Is the whole world running on empty?

I am starting to lose count of the number of people I have spoken to recently who just have nothing left in the tank. No energy. No motivation. No bounce left in the bungee. It’s the pandemic inside the pandemic.

Everyone has reasons for it. We’re all dealing with a lot. The usual daily life dramas and complications. The long term health issues, conflicts, difficult work situations, difficult home lives… it all takes a toll. But all of that “normal” stuff is now happening against a background of constant strain.

Last week one of my kids had covid, so we spent the week in isolation, feeling unsafe in our own home. We did all the right things – kept all the doors and windows open, had an air filter running 24/7 in their room, left food at the door, used separate bathrooms, had no contact. And we were lucky, they were double vaxxed and felt better pretty quickly. We stayed home, worked as usual, didn’t have to go shopping or do any dropping off or picking up, didn’t go anywhere or see anyone. In some ways that sounds almost peaceful, but we ended the week exhausted. As though we’d been running some kind of lifestyle marathon without leaving our home. In a sense, perhaps we were.

I think we might be underestimating the strain of this whole “living with the virus” gig. Aside from the constant risk calculation, and the “will we/won’t we” of every outing and every friend catch up, the longing to attend large events that we’ve missed over the last two years (I’m looking at YOU, Comedy Festival!) set against the fear of catching covid at them, the constant risk of cancellation from somebody winding up testing positive or being a close contact… I say “aside from that,” though that, in itself, is a lot… nonetheless… aside from that, many of us are still living unusually constrained and unsatisfying lives. And while we’re doing that, we’re watching other people living what look like perfectly normal lives as though there is no risk at all. It’s hard to fathom.

For those of us who are still working from home a lot more than usual, we’re suffering from decreased connection with our colleagues, and lack of social contact from things that used to seem trivial, like the casual conversations in the tea room. And I think we also underestimate how much those casual interactions fuel us.

We’re not going to the usual events, not going out as much, not playing as much, not travelling as much, not entertaining as much, not relaxing as much. We’re just not getting all the ways to recharge that we used to. And yet we’re demanding more of ourselves. There are wars, environmental catastrophes, unspeakable politics, and elections where the choice often seems to be between bad and worse. (Vote Green or independent! Shake them up!)

We’re trying to be vigilant about covid avoidance. Considering whether we need to do a RAT today or whether it might just be allergies. Wondering whether it’s ok to dine inside at the cafe when it’s cold. And trying to work more, with less support. All while dealing with all of the usual difficult life events on top of it all. Seeing people we love, even without touching them, releases all kinds of positive hormones into our bodies. We’re not getting as much of that, especially if loved ones are interstate or overseas. We’re asking more of our bodies, and supporting them less.

Plus, of course, the extra fuel for everyone’s anxiety that is the variant waiting game. What will the next variant be? How hard will it hit? Are we past the worst of it? Will things get better? Is the worst yet to come?

No wonder we’re exhausted. I’m trying to build up social contact while managing risk, but I’m still a long, long way from getting what I need. Some days it feels like I’m just dragging myself through life, waiting for a better future that might never come. And yet we can’t just stop and wait until it gets better. Ironically, that would probably make things worse.

I don’t have any answers, but I do know that we’re not alone, even in iso. Chances are, however you’re feeling, a whole lot of people are probably feeling the same. I know some of my friends get grumpy with me when I post those sad feelings online, they want me to get over it, move on, buck up! But at the same time, so many people seem to respond to the feelings, to be relieved that they’re not the only ones who feel this way. Maybe that’s an answer, of a sort. Or at least a strategy. Maybe we need to tell each other how we feel more, whether it’s on social media, on zoom, or in person. Maybe connecting over our lack of connection is one way to help us survive. A way to feel less alone. It’s worth a try.

Losing our way

I remember the early days of the pandemic, when we didn’t know whether bringing in packages from outside would give us covid. Some people left packages out in the sun for three days, others disinfected the hell out of them. Some people didn’t let anything into their houses. Some people started wearing masks early on, some thought it was pointless. Use the app/don’t use the app it’ll track you and achieve nothing useful. We just didn’t know, and the uncertainty was terrifying.

