“What are your fears?”
Swirls of unknowns and anxieties and what-ifs lace all of my conversations right now, except the few essential ones my husband and I have a few times a day. “Are you taking out the trash or am I?” “What should we make for dinner tonight?” “We’re almost out of toilet paper.” (Just kidding. We bought our toilet paper in bulk long before the government told us not to.) And these little mundane exchanges, once forgotten almost immediately after they left our lips, feel somehow sweet and right in this moment. We’re still eating and making messes and peeing and playing with our dog.
“What are your fears?”
I’ve heard it and thought it and asked it dozens of times in the past few weeks, an existential question we used to only ask after a long dinner or around a fire, now we ask earnestly and quickly. We’re acknowledging something: we’re all afraid. We always have been. Not just of this, but of lots of things. We’re just ok admitting it now.
“What are my fears?”
I have logical fears, yes. Absolutely. I have a handful of people very close to me who are immunocompromised, and between me and my husband we have five grandparents, all elderly, more than one with existent respiratory issues. And I worry that if something happened to one of them I’d be ordered to “shelter-in-place” and that hospitals would be too crowded and I wouldn’t be there to support them and spend time with them when things felt scariest.
But these fears aren’t really new. There’s a more significant threat right now than there normally is but if you’d asked me last year if I worry about people I love getting sick I’d say yes. That’s part of actual love – care and concern, putting emotional energy into the wellbeing of the people important to you.
So why are we all so scared?
It’s because when I’m alone I turn on a podcast or Netflix. It’s because I make plans whenever my husband is out of town. It’s because when I have an evening available I cook and clean and reorganize my closets. It’s because all of these things, these commitments, this chaos, the buzz of the world around me keeps me from looking inside. My fears haven’t changed but my defenses have.
All of a sudden we’re facing the facts of what the world really is, unpredictable, fearsome, tenuous, unloyal, by ourselves. In the silence. In the distancing. In the self-quarantine.
Some of us turn to more explicit vices like sex or alcohol or binging or drugs to distract us from our fears and our pain. Others of us use productive things like volunteering, like scraping for others’ affirmation, like searching for attention on social media. We do good things for the wrong reasons, or at least we do good things for some right reasons and also a lot of wrong reasons.
Those of us with the “productive” coping mechanisms are the ones suddenly struggling more right now: all of our socially acceptable cover-up tactics have been snatched. And when they’re taken away from us we’re as desperate as an alcoholic is for the bottle.
I don’t think the crux of our situation is only the virus or the economy, I think it’s also facing the disease and the economy and the other unknowns defenseless, without all of our regular coping mechanisms.
I hope I learn from this. When this is over, on that glorious day when we run out into our cul-de-sacs and public parks and city streets, when we shake hands and return to work and cut the virtual out of the happy hour, I hope we pick up our defenses slowly and carefully, hesitantly and critically. Did I ever really need this? What did I learn from the pain?
There will be new thorns and new triggers. The pain will not go away, it will never go away, there will be something else to pain us, but this is one of the only times our defenses will be forcibly removed. Of course the way we respond to this virus is important, but the way we respond to our social isolation is important, too. Will we self-medicate, scrapping for other ways to fill our voids? Or will we revel in the silence and realize we can be ok like this? That pain can be felt without self medication? That hurt can be acknowledged without redirection? That our insecurities can be soothed without outside validation?
How will we handle it? Will we learn? Will we reflect? Will we get stronger?
Or will we pick back up our defenses?