My neighbor came home from the hospital two weeks ago. She was in the ICU for 5 days because of Covid. She returned home with a green oxygen bottle. The bottle dragged behind her on its cheap plastic wheels as she pulled it through the courtyard of our building. She lives in a back unit with her husband so she has to travel the length of the courtyard every time she comes or goes. In the center of the courtyard, there is an old olive tree with a trunk four feet in diameter. Over the years the roots of the tree pushed up bricks making the path around its base pitted and uneven. As my neighbor painstakingly rounded this old tree, the oxygen bottle behind her rattled and jumped over each brick and root. So, it was the bottle that announced her return from the hospital. It did so in a slow clanging ruckus.
My girlfriend and I watched and listened through our living room window as she passed. My right arm was primed to wave encouragement but she never looked up. She made it to her front door where she disappeared into her home. Her husband picked up the oxygen bottle and carried it over the threshold into their living room. They’ve lived in that apartment for 27 years. Must be nice to be home.
I actively avoided her. According to me, my neighbor was loud and talked too much. I could hear her in the courtyard from any room in my apartment jawing away at others. From my kitchen, I could hear her in front of the building on the sidewalk talking to complete strangers. She was always stopping me to talk, too.
Unfortunately for me, it wasn’t in her to have a short conversation. She would extend small talk uncontrolled until it inevitably angled at some peering insight. What was normal for her felt invasive to me. She used cordiality to start a conversation that then became a lever in her hands. One that I’d have difficulty holding at bay. She made me feel like a shellfish out of water lodged in the fat fingers of an oysterman working a knife to pry indelicately at me. My conversations with her were singularly awkward. They had no endpoint. I worked to keep clear of her.
Sometimes avoiding her became part of my internal dialogue about how exactly I should leave my apartment. To head to the store, I might take a circuitous route out the back door instead of the front. This route bypasses the courtyard entirely and decreases the chances I’d come across her or any neighbor. Leaving this way requires that I walk down the next building’s driveway which wasn’t meant for foot traffic. Even though there wasn’t any danger of getting hit, it was clear the architect designed this area for cars and not humans. Leaving my apartment this way always left me with a sense I was walking somewhere I shouldn’t. But, leaving my apartment out the back door was a fair tradeoff for me. I’ve always been happy to go out of my way to avoid conversations with people I don’t know well. They leave me feeling uneasy and exposed.
Socially mobile people like my neighbor play an oversized role in my life. I use the ins and outs of my day to avoid them—to thwart the expectation of our crossing paths. My solution has been to make my life more circuitous and less straightforward. People like her are part of my long-term struggle with moderate social anxiety.
When Covid hit, I couldn’t have imagined the vast death toll that would come upon Los Angeles. However, it was clear from the outset that anxiety would be an adaptive asset in the pandemic. Anxiety is the idea that nonobvious threats are present in your environment at all times. Defined broadly, environment may mean your physical surroundings but also the social environment you inhabit. Threats may be perceived dangers to your physical wellbeing or hazards to your identity and concept of self.
The day-to-day struggle of anxiety is the task of properly gauging and classifying “threats.” For social anxiety, the task is to continually recategorize trivial interactions such as a stranger’s glance or a far-off whisper from threatening to nonthreatening. In a state of generalized anxiety, the task is often to manage expectations of peril arising from ordinary activities.
Of course, the threats I’ve learned to live with aren’t real threats. They occur too frequently to be real. Real threats are few and far between. The work of living with anxiety is repetitively recharacterizing your environment to distinguish real threats from false ones. Those of us with clinical anxiety are compelled to reassess again and again what is threatening and what is normal. Through great mental effort, we rise above an environment that is perceived to possess ever-present danger. As if our task were some sort of mental rock breaking, the side effects of this effort draw a toll on the ligaments of the mind. That toll lingers in the connective tissue of my life and greases the decisions that have led to patterns of social isolation.
For someone with anxiety, the pandemic sabotages. It turns the world in strange ways. Covid validates anxiety-laden thoughts. Hypervigilance, a key symptom of anxiety, is suddenly a requirement of “healthy” behavior. The air, our breathing space, is currently something to be continually alert to. The most intimate part of the environment that keeps us alive from second to second drawn into our lungs is now a threat. I’m told that it’s my responsibility to avoid strangers and take circuitous routes around their invisible exhale. To live during the pandemic is to suddenly find my surroundings filled with mysterious and unseen contaminants. Taking extraordinary action to complete mundane tasks is all of a sudden praiseworthy behavior. Thoughts about how I leave my apartment and who I might run into are thoughts no longer contextualized solely by anxiety. They’re validated now by Covid. Strangely enough, all this has given me a certain confidence. I can’t say it feels unnatural.
So if a haphazard meeting with human beings is the stuff of catastrophic consequence, then what is social behavior? Foreseeing grave consequences from a casual meeting still feels like anxiety but that’s not true in Covid. Individuals who would stop you on the street for a talk might be a strand of transmission that leads all the way back to some viral point of origin. What are we to make of that? Are we really meant to do some strange calculus that dissolves social connection and tradition without replacement? I don’t know.
The isolation here in Los Angeles is significant. As I write this LA is one of the most intense Covid hotspots in the US. Fortunately, I learned some time ago that there are short-term replacements for isolation. Replacements that help temper isolation’s assault on the spirit. The simplest antidote to isolation and anxiety that I know is to nurture something—to set the conditions for some other thing than yourself to come into being. Maintaining the conditions for something else to fulfill its potential is a connective behavior that you can participate in even while alone.
In my life, I’ve found this satisfaction has come from growing things. I used to farm organic fruit crops. I’ve also farmed corals as part of a reef rehab project. Due to my current living situation, I don’t have the space to grow food for others so, instead, I’ve recently started breeding plants for seeds and sharing them as widely as I can. During Covid, I’ve found that growing plants for seed seems like a hopeful behavior. It feels traditional and social. It lends my mind to ideas of future bounty and the happiness of others. Before Covid, I never thought much about my own struggles with mental health being potentially prescriptive for others who are more social than me. But now, in our worldwide Covid circumstance, maybe you can find an insight here that can be helpful to you.
Maxwell Ucci is currently working on ways to make gardening and micro-farming increasingly social practices in the context of near-term expected disruptions from A.I. and climate change. Max has a B.S. in Philosophy from UC, Irvine. He is a pilot and avid scuba diver.
Max has started several businesses including an organic farming operation based in Honduras and Southern Mexico and later a coral farming business with operations in Miami and Los Angeles.