Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Last Year Was Hard. This Year Feels Harder. Exploring The Empathy Gap of 2021

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We’re halfway through the second pandemic year and it’s not getting any easier. Emma Clifton does a mental health check-in.

It’s normally around the second half of the year that two realities hit home: Number One, Winter is HERE and she’s not going anywhere quickly. Number Two, July and August are before September (stay with me) and once you enter the ‘-ember’ part of the year, you’re on the sharp slide to Christmas and you might as well kiss goodbye to the rest of this year, because it’s going to feel like about three weeks.

So I would say that this time of year is traditionally a low time, in a normal year.

But this year?

Oh boy. This year is a shit show.

By the time you reach your thirties, you’ve seen enough of bad luck and trouble to know that life is very hard, a lot of the time, for people who deserve better. But if you’re lucky, you know that there usually comes a time when the accelerator of doom lets up a bit and things ease off for a while. This year? That ease is not coming.

I almost wrote a story called ‘Best Things To Cry To’ until I realised (God HELP me) I had ALREADY WRITTEN IT.

I think that’s why this year feels harder, because as scary as everything felt in 2020, it was new to us. We lived week by week because we had no other choice and kept assuming things would get better. We heard the word ‘unprecedented’ so much that it lost its meaning. Now we’re in year two. Things are no longer new, but they are just as bad. The whole ‘pull together, we’ve got this’ optimism of the first year feels like its disintegrating. People feel fractious, anxious and generally grouchy.

I feel it too – all of my story ideas for the past couple of months have felt The Ramblings Of A Mildly Depressed Person; my notebook is littered with fun suggestions like ‘Self-Help Books For Sad People Who Don’t Like Self-Help Books’. I almost wrote a story called ‘Best Things To Cry To’ until I realised (God HELP me) I had ALREADY WRITTEN IT. Nothing like being made redundant by a pandemic and then also being made creatively redundant by the same pandemic, for extra insult.

Everybody needs a break, nobody’s getting one. Sick leave is piling up because there’s an expectation that you can just work from home and/or people are afraid for their jobs. Annual leave is piling up because money is tight, there aren’t a huge amount of places to visit and at this time of year, the weather is generally quite shit everywhere.

New Zealand is lucky (everybody reading this please *touch wood* at the same time) because our lives are kind of normal, for most of the year. But kind of normal ISN’T normal. A lot of this year has been like being inside a house that’s fine while the rest of the neighbourhood is slowly catching fire. It’s not that easy to feel safe anymore, especially when your next-door neighbour is having a really, really bad time. For all of our elbow-digging, loving trash talk about Australia, it’s devastating to see them going through this. The statistics in Fiji are heart-breaking. Our friends are not okay.

There’s been no other time in my lifetime where everybody I know has had one of the worst years of their lives, simultaneously.

It’s hard. It’s hard on all of us. The pandemic has uniquely effed over every age group of humans alive. Young people have had a large percentage of their small number of years on earth taken over by a plague. The elderly have lost a precious part of their final years. The middle lot are muddling through as best they can, hoping things will get better but knowing, for the immediate future, it’s just not happening.

If you’ve got children, you’re having to crisis manage young people through something you yourself don’t know how to handle. If you want children, you’ve looked around at how UNBELIEVABLY hard the past 15 months have been for parents and thought: am I willing to sign up for this? If you’re single, or dating, you’ve spent more time than usual over the last year alone and that’s incredibly isolating.

Everybody is struggling in their own way and there is a bit of an empathy gap now, because people don’t always have the energy needed to work that bit harder to bridge that gap. There’s been no other time in my lifetime where everybody I know has had one of the worst years of their lives, simultaneously. I’ve had three people in the past month tell me they’re ‘just holding out for the Christmas holidays’ and that’s not something you usually hear mid-way through the year.

I don’t have any spectacular bits of advice here because – see above – the majority of my thoughts are either tinged with sadness or anxiety, but I will say there is a lot of power in a shared experience and knowing you’re not alone in struggling. Creating a bit of a safe space between you and the outside world can help – I’ve started switching off my phone on a Saturday and it makes a big difference. So has creating a bit of a mental health toolbox for the days when it all seems a bit much (and those days are happening far, far, far more often this year than they did last year, I will say).

Last August (which feels like a decade ago, emotionally), Dr Ashley Bloomfield said, “The virus is the problem, not the people. People are the solution.” I feel like I am twice the cynic I was a year ago about other people and I don’t like that about myself, so I am choosing to remind myself – again and again – that people are the solution. We really are all in this together.

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