When facing deadlines or events, people with anxiety tend to cope by either over-preparing for every possible scenario or expertly procrastinating. I’m the type of person who will wait to start a paper hours before it’s due, whereas my partner will immediately get to work on an assignment, fueled by anxious what-if scenarios that could prevent him from completing it early. I’m the friend who texts “on my way” when I’m still in bed; he’s the type to show up ten minutes early for coffee, because being on time is late. Both coping mechanisms have their advantages and disadvantages, but avoidance tends to cause anxiety and responsibilities to snowball, until a task as simple as folding laundry bears a crushing weight.
So as COVID concerns escalated in the U.S. and I suddenly found myself furloughed from my full-time retail job for two months, I was admittedly ecstatic. Sure, trying to pay rent and put food on the table during the seemingly endless month it took for my unemployment claim to go through was anxiety-inducing—but I can’t remember the last time my calendar wasn’t overloaded with deadlines and responsibilities. I felt free and the possibilities endless. I could restart old hobbies, perfect my Animal Crossing island, and finally read all the dust-covered novels that had been mocking me from my dresser. And I did, but I also still felt my social battery draining faster than an old iPhone. How was that even possible? The only people I was seeing on a daily basis were my partner and the cast of Community. Under normal circumstances, keeping up with digital communication sends me on the occasional offline bender; in quarantine, the heightened expectation of constant and instantaneous contact caused me to double down on toxic coping mechanisms, like avoidance.
I’ve always been a staunch procrastinator. I’m the not-so-proud owner of thousands of neglected emails, and I’ve certainly been known to let a message, or five, rot in voicemail purgatory for weeks on end. It was a string of abusive relationships, and a subsequent eye-opening acid trip, that ultimately brought my social evasion to a head, though.
For over a year—during my first serious relationship—my ex would constantly monitor my location and activities. I’d check my phone after a long shift at work, respond to a group text or comment on a mutual friend’s Instagram post, and instantly receive an angry message from my boyfriend about how I’d “ignored” his previous unsubstantial question about how my day was going. It wasn’t that I was ignoring him, it was that I would work through texts from most to least recently received, and didn’t have enough time to respond before being met with manipulation and gaslighting. A few months later, I found myself swept up in an intense but short-lived fling. Things were going well and seemed healthy—much to my relief in the wake of my previous relationship—but then the red flags started appearing. It would sometimes take days for me to get a response to a casual but time-sensitive invitation, despite this dude being seemingly invested in whatever our situation was. I found myself glued to my phone while hanging out with friends, at work, in class, and even at the gym. Sure, I was responding instantaneously to texts and emails, but at what cost?
My life continued in this digitally dependent way for months, even after he had completely ghosted me and spontaneously resurfaced for brief periods of time. At this point, not only was I in a severely unhealthy relationship with a person, I was entirely addicted to my phone. Thank god I had a supportive roommate-turned-best-friend, who wasn’t going to sit back and watch my quality of life deteriorate. One weekend, she decided we were going to take an acid trip, and I was going to lead us on our journey. I hadn’t had control over my life for nearly two years at that point, so being given the agency to make decisions—which included taking joy in not checking my phone a single time that day—was revolutionary. I will forever attribute that psychedelic afternoon as my coming-of-age.
And I have yet to really look back. Confidence, decision-making, and general anxiety are still issues I frequently struggle with, but I’m no longer addicted to my phone. This is overall a good thing—however, the scale has recently tipped the other way. I’m an extremely loyal person who cares deeply for her friends and family, but I’ve been difficult to get a hold of since the pandemic hit. I’ll leave a text unopened until I feel ready to respond, but I quickly find myself with over 40 messages sitting in my inbox. You would think the rapidly rising red icon on my iMessage app would cause me—an above-average organized person—distress, and it does, but my anxiety tells me to just ignore and avoid it. In turn, I end up spending roughly an hour on my days off typing “sorry for the delayed response” over and over—like an elementary school child being punished at a chalkboard.
I’ve found that so many people feel the same way, though. As we get older, our lives become increasingly complicated with careers, committed relationships, family deaths, etc.—and this year has been the crème de la crème of shitshows. In opening a dialogue with friends about mental health and the way it specifically manifests in my day-to-day, we’ve established a new, guilt-free system of communication: respond when you can. Texts are no longer prefaced with apologies; there’s an existing understanding that everyone is currently under immense stress and unprecedented circumstances. Yes, responding to time-sensitive questions or requests in a punctual manner is an important sign of respect, but practicing empathy is equally as essential. There are always countless other factors at play in people’s digital response times, which isn’t an excuse for abusive behavior, but should always be taken into account. So, if I’ve left you on read in quarantine, I genuinely promise it’s me and not you.
By Kristy Gilbault
Photo by Cathryn Virginia for Vice