Everyone’s sharing (to some degree), a similar kind of psychological pain.

Hope’s #MadCovidDiary 2.4.2020

I have been avoiding going into town since I went to the doctor’s a week and a half ago. Today I had to go to the pharmacy for a prescription. There were hardly any people in town and I hadn’t anticipated how strange it would look for the bus station to be closed. The people I did see were on their own, and they all had the same caution in their faces— as I suppose I did as well— as we avoided each other on the pavement. 

My partner said, ‘I wonder if people are going to be a lot friendlier to strangers when this is over.’ People aren’t smiling at each other anymore as we pass by, for fear it’ll come across as an invitation to break the spatial safety barrier and move towards them. I smiled at a few people automatically as they went by me and they sort of frowned at me. I felt like I’d maybe done something wrong. When I was waiting outside the door of the pharmacy for the chemist to let me in (only two people at a time are allowed in, and you have to tap on the glass first for the door to be opened) there was another man waiting by the door, and he said I should go in first, as I’d been waiting longest. He was reading the signs on the door a moment after me, so I’d gone to the other side to tap the glass. I could tell he was trying to be friendly, wanted to be kind, but looked worried that the kindness in his face would repel me.

I went inside and picked up some Nivea cream before I asked for my prescription. The chemist behind the counter was wearing a mask, gloves and a plastic apron. I smiled at her too much, I think, because I couldn’t see her expression. I felt like there was some need for me to be friendly where I could, where the safety of the counter was between us. I think she knew I was unnerved because she did other things that were kind, things that were not smiling, such as explaining that she would sign my prescription for me instead of just signing it without speaking to me, and taking the cream away from me slowly instead of quickly with her blue-gloved hand. Facial cues have always been immensely significant to me, because I am autistic. I use them to reassure myself and others, to read social situations, to communicate— and indeed many people who are not autistic also rely on facial expressions for these reasons. The extent of my sensitivity to facial expressions has been made clear to me today, speaking to the kind chemist with a mask. 

I suppose it was inevitable that social distancing would cause this to happen— this physical wariness of everyone else, this hyperawareness that any politeness might be an invitation to harm— but it makes me sad all the same. When I was suffering with OCD, I worried that I would harm other people by being close to them, by passing a disease I didn’t know I had on to them. I was also worried that they would do the same to me. This vicious cycle of what feels like hyper-responsibility is now being felt by everyone out in public; everyone is sharing to some degree in a similar kind of psychological pain. But it cannot be debunked by CBT, by rationality, by friends and reassurances: Covid-19 means that intense self-monitoring in this way has become actually necessary. 

Medics have spoken out in the last few days and weeks about the shortage of full PPE (personal protective equipment). They are instead having to wear only plastic aprons, which do not even cover their whole uniforms and can easily move out of place. The protective equipment that the chemist wore does not offer adequate protection against Covid-19. The pressure on individual acts of responsibility now seems to necessitate a similar thought process to that of infection-related OCD. When I was ill with it, I remember constantly trying to trace which of my belongings had touched ‘unclean’ surfaces— for example, which part of my clothes had made contact with a toilet door, which parts of those clothes my hands had touched and if I’d touched my face or hair with my hands, and so on. It took up a lot of space in my head. The nature of Covid-19, spread via surfaces, worries me because it requires this exact type of tracing. I imagine the stress it will put people under, particularly NHS staff. 

There’s been some harmful discourse going around about how OCD might be ‘helpful’ in this crisis. This both assumes that OCD is not the debilitating mental illness that it is, and that all OCD centres around issues to do with contamination and cleanliness (which it does not). I don’t want to add to or affirm that discourse in any way— what I’m trying to argue is that this crisis may provoke or resurface many latent mental illnesses that are related to OCD, or indeed any anxiety towards causing other people harm. 

I am lucky to not yet have experienced a resurgence of the severity of thoughts I had when I was at my worst with OCD, but I am finding the situation difficult in more peripheral ways. I worry that my prior experience with OCD will make me lazy, and I will be so keen to avoid feeling like that again, that I will not be careful enough. After all, I did smile at the man at the door of the pharmacy. I stood slightly to the right of the plastic screen at the counter, because that’s where the card machine was. What if I was irresponsible in doing that, and made the chemist feel anxious and intruded upon? What if everyone I accidentally offered a smile to on the street was silently begging me not to come any closer, the way I once did when I was ill with OCD? I worry that I’ve come out the other side of it without any of the experiential kindness I always hoped was a potential positive outcome of having suffered with mental illnesses. Responsibility in relation to infection for me cannot be disentangled from my experience and memory of OCD. I worry that many people may have complex feelings towards the issue of responsibility— and embodied responsibility, who are finding the current situation overwhelming.


[1]

1 See Alice Evans, ‘Coronavirus: Paramedic protective kit “only fit for making sandwiches”’, BBC News, 31 March 2020. Denis Campbell and Mattha Busby, ‘“Not fit for purpose”: UK medics condemn Covid-19 protection’, 16 March 2020.

Picture: Durham

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