Illustration by Anna Lloyd
I wanted to write something to understand my relationship with COVID-19. Like any new relationship, it cooks up a stew of so many different emotions. Like any new relationship, it should also be understood as a journey. Moving from strangers to hostile room-mates, I have consistently judged my emotions towards the virus. There seems to be an invisible benchmark to how I should be feeling. But really, the only consistent fact we know about COVID-19 is that it is inconsistent. It is multi-faceted and, like any new relationship it should be approached with an open-mind and the gentle understanding that it casts a dynamic spectrum of emotions.
Wrapped up in our everyday schedules COVID-19 stealthily crept into our media and conversation, like a cold breeze prickling our wrists and ankles. As chills turn into strong winds, strong winds into cyclones and cyclones into christened Storms, the growing proximity of the virus led to its inflated online profile of Corona.
Until we have, live with, or care for someone who has COVID-19, it is an abstraction. When something is largely unknown it harvests extreme emotions. Watching the news, we are repulsed but tempted; laughing and crying at the same time. This tension hammers our feet into the ground, stuck between running away and towards.
It is no secret that the success of most horror films lies in their use of anticipation. Before a shadow is excused by a coat or a sound confirms that someone is in the house, the protagonist freezes and the music is turned up to simulate their heightened senses. What comes next is entirely different. For many, COVID-19 is this shapeless villain. Working in a school I watched and listened as it took on different forms in the lead up to school closures. When the doors to the school did shut I opened my laptop every morning in search of words and images to capture it.
My parents chose to lockdown their care home in February. The weeks that followed were enveloped in an eerie silence. Although within the walls the loving and caring atmosphere continued, the closed door was a mark of separation, a sign of an invisible threat. Waiting at the crossroad, staff and family were unsettled. They were also naturally and caringly curious. Talk of the virus bounced off the walls.
This COVID-19 is frightening but it is also captivating. Our fears are not confirmed nor is our safety guaranteed. The ‘attraction of the apocalypse’ Stephen De Wijze writes, is the natural human interest in evil and suffering; but only, he stresses, ‘when we feel it is safe’. When we are watching from behind a screen we still have the option of turning off the television set and strolling back to the fridge. The government instruction to ‘STAY HOME’ has unwittingly created a home-cinema experience, and if Charlie Brooker’s ‘Bandersnatch’ ignited a craze of interactive film, the online life of COVID-19 is a sick prequel.
With the digital floodgates now open, the stream of daily updates, conspiracy theories and memes flood our personal and professional spaces. We have, where we can, attempted to turn the taps and adjust the temperature.
Meeting the virus online we had no idea what it looked like in person. It is natural to be intrigued, especially when their profile has over fifty million hits a day. Acknowledging this and recognising you do have an element of control here is not criminal.
The lived reality of a horror film is strikingly different.
My parents’ nursing home has a fundamental ethos of emotionally led support, one which inherently relies on the connection of people. These connections have been compromised daily by PPE (how does someone living with dementia process a mask?) and the stark reality that this virus kills – in the period of a week five people, who had previously been healthy, died. Dividing people, sectioning off communal spaces and moving towards task-orientated work strikes a different chord of loneliness to that of the type experienced when watching a rom-com or sitting staring out of the back window of a car with sad music on. This is the part that the film skims over. This COVID-19 is horrific.
Like many others, COVID-19 is now in my home. My parents both tested positive, one asymptomatic and the other living through a very unglamorous experience of flu-like symptoms. This version of COVID-19 is neither triumphantly harmless nor (thankfully) life-threatening. I had that flat feeling like when you meet a celebrity or take your headphones off at a silent disco: slightly embarrassed by my expectations and a bit sore and irritable from the grounding.
This COVID-19 is not spikey or soft, it is a bit bumpy and awkward. In the room it can be forgotten about. I can feel upset and moved by its frailty whilst also being frustrated at its clumsiness.
I was annoyed at myself when I didn’t feel the right way. My intentions felt misguided when I listened and fed the sensationalism, my grief robbed when I found out a man I had known all my life had suddenly died overnight and then my sympathy inadequate when my dad was unwell. I was constantly holding up how I was feeling to how I should be feeling. I still am.
Demanding emotions and writing linearity into our relationships destroys them. We all know we need to be curious and open when we first meet someone new. That doesn’t mean the fear, disappointment, excitement, or upset will go but rather that we lean into them and accept them as part of the process – not getting annoyed at them because they weren’t part of the plan.
COVID-19 has shown me how naturally we reach for stories when we are scared and anxious about meeting something new for the first time. But it has also shown me how harmful this can be.
Those who know me will know that I would not exactly be shaken by the prospect of self-isolation. However, this period has emphasised the daily tightrope we all walk. It is dangerous and uncontrollable out there and we, naturally, use our stories as harnesses. Eclipsing (uncannily) with the wellbeing phase, this period is truly invaluable to reconnect with ourselves and tighten the straps for when we next ‘walk the plank’. BUT, stories can stop us from experiencing.
So, I think I understand a bit better now.
COVID-19 has taken on different shapes for different people, depending on their experience and story. I wrote this to understand my relationship with COVID-19 and in the process found fixed narratives and expectations I was holding; that I think maybe a few of us will be holding. Writing them on the page let me see how much was out of my control and in the process be kinder and more accepting of the different emotions. I feel grateful that I have had the time and space to clarify this. I would encourage anyone else who is feeling distressed or uncomfortable to do the same – it’s frightening putting something out there but then, when seen as separate to ourselves we, incongruously, offer more kindness and acceptance.
By Bronte Heath