COVID-19 SPECIAL

Mind on a loop while on leave at home

I became obsessed with making a nice hamburger when clearing leave during the circuit breaker

It is day five of my leave at home and all my onions are rotten.

It's weird. They are only a few days old. But when I cut into each one, underneath a few firm outer layers, there is a mushy core that smells like old socks.

All day, I have yearned for a hamburger. Instead of whole rings, it shall be garnished with salvaged shards.

Supply chain issues? Poorer quality control? For whatever reason, these pandemic onions are bad.

In normal times, this would be trivial, but now that I am home all day, stinky onions hit me like a world-ending disaster.

Months into working from home and now a week into "vacation" time - with no work to burn up mental energy and no travel to occupy my attention - my brain has rewired itself into a drama-seeking guided missile.

I cry at dumb TikTok videos of babies and find fresh loathing for people I have not seen since secondary school.

I stare at the back of the GrabFood guy who cut me off on the pavement and picture ways to track him down and end him.

Taking leave at a time when one is mostly trapped at home is like eating a green salad - it's not something you do because you want to.

For administrative reasons - and also because the closure of cinemas has left me with not much new material to review - I take a two-week circuit breaker break.

This is not a lockdown, quarantine or solitary confinement. I am free to go out for exercise or food. But I don't feel like going out on shopping runs, or for anything else, unless I


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

have to. Not even to find good onions.

Over time – especially since February when I started working from home – I’ve grown into isolation like a second skin and shedding it even for a few minutes makes me feel uncomfortable. I don’t think I am alone.

Over time - especially since February when I started working from home - I've grown into isolation like a second skin and shedding it even for a few minutes makes me feel uncomfortable.

I don't think I am alone. There is a swarm of food delivery people around my area now, more than before.

Surely there cannot be that many people using them because they are living with vulnerable groups or serving stay-home notices.

It is because like me - perhaps even more so, since I actually leave home, reluctantly, once a day - people are coming to love that hikikomori (reclusive) life.

Before I headed into the break-within-a-break, I made a list of things to do.

Trouble was, by the time the leave ended last week, the list was still growing and mostly not checked off.

My relationship with the to-do list is like that of United States President Donald Trump and the book he claims to love, the Bible. I like what it represents - just don't ask me what it says or if I've done anything it wants me to do.

Two tasks I had been putting off forever - cleaning my flat and degreasing my bicycle - were done, but that was about it.

The two weeks passed in a haze of dreaming about food, eating it and trying to make a good hamburger - or at least one that didn't smell like wet socks.

A few years ago, I spent 10 days at a silent retreat, practising meditation. The habit didn't take.

But it did let me know that the scenery inside my head consists of the same words and images played on an endless loop like one of those 10-hour YouTube videos "for studying and relaxation" - except mine is more like "for shredding self-esteem and sharpening anxiety".

But I did learn to know when a loop was playing. Making the needle jump the well-worn groove is a skill I am still working on.

Maybe the obsession with getting a pretty burger is just my mind latching onto something to save itself from being devoured by itself. It probably is.

Like a gambling addict who cures himself by turning to religion, I have replaced one fixation with another.

Will I be able to fix that? It depends on how long we will all have to stay home.

The pandemic is not going away for a while and I have many weeks of leave left to clear - as will many of you, I expect.

Let us hope that when it is your turn to clear leave at home, your onions are everything you expect them to be.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 24, 2020, with the headline 'Mind on a loop while on leave at home'. Print Edition | Subscribe