R.M. Vaughan is the 2019-20 University of New Brunswick writer-in-residence.
When the COVID-19 lockdown hit Canada, the internet was full of cute memes about introverts and extroverts and everyone in between. Introverts, we all chuckled, had zero problems with staying at home. Extroverts, we all noted, created online dance pieces or dressed up their pets. Anything for a laugh.
Nobody is laughing now.
Lately we have all been told, in little and big ways, that it’s time to jump right back into the world – back to work, back to school, back to this magical thing called normal. We get the message. But whose normal are we rushing back to, us introverts, extroverts and everyone in between? And what is this new time that is both normal and very much not normal? What do we call this in-between state?
I call it terrifying. Because I’m not ready and I know I’m not alone. As Canada rushes relentlessly toward this uncanny, parallel normality, we need to have a national conversation about COVID-19 post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD, a multisymptom psychological response to trauma that includes panic attacks and social estrangement). We can’t move forward without doing so.
PTSD acts like a mental virus, an ailment both insidious and prone to unexpected flare-ups. For instance, I used to love shopping. Now it scares me. I wander the store convinced I’m about to do something wrong by breaking a protocol or endangering myself and others. Sometimes there’s a cart jam in the aisle, and it’s all I can do to keep from running away. I also used to love parties. Now I want to hide in the basement bathroom when friends visit.
But – and this is key – I’m not scared all the time. That’s the insidious part. Sometimes life’s a blast again. PTSD is a burglar that stakes out your head, waiting for a chance to break in.
We’ve jumped too far, too fast, and now many of us are dangling in the wind, uncertain where or even how to land. This is hardly a startling outcome. How can millions of people be told – indeed shouted at – to stay inside and avoid the world for fear of death, or at least a costly ticket, and then, in what seems like a heartbeat, be told to go back to beach volleyball and church on Sundays? This is a recipe for mass mental illness.
The pressure to pick up our tools and get back to work is constant and increasingly tainted with not-so-vague threats. Equally, the pressure to be social (capitalism makes a Gordian knot of the two), to stare down one’s fears and, more importantly, shut up about them, feels like having Mary Poppins standing beside you poking your ribs with her umbrella. “Carry on!” she shouts, forgetting that at any time she wants she can just fly away. I can’t fly and neither can you.
When millions of Canadians signed up for government relief programs, I thought maybe, maybe this time, our leaders will see that Canada has a vast and very frightened underclass who live with a precariousness unimaginable to anyone in public office. I hoped the disconnect between the brutal realities of the gig economy, with all its undervalued and underpaid work, and the luxury in which our leaders live would be laid bare and that maybe the poor and the rich would start to talk to each other, to make a better future.
“We’re all in this together,” I heard over and over. Less than six months later, we’ve set up snitch lines to catch relief cheats and retail workers are having their bonuses clawed back. That moment of acknowledging the realities of poverty lasted about as long as Lady Chatterley’s fling with her gamekeeper.
Nobody cares about your neuroses as long as you’re productive. Never mind that 24/7 productivity is what got us here in the first place. You don’t have time to grieve whomever you lost – get back to work. And keep fronting positivity, fronting wellness, fronting that you’re fine, because that’s now part of your job.
I want to smash every “Keep Calm and Carry On” coffee mug with a muddy rock. Those of us who’ve been living with precarity for years feel piled on, smothered and silenced. We need time to fix ourselves – and we’ve more than earned that time.
If getting together in groups freaks you out, say so. And when well-meaning people inspire-bully you to just get back on that horse, pull up your bootstraps and hit the road running, remind them that you are not living in a goddamned Kevin Costner movie. Not all of us have boots in the first place.
If profits take a hit because workers are too scared or disoriented to work, what kind of profits are we chasing? I fear for our souls.
COVID-19 PTSD is real and we, the scared and confused, are also real. See us or lose us.
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