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Op-Ed: I found shelter from coronavirus and loneliness in a halfway house

An illustration of socially distanced lawn chairs.
(Los Angeles Times; Getty)

We often pack the living room to watch a movie. We sit shoulder to shoulder for morning meditation. Most of us sleep two to a room. Some us worry about it all, but most of us don’t. We might make a nervous joke when someone coughs. But no one really wants to make it an issue. We even went to get tested for COVID-19 together.

This is communal living in the time of coronavirus.

Allow me to rewind. In February, before the great quarantine commenced, I went to live in a sober house in Houston. (When I want it to sound respectable, I say “sober house.” When I want pity, I say “halfway house.”) I’d spent most of the previous year having a nervous breakdown after my girlfriend was diagnosed with a terminal brain disease and I was laid off from my job of 23 years as a cultural critic at the Dallas Morning News.

In short, the universe broke me. My doctors demanded that I not live alone upon my discharge from treatment for suicidal depression. I readily agreed. And so, the sober/halfway house.

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One thing was immediately clear: I wouldn’t be living alone. We’ve had anywhere from 10 to 15 clients since I moved in. Even in our sprawling Victorian it can get a little crowded. We’ve hunkered down and donned our masks, like so much of the outside world. There just happen to be a whole lot of us under one roof. And for that, I am deeply thankful.

Yes, if one of us drags COVID-19 into the house, it will likely spread like wildfire. That means we have to be smart and trust each other to behave responsibly inside and outside the house. Wash your hands frequently. Launder your linens. Don’t leave the house without your mask. Get your temperature taken immediately upon return. And get tested or get the boot.

We’re participants in our own social experiment. We all want to recover from whatever malady brought us here, be it addiction or anxiety or depression or, in many instances, all of the above. And we’re not about to blow this second chance by doing something careless.

As I navigate my own minefield of deep grief, I often reach out to friends on the outside who have helped keep me going through the pain. They are quick to tell me how lonely and scared they’ve become, how their social rituals have faltered and their basic daily errands have grown fraught with stress and anxiety.

Those who live alone speak of intolerable isolation and depression. Working from home, or out of work, they lose track of the days and watch life unfold from an eerie distance. Lately, with the national protests spurred by the police killing of George Floyd, there’s an extra layer of sorrow and fear. The house isn’t a very political environment, and there hasn’t been a lot of discussion of Floyd’s death, the subsequent protests and his funeral in Houston. But some of us still feel the pain of the outside world.

Not long ago, one of these friends told me I’m lucky. At first I took umbrage. Lucky? I’ve only recently decided I probably want to live. I can barely keep track of the antidepressants I take. I have no job or apartment. Some kind of luck.

But when I think about it, I realize she’s right. I have a reasonable rate on room and board. I have therapists reaching across the Zoom superhighway to give me a hand. Most important, I’m surrounded by other people. They’re all guys, which can get a little boring. Some of them were born after I graduated from college. Others hold political views that make me cringe. Most of them would rather watch “South Park” than “Better Call Saul.” I can’t even pretend to like all of them.

Despite all of that, we’re all in this together. At a time when so many feel socially distanced and the future seems so uncertain, we have each other, and we share a common cause and speak a common language of recovery.

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It’s a scary world out there, and it will remain so whenever each of us decides he’s ready to venture back into it. For now, communal living has been a godsend. We run the risk of physical illness, but we keep the plague of loneliness at bay.

Chris Vognar is a freelance writer based in Houston.


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