Gradually we settled into some kind of pattern. Numbers rose, we went into lockdown, numbers kept rising, we locked down harder. We knew what we needed to do, and most of us did it. Stay home as much as possible. Mask if you have to go out. Keep your distance. Get tested if you have any symptoms, or have been in contact with anyone who has tested positive. Check in with a qr code. Sanitise, sanitise, sanitise. Numbers went down, we let up a little, numbers went up, we locked back down. We knew what had to be done, even if we hated it.

There was a lot of screaming from the let it rip brigade, but at least in Victoria we sneered and largely ignored them. We made a lot of sacrifices, but we knew we were doing it for the greater good. Murdoch, Morrison, and the “die for the economy” brigade felt, for the most part, like they were safely outside our borders, which, by the way, were firmly shut. There was the odd glitch, like the rules being different for sportsmen, but we were largely hanging together and getting this thing done.

And we nailed it. Until Delta ripped through a NSW that thought itself invulnerable, and used them as a jumping off point. Things started to get a bit hairy, but we went back into lockdown, knew how to do this… here comes the new lockdown, same as the old lockdown. It didn’t work. The “let it rip” “live with covid” “we have to open sometime” brigade suddenly seemed in the ascendant. “Open up. It’ll be fine. We’re all vaxxed.” was the hymn of the day.

So we opened up. And it seemed… well… not fine, not for many people, especially the vulnerable, but it seemed like we were mostly going to almost get away with it. We were still checking in, masking (at least in Victoria), and playing it fairly safe. We knew that if we got sick we could get tested, and isolate, and keep everyone else as safe as possible. We watched the numbers (again). They were bad, but manageable.

And then omicron changed the rules of the game. And the political response, even in Victoria, was… nothing?

The silence was deafening. The only sound was the roar of the engines of people circling Melbourne, looking for a testing site that wasn’t closed because it was over capacity.

Occasionally there would be a brief announcement, like “close contact isn’t a thing except in the home for more than four hours”, which was bewildering since omicron spreads more easily than any previous variant.

Or “You don’t need a pcr, use a RAT” which certainly made us smell a rat, since rats were impossible to get.

Or “we’re all going to get it, and it doesn’t matter”, never mind the immunocompromised, the aged, the apparently expendable portion of the population with pre-existing conditions, or those who, for reasons no-one yet understands, will wind up permanently disabled by long covid.

Or “the health system is fine” while frantic messages from paramedics, nurses, and doctors online tell a wildly different – and utterly horrifying – story.

Things get rapidly worse. Businesses close due to staff shortages. Hospital staff work consecutive shifts and are still short staffed. Supply chains falter. Ambulance Victoria puts out messages saying “don’t call an ambulance unless you are dying, and even then you’ll wait an hour or more.”

Friends and family start getting covid. We leap into the struggle to access pcr tests, rats, healthcare, ANYTHING, and come up empty handed every time. We search in vain for evidence that we are doing the right thing. For government rules that will keep us, and those around us, safe. We wait for policy announcements to fix this, and watch the numbers tick up even though no-one can get tested anymore. I personally know of many cases of covid not included in the official numbers, yet I still watch the official numbers, feeling ill every time they are announced.

The refrain from my friends is eerily in tune: We’re sitting ducks. We’ve been hung out to dry. We’re fucked.

Normally, when things start to fall apart, governments do something. We might not like what they do, but they’re visible, they’re at least doing something. But now, they seem bewilderingly, appallingly, callously absent.

It’s surreal. If you wrote a film script like this it would be laughed out of the room for being wildly implausible. It feels like the end of the world, and we’re not even trying to stop it. Do we stay in? Do we go out and pretend nothing is happening? What happens now? Who knows? Certainly not the people who are supposed to be in charge.

These are the hugs I miss

I know it’s important to focus on what we have, and to be thankful for it, but for those of us with loved ones out of reach during this pandemic, it’s hard not to dwell on our losses. On the folks we’re missing. On the hugs we’re craving, with no way of knowing when they’ll be within reach again.

And there are not enough people filling our days, there aren’t enough things to do or places to go. Life is hectic and there’s too much to do, yet somehow not enough to distract us from the gaping holes in our lives. Every time I am a little tired, or my hip aches particularly fiercely, or anything makes me a bit sad, the overwhelming anguish of being separated from my people seizes on the chink in my armour and floods my system with yearning.

