In Italy, where my sister Bev and her husband Marco live, the government ordered a nationwide lockdown on Monday, March 9th last year. The country’s COVID-19 count there had exploded from under 10 cases to over 9,000 within weeks. On the same day, we here in Canada recorded our first confirmed death. Three days later, hockey-mad Canadians were stunned when the NHL cancelled the rest of its season.
Suddenly, this was really happening. . .
The World Health Organization officially declared a global pandemic. My friend’s sister was among the first people I knew to contract the virus, but with no symptoms until after she’d already passed it on to family members attending her birthday party. By the weekend, world leaders were advising against all overseas travel. Pools, libraries, banks, stores, restaurants, pubs, hair salons, Starbucks coffee shops – all closed down. I ordered my first mask from Etsy.
Remember when rumours of toilet paper shortages spurred a massive stockpiling of the precious commodity? For the first time in my life, I walked into beautiful Canadian grocery stores and saw aisles of empty shelves. At first, my brain couldn’t quite absorb this surreal sight. Perhaps, I wondered, the big delivery trucks were just late unloading their deliveries today?
One morning, I drove past a woman walking along the sidewalk pulling a little cart filled with 4-packs of toilet paper. I pulled over, rolled down my car window and yelled at her, “Where did you find toilet paper?!?!”
In the little corner store down the street, she replied. I rushed to the little store, parked the car, flew into the shop and grabbed half of the 10 remaining packs. (I really wanted to take the whole lot, but also didn’t want to be one of “those people”!)
Speaking of paper, the fantastic March paper sale that I attend each spring with my crafting buddies Irene and Viv was suddenly cancelled on the 16th. Strangely, this one seemed to hit me harder than all other cancellations and closures combined.
Then I learned that I could no longer be close to our darling granddaughter Everly Rose, age 4 at the time. I could occasionally meet her and her parents to watch from afar as she practiced riding her new bicycle. Not being able to hug or cuddle her, host sleepovers, or even walk her to daycare as I’d been doing for three years was the most heartbreakingly painful part of 2020 for me.
Because I live with coronary microvascular disease and have already had a heart attack, I knew I was considered at high risk for catching this virus, and at higher risk for ending up in ICU with a very bad outcome. I was afraid of what this virus could do. I also knew that strict precautions were in place more to help me than to help Rosie’s family.
I could barely keep up with the rapidly increasing changes to normal routines. My son Ben started shopping for and delivering my weekly groceries. I stopped walking with my Wednesday/Thursday walking groups, stopped eating at restaurants, stopped getting my hair cut. I left home for one hour every day rain or shine for a long solo walk. Our Sunday paper crafting workshops with Irene and Viv turned into 2-hour online events each week – and these have since continued every Sunday for a year.
In the early days of the pandemic, life seemed a blur: digesting news of the growing global reach of the virus, the deaths, and the cancelled hospital procedures in order to free up staff and space for higher priority COVID patients.
Most of it felt like All Heartbreak, All The Time.
And yet – weirdly! – sometimes it didn’t.
I remember one morning being out for my daily solo walk, for example. It was a perfect sunny day with a light breeze, I was walking my favourite path along the ocean, and thinking how “normal” this all felt – knowing at the same time that nothing was normal anymore. So much seemed unchanged, yet everything had changed.
I started listing my daily agenda on Twitter, and for weeks tried to include something that sounded productive.
But I knew that my forced “clean the hall closet” busy-ness had finally evaporated on the morning I was unable to come up with anything for my agenda except this:
“Make a decision about washing my hair.”
Not actually doing it. Just deciding.
What eventually evolved was the normalizing of what at first had seemed shockingly abnormal to me. Routinely wearing a mask when leaving the house now just feels normal. Routinely squirting hand sanitizer before walking into the pharmacy feels normal. Having only virtual visits with my family doctor or my cardiologist for the past year feels normal by now. It is what it is.
We even have a glimmer of new hope for normalcy as vaccines are being rolled out. I can hardly wait. *
I’ve often felt torn over this past year: I felt bad about what others have gone through, yet at the same time, I felt profoundly fortunate about my own circumstances. I’m already retired, I no longer have a mortgage, I didn’t have to worry about home-schooling or child care as so many younger parents did. So far, I’ve kept myself safe from this virus. And I’ve also learned that there are some surprising aspects of this abnormal normal that I like, as I described in my December essay, “Have I Been a Closet Introvert All This Time?
Despite the pandemic, I get that I share the privileges of white middle-class women who have little to complain about and much to be grateful for. I try not to ever take that for granted.
Last week, Dr. Bonnie Henry – who is our public health officer here in British Columbia – acknowledged that the psychological effects of prolonged social distancing have concerned her since the pandemic began.
“It can cause anxiety and has the potential to make other mental health issues worse.”
Yet although we do worry about these mental health effects, we also know that research results are actually mixed. This past December, for example, one study suggested that the COVID-19 pandemic is “associated with highly significant levels of psychological distress.”(1) But psychology professor Dr. Elizabeth Dunn at the University of British Columbia told a CBC Radio interviewer the surprising findings of her own recent study(2):
“The fascinating thing is that there are people whose well-being has actually gone up during the pandemic.
“Probably the biggest lesson from research on human happiness is that we are much better at adapting to new situations than we ourselves realize. When it comes to happiness, what’s more important are connections to others, a sense of belonging, and pulling together for the common good.”
Meanwhile, I knew that so many others were suffering out there – those who became sick, their family and friends who grieved alone for those who had died, the overwhelmed healthcare professionals who cared for the sickest, the people who lost their jobs and/or their homes, the children and their teachers, and all those who had to miss important life milestones – from high school graduations to weddings or even funerals.
Yet life last year continued to march on, as it does, filled with ups and downs, virus or no virus. My son and daughter-in-law, for example, announced they were expecting their first baby (due date is any day now!) ** And our darling Everly Rose started kindergarten and loves being a big school girl.
Meanwhile, my brother, sister-in-law, and two of their three children caught the virus, some more severely ill than the others. But unlike far too many families, all of ours did survive. And they were somehow able to bear what at first must have seemed unbearable.
As Dr. Elizabeth Dunn sums it up:
“If there’s one thing we know about humans, it’s that we’re capable of adapting to whatever life throws us, whether for better or for worse.”
1. Xiong, Jiaqi et al. “Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on Mental Health in the General Population: A Systematic Review.” Journal of Affective Disorders vol. 277, 2020: 55-64. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2020.08.001
2. Aknin, Lara B., Jan E. De Neve, Elizabeth W. Dunn, Daisy Fancourt, Elkhonon Goldberg, John Helliwell, Sarah Jones, et al. “A Review and Response to the Early Mental Health and Neurological Consequences of the COVID-19 Pandemic.” PsyArXiv. February 19, 2021; doi:10.31234/osf.io/zw93g.
Image: Ahmad Ardity, Pixabay
* I had my first dose of the Pfizer vaccine on April 17, 2021, and my second on July 2, 2021! 🙂
** It’s a boy! Zachary David was born on March 27, 2021! Baby Zack is my second grandchild and first little cousin to our Everly Rose!
Q: “What’s the most challenging ‘new normal’ you’ve had to adapt to during the pandemic?”
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote much more about women heart patients’ day-to-day life in my book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease (Johns Hopkins University Press). You can ask for it at your local library or favourite bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN to save 20% off the list price).