Simcha Fisher: Recovering from harm caused by the pandemic

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PHOTO: Adam Nieścioruk/Unsplash

You don’t have to have COVID to suffer from it

With half our family fully vaccinated and the other half getting there as soon as we can, we’ve been talking over what we can restore to our daily lives: Where we can go, what we can do, who we can get close to. Like so many people, we gave up a lot over the past year, and we’re now cautiously figuring out what we can start taking back.

I’m finding it fairly easy to assess activities and behaviors. We’re still leaning toward the cautious end (my most medically at-risk kids are either partially vaccinated or still unvaccinated), but we’ve pieced together what seems like a rational way to assess risk; and the light at the end of the tunnel gets brighter by the week, making it easier to wait patiently for the things that aren’t back to normal yet.

But I’m finding it harder to re-adjust my mental attitudes. I feel like parts of me have been permanently crippled by the psychological grind of what we had to do. I don’t have any regrets. But I’m facing the reality that what happened to us caused real harm.

When the crisis was in high gear, it was necessary to take a crisis attitude toward the world. We truly had to assess risk constantly in order to make safe decisions; and we had to constantly adjust those decisions based on emerging science. And we’re not robots, and so, as we classified activities and situations as either safe or unsafe, we also got in the habit of classifying certain attitudes, behaviors, and yes, people, as either safe or unsafe. This, too, was necessary. We were in survival mode, and this is how you survive.

If we planned to go to Mass, for instance, it wasn’t enough to look up the safety protocols they had posted. We had to ask ourselves: How likely is it that the people in the next pew will adhere to them, and if they’re not, what should we do, and how easy will it be to leave? How have the priests who administer the Eucharist been spending their time outside of Mass, and what kind of behavior are they allowing or encouraging or discouraging inside the church? How transparent is everyone being? We had to constantly assess not only our own actions, but everyone’s — not just at Mass, but everywhere. At school, at work, at stores, everywhere.

And lots of people were not only behaving in visibly unsafe manners, they were lying about it, and we knew it. We missed out on so much more than we needed to, because people would lie about having gone to parties or having traveled out of state; they would lie about adhering to quarantines, they would lie about how long they’d had symptoms.

My older kids had to deal not only with customers who belligerently refused to comply with the rules, they had to assess how much they could trust their managers to back them up. My younger kids had to deal with classmates who would play tag and deliberately take their masks off, knowing that (based on the current science at the time) our kids didn’t feel safe getting close enough to tag them out. We didn’t have the luxury of just assessing our own behaviour. We had to assess everyone’s, always recognising that the information we were working with might not be the best, but it was the best we had.

This was one of the most psychologically grueling parts of the pandemic: Constantly weighing how much we could trust other people, and figuring out how much we had to be on guard — but also trying to be on guard about what was happening in our own hearts. Fighting, every single time, against wishing ill upon people who deliberately put the community at risk. It was an impossible position to be in. I wanted to keep my family safe, but I didn’t want to pay the price of turning into a bitter and suspicious person.

I felt so much anger and frustration at people who were behaving carelessly and selfishly, then guilt and self-reproach as I caught myself assuming the worst about their motivations, and then anger again that I was the one who felt guilty, when all I was trying to do was protect my children.

So here we are, starting to emerge into something like freedom, and I feel like I’m too exhausted to enjoy it. People like to wag their fingers about the long-term effects of masking and isolation, as if that’s some kind of proof that we all went overboard — as if, if we really cared about mental health, we would have just pretended there was no such thing as covid, because mental health.  And that’s garbage.

It was a crisis, and we did what we had to do. And no, it doesn’t help that some governments did go overboard, and act inconsistently, and show hypocrisy, and speak unclearly. But the fact that we went through something that sucked doesn’t prove we did the wrong thing. It just proves that there’s a reason people don’t like pandemics.

Yes, it was all worth it. But yes, we have been damaged by what we went through.

I did the best I could, and we didn’t get covid, and I worked hard not to turn into a bitter, judgmental monster. I turned my brain inside out trying to remember that people have all different levels of needs and coping skills, and people deal with adversity in all different ways, and someone who looks selfish and careless might actually just be at the end of their rope.

I’m still working on this. I’m retraining my brain so I don’t automatically flash “DANGER” signs to myself when I see someone without a mask. I’m forcing myself to be okay with not using sanitiser. I’m reasserting my ability to see people together in a group without freaking out. But there is part of me, as I say, that feels permanently emotionally beaten down. Part of me that can’t forget how many people had the exact same information I did, and didn’t even try to change their lives, because they just didn’t want to. I know some of them are reading my words right now and shaking their heads at my sheep-like imbecility. I am aware.

Essays are supposed to have a conclusion, and this doesn’t really have one. That’s kind of the problem. I don’t know how to step down from this. I don’t know how to heal from this. I don’t know how to get back to normal, now that things are getting back to normal. The usual remedies, I suppose: Time, and prayer. Humility. Keeping busy. Not every day is terrible. Some are downright normal. But many are not. One thing: It would help to know that I’m not the only one who feels this way.

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