You know how most people kept saying that nothing in the world could have prepared them for the unprecedented chaos of covid-19? I was not one of those people. Born with fear and anxiety in my blood, I had always learned to expect the worst. And because I always like to be prepared, I do my extensive research beforehand, I dig into the past, I try to see what history can teach me about today.
This is why as soon as I got wind of a little virus creeping into the everyday news cycle, I knew what to do. By then, I’d read about the Spanish Flu and watched hours-long videos on the effects of pandemics and the global responses that followed. I listened to historians give speeches about the devastating after-effects. I knew about the death and destruction one little viral disease could bring about. And I knew, for a fact, in my heart, that this virus wasn’t just going to “go away” in 2 or 3 weeks. I knew I had to quarantine quickly. I was, after all, all alone in a strange city, away from all my family and loved ones. If something happened to me, there would be no one to help or even know. I lived alone.
So I confined myself to my apartment very early on, even before the word “quarantine” became a popular word, before it became very widely used. It was mid-February, and I had decided that I was not leaving my apartment ever again. No, sir. Maybe not until August! When I told my therapist I wanted our sessions to be virtual from now on, she agreed. So we kept doing our weekly sessions online, where she began to witness the strangest reaction to a global pandemic anyone ever could.
Because you see, the problem I faced when the initial shock and fear and panic attacks and thoughts of mass death wore out was not that I was starting to get lonely. Quite the opposite, really. The problem after the first month of total isolation was that I was beginning to love it. And I didn’t want it to end. Being completely alone was making me the happiest I think I’d ever been. And worried, I began to ponder what that really said about me, as someone who defined herself by her love of her people and who craved human connection and intimacy deeply. But I shoved those dark thoughts and all that doubt aside.
I remember very vividly a moment about 3 months into the pandemic where I ashamedly confessed to my therapist that “I think I might be… thriving?” And I was. I had created my own daily routine and my own little world and I was beginning to love every single second of it. I was free of others’ expectations and demands, and free from having to be in public and be perceived by other people. I was free to find out who I really was. And boy, what a shock it was when I found out who that was.
I would wake up every morning at 7 am, open my big french windows to let the sun in (I had direct sunlight through my windows from about 7.30 am until 10.30 am), position my chair right in front of it, and bask in the sunlight. I would usually sit there in a swimsuit just so I can feel the sun directly hit my skin. My music played in the background and I would sing along, drink my coffee, and take in the sun’s kisses. It felt euphoric. I loved watching the empty streets. Catching glimpses of my neighbors who – in the spirit of covid-19 solidarity – would smile and wave at me. Sometimes I’d opt for a towel on the floor in front of the window and trick myself into thinking I was on the beach (which turned out to be better than the beach, because I hate the beach, because ew! sand! and because I’m terrified of open water). I’d read some poetry and have long calls with my loved ones where we’d update one another on our new covid lives.
What also happened during those basking-in-the-sun moments was that I allowed myself to face my physical body for the first time, too. Across from the chair I would usually lounge on was the open window, which reflected my body back to me with alarming precision. During the hours I would sit there in the sun, my body stared back at me aggressively. There was no other way to position the window door, this was the only way it could be left open to let the sun in. So I’d have to sit there, hours on end, enjoying the sun on my skin, and trying to avoid looking away from the window door that had now turned into a mirror.
I stared at my big belly, the one I grew up hating, the same one everyone around me taught me to hate – the same one some people claimed didn’t even exist! -, and fell in love with the way the sun was reflecting off of it. I’d squeeze it and make it into funny shapes and let it wiggle and giggle. I stared at my “thunder thighs” and instead of thinking I wish they would go away, I found myself caressing them with love. I’d never noticed that my thighs were so incredibly soft! My big forearms no longer bothered me. I felt the power they held. I’d always had freakish upper-body strength and the bigness of my arms reminded me of that gift. My developing double-chin made me feel cute and laugh roaringly every time I opened my phone’s front camera by mistake. Even my flat ass was suddenly adorable to me, as were my big hips and love handles. I was falling in love with my body. Or rather, I was unlearning all the hate I was taught to give it. I remember distinctly saying to my therapist something along the lines of:
“If this was all an experiment on how being around people can negatively affect body image, the results would be very conclusive. I’ve never felt better about my own fat body than I do now, in total isolation. Around other people all I can do is hate it.”
When the sun moved away from my window, I’d take to the couch and watch TV shows. I’m something of a TV show enthusiast, so I filled my days with dramas and comedies and psychological thrillers and sci-fi and every single thing that interested me. I’d eat on my own time, but I always made sure I was well-fed enough to stave off an IBS attack. My stomach explodes when I starve it, so I try to remember to feed it lest it unleashes its anger on me.
Other quarantine activities included long video calls with my loved ones. It was their love and care and attention that kept me grounded. They made sure I never felt lonely. They made sure I never felt too far. There was also therapy once a week every week, where I’d update my lovely therapist on how well I was doing. If she was surprised, she feigned it well. And she provided me with support and validation and reassurance I could not have survived without.
Around 10 pm usually I’d go to bed. Nothing left to do with my day. And then I’d wake up tomorrow and do it all again, in the exact same order. It was bliss. It was quiet. It was heavenly. I was thriving.I was happy. I was happy?! And despite my mother’s pleas, I decided to stick it out all alone in Barcelona until August as I originally intended. She worried, but I convinced her it was the right thing for me. So she let up, scared and anxious as she was. I loved her for that.
One blissful July day, I turned on Netflix and found that my favorite comedian had a new show. “Douglas” by Hannah Gadsby had just been released, and I was filled with excitement to see what she had to say now. Her “Nanette” had changed my life two years ago. And her particular brand of humor was exactly my cup of tea (Hannah Gasdby fans, get it?!).
What I didn’t know was that “Douglas” was essentially a show about Gadsby’s autism.
What I didn’t know was that she was about to plant the autism realization seed in me.
So right after I watched the show – the show where a woman who I related to and felt a kinship with, a woman who mirrored me and my experience in more ways than one, described her late-diagnosis of autism, I was shaken. This was a woman who, like me, could get up on stage, charm hundreds of people, who had a fantastic sense of humor and a passion for truth-telling. And she was autistic. I didn’t think people like her (or me) could be autistic and be able to do all that.
So I went online and took an Autism test – which said “high probability of autism”. I didn’t know what to do with that information. Plus, who would believe me?
I put my phone away in shock and disbelief, and I didn’t talk about (my own or otherwise) Autism again for almost 2 years.