It isn’t over til the vaccine sings

Melbourne is emerging from lockdown.


We’re a little hesitant. Blinking in the fierce glare of even an overcast day. Feeling our way forward. Afraid of a sickening return to crisis. Afraid we don’t know how to socialise anymore. Afraid of not being able to hug. Afraid of hugging. Afraid of not seeing enough people. Afraid of seeing too many people. Afraid of forgetting our masks, or hand sanitiser.

That’s been the leitmotif of 2020, really. Fear.

And while we thought the theme song of lockdown was “I Want to Break Free,” it turns out it was actually “Wild World.”

But if you wanna leave, take good care
I hope you have a lot of nice things to wear (that still fit you)
But then a lot of nice things turn bad out there

Mostly “Wild World”, Cat Stevens.

It’s particularly hard to get by just upon a smile when your smile is permanently hidden behind a mask.

I’ve been a bit sad this week, and it seems to have surprised some people. “It’s over, mate!” “Aren’t you happy now?” “Things are better! Buck up!”

And while I appreciate the need to live in the moment, to revel in the things we can do now in Melbourne that we couldn’t do before – visit each other at home, dine out in cafes and restaurants, go shopping for Christmas presents, travel a little further – I think it’s incredibly important to acknowledge that things are still tough.

Things are still scary. When will the next outbreak be? Are my loved ones safe? Is a vaccine even possible? Have I touched the wrong thing? Have I used enough hand sanitiser? Did that person cough near me???

Things are still constrained. No hugging. Masks on at all times, even in other people’s houses. No kissing. No touch. One visit per household per day. Long, long days working from home, seeing others by video call, if at all. No visits to or from loved ones interstate or overseas. No travel outside our 25km radius.

Throw in some big picture fear about things like the outcome of the US election, the parlous state of our own politics, climate change, our unconscionable treatment of refugees, and our callous disregard for the fate of the poor and the unemployed, and it feels like we are spending this year swimming through sad. It’s possible to get your head above the surface from time to time, but the weight of what we are going through is a constant downwards force. Some days not drowning is the best we can do.

There hasn’t been a lot of joy within reach, for a really long time now.

What there has been, though, is a huge amount of love. From care parcels from interstate (“Why do so many people send you things, Mum!?”) to online checkins. From surprisingly mysterious bottles of vodka and portable bamboo picnic tables to pictures of babies, loving texts, and crazy memes. We’re holding on to each other for dear life, even when we can’t actually touch.

I’ve been saying “I love you” more, and, from what I hear, it’s not just me. Sometimes it startles my friends, especially those who grew up with the toxic masculine “stiff upper lip” “feelings are for girls” and “men and women can’t be friends” ethos, but I can’t help it. It bursts out of me. The people I love the most are both the reasons I am sad and the reasons I am alive. Because so many of them are out of reach, yet still reaching out.

Even in places where life has been closer to normal for much longer, we’re all still living a pandemic, and things are still hard. It’s ok to be sad. It’s ok to be scared. Just keep holding on to each other. Keep reaching out. And know that you’re not alone.

A little bit of perspective

One of the things that happens to me if I don’t have enough social contact and things going on is that I lose perspective in a startlingly big way.

Small fights become huge.

Minor incidents get picked over, magnified, and blown out of all proportion.

Tiny frets that I would normally shrug off take root in my brain and grow, strengthen, and multiply until they are all consuming.

I oscillate between “I am the worst parent in the world and I am going to ruin my children’s lives” and “I am so proud of my children I could literally, absolutely, honestly burst. Any moment now.”

This year, lockdown or no lockdown, was always going to do that to me. The covid constraints of being socially distant and reducing contact with the outside world are almost unmanageable for a sociavore like me who thrives on immense amounts of human contact. Lockdown has absolutely made it worse, but just having to work from home more or less indefinitely is pretty damned challenging for me.

