Today, a lot of Americans felt the first glancing blow of COVID-19 against The Normal. Don’t worry, more are coming. Some will only graze you, some will hit you straight on. This is going to take a toll on your state of mind. If you want some good advice, the World Health Organization has a pretty solid guide to Mental Health Considerations during COVID-19 Outbreak. If you want some much-less-good advice, that’s what I’m here for.
My advice may not be professional and certainly should not be taken as such, but we’ve been in a shutdown city for over two weeks now, dealing with this for longer than that, and maybe some experience can help. I’m hoping that forewarned is forearmed.
So, having said that — America! Welcome to the collective struggle!
Canada! See you soon!
PANDEMIC!!! This is a scary word. It brings to mind images of plague ships, mass die-offs, and just, generally, a lot of terrible shit. And certainly, it will be no picnic. This thing is going to get bad and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. That’s just how it is.
But there is another way to view this word “pandemic” and it’s a better view. A pandemic means that the disease has spread all over the world. That’s troubling. But it also means that the disease is not coming from anyone or from anywhere. It’s not arriving from some other location. It’s not the exclusive property of Group X. In the language of horror movies, the word pandemic simply means that “the call is coming from inside the house.”
Yes, your house. You, specifically.
None of this sounds like good news. And it really probably isn’t but I might have forgotten what good news sounds like. It is, however, news. Even better, it’s news that gives you a pretty decent and productive way to start thinking about this. A way of thinking that might help your mental health and lead to better tomorrows. It means that you have some control.
When you accept that the disease is not coming from anywhere anymore, you realize that no one is to blame. You cut off xenophobic impulses at the knees. You start to realize that we are all in this together and that we all have agency, responsibilities, and duties. These are all pretty clear and your health authorities will provide instruction. Depending on your location and situation, these instructions might vary but these instructions will have something in common. Most of them will involve doing nothing. You need to stay at home. There is another word besides “pandemic” and it’s the one word that you now have to live by. Chee-soh (취소). Cancelled.
It’s a bit of goddamn shock, isn’t it? Until this moment, you sort of thought it kind of wasn’t going to happen to you and that, if it did, things were going to be sort of the same and not so bad. Then next thing you know, Forrest Gump himself turns up sick, the NBA is cancelled, and the President is turning into a werewolf on live television. You knew that other people would have to cancel their plans but you? Your plans were special. After all, you made them. You needed those plans. And next thing you know? The shit is 취소. All the shit. 취소!
There are going to be more shocks. Big shocks. Small shocks. More personal shocks. Shocks that shouldn’t shock you but shock you anyway. There will be shocks. Expect the shocking and expect to be shocked. It doesn’t always help but it helps a little.
Like, it’s going to get weird. Cults you didn’t even know existed five minutes ago or stopped thinking about ten years back are suddenly going to be the focus of national attention. Outbreaks are going to happen in strange places and normal places. It will be weird.
And then there’s the simple shock of having to stay at home. The daily shocks of realizing that you just can’t do that thing you want to do. The numbing shock of waking up and feeling like — so it’s another goddamn day of this, is it? Why even get dressed? There’s also the economic shock. This shit is going to hit your pockets.
But I’m not going to talk about pockets. The economic aspect is really important and it’s a source of stress. But it’s just not the sort of thing that can be properly addressed through psychological adjustment. It also probably can’t be addressed through individual advice or choices like ‘no more avocado on your toast.’ Relieving the economic strain and its associated stress require society-wide changes. It needs halts to evictions, guarantees of services, debt forgiveness, serious rent decreases, sick time, all that sort of thing. It’s a stress and it hits hard. But it’s bigger than this post.
So how can you deal with these shocks?
You just have to accept it. You also have to accept that it’s okay to be shocked. Things are weird so no problem if you get a little weird yourself. Just don’t get too carried away. Because –and this is important– we are all in this together.
Everyone is going through something. It’s always worse and better for someone else. [The billionaires can go get fucked though – I’m talking strictly to and about humans and, possibly, Bigfoots here, not the vampire reptiles looking to make a quick buck off human suffering.] Misery loves company. Knowing that we’re all having problems helps. The shit is 취소 and it’s 취소 for everyone. Think of the juggalos that can no longer gather. The Satanists who must give up their Black Masses. And the tweens who can no longer marry their K-Pop idols. You are not crazy and you’re not alone.
