Stage 4

I’ve spent the last five days attending CoNZealand, the annual World Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention.

Of course, by ‘attending’, what I actually mean is that I’ve been sitting in front of my computer or my phone, sometimes in my pyjamas, watching and listening to panels and presentations, and participating in workshops and Kaffeeklatsches. This was going to be my first trip to New Zealand, but the closest I’ve got is shifting my timezone forward by two hours…

But such is life in the Time of COVID-19, and I’ve been grateful for the opportunity to spend most of a week being totally consumed by an event that has absolutely nothing to do with COVID-19 or lockdown restrictions or idiotic Australian politics (note: I do not say that WorldCon was free of idiotic politics in general. Just idiotic Australian ones.).

One of the best conversations I had at WorldCon this week was about time travel and World War 2. We were talking about Connie Willis’s time travel books, particularly Blackout, and how the time travellers in that book were historians from the future, and thus had the advantage of knowing when and how the war would end, while the people around them did not. And we, the reader, knew the same. We knew, no matter how dark things were getting, that if it was November 1944 in Britain, they were on the home stretch, they just had to hold on for a few more months and it would all be over.

Well, here we all are, living through history the long way round. If there are time travellers among us, they may well know when how this ends — actually, if there are time travellers among us, that would be awesome, because it might be proof that civilisation survives all the scary things that are happening right now. (Or, of course, they may be from the very far future, after the apocalypse and the rebuilding of everything that some of us have been able to take for granted all our lives.)

… Sorry, I’m tired, and this post is perhaps excessively whimsical.

What I’m trying to say is this: I’m the sort of reader who will turn to the end of the book when things get bad, just to make sure everything is OK. I can’t do that now, and I’m finding that stressful. While Stage 4 restrictions will change absolutely nothing about how I currently live my life, seeing the date when restrictions may lift (and it is may, not will – nothing is guaranteed) recede further into the future is still difficult. I’m good at doing what needs to be done, so long as I have an endpoint. It’s much harder without one.

But I don’t know how this ends. I can’t. I am not a time traveller from the future (and of course, I couldn’t tell you if I was – you just don’t want to know what sort of paradox that would create). I am just … someone who has to keep on going.

I have to hope that the end is in sight, that the work my wonderful scientists and scientists around the world are doing will lead to the treatments, the diagnostics, and above all the vaccines we need. And I do have faith in that. I don’t know how long it will take, but I know that given enough time and resources (and someone to watch the kids – parents out there, you are in my prayers), they will figure this thing out, because they are very, very clever people and they want this as desperately as any of us.

I have to hope, too, that the work we all do together in staying home as much as possible, wearing masks, keeping our distance, and washing our hands will be able to hold the virus at bay until they can get this done. And it is work, and important work, even if it feels like doing nothing. I saw someone a few weeks ago make the analogy of firefighting: our healthcare workers are at the front line, fighting the fires – putting them out directly, with all the associated risks that this brings. For rest of us, who don’t have the skills and equipment to fight the fire directly,  the job is to be the firebreak. To be the place where if the virus reaches you, it burns itself out, with nowhere to spread. I really like that way of looking at it.

Another thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is this: I have many friends and family members who I love and miss terribly. I miss seeing them face to face. I miss hugging them. I miss having them around to my house for excessive meals and sending them home with leftovers. I miss that so much.

Love is supposed to be a selfless thing, but I’m not very good at that. Maybe none of us are. It’s hard to be utterly selfless, and I think most acts of love involve a degree of reciprocation – I may bake cakes and biscuits for my friends and my family and my scientists because I love them, but I also get pleasure from watching people eat what I’ve made. I might read a picture book to my four-year-old niece because she likes being read to, but if I get a cuddle out of it (or even just a giggle and ‘you’re silly, Auntie Catherine’), I have my reward.

But right now the most loving thing I can do for the people I care about is stay away from them, and that feels counterintuitive. It feels unloving. And it definitely doesn’t come with the endorphins that come from our normal ways of expressing love and affection.

Of course grandparents and aunties and uncles are trying to find ways to bend the rules to play with the small children in their lives. Of course they are. It feels so unnatural, so unloving, to be out of contact for so long. I’ve been sending my niece postcards, because she hates Zoom and Facetime, but she loves getting mail. I know that this makes her happy, but I wish, I really wish, there was a way to make this conversation go in two directions.

I don’t quite know where I’m going with this, except perhaps to say that I think the hardest part of all of this is that it feels like we have to fight not just our natural human instincts for social contact, but our even deeper instincts to give and receive love and affection.

But that’s not entirely true. We can still love and care for each other, we just have to do it differently. And sometimes we have to do it the hard way – sending out our love like postcards into the distance, not knowing when or if we will receive a reply.

