COVID Claustrophobia

The house I grew up in didn’t have a true attic, but it did have an interconnected web of crawlspaces wending around the gabled roof, and at least once I was called to make the crawl thorough the spaces at the behest of my father. The reason why escapes me, but two memories remain: one was the experience itself, and the other was that part of the reason for my recruitment was that my father was claustrophobic.

As far as I can recall my father wasn’t afraid of anything—that seems like an odd thing to write, but I truly can’t think of anything—and so that he was afraid of small spaces was notable. As was the word claustrophobic, which must have been uttered at some point, and struck me as being rather exotic.

I don’t consider myself claustrophobic, and I’ve been in my fair share of submarines and subterranean passageways and tiny elevators without panicking that I’m pretty certain I didn’t inherit the quality from my father.

But COVID claustrophobia is something else entirely.

I first experienced it this summer at The Haviland Club when attending an Island Fringe show there. While I was assured that all the COVID protocols were adhered to, sitting in closer proximity to other people than I’d sat in 18 months felt deeply uncomfortable. I almost had to leave.

And so while many friends and acquaintances have plunged into attending concerts and movies, eating indoors at restaurants with abandon, it’s been all I can do to attend Pen Night twice and to have a few carefully-curated meals out-in.

I make no claims to a moral high ground here, and I suspect that I’m being overly cautious given the actual risks involved.

Indeed I imagine this doesn’t have much to do with COVID at all, and more with more full-throated expression of a pre-existing social anxiety than usual, brought on by spending a year and a half in relative seclusion.

There is likely a dollop of grief-involvement mixed in: when I stop to think about it, the notion that Catherine died and then, two months later, we were all locked inside our houses for months on end, was deeply weird. And not a typical grief pathway.

I’ve been reading The Body Keeps the Score, and the passage that’s jumped out at me most so far is this:

Imagination is absolutely critical to the quality of our lives. Our imagination enables us to leave our routine everyday existence by fantasizing about travel, food, sex, falling in love, or having the last word—all the things that make life interesting. Imagination gives us the opportunity to envision new possibilities—it is an essential launchpad for making our hopes come true. It fires our creativity, relieves our boredom, alleviates our pain, enhances our pleasure, and enriches our most intimate relationships. When people are compulsively and constantly pulled back into the past, to the last time they felt intense involvement and deep emotions, they suffer from a failure of imagination, a loss of mental flexibility. Without imagination there is no hope, no chance to envision a better future, no place to go, no goal to reach.

That the world pressed pause at the very moment my life got flipped-turned upside down, at the very moment I was trying to figure out a new kind of normal: that was freaky and destabilizing. Imagination was what I needed more than anything, and COVID did a good job stanching it; is it any wonder, at this point, that I’m reluctant to power the engines up to full and resume my regular diet of public engagement.

Perhaps I am not alone in this?


Ton Zijlstra's picture
Ton Zijlstra on September 9, 2021 - 01:44 Permalink

It took us days to get used to people in Denmark. In France when visiting the Versailles palace some parts were packed, which I felt was uncomfortable. But I always feel somewhat uncomfortable in masses (given what I know they can do in a sudden pinch). We noticed we respond to it even on screen when watching something from 'the before'.

Cheryl's picture
Cheryl on September 9, 2021 - 10:40 Permalink

You are so very not alone in it. The first event Oliver and I went to was fully outdoors with 90% vaccinated people (we were not yet). I went into full anxiety and stood in the backyard and cried until he ushered me out. I forgot my backpack in the rush to leave. He retrieved it a couple hours later, and one of the guests said something like, "Oh, did you leave? We didn't even remember you'd been here." Social anxiety, fear of invisibility, turning into a toad during lockdown, COVID fear all mix in with a few other things and make it really stinking hard for some of us. I so hear you, especially with the bazillion added layers of grieving for Catherine on top of it. Virtual hugs.