Avoid watching, reading or listening to news that cause you to feel anxious or distressed; seek information mainly to take practical steps to prepare your plans and protect yourself and loved ones. Seek information updates at specific times during the day once or twice. The sudden and near-constant stream of news reports about an outbreak can cause anyone to feel worried. Get the facts. Gather information at regular intervals, from WHO website and local health authorities platforms, in order to help you distinguish facts from rumors.
This is excellent advice. But it’s one thing to get good advice and quite another to actually follow it. Good advice is always the hardest advice. When someone wants me to do another round of shots at 3AM, I don’t need a lot of encouragement. If, on the other hand, they think I should go to bed, I might need them to provide citations. Good advice always requires some explaining. Sometimes it needs a chart. We need to know why good advice is good. None of us wants to be good. We are only good against our better instincts.
No matter what, the news will probably make you feel anxious and distressed. This is to be expected. You need to remember two things when watching the news.
The news is on twenty four hours a day. This is an emergency that does not end.
The news just isn’t that important. You don’t need to keep updated on every single development. You do not actually require a daily incident report. It doesn’t help.
On top of this, American news is, to put it mildly, a bit of a problem. (To put it accurately, it is not fit for purpose.) The American style of news delivery is based on conflict and drama. It is all HIGH ACTION. It seeks to distress you. American news even tries to make a subject as boring and dry as politics into some sort of exciting action sport. It just can’t be trusted with something like a pandemic. To get you over the next commercial break, the news will keep you in suspense, promising an answer or insight that will never come. It’s a perverse form of entertainment and a shitty style of news. It’s designed to generate blind panic.
You want sober and dry news. Not BREAKING NEWS!!! There is no breaking news. You’re indoors. Everything is breaking. That’s not exactly news.
Now, on some level, you probably feel like it’s your duty to remain an informed and engaged citizen and, you know what?, I totally agree. I don’t think the news should ever be avoided because it makes you uncomfortable. Sometimes, you have to look straight at the ugly. But limit your intake. And do this not just in the interest of increasing your comfort but in the interest of being a well-informed and meaningfully engaged citizen.
The series of baffling, shocking, and terrible incidents you are about to witness on BREAKING NEWS is an easy hole to fall into but it will only disturb you. You need to seek out news that informs, gives a bit of a shape to this crisis, provides some understanding of it and what you can do about it. You need news that deals with underlying and important issues and the arc of the thing more than the daily body count. You need to turn off the news because you still need to think and to function and, maybe, learn to juggle.
No answer is coming. No solution is even on the horizon. The crisis does not end. It will still be waiting for you tomorrow.
One of the biggest stresses and strains is the urge to take action. In some sense, this is a noble urge. In many others, this urge takes the form of consumerism mixed with the deeply apocalyptic strain in American thinking and leads to the sort of Black Friday Rapture that we saw with The Great Toilet Paper Panic of 2020. I’ll try to address the better rather than the more amusing type of urge. The urge to help.
When a crisis strikes, we immediately want to TAKE ACTION. It’s no surprise. We’ve been getting that advice our whole lives. Don’t like something in your neighborhood? TAKE ACTION! Is your president pissing you off? TAKE ACTION! Concerned about gingivitis? TAKE ACTION WITH COLGATE’S NEW ACTION TOOTHPASTE! In some cases, this is good advice. In other cases, it should be regarded with some caution.
I’ve seen people, for example, recommend building networks of community support. This is a good idea but it’s an idea that needs to be treated with caution. Community support given by amateurs can do a lot of damage. It can reduce social distance and spread the disease. The groups that are best equipped to give this sort of support may themselves be at high-risk for outbreaks. Community support is a good idea. I respect the impulse to do this sort of thing and, if it’s done correctly, I respect the practice. I’m just not sure that this is time to learn on the job. At a time like this, you need to depend on existing networks.
And I’ve heard people talk about fighting racism by taking a trip to their local Chinese restaurant. This is a noble idea. The thing is, you should not be going to any restaurant right now. If you want to get some delivery, by all means, knock yourself out and support the communities that are getting hit with the racist bullshit. But don’t take a trip out of the house just because you feel an urge to TAKE ACTION. That just isn’t the move.
