I’m locked in a rental suite in downtown Toronto and I won’t be coming out for 14 days – not to buy groceries or medicine or for a walk around the block (even with my hands in my pockets and a facemask on). And I’m a tad concerned I’m going to lose it.
I’m a freelancer and have been working from different cities in Spain for the past month. I arrived in Madrid in early March, unconcerned with the spread of COVID-19. To me, my mother’s increasingly frantic messages to, “Come home while you still can” reeked of paranoia. I rode in packed metro cars and ate shoulder to shoulder with locals in the city’s bars and restaurants.
And I watched with growing alarm as Madrid’s confirmed cases began to double almost daily (at the time of writing, they number in the thousands). The streets emptied. I heard chilling stories from friends in Italy of overwhelmed hospitals, doctors forced to choose who lived and died. I listened to the Spanish government beg its citizens to stop going out and watched as the hashtag #YoMeQuedoEnMiCasa (#ImStayingInMyHouse) trended nationwide.
Tomorrow, the police will go from restaurant to restaurant and bar to bar, until every establishment is closed. Drones broadcasting orders to stay inside will begin patrolling the skies. I departed from a nearly deserted Madrid Barajas airport and arrived in Toronto Pearson in mask and gloves – not to protect myself, but to protect others from me.
As the virus spreads around the globe, so does awareness that staying home is the responsible thing to do. I’ll spend at least the next two weeks alone and indoors, as will many of you. The sudden total isolation comes as a shock to many, as we scramble to adapt to a new, more solitary reality.
One person who’s neither shocked nor scrambling is futurist Faith Popcorn. The prolific marketing consultant and consumer forecaster says we’ve been trending toward this societal withdrawal into the home for almost four decades. Popcorn dubbed the behaviour “cocooning” in 1981 and says we’ve been at it ever since.
“In the beginning, cocooning was all about the fun and coziness of retreating into your home,” Popcorn says on the phone from New York. Her marketing consulting firm, BrainReserve, has been predicting consumer trends for major corporate clients such as Coca Cola (her advice: get into bottled water) and Kodak (she said go digital; they fired her) since the mid-1970s, and cocooning is her magnum opus.
Back then, Popcorn explains, cocooning was a choice we made to stay cuddled up at home, coddled in our Barcaloungers, watching Blade Runner on VHS. “Today, it’s serious and scary,” she says. “We are hiding out from a lethal virus that has provoked unimaginable anxiety in an already super stressed-out world. We are fighting for survival by sheltering in place.”
COVID-19 has made cocooning a new global reality, as governments and health organizations around the world beg us to stay home. It’s a darker, scarier cocooning, one that resembles survivalism and bunkering more than Netflix and chill.
Canadians are starting to heed the warnings. A March 1 study by marketing consultancy IMI International found that 66 per cent of Canadians intended to do out-of-home activities “much less” over the next three months. That number rose to 81 per cent when participants considered the next three years, indicating we intend to stay in long after this virus has run its course.
Beyond stocking the pantry and making a run on toilet paper (please stop), how can we prepare for this lifestyle shift?
Steve Joordens, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough, says that while it’s impossible to predict how each individual will react to isolation, it’s reasonable to expect some mental and emotional strain. “Our daily rituals and routines give structure to our lives,” he says. “When they’re taken away, we feel adrift.”
My quarantine is only two days old and already I’m not quite myself. My days lack definition. I feel slightly untethered.
Joordens says that maintaining a sense of routine and pattern is key. Get out of bed and get dressed. Create a dedicated place in your home for work. Try to stick to a schedule. Use newfound free time productively.
“Think of it as an opportunity to pursue something you’ve always wanted to learn,” Joordens says. He suggests taking an online course or learning a new musical instrument. “It’s important to feel you are still accomplishing something.”
Of course, it may be hard to practise the ukulele when you’re compulsively googling “Coronavirus Canada.” This is a pandemic, after all, and stress levels are running high. But while it’s important to stay informed, try not to obsess. Registered charity and resource centre Anxiety Canada suggests individuals limit the amount of COVID-19-related media they consume. Commit to checking only once or twice a day.
Joordens suggests meditating (there’s finally time!) to calm a spiralling brain. If you’re new to the practice, download an app that will guide you through relaxation techniques.
And if none of that is working, check in with friends for support. Yes, government-mandated cocooning means social isolation – we can’t get together for a beer or gather around the kitchen table for a catch-up. But it’s 2020, and everyone and their grandma has a smartphone with a video-calling app. Now is the time to reach out and speak with the people in your life. And don’t just text – call!
Since battening down the hatch, I’ve spent most of my time eating egg sandwiches and chatting with loved ones. I’ve spoken with friends I haven’t seen in years. My sister and mom suddenly check in daily, just to say hi.
And on every call or video chat, I feel an unspoken shared expectation that we’ve all got time to talk. We’re reaching out for comfort and reassurance, navigating this new terrain together from our little cocoons around the world.
I’ll be cocooning for as long as is necessary to flatten the curve and protect our most vulnerable (please do the same). And I’ll do the little things that make it bearable. I’ll shower every morning and try to change from sweats to jeans. I’ll practise my ukulele (sorry, neighbours) and moderate my egg sandwich consumption. I’ll meditate and try to suppress that nagging thought that I’m not allowed to go outside.
Who knows, maybe I’ll even get used to life in the cocoon. Popcorn believes that when the virus passes, we’ll opt to stay in, newly accustomed to the safety and protection our cocoons provide from an increasingly hostile world.
But I doubt it.
In the cocoon, we’re cut off from the things that make us alive – physical touch, live art, collective celebration, the possibility of the unexpected. My friends have been dropping off groceries at the end of the hallway with a wave. I wait until they get back in the elevator before walking over to pick them up. I look forward to giving someone a hug.
The Globe has five brand-new arts and lifestyle newsletters: Health & Wellness, Parenting & Relationships, Sightseer, Nestruck on Theatre and What to Watch. Sign up today.