Six people smiling at the camera, sitting in a theatre foyer.
Naomi and her cohorts in the Graeae 'Write to Play' (2017) disabled playwright programme: Jessica Lovett, Hannah Torrance, Michael Southern, Karran Collings, and Khush Chahal. Credit: Graeae

I once socially isolated for three years and all I got was this lousy PTSD

Writer Naomi Westerman has done the isolation thing before, and shares some thoughts on what it’s like to now find everyone else living in a world that’s already quite familiar to her… 

When I was told that my medical condition made me vulnerable and meant I shouldn’t go outside for 12 weeks, I did not handle it well. Memories of the three years I spent housebound overwhelmed me. I dyed my hair bright orange. I baked terrible loaf cakes. I picked a fight with the person whose hugs I miss most. I did no writing, for a long time. Then I did a lot of terrible writing. Then moderate amounts of okay writing. I spent too much time feeling bitter about not being invited to Zooms hosted by the same theatre cliques I’m not a part of in real life, and getting quietly angry at people complaining about having to wait an extra six months for their next West End play, while I was pretty certain I’d die or throw myself off my balcony.

(I was very, very pre-menstrual.)

I copped on to myself; this isn’t going to be a self-pitying rant. But it’s weird, isn’t it? Everything’s upside down. Being chronically ill and a major trauma survivor, I’ve spent my life feeling like a square peg in a round hole. Suddenly, it feels like all the round holes have been squared, and all the round pegs thrown into a bizarro land where the usual markers of success (work; career; social closeness; getting dressed and going outside on a regular basis) are bad, and the usual markers of failure (sitting in front of your laptop in pyjamas, basically) are good. Not just good – Saving Lives! Turns out my usual routine of pottering around taking naps and doing bits of writing/baking/Netflixing/reading and only leaving the house three times a week perfectly qualifies me for my new career as Person Literally Saving Lives by Staying Home. Fellow Spoonies, we have been training for this for years. We’ve got this.

Which isn’t to say it’s easy. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about privilege and ableism, solidarity and exclusion. On the one hand, societal or economic crises tend to hit disabled people especially hard. Many of my friends in the disabled or chronic illness communities are self-isolating or shielding, juggling financial and career worries with sheer terror of becoming unwell or dying. Crucial medical appointments and treatments have been cancelled across the country. Disabled people are 12% more likely to live below the poverty line, and with so many newly unemployed or vulnerable freelancers overloading an already struggling benefits system, how will the most vulnerable be affected?

On the other hand, the theatre industry (and many other industries and areas of daily life) has become a thousand times more accessible overnight. Home working and Zoom meetings have become the new norm. The theatre industry’s weird obsession with face-to-face connection has died, or at least hibernated. The “the show must go on” culture of intense self-sacrifice and workaholism has been replaced with an acknowledgement of the need for self-care. The benefits system no longer mandates in-person meetings; apparently, it’s okay to force a wheelchair user or person with terminal cancer to crawl into a waiting room, but not a potential COVID-19 carrier. Theatre screenings, meetings, workshops, and advice sessions are all moving online. Disabled artists have been fighting for this stuff for years. It’s not that I don’t like having greater accessibility, it’s just a bit of a shame it took a global pandemic to make literary managers realise it’s maybe not essential that they demand emerging writers take the day off work and spend four hours on a Megabus to London for a 30-second “coffee and quick chat to get to know you face to face.”

I see my friends and peers struggling to cope with their new isolation and the lack of structure, and I feel deep empathy. Coronavirus is proving the great equaliser. But despite all, I’m starting to thrive. The worst experiences of my life have given me the best resources to cope. I’ve crawled out of so many acting auditions after pushing myself far beyond my limits, and still been told I’m not committed enough. A few years ago, I needed exhausting medical treatment while finishing the second draft of a commission. In recognition, the company gave me an extension on my deadline. Of one week. I’ve watched my successful friends half kill themselves and seen their workaholism held up as admirable and to be emulated. It’s discombobulating that that the prevailing industry attitude has flipped overnight from, “We don’t care that you might have a terminal illness MEET YOUR F***ING DEADLINES,” to “don’t even try to work, focus on survival.” But in a nice way?

I’ve never really put much stock in motivational quotes, but it’s surprising how affected I’ve been by the outpouring of affirmative reassurances that it’s okay to give yourself a break and just try to survive during such traumatic times. I guess a lot of us have been surviving all this time and didn’t realise it.

On the other hand, these exhortations to self-care and rest are nullified by a gold rush of online content: a thousand “send us your best isolation monologues” contests, a thousand artists streaming their fringe shows. I have friends for whom writing is the only thing standing in the way of madness, and those who can’t even begin to think about writing right now. We all cope the best we can, but across the board I hear anxieties about this rush to embrace the quick hit of digital content, and what we lose in the process.

Maybe it’s still too soon to explore these anxieties. I woke up on Monday and did an online workout, baked a cake, checked my very active Facebook local (mainly offers of help, and cat photos), did some writing, attended a Zoom meeting with a literary agent, Housepartied with some playwright friends, then watched a livestream of a play I had tickets for but was too sick to attend. It felt amazing. I felt amazing. I woke up yesterday intending to write this article, and my body went, “nah bitch, you staying in bed today.” Some of us are still more equal than others. But it’s so much better.

For the first time I’m actually doing all those things people who are housebound are supposed to do. I’m getting up and getting dressed every day. I’m writing schedules for myself; trying to enforce structure onto a structureless void. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s so much easier knowing that everyone else is doing it too. I guess that’s the definition of being marginalised, the knowledge that most people aren’t like you. Now everyone is, and I hope it’s not churlish to take a bittersweet comfort from that. I wish I had more advice to give. All I can say is that we’re all in this together, and this time we have alcohol and the Internet. We’re isolated, but not alone.