Processing a Global Pandemic

It feels like space mountain. Or a rollercoaster at Six Flags. Not just any old rollercoaster, one of those rickety old ones that goes clickety clack, clickety clack, clickety, click, click, click … click… until you reach the top. You know it’s coming. You can feel the anticipation. Your body tenses. You prepare your stomach for the fall. Your eyes dilate. Your throat tightens and you see the coming downward slide.

The fear and the… Exhilaration… It all crashes over you; the cortisol, the dopamine, the adrenaline, the fight or flight triggers, the nervous system reacts, your muscles clench, the eyeballs twitch and-

I stop. I remember that I have to breathe.

I tell myself that I’m one of the lucky ones. The mantra begins. I’m grateful. I’m healthy. I have a loving family. I have a home. And last, but not least, I am employed. My role has been deemed necessary. Words cannot express my gratitude for that, given that I am an immune-compromised human in an unprecedented pandemic. The thought of being unable to support myself financially, emotionally and medically (all of equal importance to me), all of those things terrify me. Recently, I have had to voice the words “immune compromised” to my employer, taking the risk that that knowledge won’t be be held against me, as it has done with previous employers, in the pre-Covid days. That was scary. But nevertheless, it’s a headspace that I navigate daily- who and what I tell. If and when I tell my friends and family of my pain. If I can drop the mask just a little bit a let them know the truth of my reality.

I live in a world of remission and chronic illness and I spend most of my daily working life hiding what I feel from people far better than what I give them credit for. What do I mean by that exactly? Well, if you’ve never had chronic illness or spent time in hospital, it’s unlikely that you’ll understand my experiences. If you’ve never lived with a disability or cared for someone with a disability, it’s unlikely that you’ll understand my experiences. There’s a percentage of people in this world who understand and there’s a percentage of people who’s life is far harder than mine. Maybe on reading this, you’ll tell yourself that I’m being a jerk. Maybe you have a ton of empathy or a touch of sympathy, but you can’t understand until you feel it, until you know. But here’s the crux of the matter- the world that I live in means navigating work and managing my disability in ways that only a small percentage of the population will understand. And that’s okay, I swing between adjusting and managing my situation to make sure those around me are comfortable.

Which brings us to my place in the global pandemic. Covid has bought the reality of being chronically ill to the forefront of my mind in ways that I had never anticipated. I have had to have honest conversations with colleagues and management whom I’m not even sure I trust them to have such honest conversations with. They are well aware of my position on returning to work and my unwillingness to return to work until they can ensure my safety. I have certain questions about those things and as an organisation they are still making their own high level decisions about what happens if and when the staff can return to work. The uncertainty and fluctuating changes means that I am in a situation of negotiating my position on the pandemic, day by day, moment by moment. I consider my moments of leaving the house very carefully. Normal events of five months ago, like a trip to the supermarket, a visit to a friends house, shopping, going for a coffee, all of these daily decisions involve hours of over-thinking and internal pep talks.

To recap, here we are – fifteen weeks into an unprecedented global pandemic. No one has a clue what normal is any more or how to react in a pandemic. The word alone brings up imagery of the bubonic plague, or more recently (one hundred odd years ago), the Spanish Flu. It has been just long enough for humans to forget. Long enough for humans to forget about world wars, martial laws and how we as individuals are here to support and serve the community. ‘For the good of humanity’ has been lost amongst the noise of capitalism and family priorities.

When I look back at when this started for me, I have to chuckle. The date was March 13, (Friday 13th, obviously) – the date when the grumblings had begun. Australia had slowly started to recognise that this wasn’t just a ‘Chinese problem’ or an ‘overseas problem.’ Immigration and airport decisions were made and memorably when our Prime Minister declared that he would go to the rugby on the Sunday, before locking down on Monday. It defined just how ill-prepared our Government was. The men were aflutter with their talk of the AFL and Formula One seasons about to kick off. Nothing in the world had changed beyond the Wuhan lockdown and it hadn’t reached our country yet.