“Individuals aren’t naturally paid-up members of the human race, except biologically. They need to be bounced around by the Brownian motion of society, which is a mechanism by which human beings constantly remind one another that they are…well… human beings.” Terry Pratchett, Men At Arms.

The reason I recognise these symptoms is because I had them in my early 20s when I was home a lot with chronic fatigue syndrome. I lost perspective, went quietly loopy, and obsessed over everything.

Apparently retirees do this a lot, too. When they stop going to work for the first time, if they don’t replace work with something equally stimulating, they become the bane of committees everywhere, as they keep meetings going for hours over tiny details, and contact the manager over every little thing.

It certainly happened with my parents. They spent months completely immersed in a fight with the council over the number of parking permits they got (even though they had a garage and only one car). Over a matter of cm on a boundary marker with a neighbour. Over a fence. Over the trees in the street. Over everything.

If I ever retire, this will absolutely be me. And, to be honest, it is me now. My fuse is shorter than a pygmy possum. My perspective is as distorted as the mirrors in the funhouse at Luna Park. I am picking over old grievances, obsessing over ancient embarrassments, and examining my friendships under the microscope to see if they are unsound. I am losing it, my friends.

Because I know the signs, I am reaching out as much as I can, but as long as working from home is the norm, it will be a constant battle. On the bright side, knowing it makes it more manageable. On the downside, there’s no vaccine imminent, so we may be in this for the long haul.

Frying pan of enlightenment: a frying pan with a yellow lightbulb in the centre
Frying pan of enlightenment: a frying pan with a yellow lightbulb in the centre

I am not telling you this so that you can point and laugh, although if it makes you feel better, go right ahead. We have to take our pleasures where we find them these days. But I suspect I am not alone. I suspect that 2020 is a uniquely challenging time for everyone’s sense of perspective.

Which is why we all need to grab those people who fearlessly wield the frying pan of enlightenment and clutch them (virtually) close. Because it is really hard to recognise your own irrationality, but it’s often super obvious in someone else.

We’ll get through this. It is temporary. But we all need to hold each other up and breathe deeply just to keep going. So don’t berate yourself if your reactions seem over the top these days. Reach out, instead.

There are two of me

There are two versions of me right now. Both real. Both intense. Both valid. And they are not in conflict, not really. They want the same thing, long term. They both want covid to be vanquished – whether by vaccine, effective treatment, or spontaneous combustion, they don’t really care. They want their life back. But right now, in this instant, they are finding it hard to even look at each other.

The first side wants the lockdown to stay in force as long as necessary to keep us safe. They follow the evidence closely. They read all the scientific papers (although, to be honest, they are falling behind on this because some of the papers are scary and hard to read, and they know that peer review is not keeping up right now anyway, so these papers might get debunked next week, next month, or next year.).

This side knows they’re not an epidemiologist, and they want the epidemiologists in charge right now – because first and foremost, they want us all to be safe. They don’t consider any of us expendable (certain key politicians aside).

They really don’t want to go through this again, so they want to get it right. They know there’s no magic wand coming that will get this sorted by Christmas. They know next year might see more lockdowns, more learning from home, and more travel restrictions. They know they won’t be going to work anytime soon, and they know that next winter will very likely see more challenges. So they follow the evidence, and take comfort that Victoria, at least, has an epidemiologist in charge of the pandemic response, and they want to hug him, bring him cups of tea, and trust him to do the right thing.

The other side of me? They are crying themselves to sleep. They are unbearably lonely. They are pining for their friends across town, whose 5km radius circles don’t even think about overlapping. They are desperate to head interstate to visit family, see friends, and to hug and kiss people until it gets awkward and they have to be dragged away.

They want to eat out at restaurants, to walk in forests, to travel on planes. They want to work in an office with interesting people, to talk to people on trains, to be outside without a mask. They want their life back with an aching intensity they can barely express. They are locked down with much loved family, but all they can see are the loved ones out of reach.

