Thursday, November 30, 2023

Why That Weird Lockdown ‘Flat-ness’ You Can’t Escape Might Actually Be Grief

While the first national Level 4 had some novelty factor, the second one brought some hard realities with it. Why adjusting to ‘the new normal’ means grieving for the way things were.

Years ago – maybe even decades ago – my mother once told me that a good life came down to three things: Something to do, someone to love and something to look forward to. While the pandemic has potentially affected the first two points to some degree, it does feel like – 18 months in – it has absolutely decimated the third one. The running joke that time has no meaning in 2021 – or in 2020, and potentially not even in 2022 – is one of the grim bits of humour we have all held onto. The fact that Auckland is now looking like we will end lockdown only to find ourselves in the downward slide to Christmas is a particularly sharp reminder of the fact that the calendar year is a bit of a cruel reality at the moment.

All of the markers of a normal year are no longer markers we can rely on. Most Virgos spent a second birthday in lockdown. School holidays – dreaded by parents, relied on by children – have merged into a fusty in-between of online learning and being stuck at home anyway. Holidays at all are a bit of a no-go – when we did our Burnout chat with Dr Lucy Hone, she said one of the biggest issues is that no-one is taking time off because they can’t go anywhere and no-one wants more time at home. So many of the things – big and small – that we used to look forward to are now accompanied by a big old question mark: will they happen, or will another lockdown snatch them away from us? It means that the joyful feeling of anticipation – one of the best bits of having something fun in the calendar – is gone for now, as we all grimly settled into the idea that ‘we shouldn’t get too excited, because it may not happen.’

When it comes to the massive drawbacks of living in a pandemic world, there are so many giant ones to pick from – and Aotearoa has mostly escaped the worst of them, thanks to having a very cautious government and a population that – by and large – supports the concept of lockdown. The fact that my first instinct when it came to listing these drawbacks was ‘redundancy/financial hardship’ and not ‘mass death’ is a good indication of lucky we’ve been (comparatively). Mass graves, refrigerated trucks as make-shift morgues, the shortage of oxygen tanks… the overseas news was filled with these awful facts for so long (and it’s still the reality for many countries, it’s just not seen as ‘newsworthy’ anymore.)

But it does feel like this time around, there is a stronger sense of grief for the way things were. The first lockdown had a sense of novelty about it; the following ones had a sense of achievement because we knew they worked and they got us back to normal. This current lockdown seems to be **touch wood** going in the right direction. But the rules have shifted. Because NZ has been sheltered – and lucky – for so long, we are about a year behind the rest of the world when it comes to accepting ‘the new normal’.

Which means we’re also behind in that grieving process as well. Because this weird discomfort that comes from that ‘so, this is life now, I guess’ sense of flatness IS grief. We are awash with grief but we’re also so busy doing the whole ‘but we’re so lucky in comparison/there’s so much to be grateful for’ dance that I don’t think we’re giving ourselves the space we need to acknowledge the deep levels of difficulty we’re swimming in.

We are the frogs in the boiling water; only our water started boiling a lot later than the pots around us. There is a tremendous amount of loss to reckon with: loss of safety, loss of normalcy, loss of looking forward. Uncertainty is very hard to be in and, as adults, we’re so used to mitigating it wherever we can – we track our packages, we schedule our days to the minute, we ‘five year plan’ our way through our lives. We plan the little things so tightly, it’s only when a Big Bad Life Event happens that we are abruptly pulled from our box-ticking mentality. 

A sudden death, a cancer diagnosis, a job loss, a marriage split; all of these things follow the pattern of shock, grief, muddle through, rebuild, find meaning. But there are two major differences during this pandemic. Firstly, everyone is going through the same Big Bad Life Event at the same time, so there’s way less of a wrap-around community effect you normally get after trauma because people literally don’t have the mental space to do so. (In a recent podcast I was listening to, one expert said that this is the first time in recent history that the mental health professionals are going through the same event as their patients, which was very interesting to think about!)

And secondly, there’s no ability to do a ‘Bucket List’ kind of life rethink, because your life remains confined to the walls you currently live in. If you’re in a difficult job, it’s grown harder. If you’re in a difficult relationship, that’s also grown harder. For many people, there used to be an opportunity to shop/travel/distract ourselves from our problems. Now, there are no escapes and limited distractions. We’re stuck and we’re sad and every few months, lockdown or not, the end point we’ve been focussing on is pushed further and further out. 

In Sarah Wilson’s wonderful mental health book, first we make the beast beautiful, she writes about how ‘depression is living in the past and anxiety is living in the future,’ so keeping ourselves mentally healthy is about living in the moment. It’s what mindfulness is all about. I think the nitty gritty of shuffling through these difficult weeks/months (or, God help me, years) is to narrow our focus down to the smaller picture and ask: what will make me feel better now? What is the best choice for my mental health? What can I do to make today easier on myself or someone I love? What can I do to make tomorrow a bit happier?

Things will get better and we will continue to adapt, as we have over the past year. But it’s also okay – and important – to honour the grief that we feel now for just how much things have changed in the past 18 months.

I’ve written before about how the language used by people in recovery can be helpful in dark times – one day at a time – etc but I also think that the Serenity prayer also really comes into its own here:

“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.”

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