At the end of March, the threat of an outbreak in Australia loomed large with case numbers tracking those in Europe. An undercurrent of fear flowed through my days, partly thanks to my obsession with reading detailed accounts of how the illness plays out. I am haunted by the false dawn that sufferers report, where they feel better after a week then get taken down again on day 9 or 10. Stark visuals of crowded hospitals also give me the fear, but my distress peaks when reading the ‘physician’s choice’ stories, where people in need outnumber available respirators. One metric doctors use is: if you’ve ever had cancer, you don’t get one. That’d be me out, then.
I consume and consume, falling down infinite rabbit holes reading across a range of sources, many of dubious quality. I read a long Facebook post which included advice like “hot water helps… if you can hold your breath and not cough you’re okay.” A nurse in Brisbane is cited as the author. I then read the exact same post in a WhatsApp group, except this time it’s a doctor from London. I tell myself I stay online to keep informed and safe, but the truth is I couldn’t have unplugged, even if I’d wanted to. Coronavirus dominates conversations with Johnno, with my first words to him in the morning along the lines of “1,500 new cases in Italy yesterday.” The more connected I am to the rolling news, the more disconnected I am from my body. And soul, for that matter. My ability to function has deteriorated massively: I sleep terribly, snap at nothing, and cannot concentrate on anything non Coronavirus-related.
Before the pandemic you’d have had me pegged as a sleeve-roller-upper, let’s make the most of this, build something, make bread or make a ton of food-type. Instead, I am Olaf – utterly frozen. My response to the elevated stress is not fight or flight, but freeze. Meanwhile, Johnno has flown into action, and within a week of the stay home order has ticked DIY tasks off the list that have been lingering since we moved in a decade ago. I am usually the one who’s more dynamic and organised, but there’s been a Freaky Friday style switcheroo and I will forever associate the mechanical growl of a gurney with being in lockdown.
I watch years of grime being hosed off our home with bemusement, unable to get a grip on what’s going on. It’s as if I’m stoned, an observer. I resent any call on me to participate in any way shape or form, which is no good when you’re a parent. Let along the only parent who’s not on a roof and deafened by heavy machinery. It’s not as if the kids ask loads of me, they never have, but their reasonable demands make me sag my shoulders in despair. I don’t recognise, nor like, this person who is making such heavy weather of the basics.
Let’s take dinner – the perennial question that sneaks up all too quickly in spite of the rest of time existing in another, slower dimension. Whenever it’s my turn, I throw money at the problem, as the wherewithal to cook has deserted me. It’s either takeaway, where I get with the Soviet vibe and queue in one of the hastily taped out designated spots, or I find myself in the frozen food section of our local convenience store when it’s about to close. Once home, I clean my hands and beat myself up for being free all day, yet failing to pull together an evening meal.
That is not the only standard that has taken a journey to the floor then kept going south; the kids have sniffed out that they are allowed TV during the week, a luxury usually reserved for school holidays. Naturally, they are over the moon and it works for me too; my body floods with relief when I see Netflix’s red barcode or hear the firm chime at the start of a show. It means I can relax, knowing I have at least 30 minutes to stay in stupor-mode, plus it distracts the kids from the fact their dinner isn’t ready. Not that they mind, because I’ve deliberately stocked up on crisps and snacks so they can’t plague me with complaints about being hungry. I’m now so laissez-faire about the distribution of what’s normally considered treat food, the kids get out of the habit of asking if they’re allowed it. They understand their part of the deal is to stay off my back, and in fairness to them they do.
Instead of enjoying the holiday vibe, I feel full of guilt and shame. I thought I had self-compassion. WRONG! I did not cut myself any slack for reaching for shortcuts during those dazed and confused days. Instead I’d vow to do better tomorrow, whilst simultaneously knowing I’d do no better tomorrow. My self-talk was definitely more “get it together Sambo, what is wrong with you?” than “give yourself a break, this is a once in a lifetime situation.” Ironic, given one of my favourite bits of advice I like to dish out relates to the importance of compassionate self-talk. “Talk to yourself as if you were consoling a close friend.” I’d say. Seriously, if any friend of mine talked to me the way I was talking to myself, I’d have told them to fuck off til they thought they’d finished fucking off, and then fuck off some more.
I was convinced I was failing myself, as well as my children. Before lockdown I would practise yoga twice a week, which I let slide along with Pilates, and 3 days on/4 days off drinking alcohol.
Thoughts of trying to re-engage with healthy behaviour got laughed at by the devil on my shoulder. One evening, I thought about starting the next day with a yoga session. It’d set me up for the day, I reasoned, making me feel calm and more together, rather than scrolling, which had the opposite effect. Even as the thought tracked my brain I heard the mental rejoinder ‘fuck that, have another glass of wine instead.’ The resistance was more nuanced than that, though: I genuinely felt that sitting in stillness and silence would be way too difficult when my monkey mind was in overdrive. Intellectually, I understood yoga would do me wonders, but so deep was the self-sabotage, a simple online class got built up in my mind to seem as impossible as a marathon, and I have not returned to the mat to this day.
I couldn’t see what now seems blisteringly obvious: I was in the grip of anxiety. I’ve never had it before, so didn’t appreciate what was going on. Johnno and I had both lost our jobs! The kids’ schools had closed! Normal life had all but disintegrated Inception-style. Dear God the experience of supervising school work nearly finished me off on its own, I’m still too traumatised to write about it. So I wish I could time travel and hug that stressed out person beating herself up for being out of sorts, I’d reassure her that her behaviour was a totally justified given the situation.
The airless quality lingered til early April, then started to lift when I read something that helped to contextualise what I was going through: a post by aid worker Imogen Wall. Here’s an extract:
REACTIONS: everyone reacts differently to emergencies. Some people information-seek like mad, some get angry, some pick fights (in real life or on social media), some panic, some make a LOT of jokes, some deny the problem, some become terribly terribly active and efficient and want to help, some withdraw and fall off the radar. These are, fundamentally, all coping mechanisms for the same thing, which is at its root a deep sense of fear and loss of control. They’re all valid. Bottom line: we’ll need to be kind to each other, and that includes if someone is being aggressive or argumentative or overbearing. Experience suggests that we’ll all have a bit of a meltdown, and probably a cry, at some point. It’s just the way it goes.
RIGHT NOW IS ONE OF THE WORST BITS: the worst bit of crises is that moment when everyone collectively realises the severity of what we are facing and goes, oh shit. The moment at the top of the rollercoaster when we all look down. It’s horrible. But it doesn’t last. In a little while everything will normalise and find a new rhythm. It’ll be a different life, and a (much) harder one for some, but it’ll have structure and routine. I’ve been in camps of disaster survivors a week after an earthquake – and there are always, already, communities reforming, hairdressers opening up, coffee shops. Humans are incredibly adaptable. Also, you are about to find out just how many amazing people you have around you. This is one of the best bits.
What a joy to feel the cloud lift, to wake up, come to my senses and recognise myself again. The true turning point? Starting this blog. Of all the lessons I have learned so far in this year of wonder the most useful has been: creating always, always, always helps, especially when the balance between consuming and creating is grossly out of whack.