Nearly a year of almost complete isolation is eroding my ability to hold a coherent conversation. So much of my daily interaction is via text—emails, text messages, social media—and so little involves actually speaking. My husband is the only other person I see and talk with regularly, and our actual time together is limited; he works outside the home 5 or 6 days a week and is often gone 10 hours a day at least. When he is home, our time is still limited; he comes in from work ranting about whatever irked him during the day and then often disappears into video games or one of his postapocalyptic/sci-fi/zombie/virus shows for a few hours. We may share space together for an hour or two in the late evening (by which I mean 8–10 pm), but he generally insists on having the TV on, even if all we have to watch together are old episodes of Antiques Roadshow we’ve already seen.
I recently bought myself a tablet so that I can sit in the living room with him while he watches his shows or plays his games and still have something to do; I can’t read, because the lights reflect on his screen and bother him, but I can play a few hours’ worth of Bejeweled Blitz or continue scrolling through my social media without banishing myself to the second bedroom where my office is and where I spend my entire working days alone. At least I can share space with another human for a while.
The point is, I don’t talk much or often. When I do speak, I’m finding more and more that my ability to find the words I want and form coherent sentences is deteriorating rapidly. I’ve always been the kind of person who stumbles over her words because my brain tends to move faster than my muscles. I speak about as badly as I type, constantly correcting myself. I had similar problems in the months and years after my two traumatic brain injuries, and I’m sure that the residual effects of those don’t help the situation. But I wonder, now, if I didn’t have more trouble then in my recovery simply because I was isolated.
After my first accident in 2013, I lost my job and was housebound for some time, although I did go out for speech, occupational, and physical therapy appointments, so I did have to speak somewhat frequently. My husband worked at home then, too, so we were always interacting, and we were still living in Florida, where I had both family and friends to visit me. After my second accident in 2017, when we were living in small-town Virginia with no one nearby to talk to, my biggest events were my daily drive to the local Sheetz gas station for a soda (I limited myself to one soda a day and never kept it in the house in those days), where I would chat up the cashier, and my weekly psychotherapy appointments, where I was basically encouraged to babble endlessly for an hour. B was working outside the house then, gone for even longer hours and often working 7 days.
Moving to the DC metro and getting a “real” job outside the home again, finally, was a huge step forward for me. I began riding in and out of the city daily with a carpool of colleagues who would talk about all kinds of things. B and I would go out to movies and restaurants. I’d drive up to Jersey to see my son and talk with my ex and his wife as well as his mom and stepdad, with whom I’m still really close. I saw old friends in Jersey and flew to Florida to see my parents and friends there. My company offered telework 1–2 days a week after 6 months, and although I set up my telework and did work from home 1 day a week most weeks, I made it a point to stress to everyone that it wasn’t my preference. Working from home 1 day a week is convenient because you can run errands and make appointments and work around them without losing time off. But I never, ever wanted to go back to full-time work from home. I liked being around people again, and I liked being able to relax at home because the “work” was separate, left behind in my cubicle and no longer sitting by my home computer chastising me for ignoring it on my days off.
As you can guess, the switch to full-time telework in March 2020 because of covid completely screwed me. Work and life are the same again. B is gone all day, and I sit in silence. I walk in silence. I type in silence. I try to focus while the landscapers run their noisy mowers and blowers for hours, while the neighbors tromp up and down the stairs on the other side of my office/bedroom wall, while the dog upstairs barks and barks and barks and barks and barks and barks. The team I work with meets via Zoom every other week, and I am so starved for interaction that I will babble on any and all topics that come into my brain just to stretch out the meeting longer and have more time talking to other human beings.
In the real world, no one seems capable of wearing a mask properly or maintaining a 6-foot distance, so I don’t chat up cashiers or wait in long lines if I can at all avoid it; if a store offers self-checkout, I’m there. The other day, when the attendant made me go to the cashier lane at Safeway because I had four bundles of heavy firewood and six bottles of soda to ring up, I was pissed. I’ve checked myself out with far larger and heavier loads than that in the past few months for sure. I didn’t want to make small talk with the cashier, whom I could barely hear through her mask. My hearing tests fine, but I have trouble making out the things people say even without a mask, so this is just one more reason I hate talking to anyone anymore.
I know that I’ve been able to recover from this kind of isolation twice already, so there’s still hope. But the damage it’s doing in the meantime is harsh. When I do talk to B, I have little to “chat” about; most of what I say involves reminding or bitching at him about things he hasn’t done, like call his doctor or fill out bank paperwork or rinse off his dishes. That doesn’t exactly enhance the mood. In return, all he has to talk about is how much he hates his job. Before covid, we ate out a lot; neither of us cooks, really, so I could at least ensure an hour of one-on-one conversation with B over a meal in a restaurant. Now our meals are delivered, and often he’s already eaten a big lunch with the guys at work, so I end up eating alone in my office while he plays his games. There’s just no reason to talk anymore, and it hurts us because it limits and separates us so much. Ultimately, we’re both getting more and more depressed, which makes us tired and apathetic about everything else.
I just want all this mess to be over. I want people to wear their fucking masks and get their vaccinations so that we can go back to work, back to fun, back to people, back to life. Our parents are in their 70s. They don’t have tons of time left, and what they do have is being stolen from them, stolen from all of us, by the virus and the selfishness of too many. I left Florida, spent 4 years in small-town purgatory, and moved here to DC to be closer to my son so I wouldn’t miss out on his life, but I’m missing out anyway because I can’t just pick up and visit him. When we moved here, we were excited to start a new chapter, set down some real roots, make some friends, have some adventures, do some traveling. We would finally have the money to get out and enjoy our lives again, something we haven’t had in a very, very long time. And that has been stolen from us as well.
Typing everything has already stolen penmanship, cursive, handwritten letters and notes. My handwriting, once fairly decent, has become illegible with disuse. And now, isolation is stealing our voices. I fear that with time, we—the most technologically advanced humans in history who create wondrous writings and art and architecture—will regress to our most primitive forms, becoming social cavepeople whose interactions with others will be reduced to pointing and grunting.