The pandemic. The only experience that comes close for me is the lost year I had as a teenager, when, during months of brutal treatment for cancer I descended into a black hole of – nothing. Fear of death, despair at having all the things that made me myself – at that time my studies, friendships, appearance, boundless energy – were all suddenly gone, replaced by a universe of nausea, pain, hair loss, weight loss, lack of sympathy from neighbours who derided me as ‘scrawny’ and doctors that told me to ‘pull myself together’ (this was 1980, preceding the Teenage Cancer Trust and the recognition of what this sort of trauma does).
Four decades on I have blotted out almost all memory of this time, my day-to-day life, my emotions, so traumatic was it. All I remember is a numb blankness and the hollow despair of depression.
This time, more mature, self aware and not (yet) ill, but told to shield because of my medical history (something I haven’t completely done because I need to take what small joys are still available – walks, with others when permitted; a visit to a pub garden or outdoor theatre, where permitted, a trip to the shops, so I can exercise control over what I eat rather than have others do it.), I count my blessings. Many many are suffering more deeply, trapped in poor housing, bereaved, sick, broke, unemployed,
But I muse on this second lost year in a limited human lifespan. My brush with cancer taught me to grasp life with both hands. Every day filled with work, friends, travel, books, film, arts, hiking, fitness, then children, trips abroad to my European family. never dull, always enriching. But now….all is flat once more. I’m not in the black hole of my youth, but on the flatlands surrounding it. I will try not to fall in. Cancer trauma also taught me mind control – how to get through by blotting out reality. Not sure this is healthy but it’s how I have coped.
This time I blot it out not by descending into an abyss of numbness but with distraction. I escape into other worlds via books, film – images from another age, where people gather, fight, laugh and bother and please each other. I am lucky – I work online, and I cherish those Zoom calls where a few months ago they tired me out. My colleagues are upbeat, intelligent, my work is stimulating. I am very lucky. But the sense of doom descends again every time I switch the camera off. I swallow hard and force my mind into some other world – something online, a news item about anything other than the pandemic, a quick walk outside to kid myself that the antics of the local cats or squirrels matter. If I stop and let the real world in, anxiety washes over me. Pressure builds behind the eyes, tears threaten to spill, throat tightens, thought processes become chaotic and disordered. I can’t let the panic in.
I am fearful for my children, of the impact, of what they feel. A lost teenage year for them too. One is angry, defiant, aggressive, the other compliant, soft and too protective of our feelings rather than his own, I fear. I can’t let the panic in though. I jolly them along, nag them about schoolwork while fearing none of it will end up mattering or meaning anything. Keep up the pretence that it’ll blow over by the next birthday, by Christmas, by half term, well surely by the summer. I stress the optimism (vaccines!), play down the threat (‘don’t worry about mutations of the virus – vaccine scentists can tweak the jab!’ – this said jauntily to my younger son whose brow has furrowed over a news report on the radio).
This emotional suppression lets me function and be present for my family, my colleagues. I sleep well after the first weeks of wakefulness – I have become adept at self deception to give my mind some peace. But anxiety erupts in the form of cold sores, eczema, weird itching.
The brief respites from the restrictions have been hugely important. They’ve allowed me and my friends and family a brief glimpse at normality, at the things that make us who we are – we’ve grabbed at the opportunity. Lots of walks (all my photos from this year seem to be of people in muddy fields), rule-of-six picnics and BBQs in park or garden, a few meals out in beer gardens (never indoors no matter the chill), even a trip to meet long-unseen family in a cottage in the country over the summer (I’m fearful I may never see my elderly parents again – they live in Ireland and we can’t travel even if we felt confident enough to, which we don’t; I stuff his thought back in its box sharpish).
Our community has also come up trumps – we all have a cheery socially-distanced drink on our street (restrictions permitting) each Friday at 6. We sang (socially-distanced) carols on the street on xmas eve, with one family placing a life-affirming firepit outside for all to enjoy. We let off fireworks on November 5 and new year’s eve in our front gardens and everybody stood by their doors to watch. We share memes, help and hilarity on our whatsapp groups. This is a wonderful thing to have come out of the catastrophe. Strangers greet each other; we are solicitous when we move to avoid each other in the street, being sure to make eye contact and smile – ‘it isn’t personal, just want us to be safe’. This makes me feel resilient. For now.