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Getting out of the gilded cage

Remove your mask.” The immigration officer at Naia ordered. My heart sank at the request, yet there was also no turning back. It was January 2022, the height of global omicron, and I had just spent 15 neurotic minutes on the way to the airport creating the “perfect seal” for my medical grade N95 mask by adjusting the two head straps over and over until I was sure my glasses no longer fogged. Before the officer could grow impatient, I took an almost comically long deep breath—and thought back as to why I was in this virus death trap in the first place.

I have never gotten COVID and yet it has, nevertheless, taken so much of what I am. When the government told me to stay put, I stayed put and never left within 15 kilometers from my home in Makati for two years. When science told me we needed to wear masks, get vaccinated, get vaccinated again, and that it is good practice never to mix households, I followed science to the letter. Those were difficult times and as a responsible adult, I had to strictly follow the rules, even if it meant not being able to hug my girlfriend for more than a year, exchange laughter and drinks with my best friends, or travel to see my newly born niece in the States. All of these things can wait, I told myself over and over. And for a very long time that was enough for me—until it wasn’t. I had become so obsessed with keeping COVID away that I ended up keeping everyone and everything away. Self-imposed exile eventually breeds its own mental cancers.

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“I can last longer than you.” I jokingly told my best friend and my girlfriend early on during the pandemic. They, like most of my close friends, are the quintessential definition of extroverts. They derive their energy and inspiration from life by interacting with others, not from Zoom but through real-life conversations, which always involve the risk of breathing in toxins. I, on the other hand, just need good books or a great computer, and I can get lost for months—maybe even years without ever needing to expose myself to the questionable air outside my home. There were entire weeks in which I never left my home, and the mere presence of a single outsider four meters away from me gave me the creeps, even if they were a friend.

Instead of missing a normal life I couldn’t have, I placed all my energy into curating the perfect work from home desk setup for the next two years. My brother and I are lawyers posing as tech YouTubers and own a boutique computer store, and so I had faith in the power of gadgets to keep me distracted, and it worked for the most part. Funds I usually earmarked for dates, travel, and outings with friends were instead funneled into building a massive but beautiful mahogany desk, two 36-inch, ultra-wide monitors, a powerful desktop PC, and smart lights all around my room, which project a range of rainbow colors automatically set to go on and off at specific times during the day.

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What I remember hating the most midway through the pandemic was not COVID but receiving unsolicited advice from a friend that it wasn’t healthy for me to not interact with people. And that, eventually, it will take a toll on the relationships that matter to me most. He prophesied that it would come to me on one lonely day while scanning my Instagram feed where photos of complete families and happy couples holding hands will finally make me ask myself “bakit sila?”

That day finally came 21 months into the pandemic when I looked at my masterpiece of a workstation and realized it was nothing more than a glorified professional PlayStation, which I used to distract myself with like a child. I was not living a life of experiences, instead I was busy hiding and having a relationship with the gilded cage I created. Mentally, I felt as though I had waded happily into the ocean from the beach in March 2020 and suddenly woke up terrified in January 2022 within a violent storm while stranded in the water with no shore in sight. It is easy to avoid the danger of a car coming right at us, yet difficult to tell when seemingly harmless long periods of isolation stealthily and slowly erode our mental health until, one day, we realize we are no longer well. I felt trapped in both a physical and mental prison, and the biggest irony was that I was my own prisoner and guard.

“Welcome to the nation’s capital.” My flight attendant announced, interrupting my reflection, as we landed in Washington, DC. Two weeks later, I would arrive in Singapore and three weeks after that, I arrived back at the same place I worked so hard to leave. After having spent a month with family, coming back to my isolation made me feel as though I had returned not to my prison, but instead feels like I have finally come home. I learned the hard way that investing in “stuff” while ignoring the human necessity to cultivate relationships with loved ones has consequences that are not always readily apparent. Life is too short to spend an indefinite amount of time hiding, even when it is the practical thing to do. In the end, we are all victims of COVID, some more so than others, and it is up to us to take care of ourselves, as well as those who have forgotten that they need to do the same for themselves.

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Rafael Lorenzo G. Conejos, 33, is a lawyer, YouTuber, and part- owner of Hardware Sugar, a boutique computer shop in Makati.

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