A million minutes ago

On the morning of 11 March 2020, I took the train in to London. I disembarked at Waterloo, walked across the Hungerford Bridge, crossed Trafalgar Square and opened the door to the Institute of Directors. It was a trip I had made dozens of times before.

On that particular morning I knew that things were changing. Sitting in the beautiful Georgian room beneath the larger-than-life portrait of Earl Grey, I realized I wouldn’t be back anytime soon. That evening I hosted a women’s event at my house. I wondered: Should I cancel? Following early advice of a friend in the NHS, I asked everyone who arrived to use hand gel. They seemed confused.

The following morning — 12 March 2020 — I stopped living a normal life and started my retreat into the tiny space that has become my world. I moved my in-person work meetings online and cancelled my trips abroad. Richard went out to search the emptying supermarket shelves for flour, eggs, toilet paper. We talked about face masks and struggled to set up online delivery. We realised that we couldn’t practically distance from each other in the house if I was going to stay well, and Rich and Maddie needed to be careful too. It was then we started thinking through what it would really mean to shield.

Our neighbours started a rota to deliver us medicine and food. We reached out to friends for necessities. We tried to prepare for the unknown. Ten days later, the British government announced a national lockdown and the formal shielding program began.

For me, this started with a text message:

“NHS Coronavirus Service: We have identified that you’re someone at risk of severe illness if you catch Coronavirus. Please remain at home for a minimum of 12 weeks. Home is the safest place for you. Staying in helps you stay well and that will help the NHS too. You can open a window but do not leave your home, and stay 3 steps away from others indoors. Wash your hands more often, for at least 20 seconds. Read more advice about staying safe at home.https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus-extremely-vulnerable-guidanceWe will send you more messages with information. To opt out reply STOP“

I called my rheumatologist asking if I could carry on running. Societally we didn’t know enough so he made some educated guesses: Yes. It’s important for your mental health and lupus management. Go early, avoid people, touch nothing. I called Richard sobbing from my run the next day as the government discussed the pros and cons of herd immunity.

It’s hard to describe what it feels like to shield for this long. It’s impossible to summarise the things I miss. I have amazing friends but as the weeks pass I have less and less in common with them and the world in which they live. They ask me empathetically about my life in one breath while asking if I bought something at Costco in the next. I have to remind them I haven’t stepped foot in a retail store in over a year. They drink their Costas on the other end of FaceTime as they share the struggles they have booking foreign holidays. They cancel our Zoom calls for their dinner parties, pedicure appointments and work trips. I Like their Instagram photos by the pool in Greece and their Facebook posts, showing them huddled around a table during a busy night out in town. The jealousy I feel is both natural and unreasonable.

They care. They send cards. I am grateful. They call, ask me what I’m up to. I panic. Uh – Mosaics? Art? Running? We’ve covered those topics countless times before. Even I’m bored of them.

They ask me about how this all ends. I wish I knew how to answer. I feel small as the call finishes. They love me but don’t know how to deal with my situation. I don’t blame them. I don’t either.

I have watched minutes become days and months become years. I have watched my hair grow and wrinkles line my face and sat at a distance as my friends and family moved farther and farther away. And I don’t know how to get back home.

So we start year three. I dream of spa visits and theatre performances. Dinners in a restaurant and nights out with friends. Flights to foreign cities, shopping and hugs. And I long for a day when I no longer feel desperate for the touch of a hand.

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