coronavirus self-isolation

Villain of the Month: Remember, your cohabitants are not the enemy

Flatmates or family, Stuart Heritage offers his advice for taking the pressure out of self-isolation

Over the last few days and weeks, we’ve watched with mounting dread as the coronavirus forecasts keep stretching out before us. First there was talk of only staying at home for a week. Then it was a fortnight. We’ve been told this might last for months. We’ve been told that it might last until Christmas. We’ve been told that the country might remain on permanent outbreak status until a vaccine is discovered. That might be a year or more away. So, for the sake of our wellbeing, the best thing any of us can do right now is settle in for the long haul.

Does this mean that the coronavirus is going to be named as villain of the month? Not quite, because it’s much more likely that the villains this month are going to be the people you live with.

Because there’s no getting away from them now. All your petty gripes, all the tiny things that wind you up about your cohabitants, all the unsaid resentments that you’ve barely managed to keep in check are a maximum of three weeks away from exploding in a shower of regret. The world has suddenly become lots and lots of little pressure cookers; millions of Big Brother houses just waiting for a Diary Room meltdown.

coronavirus family
Try to remember family time is precious

We’ll start with my situation and then work out from there. I’m a married father of two, and my children are right at the age – five and two – where every waking moment is filled with requests. “Can I have a snack?” “Can we watch Dumbo?” “Can you be the voice of Tails while I narrate this Sonic 2 YouTube walkthrough, even though my younger brother wants to be Tails and this simple request is making him throw a tantrum?” “Can you tell me how I was made? Was I a skeleton that everyone put meat on until I was me?” On and on and on it goes, without end, around the clock. It’s exhausting.

I’m trying to put a happy face on things. After all, they are the people I love most in the entire world, and time with them is more precious than any other resource. There’s a good chance that, when this is over, I’ll be able to look back and see it as an extraordinary act of bonding that we will all cherish forever. But then I think back to the Christmas holidays, when all the screaming and mess and fighting nearly gave me a heart attack, and I worry about how I’ll cope.

But it could be worse. I live with my family. I live with one person I chose and two people I made. Had this happened seven or eight years ago, when I lived in a flat with three comparative strangers, this lockdown would have driven me to the brink of despair. Because at least families have some semblance of order. At least there’s a workable hierarchy in place. Houseshares are a free for all.

coronavirus fight
Be patient with your flat mates' 'quirks'

As soon as the term ‘self-isolation’ entered the lexicon, I immediately started flicking through my rolodex of old housemates to try and find someone – anyone – who I could stand to be with for 24 hours a day for three months. The guy who shaved his entire beard off into the sink and didn’t rinse it out? The guy who forgot his keys, got drunk, smashed a window to let himself in and didn’t tell anyone until after the police had been called? The guy whose biggest hobby was taking ketamine and then watching QI at top volume? The guy who talked five percent more than he really needed to? They all drove me potty back when I was allowed out of the house. God knows what I would have done if I’d been trapped inside with them.

And those were all surface flaws. But the close proximity of self-isolation seems precision designed to draw out brand new irritants. Noisy breathing. Open-mouthed eating. Empty milk bottles being returned to the fridge. If we’re not careful, these previously harmless personality quirks are going to expand and balloon and obsess us to the point of actual hatred. I guarantee you, friendships will end under self-isolation. Relationships will dissolve. The divorce rate is going to spike like nothing you’ve ever seen once we can go outside again.

But all is not lost. Take it from me. My wife and I are both work-from-home writers, so we’ve spent a decade living permanently on top of each other without boundary every day and night. Sure, it felt a little suffocating at first, but I can assure you that there are plenty of ways to make the best of the situation. Try to work together for the good of the house. Divide all the tasks fairly between you. And, for god’s sake, make sure you keep some time aside just for you. After all, these people are all you’ve got for the foreseeable future. It’s only sensible to try and make it as bearable for everyone as possible. Stay safe everyone.

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