This side only wants what they can’t have. They are pining for parties, for kisses, for hugs that go on forever, for all of the people they love, and fear for.

Both of these sides are rational. And both of them are me. And they can co-exist because it’s possible, whatever the media might tell you, to know that something is necessary, while hating it with every fibre of your being.

Both sides know that the enemy is not the government, not even the media (although, goodness knows, some sections of the media certainly seem to be allying themselves with the enemy). They know that the enemy is a virus. And viruses are immune to rhetoric, to foot stamping, and to childish tantrums. Worse, both sides know that we were warned, and still we were caught unprepared.

And so we pay the price. And for Melbournians the price is currently high. But it is higher elsewhere. Freedom is bought with pain, and death, and disablement. Maybe (but only maybe!) it’s a price that others will pay, not us, but we still know that price is too high.

So both sides pine, and both sides ache, and both sides stay inside, and wear a mask when they’re out. And both sides long for this to be over, and to feel the arms of far flung loved ones around them.

Touch hunger

This short BBC video on why touch is so important to human animals made me cry. We make much of our “higher brain function”, but we really do need to remember that we are, in fact, animals, and we have physiological needs that we can’t avoid. One of those is that we crave touch. There’s a reason why one of the most effective treatments for premature babies is skin-to-skin kangaroo care, where babies snuggle, skin to skin, with their parents or carers. Touch is crucial to human health and development.

I am an intensely tactile person. Sometimes I have to regulate that a little, because not everyone has the same touch needs. In February I caught up with a friend I hadn’t seen for a few years, because he and his family have been living overseas. My life has changed radically in that time, as have my ways of greeting people. I unthinkingly went to kiss him on the cheek, forgetting how reserved he is, and was quite startled when he ducked.

It was a useful (if somewhat chastening) reminder that everyone has different needs when it comes to touch, and it can be tricky to navigate the balance when your needs don’t match those around you. It also highlights the fact that my experience of lockdown is not necessarily the same as anyone else’s.

I live with three people who are not nearly as tactile as I am. And a cat – nature’s way of emphasising our insignificance. Which is fine when I can get out and see people on a regular basis, collecting a regular feed of hugs, kisses, and even handshakes. A pat on the shoulder, a touch on the arm, a shoulder bump… there are so many ways to touch in a platonic but nourishing fashion.

When you deprive an animal of touch, the animals become literally sick, both in the mind – they develop a lot of anxiety – and also they live less, and become less healthy in the long term.” Touch researcher, via the BBC video linked above.

Here in Melbourne, many of us are becoming severely touch starved in lockdown. Living alone, living with people we’re not close to or don’t trust, or simply living with people whose touch needs don’t match our own, can all create an immense touch deficit that has all kinds of short and long term impacts.

It’s not like hunger, an instantly recognisable feeling. It can creep up on you. You might feel sad. Anxious. Tired. Irritable. Disconnected. Unmotivated. Sometimes you don’t even realise touch hunger is the problem until you receive some unexpected touch. A few weeks ago I was at the physio getting treatment for my hip, and even though he was wearing gloves, the sensation of being touched – though it was brutal, physio-beating-up-my-sore-muscles touch – nearly made me cry. And not from the pain.

I try to soothe myself by daydreaming of hug-filled reunions. Of greeting kisses. Of simply sitting close to my friends. Leaning on them. Holding them close. The yearning is overwhelming.

The big problem is, of course, that there’s not much we can do about it. This is something we have to live through. Curbing the spread of the virus is short term pain for long term gain, and it’s crucial to keeping us all safe. We’re not going to be able to go back to a tactile, hug-rich life until there’s a vaccine or at least an effective treatment for this microscopic home wrecker.

So it’s important to recognise that we all cope differently, we all suffer differently, and someone close to you might be struggling in ways you’re not. Think of touch as an essential nutrient that some of us consume at a higher rate than others. Even if your levels are fine, someone close to you may be literally starving from lack of touch.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to beg the cat for some affection.