There are a lot of really good and really well-intentioned ideas of there and some of them will really need to be done. But the hard truth of it is, right now, you have the country you have, not the country you want. This means that America is about to embark on some wild fucking experiment where it tries to deal with a pandemic while lacking legitimate institutions and any sense of generalized trust. It’s might be about to embark on a seriously misguided and dangerous –possibly even genocidal– adventure in scapegoating and target hardening. So I get the urge to take action. I’m not against it. It might well get to that. If evictions start happening, some landlords are going to have to get got. That’s how real that has to be.
But, right now, it’s often best to TAKE INACTION. Don’t unthinkingly share that piece of BREAKING NEWS. Don’t leave home. Don’t run around trying to help people if you don’t know how to take the right precautions. Try to be sensible.
This whole ‘being sensible’ thing is difficult and it’s shitty. Doing nothing is a source of stress at the best of times. When you see other people hurting, it grows more stressful still.
But this is a situation where the best thing you can usually do is nothing. This goes against the urges. It’s like playing baseball where every movement is unnatural. The American discourse is, perhaps, unaccustomed to silence. You have to adapt to the quiet.
I’ve found it helps to re-frame this as TAKING INACTION!
Maybe it’s just taking things, Americans like. I really have no idea.
Fucking hope. You know Hope was the last thing out of Pandora’s Box, right?
You have to be careful with your hopes. Just as the bad news can shock you, the good news can lead you astray. You hope to get back to normal. This hope can lead to stupid. You’re better off with no hope. No hope keeps you stable. It keeps you steady. You want steady.
With every bit of good news, you hope you can start going back outside. It’s probably no coincidence that outbreaks usually come right after hope. You have to monitor hope. You need to keep a close eye on hope. Not just because hope can trick you into doing stupid things but because hope can string you along and warp your perceptions. It leads to ups and downs. You’re going to have ups and downs. You don’t need to encourage them.
You want to see a vaccine? Who doesn’t? But you can’t hope for one because then, every day without one is going to strain you. You’re going to hold people to a weird expectation. They’re going to disappoint. This will wear on you. There are shocks but most of the stress is erosive. Having some grand hope, having a minor hope, having any sort of expectation at all may seem harmless now. It will catch up on you.
It’s like, imagine you’re a grunt in World War 2. You might hope that the war will end and that Hitler will get killed. Fair enough. But you can’t hope that you’ll end the war or personally kill Hitler. You just have to hope you get up that next hill. Kill some Nazis up there. You need to understand that some hopes are above your pay-grade. The best thing you can do is your mission. Concentrate on that. It’s more than enough. Have hope and expectations, if you absolutely must, but keep that shit grounded.
Take whatever hope you need from the efforts of the people around you. The front line responders, the grocery store workers, the people who are there when you need them and those who are there when you only want them. These people will give you more hope for humanity than any vaccine. These people are terrific. Just look at these smiling eyes!
That’s real. That’s no false hope. That’s no pie in the sky. That’s as good as it gets.
This is one of the weirdest sources of mental difficulty. The thing about isolation is that it’s isolating. It just gets strange. You start having peculiar doubts. Is this thing really going on? Am I overreacting? Am I the only person staying at home? You wonder if the world has returned to normal without you noticing. It’s a fucking weird feeling. It’s one that’s hard to prepare for and, even if you know it’s a false feeling, it’s still a feeling.
The only thing that I’ve found helps with this is leaving home. Doing one of those necessary trips to restock. When you go out and see how empty it is, your sense of reality returns. The sights and sounds of empty streets no longer disturb me. They comfort me. The empty city no longer seems eerie. From its desolate streets, I get a feeling of solidarity. From the silence, a sense of togetherness. I feel like, yes, we’re all doing our part. We emptied these streets together. It’s a good feeling. I hope you have it soon. You’re going to need it.
So you’ve experienced the shock. There will be more. You’re hearing the word “pandemic.” You know that “pandemic” doesn’t mean panic. You know the dangers of the news and of hope and you know how to take inaction. This is going to be a hard and stressful time. You’re going to be nostalgic for all the dead normals and you’ll crave the necrocontacts. You’re about to be in the shit but you’ll be in it with everyone else. Go easy on yourself and each other.
At the end of the day, that’s the thing. Go easy on yourself and each other. Pobody’s nerfect.