I was taking pictures of myself in the tall hotel mirror when I realised something was wrong. I had been having difficulty sleeping since I got to Bantry, the previous night had been restless and stiff, my neck at all wrong angles on the inside, pulled too taut.
I had decided to sit on the floor in front of the mirror as I photographed myself. The texture of the surface wasn’t right at all and the light, orange from the streetlamps outside and the SuperValu across the little bay, filled the darker spots of the room with a strange colour. I knew that something was hatching and was taking over my body, but I wasn’t able to associate the distortions in the room with the fever.
I try and take pictures of myself in every hotel room I stay in, because my work leads me to a lot of hotels, and somewhere in the back of my mind I feel like I might make something of this self-portraiture someday, even if it’s just a zine. It’s also nice to send pictures to my husband, look, here I am, far away but in your hand exactly now. Travelling is so lonely, and selfies are a way to be witnessed, if not publicly, then in the strange green frame of a Whatsapp to a loved one. He was asleep, a five hour drive or ten hour commute across the country away when I realised something was probably wrong, actually.
I didn’t sleep, rather curled around my laptop watching old quiz shows from the mid 1990s until the sun came up, sweating heavily. I don’t remember taking around 40 photographs on my phone of the outside light on the wall and the square patterns the windowpanes cast, but the next day they were there, left over from some kind of possession.
I went to an emergency doctor in the small, bright town. I gave my panel. I got home. This was the start of almost three weeks of a virus that knocked me out of action so violently that most days I had difficulty walking from the sofa to the bathroom and back. I don’t mean this to sound dramatic: I haven’t had an infection that antibiotics wouldn’t cure since early 2018 and had forgotten the power of fever, the sheer flattening impact of it. How little you are capable of when you’re not just casually, millennially exhausted: though this burnout and tiredness can feel like a sickness, it isn’t the same as being wiped out with a Complicated Bug (the Swift Clinic doctor, a flashlight in my mouth, said these words and they’ve stuck with me because they are both funny and accurate). I would have laughed when he said it but I was tearful and every time I made a sound I retched due to an inflamed larynx.
Look, this is not a column of complaint. It was just a bug, I’m fine now, but I think when I got flattened I got back up slightly different. I had been moving at such a shocking pace during this year that my body screeched to a halt and refused to let me continue. But here’s the catch. Here’s why I’m telling you.
One thing struck me in the stasis of being on the sofa, or in bed, with no energy, wasted – was how little I wanted to look at my phone.
My ugly little crutch. The heavy portal. My ‘job’. My rolling, endless inbox. The DMs that come if I don’t reply to e-mail on time. My social life. My camera. My tiny weird stage I dance on. In all the times I have hated it, I hated it most when I was flat sick in October and I want to remember that feeling: that sheer rejection of the object, of the internet at all. As I lay there, Netflix’s most benign reality shows trundling along in the background, I would put it down for hours and hours. I might make an obligation-tweet. Post a weird picture from the back-rooms of my photos folder. But tight hold, the stare into the pixelated void, stopped.
I don’t, and have never, taken anything that happens to my body or within my body lightly. Bodies are strange places which I don’t think any of us fully have the run of, or knowledge of: they are sites of surrender and have the potential for dark surprise at any turn. So while it might seem strange to say, oh, I caught that nasty bug that was going around but I think it changed my relationship to my phone – I also feel very differently now than I did before. Even when the first spikes of fever came over me in West Cork, I remember lying on my side, my neck and shoulders hard with alien pain in the humming glow of my laptop, thinking – Christ. I wish I could rest without this. I wish I wasn’t in bed with this piece of metal. I don’t want to take a computer to where I sleep, ever again. I will, but I hate it.
In my own experience, once I am repulsed – by a person, a place, a food-stuff, whatever – I can never truly return.
On the long journey home I could barely summon the strength to look at my screen at all. When eventually my senses started to reassemble themselves and I felt like I had recovered, I checked my e-mails and was, in the pit of my stomach, angrier than usual at the long list of demands I have found myself drowned by. How those demands live in my pocket. How, as a self-employed woman I have found myself in a strange kind of unpaid, implied service to so many people and how the internet not only facilitates that, but actively encourages it. How limp my performance of a literary life on Instagram feels after two weeks without the pressure or desire to post any real representation of myself there. A deep, resounding ‘what the fuck is the point in all this’ has taken over me and if there is one thing that has without fail always buoyed me forward as a person, it is rebellion.
So look. To be practical, rather than abstract, propelled by this newfound anger, I need to put my money where my mouth is. Nokia has just released a new throwback phone, a 2720. A flip phone, the kind which I was once famous for dropping into plastic cups full of orange juice and vodka only days after I purchased them circa 2008, or 7, or some point when social media was in its infancy and texts were texts and the crutch did not hold so much power, if any power at all. In 2018 I went for a period with just a Nokia 3210, but I was deeply stuck without a map when I travelled. I need a tiny thread of internet, just not the whole blanket. The 2720 promises limited Gmail access, a map, Whatsapp, Twitter, but presented in just such an inconvenient way that might stop the time suck, the scroll – the soft words that mask the bad things that the internet does to us. I’m going to buy the flip phone and try it. Use my iPhone as a luxury entertainment item for limited periods. Use my laptop only for work. It’s winter, and not only is the year ending, but the decade, and I am sickened deep at the idea that the last ten years are defined for me as years that I spent Online. I think I am ready to make the cut. To untether myself. To be less sick with it.