A girl locked in a room — quarantined from even her own family with nothing but a cockatoo for company — sounds like the plot of some knock-off Harry Potter book, but that’s exactly where I found myself after coming home from hotspot-New Orleans in the midst of the pandemic-induced global shutdown.
The fever and cough hit me two days after my return to my parents’ house in Philadelphia. From the isolation of my bedroom and a taped-off square in the living room (complete with a makeshift cardboard box table) I began to see the effects of what the internet (and my dad) have started calling “Schrodinger’s Virus.”
For people like me, symptomatic but only at the level of, say, a bad flu, the virus became like the famous thought experiment of Erwin Schrodinger, who theorized that a cat in a sealed box, with an even probability of being dead or alive, is both dead and alive to anyone outside the box.
In Pennsylvania, coronavirus testing requires an in-person doctor’s visit. Even then, it is only available to people for whom treatment would change as a result of a diagnosis (those with preexisting conditions, the elderly, etc.).
I was the sealed box, and the COVID-cat either existed or did not exist within me. For me and many others, safety precautions were seen through the lens of the dead and alive virus. I did not go out to get tested, as the potential exposure to the virus if I didn’t already have it was not worth the risk.
Alternately, I assumed I did have the virus when it came to measures of quarantine, avoiding touching doorknobs or dishes, disinfecting everything around me, and (unfortunately) going without a hug for over a month.
Because of my firsthand experience with the virus, I cannot say my time in quarantine mirrored that of those around me. However, the psychological effects of isolation abetted by 24/7 media broke through the barriers around me that my healthy family could not cross.
Looking back now on the articles that I was sent by everyone who I’d ever known, about everything from DIY ventilator instructions to which crystals emit the right energy to help me battle the virus, it’s clear that the diffusion of information about the pandemic has been flawed in many ways, and not all ways that can be changed.
As new information emerges about the pandemic, reports from weeks, days, or just hours before are suddenly rendered entirely useless and incorrect. As a result, reading the constantly changing cyclone of information can be exhausting and stressful, which is one of the reasons scientists at the Journal of Psychiatry have revealed a 16-28 percent increase in symptoms of anxiety and depression since quarantine began, and an average of 55 percent on an anxiety scoring test for those who have been in quarantine for at least 14 days
I spoke with clinical psychologist Deborah Blumenthal about the mental health effects of this epidemic. Dr. Blumenthal specializes in anxiety disorders, and has worked through Tele-health with patients experiencing anxiety, depression, and trauma since the pandemic began. She has noticed many similarities between patients in the past month.
“For patients who were doing well before the quarantine, especially with depression and agoraphobia, quarantine is reversing progress,” Dr. Blumenthal explains. Much of her work involves helping people develop habits of getting out of bed and leaving the house, and the irony of this quarantine has not escaped her.
“Staying home is suddenly more healthy, but a lifestyle that those with depression have fought against,” she says, adding that the virus has added yet another stressor for her patients, especially those who were already in crisis before the pandemic.
Dr. Blumenthal recommends that everyone, not just those with acute anxiety, limit information intake, especially repetition of the same information, which serves only to increase fear. She also suggests that TV can be far more sensationalized, and therefore has a tendency to induce anxiety more so than reading.
“For my patients,” she says, “I prescribe one meal and one snack of news per day.” To elaborate, Dr. Blumenthal advises that people limit themselves to one 30 minute show, podcast, or reading break per day, as well as a singular, short check-in to social media or a news site.
On a more positive note, for people living with anxiety disorders, the world often feels much more dangerous than it really is, and as a result, Dr. Blumenthal explains that a lot of her patients are actually better equipped to deal with the pandemic.
“A lot of anxiety patients are handling this quite well, safety precautions are things they already feel comfortable doing,” she reveals. Dr. Blumenthal tells me that for many of her patients of depression, who feel isolated or alone in life, the pandemic has opened up opportunities to connect with others online, and has reestablished communication with family and friends.
Although this virus has negatively impacted a lot of people throughout its course, psychologists are seeing impacts on culture as a result of the pandemic that emphasizes connection through non-physical means, and has given many people opportunities to branch out in other areas from the safety of home.
As long as we as a community remember that we are all in this together, and everyone experiencing physical as well as psychological effects of this pandemic should be supported (from a safe distance), we have the ability to make it through this and even gain a new respect for the importance of connection. Though we may each be in our own separate Schrodinger’s boxes, we have the opportunity to help each other eliminate uncertainty and increase all of our chances for getting through this time.
This piece was completely for the class “Environmental Journalism,” which is taught by Ned Randolph at Tulane University.