The Stages of Isolation – a relative experience

emotions getty

Are you noticing how your reaction to self-quarantine and lockdown restrictions shifts as the weeks roll by?

Perhaps you have had highs and lows but not really understood the reasons for the changes in your endorphin levels? Perhaps you thought other people were being even more difficult than their normally difficult selves?  Some may even have considered getting over-the-counter hormone therapy.

I searched the internet for information and did not find very much. Here and there an article – some by mental health practitioners and some by economists. The latter obviously trying to predict when profit margins will begin to recover. The psychology articles I did find were not very useful. Many of them tried to force-fit the isolation process into the five stages of grief. To the extent that we have lost income, jobs and opportunities, the grief cycle would definitely apply. There is however something seriously different about the isolation caused by a pandemic and trying to collapse it with the grief cycle seems silly.

Unfortunately, the articles were all written by white academics who speak to the stages for the privileged losing a few pleasures and selectively-protected rights. In a reality where some lives are more equal than others, even the right to safety is selectively protected. We are certainly seeing that in South Africa with our surfer dudes and promenade joggers equating their needs with those in 3km queues for food. For those who have to choose between infection and starvation, the stages of lockdown is not remotely a consideration. Those of us who spent decades of our lives denied access to the beaches that were “reserved for whites” and now “reserved for the non-poor” really don’t have any sympathy for people moaning about their human right to surf.

Furthermore, the articles I read were based on observations in the USA and Australia: countries which are birthed from genocide, nourished by super-sized fries and sustained by branded propaganda will have a very different reality to Africa and war-torn countries. How the stages of isolation calibrate for you is entirely related to your level of privilege. Your experience will be determined according to how stuffed your backpack of rights was at the beginning of lockdown. At best, we can design stages within the levels of privilege.

I read a few articles about the impact of isolation on people doing doctorates and astronauts floating around in space for weeks or months. You may have heard the term “Third Quarter of Isolation” mentioned on Australian news networks recently. This term comes from studies conducted with astronauts. The third quarter refers to stage three of the four stage process.

In simple terms, the middle-class’ four stages of lockdown could look something like this:

Stage One – Confusion and Panic
This is when the news of the Covid-19 hit home and we realised it was not far, far away. Our hospitals began to shut down planned surgeries and grocery items disappeared as panic buyers freaked out. Rumours and fake news filled our WhatsApp feeds daily. Conversations were restricted to matters of the virus. We began to calculate how many hospital beds were needed per province. Finally, the lockdown was announced and another wave of panic buying began. Last visits and medication collections were our main activities. The first week or two of the lockdown created relationship challenges as we were suddenly quarantined with family members we normally could escape when they began to irritate us.

Stage Two – Settling in Honeymoon
In this phase we found ways to deal with the annoyances of our new reality – that is assuming you are not a victim of abuse in which case you would definitely not have honeymoon joy. Assuming you were in a home and had food to eat, you may even have started enjoying your new easy-living lifestyle. Suddenly there is no morning rush, traffic jam and school drop-off. If you were fortunate to have an income you may have welcomed the work-from home flexibility and stress-free salary. Baking, cooking and crafty activities may have provided a creative outlet and suddenly you are realising how good this pandemic is for your spiritual health. You even consider the idea that home-schooling will be good for your free-spirited child. You begin a gratitude journal. You release your control, breathe out and let it go! The lockdown is about to end and we wait for the president and his crazy mask.

Stage Three – “The Third Quarter”
What? The end is nowhere in sight. Five phases of lockdown and my career will only operate at phase two or phase one. My savings won’t last that long. I have no savings. Unemployment is going to take ages to pay out. I am working from home and earning a salary but I am missing my colleagues. It’s been two months since I saw the people in my life. I am at the end of my tether but the virus is only now beginning to spread in South Africa. The social distance queue outside every store is just too much so now I must do without things I am dependent on. I am not even collecting my medication anymore. Paying school fees while you are teaching your own child suddenly seems like legal robbery but you don’t know what to do. Is the virus even real?

This is only phase four of lockdown and we could go back to phase five. So maybe this will continue for the whole year. I can’t do this for a whole year! I am too depressed, irritated, frustrated, angry to speak to anyone. I don’t do the calls anymore. I am tired of the baking, cooking and crafting. I need to just be free to go wherever I want and connect with people without feeling like I am breaking the law.

Stage Four – Future is in sight
There is some hope that the heavy restrictions will be lifted. We have things we can look forward to and anxiety is abating slowly. We know what our losses are and we know what we can salvage from the lockdown wreckage. At least we can start to plan a way forward in the new normal which is becoming clearer. Even in this recession, at least we will be able to see family and friends without being arrested. We can finally begin to get our lives back on track beyond covid-19. We survived the virus! Our energy is focused on a future of some sort and we are no longer in limbo.

Depending on your personal context of course, you may or may not be able to identify with the stages. The third-quarter may or may not help you to understand why you have suddenly hit a low after doing so extremely well in the creative, mindful and pseudo-evolved state of stage two.

Given our social conditioning about planning, succeeding, achieving and control, homo sapiens are incredibly focused on the future. We don’t know how to be present in the now and we hate not knowing: stage three pins us down in the not-knowing. It rattles the cages of our conditioning.

