A few days ago we attended a webinar given by a supposedly academic expert in Mental Health on the psychological consequences of forced social isolation. After an initial good exposure of expected consequences of loneliness and isolation in human beings, the presenter started to wallow in a sea of unbelievably banal platitudes, which were tagged by a cohort of naive attendees asking inconsequential questions. Right away we knew that she did not a have a clue about the effects of this kind of brutally enforced isolation.
For all the countless diplomas held by both the speaker and the attendees, they were evidently lacking the most important one to guarantee the expertise for this subject. Not a single one of them attended the tough course work of the University of Life. Not a single one of them was summarily given a crash course on isolation: jailtime.
In the seventies, the brutal military dictatorships of Uruguay and Argentina (where we were studying our medical career at the time) did not have any efficient methods to verify the identity and criminal records of anyone they stopped in the street during their frequent fascist “razzias” [i] to detect the presence of leftist political activists. When the officer in charge of the platoon decided that you could be a suspect, you had to silently comply with the arrest order and ended up in a police station, waiting for their request for records to go through the official channels. Without any protest.
In one of those “passes”, an ageing pickpocket who was a regular of that jail told us:
-“Listen, young man…I don’t know how long they are going to keep you here. Most likely just a few days and then they’ll let you go. But, just in case, you have to learn and use the two basic principles of survival in jail. It’s mandatory here—”
-“Oh, yeah,” we replied with a touch of sarcasm. “What are they?”
-“The first one is to always keep track of time, with any possible means. If you do not have any idea of what day of the week and what hour of the day you are living, you will progressively deteriorate…Seen too many guys like you going downhill.”
-“And the other one?”
-“Follow the leaders’ instructions and respect the discipline inside a jail…It’s the only way to survive without any lasting mental or physical consequences…Got it?”
-“Yeah…I guess so…”
-“Good. Grab this,” he said, handing us a broom.” “Last arrival, sweeps the floor.”
The two basic survival techniques in a situation of extreme forced isolation are:
- Safeguard your circadian rhythm at all times
- Adhere to a strict discipline of basic social and personal tasks
A – Safeguard your circadian rhythm at all times
An extreme situation of forced isolation from the rest of society will bring extreme anxiety and ultimately depression to any but trained soldiers or hardened criminals. One of the first things that happens is that, almost immobilized in a very limited space where the normal parameters of life vanish, you start losing the sense of Time. Slowly you lose track of the hours or the period of the day; if you spend more than a few days of seclusion in a closed space, you will start losing the sense of Seasons.
The multiple sensorial stimuli that our body receptors catch during a normal day will suddenly disappear or at least significantly diminish during a forced isolation. We will no longer feel the blinding effect of the early dawn Sun coming from the East. We will no longer smell the enticing aroma of a delicious dish signaling it is noon. We will no longer see the sudden rush of people in the street marking rush hour time.
Like a mechanical grandfatherly clock that, in spite of all its majestic presence, needs the regular clanking of a little winding knob in the back to keep working, our internal biological clock needs those stimuli to regulate our bodily functions properly. We all have our routine eating, grooming and sleeping schedules that suit our needs. When you are in jail, you might spend too much time sleeping or lounging in bed. Not in a mood to appreciate the little pleasures of life, you start to skip many meals. Resentful of your sort and disdain courtesy for others, you use the bathroom at will.
The first order of the day should be to wake up at a reasonable time during daytime; if you are used to working or studying at night, then you can revert the directive. The second order of the day should be to fill your day with meaningful tasks that are useful for yourself and the individuals that are sharing the compulsory confinement. The third order of the day is to always find a glimmer of sunshine or outside light. Even with a minor stimulus of the temperature and vision receptors, our hormonal system (with the Hypophysis directing the responses) will better regulate our bodily functions.
One of the most annoying side effects of this isolation is an unrelenting constipation. You must sit down at the toilet regularly, even though you might not feel the need. If the organic waste materials, which will continue to be produced even with a more meager amount of food intake, keep accumulating in our bodies, they will poison us.
B – Strict discipline for basic Personal ad Social tasks
One of the most disseminated misconceptions in popular lore is that prisons are a place of constant chaos, of unbridled lawlessness, of unchecked release of passion. On the contrary. The best run prisons are steered with a firm hand accepted by all. The only way to have a semblance of functionality with so many people with different interests in such a limited space is to prod everybody—prisoners, guards and administrative cadres—to respect the basic rules of a peaceful co-existence.
When one of your companions with a higher hierarchical role in your organization is also confined with you, you will naturally follow the informal power structure. One of the more memorable film scenes happens when the British Army survivors of the Fall of Singapore[ii], after a tough trek through malaria-infested territory , march in formation into the prisoners’ jungle camp, led by a solemn Alec Guinness playing their top officer, whistling the tune of The bridge in the River Kwai.[iii] Simply Stupendous.
First of all , you must respect the general guidelines, which in our case are enforced by the police and first-responders’ personnel who are bravely exposing themselves in the line of duty. Then come the particular guidelines of where you reside, which are related to the basic sanitary and safety measures of buildings, apartments, neighborhoods, etc. Finally you have to consider the personal guidelines for all those living under the same roof, i.e. your parents, your spouse, your children, your guests, your personnel, etc.
If you only have one bathroom, you cannot spend an hour singing in the shower. If there is a communal sharing of the kitchen, you must always clean up after yourself. If there is a pet in the house, you must take turns to clean it, to exercise it, etc. If there are children, you must consider their critical need for distraction with games, TV, etc. If you like to smoke, you must go out in the patio to avoid the secondary smoking damage to others. If you like to listen to music, you must lower the volume, especially at nighttime.
If you follow all the basic rules of co-existence, you will have the peace of mind to sit down in a comfortable setting to then read, study, write, work at a distance, etc. The methodical practice of studying and writing at home for many years already has prepared us to rather smoothly transition our lifestyle into this forced social isolation. Our son Gian Luca, a student at Florida State University, is sharing this ordeal with us and we are carrying our professional and academic tasks with a certain panache.
Gian Luca just told us that Stanley Kubrick, the famous cinematographer that loved Vincent van Gogh’s paintings, used the remembrance of the tableau that serves as our featured image to design a scene in A Clockwork’s Orange where the inmates of a juvenile detention center walk around in a small circle of the prison yard, surrounded by tall brick walls and under the attentive eye of the armed guard. Moreover in another one of his films, one of the lead characters offered a book about van Gogh as a gift. Even though we did see the film many, many years ago, we could not remember that scene. But the keen filmmaker’s eye of Gian Luca has stored thousands of images in his brain. The close interaction with our dear son in this forced isolation. A little heavenly perk.
As François Macron, the President of France, just said addressing the French Nation:
On doit se réinventer, moi le premier [iv]
Stay distant. Stay safe. Stay beautiful.
(This article is based in our upcoming new book Emotional Frustration – the hushed plague)
What do you think ? Please tell us.
Don’t leave me alone.
[i] Term in Italian that refers to the sweeping incursions of the police and military in their enemy’s territory, searching for opposition activists. The military dictatorships considered the civilian population of both countries largely as “their enemies.”
[ii] In the beginning of World War II, the British Army considered that their bastion of Singapore could not fall to the Japanese Army as high caliber artillery was arraigned against the sea entrance lanes and the British Navy patrolled them round the clock. But the Japanese marched down through Malaysia and swiftly approached the city from behind, where it was less powerfully defended.
[iv] Sentence taken from President François Macron’s address to the French nation we listened through Radio France Inter on April 13, 2020.