According to Wikipedia, institutional syndrome is defined as: “deficits or disabilities in social and life skills, which develop after a person has spent a long period living in mental hospitals, prisons, or other remote institutions.”
Following the end of lockdown, I fear I may be suffering from something very similar. Because the shock of being back in the “normal” world is taking its toll. You would have thought that I would be happy to have rid myself of the constraints that isolation, and the frankly strangely exhausting modes of operation it had put on me. But that’s not the way it’s turned out. The period after re-entry has been difficult. Between you and me, I’m finding it hard to adjust. Living for the last three months in the remote location of my home, I think I’ve contracted a particular and new form of institutional syndrome: lockdownitis. And I fear you might have, as well. So as an aid to diagnosis, here’s a few questions to ask yourself, with some reflections on my experience. I’m a full-house, but if you score four or more, I’d put you down as a sufferer too.
1. Are you finding the physical presence of people overwhelming?
Are you finding the physical company of other human beings uncharacteristically hard to deal with? Are you forgetting how just to be among other people? Your space with your cohabiters has been all yours during lockdown. Now you have to deal with the discomfort of having other individuals who seem emotionally strange and distant in your vicinity.
When I went back into the B+A office, even with a small socially-distanced subset of my team with me, I realised I couldn’t get rid of the people on the other side of the room with a mouse-click or a pressed finger on my smartphone screen. These people, who for the last 11 weeks have been two-dimensional and small, were now three-dimensional, large and mobile. No longer tiny pixelated visitors to my working space at home, they had a high-definition presence as occupants of a space that I had to share with them. Even in this limited, somewhat comical way, it was clear that unbeknown to me, my time indoors had insidiously adjusted my ability to deal with some previously commonplace realities.
2. Do people “keep looking” at you?
Do people “keep looking” at you? Do you find yourself walking to your local shop and noticing that others seem to be staring at you? This is paranoia. Whilst Douglas Adams famously wrote that everyone in the universe suffers from it, that doesn’t make it any less debilitating. Paranoia is fed by long periods of isolation. When everyone is feeling it in a community, it starts to build, because you start to look at others in anticipation of them looking at you. Let’s call it “herd paranoia”. Researchers say that when we feel uncertain, we’re hard-wired to believe others are staring at us. And uncertainty is not in short supply.
3. Are you binging on the things you’ve missed?
I’ve been reliably told that after an arduous tour of duty, men and women in the armed forces are often sent by their superiors to a nearby island, with plenty of booze, drugs, space and time to wind down, before they’re sent home to their country of origin. When you’ve been denied something, you naturally tend towards excess when you have a chance to have it. So whether that thing’s shopping at NikeTown, or a liquid social lubricant, you can end up on a binge.
4. Have you narrowed your sources of information?
Have you become accustomed to getting most of your contact with the outside world through a computer screen? Or worse, do you get most of your news through social media? Algorithm-based social media give us more of what we have, and what advertisers believe we want to buy, but not often what we (badly) need. They prevent our worldview from being challenged. They consolidate our prejudices and our instincts by pushing us towards media sources that apparently prove their validity. This plays to our lockdown-induced paranoia and insecurity by making us feel safe and secure in what we already think. Mainstream or diverse media makes us uncomfortable and so we narrow the sources of information we get through the phone. And then those sources keep our worldview just as it is until we feel safe in a tiny intellectual box.
5. Have you lost transitional “dead time”?
Are you jumping between tasks and meetings that have barely anything to do with one another, without even a few minutes to process the one that came before? Are you kidding yourself that this makes you “efficient”, and attempting to carry it on even after lockdown? What you’re losing is that transitional “dead time”—which, in fact, is alive with value.
For the last months, I’ve leaped instantly from task to task to task. To be my best in each, I’d have to engage slightly differently – from a call with my business partner to one with a client scoping work, to one with a client delivering work, then one with the whole team, to one with a mentor, then one with a mentee. But I’ve learned to leap without the palette-cleansing, levelling gap of a physical trip from one to another. The boundaries between these different contexts would usually be given hard edges by the diversity of contact method, the distance or the time it takes to move from one meeting to another other. This variety and time give you the occasion both to mentally process what’s you’ve taken in, and time to prepare for your new context. Not so in lockdown.
Jumping seamlessly from call to call might look more “efficient”, but it also makes the boundaries shorter and fuzzier. And, as I’ve found, the fuzzier those boundaries became, the more nuance has got lost, and the less well I’ve been performing.
6. Has your work lost meaning?
Have you begun to ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing? After months separated from the people who make your work meaningful and purposeful, your work—if you’re one of the very lucky ones who has managed to stay in a job throughout this period—can start to seem arbitrary or even pointless. You get up, you open your computer, you speak to pixelated faces and type. The rich social world of the workplace, with all the people that light up your day and stimulate you, has been confined to a screen for so long that the reason you work suddenly doesn’t seem all that obvious.
How did you do? My bet is that many of you will be finding yourselves saying yes to these questions like I did. That points to our need to explore what we’ve inadvertently become dependent on, during lockdown. We need to give a bit more thought to how we live now, and to rebuild our connections, nurture our capacity for exploration and self-criticism and appreciate the value of nuance. Half-way houses (and even crazy binge islands) exist for a reason.
I’d back myself to beat it and I back you too, but go easy on yourself, and remember, like any dependency, the first step to recovery is admission that you suffer from the condition at all.