Video calls are bitter sweet. Beloved faces right there in front of us, yet out of reach. Sweet, familiar voices land in our hearts like soothing ointment, but at the same time they leave raw scars. I spend an hour on a call with a loved one, and then spend all day alternately smiling and heaving deeply sorrowful sighs, as I alternate between how much I love them, and how far away they are.

It leaves plenty of time to contemplate the nature of hugs. Hugs have personality, just like people. One person can give many different hugs, but hugs between the same two people tend to develop a distinctive character over time. These are the hugs I crave:

The Fierce but Fleeting, or FbF – a short, sharp, intense hug, the FbF uses full body contact to convey deep affection and emotional need in the minimum time, moving straight on to coffee and conversation. The FbF is no nonsense, but heartfelt. A meaningful hug in a hurry.

The Fierce and Lasting, or FaL – as intense as the FbF but sustained for as long as both participants consent, the FaL is my favourite. A full body hug with no room for so much as a whisper in between, the FaL conveys deep affection and a yearning for the closeness we have been denied for too long. There may be tears. Eventually the FaL must give way to basic life support such as eating, drinking, and other bodily functions, but the need to postpone the moment for as long as humanly possible is overwhelming. The FaL is the maximum amount of hug in the maximum allowed time. It has nowhere it would rather be than in your arms.

The Friendly and Affectionate, or FaA – a firm hug with the intensity dialled back, this hug is very pleased to see you, but quite clear on its boundaries. The FaA conveys affection but not need. It is the friendly, neighbourhood hug. The FaA will be delighted to see you around, but it will not hunt you down, nor outstay its welcome.

I even miss the Tentative and Cautious, or TaC – An A-Frame hug, which aims to maintain minimum risk of intimate personal contact, yet still constitutes an embrace. In the TaC, arms and shoulders touch, possibly even cheeks in extreme cases, but nothing below the collarbone. It is the entry level hug, that promises nothing, but speaks of mild affection.

I use different hugs with different people, but I dream about Fierce and Lasting hugs with my far flung besties all the time now. When I can have them in real life, I might have to be reminded to let go.

What are your favourite hugs like?

Are you being bullied?

Once, when one of my teens was being bullied at school, I was astounded to recognise behaviour that had been directed at me at work. I ranted and fumed. “Do they all get the same handbook? How the hell do they all use the same tactics???” My friend Michele suggested that they do it because those tactics have been used on them… and they work. She described it as a circle of contagion, rather than an instructional manual. I suspect she might be onto something.

Awful though it is, there is a bright side to these repeated patterns – patterns can be spotted! (boom boom! sorry…)

This is good news! Because if you can see what they’re doing, it becomes possible to uninstall the buttons that bullies love to push. So here are some red flags to look for.

1. Making everything your fault. Bullies love to make it all about you, because it latches on to all of your insecurities and is really hard to fight. In the schoolyard this can be things like “You’re annoying.” “You’re difficult.” “You’re always upsetting people.” Note how these are non-specific, so really difficult to refute.

At work, it’s often about you failing to meet targets you didn’t know about, failing to attend meetings you weren’t invited to, or, again, being generically “bad” in ways that are super hard to refute or address. Things like: “You’re not a team player.” “You don’t fit the culture.” “You’re too enthusiastic/not enthusiastic enough/too demanding/too quiet…” There are always ways to argue you’re not as good as you really are: You’re too new to the field, too long in the job, too young, too old, too different, too much the same…, or in friendship groups, you’re too loud, too quiet, too political, not political enough… And they’re most effective when they tap into your imposter syndrome, because you’re more likely to believe them.

2. Isolating you/Cutting you off from your support. If a bully finds out you’ve gone to someone else for support, they’ll often say you are breaking a confidence, going behind their back, betraying their trust, or behaving unprofessionally. They’ll berate you for putting an unfair burden on the person you went to, or dragging them into a conflict that’s none of their business and not their problem. It’s in a bully’s best interests to have you isolated and unable to fight back, so of course they will do everything in their power to make sure they can say whatever they want to you without facing consequences. This has happened to my teens in the schoolyard, and to me in the workplace. It’s a classic tactic. As a bonus, really effective bullies will also make you feel guilty for seeking support elsewhere.

