You’re not alone, doctor. You are not alone in your suspicions. The pandemic has you shaking your head and turning blue and chanting “awkwardly”. In fact, you are absolutely not alone. You are frightened. Not of a new virus, but of the very old malady that actually kills you every night.
Now, I have never known a person who suffers from depression. I’ve never known a man who can talk to his male friends about the proper ways to breastfeed. I’ve never known a woman who can talk to her male friends about all the stuff about their weird habits – or to teenage boys about what they’re like.
Admittedly, I have a rather big, gushy language that only a neurotic, ancient Greek nymph with Greek drunken friends would comprehend. But in real life, those of us who suffer from mood swings and night terrors have developed the language of our own. So, like everybody else, you are listening to the famous Emma Bovary author now asking: “Umm … are you enjoying this side to life?”
What’s sick is the fact that such fears have been branded “paranoid”. We are encouraged to seek help, which allows us to distinguish between the worries about our real, actual risks, such as the seasonal effect on food prices, and the types of rare, hypothetical threats that might lead to what in the medical community is known as, let’s just call it “medicine-related illness”. What we never expected to face was a suggestion that our fears of a virus killing millions of our fellow humans were part of some kind of sly conspiracy. At first I thought I must have clicked on a link in a very clever newspaper article, because in my daily world of fear, fatal flu kills none of us. Imagine that. How dare I waste my paranoia with the threat of a flu pandemic.
And what of the more obscure and less likely death threats? Well, you may have heard about how old men could be at risk of being run over by a car when the air goes out of their balloon. Well, it turns out that people are as vulnerable to being run over by a car at night as they are during the day, when the air is coming up, and it’s already too late. I am now running on invisible fumes, growing fainter with every breath and with my head hung low and my heart thumping so loudly in my chest that I can’t say what it’s doing or where it’s going.
More important than all this is the fact that, for men, being stressed and upset is seen as the opposite of being unwell. Yet it turns out that stress is the root cause of a tremendous number of our real and imaginary anxieties. Is it because we are uncomfortable in our own skin?
When you’re sick, it’s hardly useful to worry about the “I’m so stressed out”: “Just now I was too stressed to eat a proper meal, but I survived, and still wouldn’t. I’m really stressed because I feel sick to my stomach, but I’m not feeling sick because my real stomach isn’t all right.” Having seen how very quickly we can turn to hysteria with the first hint of a change of course, I am advocating that anxiety should be absolutely central to any intervention to help us cope with feeling that we are vulnerable and unwell.
If nothing else, reading about the world in fear can make me feel safer and protected. I am no stranger to paranoia or extreme panic, and if you cannot use your mind to think about what is happening in your own body, if you cannot use your mind to think about your own fears, then there is no point in doing it.
Ranjana Srivastava is a mental health advocate and writer. Twitter: @ranjanasrivastava