On Friday, March 13, I flew to Sydney for the weekend, a situation I’ve since come to regret. I was monumentally sick with a cold and despite a fun weekend, I spent the whole flight home thinking I was dying and the people around me looking at me as if maybe I was. Australia was only in the midst of pandemic mumblings, the talk of ‘an overseas pandemic’ was being whispered and the news talked of ‘if you’ve travelled to China, make sure you get tested’. I returned to Melbourne on the 15th March, feeling as though I’d been hit by a truck, feverish and coughing. I became petrified of all the pandemic talk and I spent two days driving around trying to find somewhere that would allow me to get tested. The first two places turned me away because I hadn’t travelled overseas. Despite my medical history, it took me four different clinics and plenty of shouting to convince health professionals that I needed to be tested.

The mumblings and undercurrent filtered across all our conversations. Corona Virus became Covid 19. In April, the fear set in, people were panic buying toilet paper and the elderly and chronically ill were being tested. Easter came and went. The ability to work from home no longer involved union conversations and reams of paper – it was expected. People were still in denial. Community transmission was considered to be low – but we weren’t testing. That wouldn’t come for a few more weeks.

A month later came apathy and panic in rolling waves. May bought the certainty of no travel, no brunches, no sport, no Mother’s Day, no funerals, no weddings, no parties, no restaurant outings, all of which led to a collective confusion and community judgement of others escalated. Everyone had an opinion. Fingers were pointed and the NIMBY-brigade dug in to argue their world view. We watched the numbers on the nightly news, graves in New York, the British Prime Minister and the King in Waiting, got sick. We sat back smugly, our numbers in the teens and convinced ourselves were were safe. We discussed quarantine hotels and policies of cruise ships, watched as a handicapped season of the AFL begun and convinced ourselves that we were okay with this ‘new normal’.

We stumbled through June as job and economic panic escalated, doomsday naysayers, testing clinics open throughout the suburbs and the postcode lottery began. The whiny mumblings of six weeks ago became louder. June brought complacency and fear-based headlines. The hope of April felt like a lifetime ago. A fantasy. It felt like just as I was beginning to feel comfortable with ‘the new normal’, the Governmental lines were drawn and any certainty of travel in August and September felt like a foolish dream. I still hold out hope for a summer holiday, maybe a trip away at Christmas. The skeptic in me knows that it is unlikely. I am starting to lose hope in humanity. Hope in a time of quarantine feels unrealistic, like my dreams of travelling to America or see a live band play again. My heart breaks for my Pixies concert and my Tim Minchin tickets. My heart breaks for the music, film and theatre industries.

July brings a foreshadowing, a feeling of unsettled despair. Am I on top of ‘the new normal’? Am I supported? Am I okay? Sure, I consider myself eternally lucky that just six months earlier, I had moved back in with my parents (for a variety of financial and emotional reasons, including my care and theirs. It had become a matter of mental health and a need to cocoon myself for awhile but that’s a story for another day), but the beauty of it was I am able to be in isolation lockdown and still have family support. I no longer have a mortgage, rent, bills to add to the mental and emotional stress during the pandemic, so again, let me be clear – I cannot tell you how grateful I am.

My sanity feels like an ever-fluctuating state, moment by moment, day by day.

After all, my job is safe, the work continues and life rolls on. Onwards and upwards, in to the void I go – if it were a void that covers less than fifty square metres. I leave my bed to bathroom to the study (10 – 12 steps) and then to my kitchen (another 20 steps) for coffee and back to the study again. My day is complete. And back I go to the kitchen and make dinner and return to my bed to rinse and repeat.

I do leave the house; but when I do, I can’t wait to back at home. Safe and secure. On the rare occasion that I go to the supermarket – I feel the walls closing in and my chest tighten. I queue at the door of the Woolworths, adjusting my face mask and rubbing my hands with sanitiser, breathing in and out to centre myself. A Karen-type woman stares at me for a second too long. The pale blue mask is still unsettling to the Aussie sensibilities. In Australia, masks are not yet mandatory but I get the feeling that that decision may change. My brain tells me that if I don’t wear the mask, I’m essentially trapped at home and I don’t have anyone to talk to other than my parents. I don’t want to risk additional quarantine. The supermarket and local shops are my only solace.