3. Telling you everyone else thinks so too. I’ve seen this in workplaces, on committees, and in the schoolyard. It’s another classic tactic. “No-one else will tell you this, but…” or “Everyone is coming to me and saying that you’re…” or “Everyone is miserable because of you.” “I’ve never had so many complaints.” “Everyone else is too nice to say so.” “Everyone feels the way I do.” These are designed to make you quietly exit the scene, stage left, and leave the bully in command of the stage. Or, even better, they provoke conflict between you and everyone else, so that the bully winds up looking like the good guy by comparison. It’s amazing how often “everyone” actually boils down to “me, myself, and I”. Bottom line is, if no-one else is saying it to you, they’re not saying it at all.

4. Controlling your response. This one is particularly effective if it comes on top of the first three tactics successfully making you miserable and vulnerable. At this point the bully gives you a way out. You can leave the group (leaving the bully, again, in command of the stage), step down from a role, leave a committee, or simply stop standing your ground. Basically, give the bully what they want, and you “won’t get hurt”. It’s a standover tactic. And a horrifyingly effective one.

5. Making you the bad guy. Here, the bully turns the tables and tries to make everyone else think that you are making up stories about them (often right when they’re making up stories about you), performing poorly at work, or being a bad friend. They’ll try to push your guilt buttons, at the same time as making everyone else think you’re awful. This has the twin goals of driving others away from you, and making you more likely to crumple and walk away yourself. Sometimes they’ll do this using some of the other tactics, like making a big deal out of you “breaking confidences” and being untrustworthy, because you told someone else how they were treating you.

Bullies want to manipulate you and control you into doing what they want. Don’t let them!
I’ve just shown this to my teens and they have suddenly recognised times when they were bullied that they didn’t identify at the time. I hope you will share it, and that it helps you identify these horribly effective tactics, both when they happen to you, and when they happen to people around you. If you know what’s happening, it may help you to stop it.

Fear itself

On Sunday Melbournians were startled to learn that lockdown was ending. Not just startled, but thrilled, joyous, horrified, alarmed, frightened, ecstatic, shocked, and excited. Among other things. I think I was probably not the only one who felt all of the emotions. ALL of them. All at once. At maximum intensity.

It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that it has taken me a couple of days to process what is going on in my heart and my head, and why threads like this beautiful one from Marieke Hardy sent me into floods of hot, uncontrollable tears without warning.

Melbournians have been in lockdown a lot. More than anyone in the world. And it has been hard. So hard. But we knew we were doing the right thing. The alternative was thousands and thousands of deaths that we could avoid. So we avoided them. How could we choose to do otherwise, the murdochracy and the federal government notwithstanding. How could we live with ourselves if our need to be out and doing things resulted in thousands of deaths? So we stayed inside. We pined for our loved ones. Across the city was as far as interstate or overseas for much of the time. No hugs. No three dimensional, high bandwidth, simply being together. And here we are, coming out the other side. What is there to be sad about?

But I am not the same person I was in February 2020. What’s changed? More than anything, I think it’s the fear. I am frightened. I’m frightened of strangers nearby without masks. I’m frightened of strangers with masks, if they come too close. I’m frightened of being inside. I’m frightened of the next variant and the next and the next, and terrified that this pandemic is going to dictate our lives for many years to come. I’m frightened of our health system becoming overwhelmed. I’m afraid I won’t be able to see my family and friends interstate and overseas for years.

I’m frightened that this end to lockdown will be snatched away faster than it was offered. I’m frightened that I won’t ever learn not to be afraid of strangers, or remember what it’s like not to watch the behaviour of others with narrowed eyes and a frantic calculation of risk. I’m frightened that life will never be the same, and I’m also frightened that we will fail to learn from everything we’ve seen in the last two years and that life will be exactly the same.

The fear is a stone in my chest, heavy and foreboding. This pandemic feels like a snapped cable, scything through possible futures and cutting down hope and possibilities with wild, chaotic bursts of random chance, each flailing swipe utterly redrawing the shape of tomorrow.

