If you could lay bare your innermost feelings or reveal any secret, and do so anonymously, what would you say? Then add in the fears and strains of a global pandemic that has killed millions – now what’s on your mind?
The hundreds of anonymous messages left at the Quarantine Hotline offer a taste of our collective mood, which seems to range from embittered to ecstatic. Some callers were profane, many profound, a few prurient.
“I know I should be, like, wanting to go out and have fun, but I don’t want to,” said one woman. “Like, I hate everyone. The longer I stay in the more I hate people. I thought I would be sad and I’m not and I hate everyone. Yeah, that’s it. Thanks.”
The project is the brainchild of Toronto artist and documentarian Vuk Dragojevic, who wondered what people were thinking as COVID-19 took hold last year. So he set up a voice mail line, spread the word to friends and plastered posters around town. People could talk up to five minutes, for free, and phone back as many times as they wanted.
The calls poured in. And, taken as a package, the messages are one more powerful reminder that we never really were in this together. Or, at the least, that we suffered very different pandemics.
While some callers were positive – the artist selling lots of work, the homeless teen thrilled to have a safe hotel room in which to sleep – there was also plenty of pain and anger.
“I feel unloved and unlovable, and I know that that’s not necessarily true. I know I have evidence that points to the contrary. But I’m just so, so lonely,” said one distraught woman, who dreamed of living through the pandemic with other people.
“Like living in a family, um, and living with people that, like, loved me and I knew loved me and were there and I could touch them and I could hug them, and I just want to be loved. I just want to not be lonely any more.”
Mr. Dragojevic hasn’t decided what he’ll do with the trove of messages. He views the collective cri de coeur as a sort of digital time capsule, samples of which he shared recently with The Globe and Mail.
Dropping our mask and speaking from the heart, even into a message machine, can be emotionally helpful, said Robert T. Muller, a professor of psychology at York University and the author of Trauma and the Struggle to Open Up: From Avoidance to Recovery and Growth.
“A lot of people have been really struggling and … very often secrets represent a burden,” he explained. “I can understand why people would want to share anonymously. I think having a burden is hard.”
The project’s website directs people who may be in crisis to suicide prevention hotlines. And Mr. Dragojevic is grateful no one sounded so dire that they seemed to be in danger. That would have put him in a terrible spot: knowing someone was at risk but having no way to summon help on behalf of an anonymous person.
On the flip side, such anonymity allowed people to drop their guard and speak with candour. If, as Agatha Christie wrote, “the human face is, after all, nothing more nor less than a mask,” we’ve all had plenty roiling around behind our façades during this pandemic.
“I’m afraid of the mirror that restarting will hold up to me,” said one man.
“It’s like we [all claimed we were] being kind to ourselves, like for all of 2020, and then it’s 2021 and people are like, ‘Oh yeah, I made a TV show in that time.’ And like, ‘I got ripped or something.’ And it’s like, oh wait, I thought we were all playing by the same rules. So like, do I have to defend myself?”
Similar online sites for anonymous messages offer a way to get something off one’s chest, but University of Toronto psychology professor Steve Joordens notes that spilling a secret this way may not have the same value as coming clean. He explained that part of the burden of a secret is the fear someone will find out.
“I think with the anonymity they feel like they can get rid of that fear, but they really don’t because they are still in hiding,” he said. “Therefore it doesn’t ultimately work. It doesn’t do what they might feel like it should do.”
Still, such sites can serve as a window into people’s hidden, sometimes alarming selves. The host of one such venue, writing for The Guardian, concluded that “everyone urinates in sinks,” and many people into dishwashers.
Many of these sites allow other users to read the messages, the digital equivalent of painting graffiti on a rail car and knowing that someone, somewhere, will see your work. This can devolve into online bullying, but such aggression was not possible with Mr. Dragojevic’s project, which did not allow the public to listen in. Protected from attack, this was humanity’s voice at its most naked.
“They just want someone to talk to,” the artist said. “I mean, it’s sort of a one-way call – nobody picks up on the other end. But they just want to say their story and share something with the world.”
People spoke of loneliness and anger, their emotional distress at people dying without family present. There was nervous laughter, some clearly inebriated people and admissions of earthy desperation.
Some messages verged on the unwell.
One person claimed to have known the pandemic was coming, offering up a theory that involved police and a political conspiracy. And there was the guy who called again and again about a mysterious noise near his home. He seemed to think it was related to either a transit construction project or some sort of “secret government underground lair.”
However, it was not all fears, tears, confessions and paranoia. There was also hope, a sense of progress. Milestones were noted: a long-overdue haircut, meeting again with friends, an outing without a mask.
“It feels weird to be walking around with a bare face, but nice, you know,” said one man. “Oh God, like, I just, I can feel, I can taste, the end of this damn thing … just gotta hold on to my sanity and my responsible public health behaviour for a little bit longer and this thing really, really may end. Oh my gosh, yeah.”
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