“Why am I buying so much garlic? Eighteen heads! WHY?” A sleek woman is screaming at her boyfriend in front of the Stop & Shop in East Hampton. She is a little unhinged. Laurie Lewis, a New York real-estate broker, is also in the parking lot, waiting for her wife to return “from power-shopping crap we would never eat in a million years.” Noting the woman looks like she might burst into tears, Lewis sticks her head out the window and shouts, “Hey, it’s a virus, not a vampire!”
In a sense, though, this virus is a vampire, often coming to us in the form of loved ones who bite without being able to help themselves. Or, if you’ll allow me to torture this analogy a little bit more, maybe it’s turning us into werewolves as we lock ourselves in our rooms to prevent causing harm to others. Either way: we fear monsters, and we fear becoming monsters.
All Doom and Zoom
To say that we are in a period of unprecedented anxiety is a little like noting the sky is blue. Elaine Lafferty, a former editor in chief of Ms. magazine, speaks for me, and probably you: “I am sitting at home, turning into some sort of Data Doombot, with hours spent online studying predictive virology trajectories and mortality statistics.”
In a recent poll, 45 percent of American adults said that the coronavirus pandemic was harming their mental health. Legal cannabis sales have skyrocketed across the country. It’s not that we, as a nation, have not faced other periods of extreme fear—9/11, anyone? But danger never seemed to be lurking in the most benign places the way it does now. (One friend tells me of wiping down her dog with Clorox because who knows how many infected hands petted him on their daily jaunts?)
Even during those post-9/11 weeks, we had outlets for stress relief: gyms, restaurants, bars. We had movies and art. Now, increasingly, we don’t. The New York City Department of Health felt it necessary to tell us that, right now, “you are your safest sex partner,” making us into a metropolis of concupiscent teenage boys. Some of us expected that this would become like the famous scene in the M*A*S*H TV series where Hawkeye Pierce and Hot Lips Houlihan, who normally hate each other, make passionate love in a bombed-out hut because they think they’re going to die together. It doesn’t appear that’s happening much. “Sex? Are you kidding me?” one friend confided. “We’re too afraid to hold hands.”
So, what are we all doing, besides Cloroxing ourselves and our dogs, and occasionally embarrassing ourselves on endless office Zoom meetings? (Check out the hashtag #poorJennifer; Jennifer could have been any of us.) We are trying, in every conceivable way, to stay psychically connected, even as we are physically apart.
“Sex? Are you kidding me? We’re too afraid to hold hands.”
If you are a performer, you are performing—and, for the most part, we are enjoying the hell out of it. Everyone from Justin Bieber to Lizzo to Keith Urban has taken to Facebook and Instagram, often in their homes, without makeup, and frequently interrupted by their kids and pets. Psychologically, there is something deeply comforting about this: I’m stuck at home, and so is John Legend. It’s like that Us Weekly feature “Stars—They’re Just Like Us!”—in real time, every day.
Some are P.S.A.’s of a sort. Neil Diamond sang “Sweet Caroline,” changing the lyrics for the times; instead of “Hands touching hands,” it became “Hands washing hands,” and “Touching me, touching you” morphed into “Don’t touch me, I won’t touch you.” But many more are just famous people not knowing what to do with themselves, and then deciding to do what they do best.
Some of these performances are exquisite. Tyler Perry (and famous friends, individually) singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”; Mary Chapin Carpenter in her kitchen, singing “Edinburgh” while trying to stop her golden retriever from swiping food off the counter. And there is something surreal about watching the cast of Alvin Ailey perform a movement from “Revelations”—individually, in their homes. To see such otherworldly beauty amid their beat-up furniture, collections of refrigerator magnets, and irrefutable evidence of boredom (one of the dancers has dyed his poodle’s ears pink) is a powerful, quiet testament to the notion that we’re all in this together.
The Company You Keep
Many of us are finding that what provokes anxiety is not what we thought: it’s not so much forced solitude as forced companionship. There’s a reason the video of an Israeli mother holed up in her car to escape the hell of home-schooling her four children went viral. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Jill Wandrey Cerino, a psychotherapist in Hastings-on-Hudson, felt so suffocated by life under the same roof as her family that she went online and ordered blackout curtains, a bed pad and air mattress, beef jerky, beer, and a Hilary Mantel novel, and downloaded an oral-history course on Druid mythology on her phone. She was going camping, alone. She’d never been camping before. Doesn’t matter.
“I just couldn’t take it anymore,” she says. “And after all, our governor has made the parks free.” This was a few weeks ago. Jill still hasn’t left. But “it makes me happy just knowing all my supplies are in the garage, waiting for me.”
There’s a reason the video of an Israeli mother holed up in her car to escape her children went viral.
Younger men and women may suffer even more than their boomer brethren from the uncertainty of the times because the lives of so many of them were in flux even before the pandemic. “The indeterminate time frame for social disruption is freaking me out almost as much as the virus itself,” says Annie Siegel, who, at 30, recently moved to Philadelphia and cannot search for a job. Instead she has thrown herself headlong into campaign work for Joe Biden, some of which can be done from home. Her fears are less about her own mortality than about the risk of inadvertently spreading the virus to her father and grandmother.
And she is not alone. Those annoying montages of kids partying over spring break notwithstanding, many in their teens and 20s are deeply concerned. My own son is still hanging around his school, the University of Edinburgh, despite the fact that classes have been canceled, all his friends have left, and both the catering hall and gym are closed. When I last called him he was sitting by himself on a bench, yelling at the seagulls to keep a proper social distance from the kebab he was eating.
A Good Deed a Day …
With all the fear and frustration, people have realized, consciously or unconsciously, that small acts of community are powerful stress relievers. You’re treated like a hero if you just exhibit basic human decency. “Little acts of kindness help buffer overwhelming stress,” says Kelli Harding, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center; her 2019 book, The Rabbit Effect, details the scientific connection between kindness and physical and emotional health. “Kindness reduces anxiety, lowers cortisol, boosts your immune system, and helps you recover faster.”
Everywhere, there are people springing into (latex-gloved, masked) action, whether it’s shopping for older vulnerable neighbors or supporting stranded kids who can’t come home from college for one reason or another. Rory Bennett is the mother of a senior at U.S.C., and last November, after a spate of scandals—student deaths, sexual-assault charges, the notorious accusations of bribery around college admissions—rocked the campus, she started a Facebook group called Local USC Moms and Dads on Call. The idea was to answer the needs of kids who didn’t feel they could reach out to their parents or the school authorities with their problems. Since the coronavirus hit, many foreign students have been unable to travel back home—because of finances, or quarantines in their countries, or grandparents living at home.
So, Bennett and her cohorts, who now number more than 3,000, have sometimes become in loco parentis, offering help, temporary housing, and funds. Last July one student, an aspiring filmmaker named Nick Woltersdorf, broke his neck in a swimming accident. Woltersdorf had been entirely self-supporting—his mother died in 2017, his father had had a foot amputated—and now, because of the coronavirus, no one can visit him in the rehab hospital, where he’s been recovering for the past nine months. Thanks to friends and Bennett, a GoFundMe campaign is helping to tide him over until he can work again.
Bennett, a one-woman general of her little parent militia, can list all the official reasons she started this group; she can go on about the toilet paper and snacks her group delivered to students’ doorsteps, the class assignments she helped kids get sources for, even the miniature “therapy horses” she arranged to have hauled to campus so worried kids had something to pet. But during this pandemic, her good works have an additional propitious effect: “Doing this right now relieves my anxiety. If I’m doing something helpful, I’m sleeping better.”
Judith Newman is a New York–based writer and the author of To Siri with Love