I’ve never suffered from clinical anxiety, but now I feel as though anxiety is all I have. All I am. All I can be.

At least now I have identified the source of my tears. I know why I haven’t yet organised a single social event, or planned so much as a dinner out. I think it may take some time to master my fears. There are so very many of them. They are so intense. They form an almost impenetrable shell around me, one that will take some work to break through.

I can do this. We can do this. There is hope, even though it is changeable and sometimes hard to find. There are still people. There is still love. There will be a tomorrow tomorrow, and another one the next day. One breath at a time, one foot in front of the other, one cautious venture out to the local cafe at a time. Hold on to each other. Together is how we’ll get through this, and together just got a little easier around here.

Those lockdown feels

Today is one of those days when it feels like every single nerve in my body is completely exposed. Everything that happens feels intense, whether good or bad. It just feels too much. It’s almost as though the absence of hugs has removed a crucial conduit through which we process our emotions. As though touch balances us by calming the extremes, bleeding off the lows and making the highs manageable, but also lasting.

I am dying to wrap myself around my friends. To feel my face against theirs, to match their breathing with my own, to consume the feel of their heartbeats like a drug.

I turned fifty recently. People have been sending me beautiful, thoughtful gifts. Orchid earrings (I LOVE orchids), flowers, wine, chocolate. My bestie is making me the most beautiful quilt in perfectly Linda colours. A friend I haven’t spoken to for ages sent me earrings, a pendant, and a keyring made of wooden discs laser engraved with my organisation’s logo. Lots of people donated to Transcend on my behalf.

I feel loved. But bereft at the same time.

This has been the weirdest week. On Wednesday I woke up and went downstairs to chat with my husband and play with the cat, and I noticed a weird artefact in my vision. There was a patch in my vision surrounded by a brightly lit line that was rippling. I couldn’t read because the patch was in the way, and I’d never experienced anything like this before. Unnerved, I called Nurse on call and spoke to Laura, who asked me lots and lots of questions, and seemed very concerned with whether or not I had a headache. She encouraged me to see a GP the same day, and urged me to call back if my symptoms changed. By the time the call was over the patch had expanded beyond the boundaries of my eye and disappeared, but I remained unsettled.

Within 30 minutes I had developed a bad headache, so I called Nurse on Call back and this time she urged me to go straight to the emergency room. This is the third time in my life I have been told to go straight to the emergency room. Fortunately they’ve all turned out to be false alarms, but it’s an unsettling process, to say the least. It’s definitely better to go to the hospital and find out you’re ok than choose not to go and find out that you really should have gone, but it’s not a fun process. The nurse was talking about neurological issues, and I knew she was concerned I might be having a stroke. The “it can’t happen to me” part of my brain was warring with the “holy crap I’m dying” catastrophising part, and I was distinctly edgy.

Since we’re in a pandemic and Victoria is in the middle of an outbreak, I wasn’t allowed to have my husband with me (we didn’t even try, because we know the drill by now), so I went through the ‘check in’ process and wound up in a cubicle feeling stressed and vulnerable. One of the nurses asked me to put on a hospital gown, which, if you’re not familiar with them, could hardly have been designed better to make patient feel exposed (literally) and alone, gaping and open at the back as they are. They’d only be worse if they opened at the front. As I’m now fifty and much more assertive I declined the hospital gown (why did I say yes in the past??) and remained in my own clothes, which gave me at least the illusion of control.

I sat down on the emergency room hospital bed feeling anxious and alone, and the bed started to shake. Having been told I had possible neurological issues I immediately thought “hell, is this real, or is it in my head?” I watched the bed for a bit and listened to the rumbling, and then the two nurses in the cubicle rushed to the front of the room and said “what was that??? Is it an earthquake??” at which point I figured it was not in my head. An actual earthquake came as a relief. (And, honestly, it was exciting. Never occurred to me that lives could be at stake, or any significant damage – we don’t get that kind of earthquake here, or at least haven’t in the past!) I jumped on twitter to find every Melbournian (and a few Canberrans, Sydneysiders, and people further afield) saying “hey, did anyone else feel that?” and then my phone started to melt down with text messages.

