Walking through the halls of my apartment building, I feel as alone and isolated as if I were walking through the set of an apocalyptic movie where the Big Bad slips out of the shadows to wrap a tentacle around your limbs, pulling you further into the labyrinth that is the unknown. Posters in the elevator warn against physical contact with another person, heightening the ever-present “stranger danger” factor with headlines regarding face masks and social distancing.
I find myself on the same level of high-alert vigilance that I was before my last hospitalization, in the days preceding the worldwide COVID lockdown. I’ve been effectively medicated since that stay, allowing me to order my thoughts sequentially and act on them accordingly rather than struggling through fragmented thinking and inappropriate behavior. The threshold of my hypervigilance is moderated, if not nullified. Still, with the quarantine, my feelings of uncertainty seem to be cutting through the veil of antipsychotic medication, creating a definite crease in my reality.
It’s one thing to have suspicions and doubts; it is altogether another to experience paranoia. The mistrust of people and the suspicion of one’s surroundings wears on the nervous system, to say nothing of the toll taken on the mind. As a paranoid schizophrenic I am all too familiar with the mistrust and apprehension inherent in the delusion that something or someone is out to get me. I have to figure that my paranoia must be operating at an all-time high if it’s cutting through the protective layer of rationale afforded by my various medications. They’re working otherwise, keeping me safe from irrational thoughts of persecution and harm, but there’s something to be said for the “invisible enemy” of an unchecked virus hiding in the shadows of a smile.
So I hunker down in my room, glued to my phone by day or camped out in my comfy chair by night, binging Netflix until the wee, small hours of the morning, awake and alert in case a cough or a sniffle interrupts my calm. I live in an abandoned building on an empty street in a forgotten city. Like millions of other people whose only connection to the life we might have known once is an online conference call or video chat where a familiar face is only that and nothing more. No actual contact, no handshakes or hugs, no fascia or pheromones. Something’s missing. Something human.
I have an appointment once a month to receive an antipsychotic medication by injection. There are two nurses at the clinic, one who handles the paperwork while the other administers the shot. I’ve met with them once every four weeks for the past two-and-a-half years. We have a standing joke about my birth date, how the numbers line up. They always comment on how well behaved I am compared to some of their other clients, and how much they like my psychiatrist.
I used to take the bus to the clinic, but since safety guidelines changed the transit routes, and since my anxiety plays into how comfortable I am riding the Metro under these circumstances, I’ve been getting rides from a friend. I’m in the backseat, she’s in the front. We wear our masks. I feel safe.
After my visit with the nurses, she takes me grocery shopping at the supermarket a block down the street. There is no dawdling. When we arrive at the store I take out my list, grab a shopping cart, and go. I stay on task. If something distracts me, like, say, a voice in my head, I do what I can to remember that it’s a symptom, not a demon, and get back to shopping. Afterwards, we drive across town to my apartment. I get my groceries from the trunk and head to the elevator. Safe in my apartment, I can let my guard down. I have survived and conquered my agoraphobia and pandemic panic to face a two-hour errand run successfully.
I feel a sense of satisfaction in that I’ve managed to reign in my amplified anxiety and come away unscathed. It’s no mean feat to complete what would be a simple task for a neurotypical, but continues to confound and perplex me even in my best moments. I’m up against a lot, and I’m proud of my accomplishment when it all comes together, despite the odds. It’s satisfying to know that the years of hard work in therapy have earned me moments like these. I’m not just a consumer, gobbling up meds like a zombie dispensary. Not another bed on the ward with no shoelaces, or a statistic in the pop culture hopper. Once upon a time, perhaps, but not today. Today it’s all rocket shoes and unicorns. Because it can be. Aspects of my new normal.