For weeks, the number of new COVID-19 cases in Chennai that were added to the tally each day plateaued around the 150 mark. Like others, I watched the count obsessively. It seemed like it we were in the last leg of a difficult journey, and that this number would taper off – it was just around the corner, really. Then, the figure leapt upwards into the thousand-plus range. There’s no reason to think it won’t keep rising. The positivity rate has almost tripled too. The second wave has come a shock, and speaking for myself, I’m feeling really demoralised.
I’m surely not the only person who spent a whole year being patient and vigilant – making compromises, deferring experiences, taking every precaution – and who, having allowed themselves a glimmer of hope, is once again feeling distraught. These are familiar circumstances: an uptick in public denial and excess, correlated by an uptick in suffering. How many more cycles of this? The bubonic plague ravaged medieval Europe and West Asia for hundreds of years. Is this what the rest of our lives are going to be like?
Whew. I said it. Now that that awful scenario has been articulated, I can try to move on to useful thoughts.
First, I’m trying to learn something from my chagrin towards those who behave recklessly. They deserve the flak, but giving them my energy has already proven pointless over the course of the last year (oh, what a long year it’s been). My judgement is only powerlessness, coagulated into anger. Having the moral high ground doesn’t keep me safe from this contagion.
Mental health experts have been speaking about increased levels of anhedonia – the inability to take pleasure in pleasurable things – along with depression, malaise and other concerns relating to the stress of the pandemic. One of the coping mechanisms I relied on from early on was target-meeting, including even in enjoyable activities (i.e. number of books read, number of pieces drawn). I’ve been wildly productive through this period. I’ve also been very unhappy, like most people. Anhedonia is linked to dopamine deficiency in the brain, which is why it’s common in addiction recovery. In my case, because I linked my dopamine hits to a sense of achievement, the activities that produce relaxation or happiness also began to produce stress. I must now rewire the way I pace things, creating pockets for not just rest but restlessness. Rest for me was spacing out; restlessness is doing nothing, letting the emotions arise and working through them. Burying the restlessness isn’t helping me, long-term.
We’re now in the long-term, and that’s painful to accept. I shared the above because how we cope with our frustration needs recalibration from time to time. If we don’t check in with ourselves and administer to our current states, we risk irresponsibly throwing caution to the winds for a cheap thrill, lashing out at others, or other manifestations of suppressed or sublimated feeling. In the so-called new normal, it is normal to feel demoralised. But the moral high ground has space enough for that – and for the social distancing that forces us to get closer to ourselves, and introspect.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 8th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.