It’s Day 41 of pandemic distancing. I began an innocent little check-in post about two weeks ago. I wanted to ask how you are, and to write about what life is like during these “trying times” for posterity. It was difficult, though, because how one is doing keeps changing. The post has morphed several times in those weeks, and today I finally abandoned it and started over.
Canada’s morale took a huge hit this past week, with the deaths of at least 22 people in Nova Scotia, at the hands of a killer whose motive is still a big question mark.
When the news of the killings broke, some things were crystallized for me about mental health during the Covid-19 pandemic. Not about the shooter’s mental health (because I dare not go there, even to guess), but about my own mental health.
Overall, I consider myself pretty mentally healthy. I have struggled on some occasions in my life, but I have been fortunate to have great support from family and friends, as well as many personal tools for processing grief (particularly writing and music).
I know that coronavirus distancing has been hard on people, in many different ways. People are dealing with losses of loved ones, livelihoods, important events, and emotional outlets… loneliness, confusion, insomnia, anxiety… caring for people with high needs, at whatever age… Some people’s lives have become extra-busy and stressful, especially those exposing themselves to the virus every day for work… And some people’s lives have become disconcertingly empty.
Our little family is extremely fortunate. Our loved ones are safe, so far. Sean and I both still have our jobs, which are both relatively low-stress at the moment. We live in a country where social assistance is a real thing, and the government is trying hard to help people and businesses while preserving caution. I am able to be at home with our kids, and the four of us are adjusting well, all things considered. We are thankful to have each other to hug, when we have to stay away from everyone else.
Those factors have helped us to maintain relative equanimity about this situation. I have come to realize that for me, there are some other overlapping reasons why I haven’t felt the pandemic pull me down too far.
1. This situation did not surprise me.
As surreal and upsetting as things have been, I did not have that feeling of the rug being pulled out from under me, as some have. This week it dawned on me that on some level, I’ve been expecting catastrophe – forever. Ever since I was a kid, although I almost always felt safe in my home and my neighbourhood, and I believed that most people were good and could be trusted, I’ve also known that humankind is just dumb about some stuff. In terms of war and environmental destruction, we have an addiction of sorts. There are those who work hard to thwart devastation, but as a group, we have never been close to kicking those bad habits. Therefore, we were bound to get ourselves in trouble. I’ve been subconsciously waiting for our comeuppance my whole life.
2. We’ve seen worse.
Along the same lines as above, I have often imagined myself in real dire situations – as I think a lot of empathetic people do. Gratitude is a big part of my daily mental processes – and a lot of it comes from an awareness of how much other people suffer. Every day, there are humans fighting for survival amid floods and fires, ebola outbreaks, bomb attacks, famine, and so on. I think about those people and their plight very frequently – and feel grateful that I am lucky enough to have been so safe throughout my life.
When I was 11, my big sister and my mom were both in a local theatre production of The Diary of Anne Frank (Em was the star!), and I became obsessed. I learned everything I could about Anne’s life, her experience in hiding, her capture, and her death – as well as a lot about the circumstances of other civilians during WWII. I thought of Anne all the time at the beginning of this isolation, feeling thankful that we didn’t have to tiptoe around – that we could go outside – that we weren’t subsisting on paltry rations, or in danger of being captured by the Gestapo and sent to concentration camps to die of typhus or worse.
The combined cataclysm of health and economic crises is terrible, but it has a lot less to do with evil than your average news day. It has generally made me a lot less angry. And I’ve known for a while that grief is much easier to deal with when it’s not so angry. Even though in these past weeks things have gotten extremely grim in places like Italy and New York, it is better to see most of society acting to support and save people rather than exterminate them. Even though this virus has exposed a lot of things that are wrong with our various societies, it is comforting that humans’ incredible capacity for love has been so visible.
3. There is unity in a global crisis.
I have always found the news traumatic. (I know it’s important to live in my world, but I realized last year that tapping my news app fills me with dread.) Then along came Covid-19, and suddenly this crisis was eclipsing everything. For once, at least for a moment there, we all seemed to have the same focus, the same news on our minds. It was the most globally unifying thing I’ve ever experienced, or even heard of. Despite all the comparisons of our situation to a war, it has felt rather like the opposite to me.
And for the most part, it felt like we really were in it together. It felt good to know what the right thing to do was: stay home when possible, wash your hands, keep your distance. The “making the best of isolation” attitude roiled up and outshone the douchebags who were buying up all the supplies for price-gouging purposes, or crashing Zoom meetings with porn and slurs. It was uplifting to see the creativity – the fun and inspiring things that average people did with their time at home, and the outpouring of talent that artists all over the world shared online. It was reassuring to see Prime Minister Trudeau speaking to us every day, being an example of steadfastness and compassion (in such contrast to the POTUS), no doubt stressed and struggling, but working hard and somehow still keeping his sense of humour. And parliamentarians have been cooperating in unprecedented ways.
And then evil reasserted itself.
Even for those managing pretty well, news of a mass shooting is crushing. For those already suffering hard, it might be enough to completely submerge a soul. It’s awful to think of the beautiful people, including nurses, a teacher, a social worker, and an RCMP officer, whose lives were taken so violently. And it’s almost unbearable to think of the young children who lost a parent (especially the ones who lost both at once). I can’t imagine how one could ever trust life again.
It appears that the honeymoon, such as it was, is over. Many folks’ optimism or endurance was already flagging a bit – and then someone mowed down a bunch of people while others are working so incredibly hard to prevent more deaths. Somebody set up a GoFundMe campaign in the name of those orphaned boys that turned out to be fake – who does that?? Gun-toting protesters in the U.S. are gathering together in idiocy because money is more important than people. People are mourning tonight, on the two-year anniversary of the Danforth van attack that also took innocent lives.
There is just so much to mourn. At this moment, I am actively struggling to see us as a worthy species and not a scourge – and it’s harder than usual. I had the opportunity to chat with my school principal and office administrator today, and one of them candidly described her mental health as a steep downward slope since the news of the killings in Nova Scotia.
The prediction may well be correct that mental illness will be (or is) the next pandemic wave. Thus, it is time to muster up all our patience and courage, so that we may keep our heads above water as we stay the course. Folks are still doing the right things for the pandemic – we are getting the hang of all that, we just need to step up the self-care. We need to find those things that keep our embers aglow, and do them purposefully, as medicine. Breathe fully. Do the yoga. Check out the Retreat Space. Listen to the beautiful music. Bake that bread if you need to – and judging by the state of the baking aisle, you do. (Remember when I spent five posts drawing parallels between arts and bakery items? That’s never been more on-point than now.) Get down into the grit of your humanity and give it whatever form of hug it needs. It’s the right thing to do, to keep the next wave at bay.
I lit this candle today for all those dealing with tragedy in Nova Scotia – and for all of us that just need to focus on the light right now. We can *still* do this.