I hope you and your loved ones are staying safe. I hope you have at least some of the people you love in your bubble, even if some are still far away. We may not know how and when this will end, but it *will* have an ending. This isn’t forever, even if it feels like that.

Thinking of you all with love. But from a very safe distance.

***

This is the bit where I usually have links or a call to action. My only call to action today is this: please do something nice for yourself. Check out my Self Care page if you are low on ideas. Astonishingly, all but two of the items on that list can be done within the limits of Stage 4 restrictions! There are also links to a number of helplines if you are having difficulties.

Also, if you are looking for a book recommendation, I read an absolutely fantastic, glorious book last month, by Jo Walton, called Or What You Will. If you like fantasy novels with glorious food, and Florence, and characters from Shakespeare living out their queer and magical lives in an alternate version of Renaissance Florence, you will enjoy this. It’s like a holiday you can take without leaving your house… and let’s face it, those are the holidays we are getting right now. (Link is to the ferociously expensive hardback, I’m afraid. The ebook is cheaper, but maybe a library copy is the way to go until the paperback comes out. Though, honestly, for me it was worth every cent.)

Another recommendation – This is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. Gorgeous time travel novella, poetic and funny and romantic, and nicely on theme with much writing of letters and waiting for replies…

And here we are again

… but did we ever leave?

So Melbourne is back in Stage 3 Restrictions for six weeks, and honestly, I don’t much like the looks of where Sydney is right now. Hopefully the rest of Australia can stay out of the current wave, but who knows? All you really need is one infectious person in the wrong place at the wrong time, and off we all go again. We really are all in this together, clichéd as it sounds, and we all depend on the people around us to behave sensibly. I do try to have faith in my fellow Australians, but the evidence has been rather mixed on that front, and I have to confess, I’m concerned.

I have many feelings about the way this situation has been reported on and politicised, and maybe sometime I will write about them. I will say, I’ve been fairly impressed with Daniel Andrews. He has got some things wrong (I was very unhappy with the way the people in the towers were treated – not so much the lockdown itself, which seems to have been necessary, but the lack of logistical support for it and the way it was handled generally), but he clearly has the health and welfare of Victorians at heart, and that he has been working like mad to try to keep us safe. And his communications have been stellar, honestly. His press releases are clear and empathetic, and explain the reasoning for the decisions being made. I’m glad we have him here, and I do wish the media would lay off him a bit and that we could have a bit more bipartisan support for what needs to be done, rather than alternating between screaming about dictatorships until things are relaxed and then chiding Andrews for being lax. Pick a lane, people. Or better still, just get on with encouraging people to stay safe.

So much for not writing about the way this situation has been politicised! Oops. But back to the actual theme of this post, which is about being back in lockdown, and how that feels.

Honestly? It feels a bit crappy. And I say that as someone who thought we came out of Stage 3 a bit too soon and wanted us to go back in much sooner. I was genuinely relieved when word came last week that we were headed back into lockdown. It really is the only sensible thing to do given the numbers we’ve got. I know this. I believe this.

I still feel rather upset about it, though.

I’m one of the lucky ones. My job is about as secure as any job can be right now, and I can do it from home. It’s rough for my husband, whose contract ended in early March, and who hasn’t been able to find anything else yet (you may have noticed that the unemployment situation is pretty sucky right now), but in terms of what we need to survive, we are fine and more than fine, with secure housing, and all the toilet paper and pasta our hearts could desire (toilet paper and pasta being, of course, the definition of contentment in this new era). We don’t have kids, so we aren’t living the nightmare of juggling work and home learning, nor do we get to play Childcare Bug of the Week, with the associated testing and isolation (I have a friend who has played this game three times so far, and can tell you which COVID-19 testing locations are the best and why). I have set up regular gatherings online with friends to watch things together or read Shakespeare plays or just hang out, so our social life is covered. About the riskiest thing we have to do is the weekly grocery shop for the handful of things we can’t get delivered.

This should be easy for us. Comparatively speaking, it is easy for us.

It’s still hard.

This is not a bid for pity. Like I said, we are very, very, lucky. But I think it needs to be put out there that even for people who are very, very, lucky, who are doing lockdown on the easiest possible setting… it’s still not always easy.

And if it’s not easy for us, what is it like for everyone else? I can only begin to imagine what it is like for people who don’t have financial security, whose housing is precarious, whose careers are dependent on them being productive at work while they manage childcare all day, every day. I only have the vaguest inkling of what it is like for people who are at higher risk than us and really have hardly left their house in months – my ‘range’ has been about five kilometres from where I live and I’m going stir crazy. If I couldn’t get out on my bike, I don’t know what I’d do.

I am missing my choirs and my singing work desperately; I can’t know what it feels like to be a full time performance artist, with no idea when they will be able to work again. I was sad when I cancelled my trip to New Zealand; but I feel, very deeply, for the travel agents who have had to cancel everything and whose industry is in a hole they may not be able to dig themselves out of for years.