To put this in context, we also had the most bizarre riots on the same day, with tradies mixed with nazis and other alt-right fascists rampaging through the city and staging nonsensical protests on the West Gate Bridge. We were well on track for the apocalypse. I don’t think any of us would have been surprised to find a swarm of locusts in our backyards.

It was quite a day.

It turns out that I get migraines now, and this explains the visual disturbance and the headache, but the ER doctor was very concerned about my blood pressure, which was high. I mean, I was in the ER concerned about possibly having a stroke, worried about catching covid due to being in a hospital during a pandemic, hearing about riots and experiencing an earthquake, and my blood pressure was showing signs of stress. Go figure.

It’s just relentless. Life doesn’t stop lifeing at us just because we’re in a pandemic. Kids get sick. We get sick. Parents get sick. Things break. We break. Job dramas. House dramas. Pet dramas. Family dramas. Life goes on, but here we are, feeling quite bereft of the resources to deal with it.

And yet, look at us. Mostly dressed (when we need to be), mostly washed (ditto), getting up and doing things day after day. It may feel like we’re not coping, but as my friend Lisa pointed out quite emphatically today, we need to celebrate the wins. We need to celebrate being alive. Making it from one day to the next. Connecting with our friends (when we can). Getting food on the table. Just surviving is a win. Lisa asked me how far I have come in the last five years, and professionally the answer was obvious – I have started a Data Science Education charity, written a book, educated a lot of teachers, created a lot of resources, built a lot of partnerships.

But personally, perhaps the most important answer is: I have figured out that I get to choose. Who I work with. Who I spent my emotions and energy on. How I live my life. A lot of people are changing jobs, moving to the country or the coast, figuring out what matters to them. That’s a gift. And maybe some of the things that matter to us are out of reach just now. But they will come back into our lives, all the more precious and valued for having been missing. We get to choose. And tonight, I am choosing to celebrate how far we’ve come.

Hang in there. Get vaccinated. Stay connected. And celebrate more.

Are we ok? Can we be?

Yesterday a close friend called from interstate, where he is not in lockdown. He wanted to know how I was.

I’m ok, I said. But I lied.

I don’t know why I lied. I tell him everything. He knows my soul. Maybe it’s because I’m trying so hard to be ok. Perhaps it’s because not being ok is unthinkable. Because if everything that’s going on means I’m not ok, and none of it is going away anytime soon, then when will I ever be ok again? Is being ok something we can even aspire to now?

Here we are again, in lockdown with no clear end in sight. Just when we thought we had figured out how to manage this virus, it changed on us. It will almost certainly change again. That comforting magic carpet of certainty that most of us used to ride, that enabled us to surf confidently over the complexity of our lives, has been comprehensively shredded. There’s no certainty now.

Every day is the same, yet differently traumatic. The strategies that kept us going last year were cheap, poorly made, single use trinkets, barely fit for a week in lockdown. For me, at least, they unravelled, came unglued, and broke completely at the beginning of this latest lockdown. Still, we had hope. We hunkered down and consumed the daily numbers ravenously. Hoping, begging, praying they would come down today.

And then the unthinkable happened. Covid zero eluded us. Suddenly the end was not reliably in sight. No more visions of donut days and celebratory dinners at actual restaurants.

Now the way out is vaccination, but unless we are one hundred percent vaccinated, which we can’t possibly do because young kids still can’t get the vaccine, the “way out” is not actually out. It’s… kind of… through? Less in? Differently in? We talk about getting back to normal, but there is a deep suspicion fermenting in the depths of my broken heart that fears normal is gone forever, just like covid zero.

When our kids were little and we were chronically sleep deprived, my mantra used to be “this, too, will pass.” Even in the depths of despair after another dreadful night, it helped to remember that what we were going through was temporary. Things would change. They wouldn’t necessarily get easier, but we could be sure they’d be different.

It seems to me that my mantra works for the pandemic, as well. This will pass. Things will be different. Maybe easier, maybe not. But the never ending day, reduced, reused, and recycled into the same day tomorrow? It will change. I just wish I had some idea of what it will change into.

