Stressed in the Age of COVID-19

What does it mean to be stressed but OK with a brain injury mid-pandemic?

Posted Apr 02, 2020

Shireen Anne Jeejeebhoy
Source: Shireen Anne Jeejeebhoy

"I'm stressed but OK," I tweeted on March 30th. I was thinking about the people who live on even less than I do, who suddenly need access to food banks, but food banks may be unable to take on new clients, whose disability income may be reduced because of pandemic aid packages that don't take into account pre-pandemic rules, and who may not have been warned by their doctors to prepare for the coming SARS CoV2. I wrote, "OK," because I have a roof over my head, I'm not starving, and I haven't looked at my accounts since early March before COVID-19 tanked the economy. Avoidance is mood-saving in the short term.

As a Torontonian with a brain injury, I'd lived through SARS in 2003. Memories rise and constrict. At my weekly brain-injury-monitoring appointment back then, I ran a phalanx of questions and temperature checks. I completed my heart monitor test on the very last day I was allowed into a major hospital before being shut to the public. I couldn't meet with my cardiologist. I experienced the world avoiding my city like it was riddled with the plague.

So I thought I knew what was coming.

I prepared mentally. I stocked up with supplies. I felt fairly confident I'd weather the coming contagion.

I was wrong—on the length of this pandemic and the extent of my independence.

The mistake I made—the very big mistake—was thinking the COVID-19 pandemic would ease off come the summer; until then, the only places I wouldn't be allowed to go into were hospitals. I'd still be able to shop at my local grocery store, linger over a coffee at my local cafe, walk under blossoming trees in my neighborhood.

Nope. This pandemic in all likelihood won't end until we have an effective, long-acting vaccine for all humans around the globe. And as a vulnerable person, I must self-isolate in my home to protect myself from the asymptomatic and symptomatic people who're passing the virus on to others in stores, sidewalks, parks, and gatherings.

I also didn't expect the flashbacks. Memories of past isolations when I was called selfish for not fitting into the healthy world, for forcing the healthy to spend an hour or so in my world. Memories of not knowing how I'd buy groceries when doing so by myself meant migraines, plates of pain running down my neck, over my shoulders, to needle my hands. And minutes and minutes of indecision over each item at the store.

Selfish. The word du jour, flashing alarm into me from my experience with brain injury, even though it wasn't now being aimed at me or others with a concussion.

Ever since the Me generation, companies, business gurus, therapists, and self-help gurus have encouraged people to gaze upon their navels.

"You deserve what you want!" they crowed.

"Spend your money on yourself!" they encouraged.

"Learn to say, 'no,'" they chorused.

"Focus on what makes you feel good," they cheer-led.

"I understand you," they said while not listening.

Feeling good and saying the words, "I understand," were good—good was not thinking good thoughts about others, saying good words, doing good deeds in creating and serving. Since it didn't feel good to telephone that person who's needy, who gets angry from internal struggles, who's alone, who's unable to meet you and needs you to meet them, you had public permission to judge them "toxic" and abandon them. This messaging grew like a tumor over the decades.

Yet suddenly, now, in the age of SARSCoV2, when the only way to survive and the only way to keep deaths down is to collaborate and be selfless, we ask people to lift their heads from their navels and focus their eyes upon others. And are surprised when they can't do it.

Judgment switches focus. Judgment no longer accuses pain-filled people of being selfish; it now accuses the healthy. Comfortable people who've ignored the vulnerable, whose eyes slide over people with disabilities, who've marked seniors as a homogeneous frail group separated from others as non-contributory and needing care as babies do, now expect everyone else to do what they hadn't.

"You fool!" is what I feel like crying out to the faceless messengers. You've been teaching people how to forgive without reconciling; how to care about what they want and not learn about what others want; how to label people toxic so that they don't have to enter into others' domain of pain.

How do you expect people to instantly want to feel another's pain? To enter into another's fears? To consider needs foreign to their experience? To protect others at the expense of their own freedom and desires to do what they want, when they want, how they want? That's hard.

Somehow, these messengers expect generations to change instantly from "me" to learning that feeling good actually comes from serving others, thinking of others, adapting to others: to discover selfless contributions give rewarding health and smiles.

The naturally generous are creating volunteer groups to buy groceries for anyone in need, undefined by old age. The ones taught to ignore the swirling messages of "me" stay home; stay two meters or six feet away from everyone when out for essentials and exercise; check in on hurting people to ferret out and meet practical, emotional, and psychological needs; or retool their companies to help health care workers save lives and provide the public with protective equipment.

Our leaders are calling for the healthy to treat everyone in a way that people with brain injuries have needed to heal. Will this 180 toward life-giving selflessness and energy-giving collaboration lead to people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, and brain injury being welcomed into society at last?

Copyright ©2020 Shireen Anne Jeejeebhoy. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.