I am missing my niece, who is nearly five, has no interest in Zoom hangouts, and really doesn’t understand why she can’t spend time with her grandparents or her ‘silly aunt and uncle’. But that pales in comparison to the feelings of people whose families are split across several states or countries, and who can’t just take a quick trip home when someone is seriously ill.

I don’t want to play the Depression Olympics here. I think we have a rather toxic idea in our society that if someone is worse off than us, we don’t have the right to be upset about our own situation at all. But our feelings are what they are, and feeling guilty about them doesn’t help. It’s OK to be not OK, even if there are people who are worse off than you (though, obviously, you should avoid dumping your feelings onto people who are already worse off than you are if you can possibly help it– here’s a nice little graphic / article about how that works).

I think the other thing that makes this hard is that for a lot of us, we can see, rationally, that this lockdown is necessary, and so it feels irrational and silly to be upset about it.

But it’s important to separate what we understand with our minds and what we feel in our hearts. In fact, I think we have to – if we act on what our hearts want without reference to what our minds know, especially right now, we are going to make stupid decisions that may harm ourselves and the people around us. Because of COURSE we want to be with the people we love. Of COURSE we do. We’ve been trying so hard for so long to do the right thing, and we are tired and we are bored and we are lonely and we deserve a break and a reward, and this new lockdown feels like a punishment for a crime we didn’t commit.

And yet, it’s still necessary.

The reverse applies, too. If we try to pretend that what our minds know is the only kind of knowledge, that we need to sit on all that emotion and repress it and pretend it isn’t there because it’s silly and wrong and anyway, other people have it worse than us, we are also going to make bad decisions. We aren’t robots and we aren’t superhuman and if we try to power through, the odds are, we will eventually reach a breaking point, and that’s not good for anyone.

Putting on an upbeat persona for others, well, that’s professionalism. But trying to put one on for yourself? I don’t think we can lie to ourselves like that and not have consequences.

So where does that leave us? Buggered if I know. Seriously, I am not a psychologist, nor do I play one on TV.

But I think, perhaps, we do need to make space for ourselves to feel what we are feeling, without judging ourselves for these feelings. I think we need to be a little more honest with ourselves and others about how we are, because if we are always putting on a front and acting as if everything is fine, that puts pressure on the people around us to do the same. (So if, like me, you have difficulty being kind to yourself for your own sake, perhaps it will help to think of being emotionally honest as creating a space where others can be emotionally honest, too.)

I mean, I’m not advocating a full and frank disclosure of your mental state to every stranger on the street who asks ‘How are you?’. (I mean, that could be hilarious, and also something I would do on my less socially aware days, but it’s probably not a good idea.) But maybe we can stop putting pressure on ourselves to always and publicly be OK, even when we are not?

I’ll go first. I’m having good days and bad days. Mostly, I’m fine, but sometimes I realise that I’ll be working from home until at least the end of the year and then I want to cry, because the best part of my job is hanging out with my amazing scientists. And I know it’s necessary, and I know it’s doing my part to make sure the science can happen (the more of us non-lab people who work at home, the more lab people can do their work in the lab while remaining socially distanced). But I still feel isolated and lonely and sad. So sometimes, it’s hard to feel motivated. I see all the people on the internet with their Iso projects and feel inadequate and guilty and a little bit resentful because I feel like I’m just plodding from one day to the next in survival mode. And I’m scared for my friends in countries where the pandemic is being poorly managed, and then sometimes I forget to be scared, and then I feel guilty instead.

There is good stuff, too. I’ve read some excellent books recently (Jo Walton’s Or What You Will is an absolute wonder of a novel). I got to watch Hamilton! on Disney Plus, which was great fun. Working from home means I can make bread in the morning and eat it for lunch.  I have ordered pretty masks from eShakti, and one day they may even arrive. Every few weeks, I get together with my friendly organist, and we stand well apart and record music for our church, so I have at least been getting to do some singing. My bicycle gives me the freedom to do some socially-distanced exploring and exercise. My weekly CSA box provides fresh veggies and inspiration and supports a small farm to keep their operations going. My Shakespeare readings are giving me the opportunity to spend time with my friends in Melbourne, Darwin, Taiwan, and Europe, all together, so that they can get to know each other in ways we would not have done before the pandemic.

These things all bring me joy and energy.

I am very lucky.

I am also sad and anxious and scared and angry and lonely, all at different times or all at once.

And that’s OK, because these are scary and saddening and maddening and anxious and isolating times. It would, I suspect, be more concerning if we were all just fine.

(Fun fact: for the first four weeks of the epidemic I was very much Just Fine and also completely manic setting up everything to look after everyone and doing All the Things – and also completely incapable of reading for pleasure, or watching films, or doing anything else relaxing. I was not Just Fine. But my, was I productive!)

