March 17, 2020: Lockdown begins for me with a phone call from my daughter letting me know I should be social distancing with a capital D. Why? I’m healthy, work out, eat right and have no medical issues whatsoever. I had zero intention of not seeing my friends, going for coffee multiple times a day and grocery shopping for recreation.
March 18: Insulted that I’m treated like a big kid, I rebel. I invite a friend to colour my hair, drive with an accomplice to our local Metro grocery store and revel in Quaker Oats and Tetley tea bags.
March 19: A quick flick through the internet reveals that my age is handing me bad cards. I could, as a senior, if careless, die! I get serious about my own health and everyone else’s.
March 20 and 21: Socially distant walks. Refuse to even go for a coffee. People are carrying huge amounts of toilet paper and self-congratulating.
March 21, April 15, April 24, April 30: ad infinitum, try to stay positive with jogging, video workouts, walks and reading.
April into May: As the days and weeks wear on, I am discouraged. Missing my friends feels like a wound in my heart. I don’t see this ending and I’m crying at times. Overwhelmed with dread and anxiety, I struggle to breathe. I need something, anything! Visit my brother in Los Angeles? Swim somewhere sunny and hot? Take a major vacation?
It hits me—the whole world is a mess! But I know something that no one else does. Everything is my fault! I am a bad person and I am being punished somehow. Everyone else in the entire world from Auckland to Austria is too, because of me.
It’s pretty normal for me to think things are my fault. But even I know it’s a stretch to think I created the global pandemic. Why would this even occur to me? I started to think about my childhood. It was pretty ordinary but I did get some grief. One example stands out: my Grade 1 teacher detested me. I was untidy in a few ways (messy desk and messy pages with too many rub-outs) and she named me Pig Pen, daily hauling me out of my desk by the neck of my sweater to scream at me. At home, things were often volatile with lots of yelling and threats. Could my childhood be a factor?
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According to Marlie Standen, a social worker who deals with mental health issues at Taddle Creek Family Health Team, I am not alone. “Many people feel a sort of shame a lot of the time,” she says. “They can project this forward into negative self-talk: ‘Anything bad that happens, happens because of me.’ They blame themselves for feelings like loneliness. ‘It’s my fault I have no money. I’m so lazy. If I weren’t so bad, I wouldn’t be bored and lonely.’ Little kids who are surprised by being harshly scolded for something they were innocently doing fall into this category,” Standen says.
“I would say with the COVID-19 crisis, we are also in a mental health pandemic,” she says. “Mental health professionals are busier than they have ever been. These times of fear and shutdowns are hard for people to cope with.
“No! You did not cause this. Do not turn this pandemic in on yourself.”
I’m also curious about religion. Could some extremely frightening threats contribute to lifelong feeling of being a bad person? As a young kid, I was told that I was “going to the fiery furnace” because, as I blurted out, I liked church for the singing. I ask Rev. Emily Gordon, minister at Leaside United about this fiery furnace talk. Isn’t that a terribly bad message to give to an eight year old? I wonder if, along with evangelist Billy Graham screaming from the TV, this could have contributed to the fear and the self–loathing that extrapolated into me thinking I caused the pandemic. “I would say that the feelings you have today are likely the result of more than just one or two comments or incidents when you were a child,” Gordon says.
“That message from the day camp is harmful. Faith should be life-giving, like food. It should allow people to flourish.”
“Even today, there is a huge range of understanding [about] what happens after death among denominations,” Gordon says. “If that kind of messaging is still going on, it is not in the United Church.”
Gordon also informs me that not only is singing not bad, it is something millions of United Church members love. “Singing in church is a way of talking to God,” she says. “People singing are breathing with God. It’s a wonderful way of sharing healing grace.”
I am still writing in my pandemic diary and no longer think I am responsible for the global pandemic. But I still have work to do on my negative vision of myself: on Nov. 15, my entry concerned whether, by watching The Apprentice, I contributed to Donald Trump’s machinations. Hopefully that isn’t any truer than me causing COVID-19.
Kathy Flaxman is a freelance writer based in Toronto.
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