In the supermarket, I walk past the teenager wiping down the baskets, his slight head nod tells me that it’s safe to enter. A gentleman behind me coughs in to his elbow, then picks up a potato. I reach for an avocado, as two small children graze past me, pushing and poking each other, as siblings do. Their mother just rolls her eyes at me and goes back to putting carrots in to a plastic bag. An elderly lady pushes past and asks me to pass her some tomatoes. I pass her them to her, using the plastic as a barrier. She stares at me a second, perhaps confused by my paranoia. I refuse to believe that I’m the weird one in this scenario. I complete my shopping in fifteen minutes, getting just the bare necessities. A group of teenagers stand too close behind me – just a tad too close… and I shuffle forward but they refuse to leave a gap. My hands tense. I clench my hands, digging my nails in to my palms; in each moment, my anxiety spikes. How do I navigate this space when I don’t trust that I’m safe? The danger isn’t agoraphobia anymore or road rage or supermarket rage or ignorance or apathy.

Right now, I do not trust the humans around me not to be infected and I cannot in any given moment guarantee that I’m not infected either.

I tap my card against the sanistised EFTPOS machine and make sure I give way to all oncoming pedestrians, careful to avoid eye contact. I scurry out, back to the safety of my car, ready to return to the sanctuary of my home. There is a message on my phone. My parents are out of milk. I sigh, making my way back inside. Whilst I wait in the queue, another message pops up, a reminder about my gym appointment, to be clean and on time. It’s funny that we now have to be reminded to clean and rinse and sanitise as if it’s a new concept. Fear does funny things to society.

As I drive home, I’m reminded that the traffic flows have changed mid-COVID; and a sense of unreality hits me. I no longer have any sense of time or distance. My friend Simone messages on our group chat, to check in about our weekly Friday night drinks on zoom. I don’t answer straight away. Enforced-Covid-Social-interactions leave me cold – I end up drunk and alone on my couch. I miss my friends but it just makes me feel sad, a reminder that I’m still living at home with my parents. And sure, it’s not that much different from pre-Covid times – but at least back then, I had a choice to go out or to stay at home.

We are doing the right thing, I tell myself. The lockdown is for community safety, we all have to do our bit. But my inner child is chucking a small tanty at my freedom and free will being taken from me. So the mantra begins again – for the good of the community, we stay inside. But my body will not allow it. The nausea rises and my hands twitch. Jittery, my days swing on the vine of free-flowing anxiety. Just don’t get me started on the other kind of needs – I don’t even know how to online date in Covid times.

For now, my only focus now is staying safe. Protection. The common good. I’ll worry about the agoraphobia later. I’ll stay inside, I’ll wear the mask, I’ll do the right thing. This is what we do now. We’ve seen the spike in numbers. We can see what happens when apathy settles in. The numbers grow. People here and overseas are dying – so we all have to do our bit.

And with every step I take from my car to the front door of my house, I know I’m still processing this Covid-Gravatron, this merry-go-round carousel of lockdown life. I feel like I’m almost getting in to the swing of things and we twist and turn, we go backwards and forwards and backwards and forwards and my head is screaming “I don’t want to snap back”. “I don’t want this to be the ‘new normal'”. My brain is still there, back on the 14th March, looking out of the Shangri-la hotel, looking at the Sydney Harbour Bridge and thinking about the bliss of a quick flight north for a weekend away. How simple it all was.

But remember, the lessons are there for all of us to see. This is an opportunity to look inward and outward, as within, so without. This is our time. A chance to reflect. The time is now.

2020 – 2.0. An evolution revolution. Can you feel it?

Tell me how you are processing the pandemic. How are you coping? Are you? What has changed for you? Are you okay?

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