Self care

Last night on Conversations with Annie and Kate, Kate Carruthers asked me whether I practised any self care, and if so, what? It was a confronting question, because my self care typically involves spending time with my friends, and copious quantities of hugs. Not a wise strategy during a pandemic, and given how many of my close friends are interstate and overseas, in many cases not even possible.

That’s not my only self care, though. I have taken to re-reading Terry Pratchett books, because they are my safe place. They are funny, and thought provoking, and most of them won’t make me cry. I don’t watch any tv shows or films that are dystopian, or even sad. I don’t have the emotional capacity for unnecessary trauma right now.

I try to go for a walk to our local cafe every day, to collect a take away coffee and maybe a friand. I don’t always make it, but it definitely helps when I do. I take pictures of flowers, and my cat, and always try to get some sunshine when it’s out.

But I’m in Melbourne, and this is lockdown number 6. I thought about counting the total days of lockdown and then decided against it. Sometimes it’s better not to know. Even when we’re not in lockdown, the threat of it hangs over us like a dark cloud. It could hail on us, or even hit us with the lightning strike of exposure to delta, at any moment. Going out doesn’t feel safe, but never going out isn’t a great option either.

The local cafe noted in lockdown 5 that they weren’t as busy. People weren’t coming as often. And I must admit, I’m not getting there as often as I did last year. I’m struggling to motivate myself to leave the house. I’m struggling to exercise, even though I know I need to. I’m struggling to organise online chats with friends. I have bursts of reaching out to people followed by long periods of lacking the will to organise anything at all.

It’s as though each new day in lockdown saps a bit more energy. Like the constant drop of a water leak in a cave can wear even stone away, this pandemic is eroding my energy, my enthusiasm, my heart.

Perhaps life force is a muscle, and the normal hustle and bustle of daily life strengthen the muscle. Some things weaken it, but friends and work and socialising build it back up and keep it strong. In a pandemic, though, it’s as though we’ve become bedridden. The life force muscle works ok for a while, but each time you lock it down it gets a little weaker, a little harder to build back up again. And the in-between-lockdowns-but-not-quite-a-life times just aren’t enough to restore it to full strength.

Against a backdrop of diminishing life force, I have been dodging news about the IPCC’s latest report because I can’t face the existential terror and despair. I know we have to have hope if we’re going to achieve anything right now, but hope is in such short supply.

I’m sitting with the sun in my eyes as I type this, reluctant to close the curtains and block it out because some light in my day feels so rare and so precious right now.

I guess it’s important to remember that this will pass. Things will change. Tomorrow is another day, and my life force muscle may be down, but it’s not out. Meanwhile, if you’re finding it hard to put one foot in front of the other right now, just know that you’re not alone.

The worst part

The worst part is, or rather one of the worst parts, for there are many, this*: guilt.

Everyone I talk to is feeling so, so guilty right now.

Guilty for not being more productive in lockdown.

Guilty for not providing better support to their friends.

Guilty for not being more patient with their kids.

Guilty for not making better sourdough. Guilty for not making sourdough at all. Guilty for making other people feel bad about their sourdough.

Guilty for putting on weight. Guilty for not exercising more. Guilty for drinking too much.

Guilty for buying too many coffees. Guilty for not buying coffees and supporting local businesses.

Guilty for not getting this health issue checked. Or that health issue. Or one of the long, long list of other ones that have just been too hard to think about.

Guilty for not going to the dentist.

Guilty for going out and risking exposure.

Guilty for not going out because you’re afraid of risking exposure.

Guilty for badgering friends with too many messages. Guilty for not sending enough messages to your friends.

The guilt is everywhere. I have an overactive guilt gland at the best of times, but right now the guilt level is beyond overwhelming.

I bought some flowering tulips, still on the bulb, to cheer myself up. They made me happy for a few days, and then I felt guilty for not taking better care of them and changing the water regularly.

A collection of red and yellow tulips on a messy table

I suspect the immense uncertainty and lack of control we are dealing with in every area of our lives right now – both covid related and not – are piling up in such a way that we simply can’t live the lives we feel like we should. We can’t do a lot of the things we feel we should do. We can’t be the people we want to be. And so we’re building up a kind of guilt-debt. A failure mountain of ways we can’t measure up.

