a timid “hello”, and immediately, the microphone picks it up and my voice reverberates throughout the hall. Everybody turned to stare, faces blank but eyes filled with judgement, demanding to know who dared infiltrate the silence. In this ‘new normal’, there was no room for subtlety, no whispered conferencing with classmates, no timid venturing of a half-formed opinion, ready to be retracted at the first sense of disagreement. Silence has truly become golden, everyone protective over the bubble of space and peace that they can now right fully claim as theirs. University has now transformed from a place that one facilitated intellectually stimulating discourse, to one that rewarded students who had  better tech gadgets and knew how to use the mute button. 

It has been four months since I left isolation, but the dreams packed themselves into my luggage and came home with me. Even now, rarely do I dream of the past, they typically come in assaulting forms of imagined futures. No matter, though, for I actually enjoy them. They aren’t so much a benchmark of anxiety, but rather, a comforting prologue to my day. As I sleep, my mind conjures bleak versions of the future, and my body resists, rebelling against the compromises and the settlements we are told to accept, refusing to resign to the belief that the rest of our days will encompass this ‘new normal’. I will welcome a new day, tired and caffeine-craved, but armed with a fervent trust in the potential that my future holds.

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