South Africa has a phased approach to lockdown with phase five having the most severe restrictions and phase one the most lenient.  We are currently in phase four and phase one is very far away! With the numbers rising and services closing daily due to infections, phase five is scarily close. So the limbo of the third-quarter remains because we actually have no idea what tomorrow will bring.

In the context of social inequality, the stages of lockdown are entirely subjective. When your existence has been criminalized in the past you will relate to the restrictions differently. A right by its definition is inalienable. When a human right can be granted or withheld it is revealed as a privilege. While we are all affected by the lockdown, it will express itself differently in these disparate environments.

Mantras vs Activism

Mixed race businesswoman practicing yoga in busy urban crosswalkRecently, I shared a video of Brene Brown challenging us to deal with the issues of race, class, gender etc. A contact responded and in her message she explained that she was very poor and now very wealthy helping others because it makes her feel good and that she believed there was “no lack” in the world. She concluded by saying that there was too much division and that we should all just focus on unity and love. My response is way down below lost in a thread on my profile so I decided to give it its own space as the message is important. Also, marginalised people get that kind of response from privileged white folk a lot and we are tired of it. The fact that none of my activist friends responded to it was evidence that it is a stale argument we don’t have time and energy for really. I did respond and I am documenting the response in a separate post because as stale as the argument is, it is real in the minds of the people who have elevated themselves from one challenge and believe that circumstances are purely a matter of personal choice and can be solved with a great mantra. Systemic oppression, invisible violence (see Dr Sarah Malotane Henkeman) and intersectionality are safely tucked away in their blind spots while they laze around lapping up the fortunes of privilege believing it is all earned and deserved.

I was not entirely sure why she decided to share the first two paragraphs of being very poor and now being wealthy so I could only assume. What I assumed was that she was arguing the fact that she attracted all this abundance to herself miraculously because of her belief that there is no lack. It follows that having such a belief was the reason she made it from rags to riches and that her white privilege had nothing to do with it.

As we all know there are many such stories. Many people all over the world have the rags to riches narratives and the Annie story is real for many people. It is most inspirational indeed. There are also many, many victims of child abuse who make it out against the odds and live powerful lives assisting others. There are amazing women who were left for dead by their husbands after a round of blows to the head and they make it out there somehow. The rags to riches story comes in all shapes and sizes. Perhaps many of the Muslim men and women being tormented, kicked down a staircase and burned alive will also have a rags to riches story of sorts in America and other place in the world.

However inspirational these individual circumstances are, I do not for a single moment think that it releases us from the reality of systemic oppression and violence. I surely don’t need to explain that. Systemic oppression and marginalization of black people, gay people, Muslim people, women people etc is a reality that does not disappear because a few people beat the odds. Even in the thick of apartheid, my father after being dispossessed of his land, the vote, education and and and … made it out and became a millionaire and I grew up a wealthy kiddo. I was though still coloured, denied the education the white kids were getting, not allowed to live where I wanted or set foot on the beaches of the privileged and not allowed to vote. There were others with even less privilege than my father with that story too. When a white person makes it out of poverty it is a very different matter – your backpack of privilege tops up and is maxed or close to maxed again!

Instead of saying “oh WE made it out so all you poor ones have to do is practice abundance and then do things that make you feel good,” we took to the streets and took action until Apartheid was abolished. Now that it is, we still have many wealthy black folk and marginalised people who don’t have the backpack of white privilege but we realise apartheid is entrenched in the system. These numbers of wealthy people who were favoured by the abundance mantras as was suggested are but minuscule compared to the majority who live in inhumane conditions through the deliberate systemic maintenance of apartheid. You are free to chant abundance mantras and if you feel that is enough so be it. Others of us are taking action and dealing with the invisible violence that no amount of mantra will change because the structure is set up in a way to privilege white people, male people, straight people, Judeo-Christian people.

This very respondent was very active on social media a while ago protesting against the Christian ethic when she pursued the dark goddess Lilith and I assume she found a way to own self-expression through her abundance mantras. Many women protesting more serious concerns in the world like the right to live are also black and also gay and also Muslim have less in their backpack of privilege. The recognition of that is what motivates me and activists of social change to do more than sit in a corner chanting a mantra. When I look at my backpack I see how easily certain things came to me and that leads me to understand the need for action. It makes me realise that as much as I want to believe that my mantras are powerful, the reality is that life is that much easier for me than a child in Syria, a black girl in Nigeria, a Muslim woman alone on a train station in America, a Sioux man on the reservation harassed by the right white. The list goes on – my backpack of privilege is pretty decked relatively speaking and I have the space and luxury to chant mantras and believe I have a superpower.

While I am chanting mantras I will also break the silence and speak and speak and speak my truth and challenge a system that hands out these backpacks of privilege based on race, class, gender etc. I do this not because it makes me feel good but because it pains me to see the agony and suffering of visible and systemic violence. I do it because my own mantras of calling for peace and harmony have brought me to the light of knowing that (in the words of Ida B Wells) “The way to right the wrongs is to shine the light of truth on them”

Michelene Dianne Benson
#privilege #systemicviolence #whiteprivilege