I don’t think we’ve updated our internal image of how we should behave and what our lives should be like to account for the impact of the pandemic. All along, we’ve told ourselves that things will “soon” be back to normal, without ever really defining “soon”. Sadly, “soon” keeps receding into the distance like a mirage. With every lockdown, every vaccine rollout screw up, it gets a little more out of reach. A little more demoralising.

So life yoyos between tantalising glimpses of almost normal and lockdown, and it’s never entirely clear which is more terrifying. Meanwhile we keep failing to live up to our ideals, because those ideals are out of reach until we can claw our way out the other side of this thing. Assuming we can.

In my professional life I am all about data and evidence (check out Raising Heretics: Teaching Kids to Change the World to see more), and I think it might be time to apply the data and the evidence to our own lives. To be kinder to ourselves. To recognise all the extra burdens we are carrying, and to understand that when you’re working under the weight of a pandemic, you’re going to be working slower, and that’s ok.

This thing isn’t easy. And it’s not going to be easy anytime soon. We really have to cut ourselves some slack, and try to slay the guilt monster. Everything else can wait.

* apologies to Douglas Adams

This is all still really hard

I had coffee with a friend this morning. Though he’s years younger than me, we’re both feeling old and tired. The bounce has definitely gone out of our respective bungies. (You have to say that in Wallace’s voice – from Wallace and Gromit – to make it work properly.)

I am tired and low. Though there are happy moments, they don’t lift me the way they should. I feel like I’m bumping along the bottom of my life, lacking the strength to climb to the top, where once I would have soared. Not every day. No-one can soar every day. But I used to at least soar sometimes.

Some days I wrestle with that. I feel guilty and bewildered that I don’t feel better. After all, I can see people now. I can have people over to my house. There are hugs, and cafes, and restaurants. I’ve even been lucky enough to travel to see some of my loved ones. Yet this isn’t over. It’s all still really hard. Many people seem to feel life is back to normal, but I still can’t see normal with a telescope.

My friend and I talked this morning about the uncertainty – not knowing if or when another lockdown would hit. And this afternoon, lo and behold, it turns out there’s a new case in Melbourne. We’re not in lockdown yet, but who knows what will happen over the next few days?

It’s also the constant heightened risk. Have we checked in? Are we too close to the people at the next table? Is the ventilation good enough in this building? Should we sit outside even though it’s cold? Have we used enough hand sanitiser? Will the skin on my hands survive this much hand sanitiser? What is the list of exposure sites? Have I been there? Has anyone I love been there? Why is that guy wearing his mask under his nose? (I have never wanted to use the term “dicknose” so often in my life…) Why are all those high school kids not wearing masks on the train? Have I become the mask police? Can I go into the office? Is it safe to be on the train? Is this a cold, or could it be covid? I should get a test. Who might I have infected if it is covid? Will I be the “New case detected in Melbourne” in all of the papers? Should I not have hugged the dear friend I saw yesterday who I hadn’t seen in over a year? If it is covid, have I given it to my family? Have I been careful enough? What if I have spread covid to all of my friends? Will they hate me forever? Oh thank god, it’s not covid! But I still feel awful. What if the test returned a false negative? Is this new sniffle the old cold, or allergies, or do I need a new covid test?

It’s exhausting. In fact, it redefines exhausting entirely. I thought I knew what it was to be exhausted in the beforetimes, but it was nothing on how exhausted I feel now. This is a bone deep, grinding, hopeless psychological exhaustion that has eaten my hope, my joy, and my optimism, and left me gutted on the floor. It’s physical, too. I get puffed just walking up stairs. Is that covid? Or is it the shameful deconditioning of barely leaving my house for a year? Why have I put on all of this weight? Why can’t I take it off? Why can’t I move on? Why can’t I fix it all? Why can’t I feel better?

The last two paragraphs accidentally poured my internal monologue onto the page, I suspect, but perhaps that constant, frightened gibbering that passes for my train of thought these days explains the exhaustion somewhat. This isn’t over. There’s a long way to go. We’re trapped in endless stress cycles, raised cortisol levels, risk calculations, and pining for our way of life, our far flung loved ones, our joy.

We’ll get through this. Things are getting better. But we’re a long way from where we used to be. This is all still really hard. It’s ok to be struggling. Be kind to yourself.