I know that we keep on hearing about how this is the New Normal, but there is nothing normal about this. Let’s not make ourselves crazy trying to convince ourselves otherwise.

It’s OK not to be OK.

Stay safe and be well.

And if it’s all too much, please seek help. Even if it doesn’t feel like it should be too much. It’s not a competition, I promise.

*****

A few links that might be useful

Mental health resources

I’ve provided some emergency / crisis lines and websites below, but you should also know that if you are in Australia, Medicare will cover you for up to 10 counselling sessions per year with a psychologist. To access this, you’ll need to chat with your GP about setting up a mental health care plan. (Many GPs and counsellors have telehealth appointments if you are concerned about going out just now).

  • Lifeline – 13 11 14 . Anonymous, round the clock crisis support of all kinds.
  • Headspace – 1800 650 890. Mental health support particularly for young people
  • SafeSteps – 1800 015 188. If you are experiencing family violence, it’s not your fault, I promise. Please contact SafeSteps, if it’s safe for you to do so.
  • QLife – 1 – 1300 789 978. Mental health support for men.
  • Kidsline – 1800 55 1800. Phone-based mental health support for kids.
  • The Black Dog Institute does mental health research and has some good resources and links to a variety of helplines.
  • Head to Health is a government website with some good resources

A couple of useful COVID articles

 

Some good places to spend your money

  • I had all these plans in January of taking a holiday in country Victoria in Autumn, and spending up big in the regions that had been affected by the bushfires. But right now, those regions still need my money, but they definitely do not  need my Melbourne germs. I’ve been looking for ways to support them online. Victorian Country Market looks like a pretty good one.
  • SisterWorks sells food, homewares, clothes, etc made by immigrant women. They also do reusable face masks if you don’t have one yet!
  • Another way to support refugee women is by ordering a meal from ASRC Catering.  I can vouch for the deliciousness of their food (though they can’t manage all allergies, so just make sure you check before you order)!

Some things to make you smile

But first, a useful PSA on Stage 3 Lockdown from Tom Gauld.

Some tools for talking about suicide

Recent events have had me remembering some of the stuff I learned when I was doing crisis counselling, in particular the stuff we were taught about suicide prevention. I got to use this knowledge rather a lot, unfortunately, since I usually worked a late evening shift which was apparently one of the prime times for suicidal thoughts and actions, as I averaged one or two callers at risk of suicide every shift. (As well as the guy who used to ring up at exactly 8pm on Mondays to tell us how ‘confused’ he was about various sexual issues and fantasies. In detail. But that’s another story.)

Anyway, since a couple of things have made this a bit more relevant than is precisely fun of late, and since it strikes me that a lot of this is useful, or at least non-harmful, information, which may not be quite such common knowledge as I think it is, it seems worth writing some of it here.

Note that I am writing about suicide prevention under the cut.  You don’t have to read it if it’s going to make things worse for you right now.  If you yourself are feeling vulnerable, distressed, or especially suicidal, at the moment, for any reason at all, please talk to someone.  Note, too, that it’s easy at a time like this to feel guilty about being miserable because others have it worse off.  But feelings are feelings, and it’s not a competition.  If you are in Australia, Lifeline is on 13 11 14.  If you are overseas, here is a handy list of suicide helplines all over the world.  Please stay safe.

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At the going down of the sun…

I found out last night that a friend of mine in America killed herself shortly after the election results were announced.

She had a health condition that was painful and disabling, and which required daily medication to manage.  And, from what I can gather, she died because she knew she would not be able to afford that medication if Obamacare was repealed.

She was a wonderful writer, a collector of folktale retellings, and an adopter of rescue cats.  I’ve known her for fifteen years online.  I never met her in person, and now I never will.  But that did not make her less of a friend.

She is not the first casualty of this election, and she won’t be the last.

Lest we forget.

+++++++

Please, everyone, look after yourselves and each other.  And if you are not coping, please call someone.

(The link above has a list of suicide helplines for countries all over the world (the USA ones are in the right sidebar).

Meet the Small Parties: The Australian Mental Health Party!

The Australian Mental Health Party is a very new party indeed – so new, that their website hasn’t entirely caught up with the fact that they have successfully registered with the AEC (congratulations, guys, you have!).

As such, they have, at this stage, a single policy statement, rather than a larger raft of policies, and they do not yet have any candidates listed.  (This is where it’s a pity I’m going to be overseas for five of the next six weeks, because this post cannot really do them justice – so if you think that a single-issue mental health party might be your cup of tea, I’d strongly encourage you to visit their website again closer to the election).

The AMHP also has a Facebook page, which is more up to date, and mostly seems to collect news about how various policies affect the mental health sector.  Quite a useful resource, actually.

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