It may not come across in written form, but I am actually quite the introvert.
Small talk is like sitting an exam for me, where I have to rely on cramming as much information as I can in order to get through it. Once someone has broken through that wall, I’m a completely different person, and it’s nobody’s fault except my own. If I stopped building things up so much in my head, I would more easily identify similarities and common ground.
Nevertheless, whatever progress I had made was swiftly undone in the last few years. A traumatic event four years ago gave rise to a self-loathing that hastened my retreat into hermitage, and then, it happened.
You know, it. The global pandemic that has killed over 6 million people.
It wasn’t so much COVID itself that caught my attention, as my hubris had me convinced that it simply would not happen to me despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It was everything that came along with it.
This sense of unease. The introduction of mandates like masks and social distancing — the latter being something I would have previously understood conceptually, but has now been indoctrinated within my psyche. This shared experience, the likes of which had not been so apparent since World War II, I daresay.
When at last, the situation became untenable, the Victorian government locked the state down. Forced isolation, strict curfew times, and only an hour’s worth of reprieve for outdoor exercise. You could still go out to do your grocery shopping, so long as you made your way directly there and back.
It is important to address that this was a devastating time for most people. My own stance on lockdown notwithstanding, I recognise that this was not a sustainable practice. Many felt suffocated, panicked, hopeless. Trapped and alone, with no end in sight.
This was not the case for me, however. I was lucky that my job was portable enough to continue working through. So I would wake up ten minutes before I was due to start, make myself a coffee, and get to it. I worked diligently, playing music with impunity, uninterrupted and undeterred. Perhaps I would pop into the kitchen for a snack, or perhaps I would not leave my chair at all.
I’d watch Daniel Andrews’ daily address to the state, feeling this queer sense of kinship with our captor. The internet was abuzz as it took note of the time he began each session, and the attire he wore. As if there was some kind of method or algorithm behind it.
Dan would list the new cases, the number and nature of deaths. We were all there to receive this information, together, moving through another day in isolated unison. I never felt closer to the community than I did in these moments.
After work, I’d take a walk to the liquor store to buy myself a bottle of wine. This was my least favourite part of the day. Everyone who I passed by, I wondered what they were doing out there. Some of them weren’t wearing masks, others were gathering illegally without a care in the world. I knew nothing of these people other than what I saw in that moment — and in that moment, I hated them.
They were doing the wrong thing, where the rest of us were trying our level best to keep Victoria afloat. They were the other; enemies out to disrupt our unity.
Wine in hand, I would then retreat back to my computer and watch anime until the bottle was empty. It was an unhealthy practice, physically, and yet it was my established routine. If you tried to take it away from me, even for just one night, I would have struggled to get through to the next day.
I took ownership of my lockdown experience, identified with it, became beholden to it. To compare it to Stockholm syndrome would be a reach, but I eventually grew fond of my new normal.
All up, Victorians would spend over 260 days in lockdown throughout 2020 and 2021, the longest of which lasted 111 days. For the majority of people, exiting that marathon of solitude was cause for celebration, and eager folks flooded the streets, the stores and the pubs.
For me, it was akin to being ripped from the womb. I saved a lot of money, took broad steps forward in my career — capably balancing a 9-to-5 with my burgeoning freelance portfolio — and felt at peace with my own company. I answered to nobody, I interacted with nobody, I missed nobody. I’m me, I do me, and I chill.
Again, be it beyond me to self-diagnose (I’m an imaginary neurologist, not a psychiatrist), but I do find some association with the phenomenon described as coronaphobia, that is to say: “increased reassurance and safety seeking behaviours, and avoidance of public places and situations” (Arora et al., 2020).
In the post-lockdown era, wandering the streets filled me with a sense of apprehension, as if I’m still not supposed to be outside. All because it’s legal doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe, right? The once tranquil streets now flooded with people going about their day, as if nothing had ever occurred in the first place.
I felt panicked and even a little angry. I had to distract myself somehow, in any way, to quell the chattering inside of my head. That’s when I recalled that a few blocks away, there was a gym. A Pokemon Gym, in fact, usually squatted upon by pesky members of Team Instinct.
Since its release in 2016, I have had an on/off fascination with Pokemon GO. After the initial novelty had worn off, I put it aside for several years, reasoning that it was really just a stripped down facsimile of the games I already owned on console.
Once I caught wind that they were planning on implementing cross-functionality between Pokemon GO and Pokemon HOME, however, I found a rekindled interest. There are more opportunities to capture rare creatures in the mobile game, and it’s a less intensive process overall. As I’ve mentioned, my collection of Pokemon is important to me, and soon, I would be able to bolster these numbers significantly.
It was actually during the lockdown that lasted from July to October 2020 that I had elected to pick the game back up, and it proved a welcome accoutrement to my liquor store sojourns. Afterwards, however, it had become something more: a mission that urged me to venture further into the great unknown.
Gotta take those steps to hatch those eggs. Gotta check out different environments to snag that Dratini. Gotta smash those punkass Team GO Rockets before they spread their hateful rhetoric.
In some perverse way, intently tracking my little avatar as he navigated the map allowed me to disassociate with my own activities. Sure, I knew that I was out there in the big, scary world, but I wasn’t paying attention to that: I was scanning the landscape for interesting spawns or PokeStops to spin.
The further I went, the more that was waiting on the horizon. A new Gym, perhaps, that beckoned me to come hither. It was the escapism I so desperately required at that point of my life, when it all felt far too much to handle.
There is no ‘ah-ha’ revelation to this kind of practice; it’s a fairly obvious solution to a complex problem, clinically trialled in such instances as Craske et al., 1989. It stands to reason that filling my head with Pokemon trivialities as opposed to crippling reality would show a marked improvement.
To this day, I’m still stubbornly resistant to reintegration. I don’t like early commutes on overcrowded trains anymore than I like being surrounded by every subset of humanity, simply because our proximities converged in this particular moment of time. I still find my mask returning to my face without even being aware of when I put it there.
For all of my gripes, I know I’ll at least be okay out here. It’s business as usual. It’s just life, much as it was before this pandemic ever even occurred. The only difference is that I’m more inclined to glance at my phone here and there to see if any Bulbasaur have popped in to say hello.