4 months ago

Girl Offline: Keeping My Cool in the Midst of Coronavirus

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I open my Twitter homepage, and the first tweet contains a flash of brightly coloured images: I click. I click without reading, or read without thinking, either way – I magpie myself into a face to face confrontation with a microscopic image of the COVID-19. Up close, the Coronavirus looks like a child’s toy, a red orb with little spindly trumpets of teal spanning out, plastic-like. I have personally never encountered the Coronavirus. Like, I don’t know her. But my god, I know all about her. Just as I thought I had a handle on using the internet as a sharp object with which to pare down my sanity, just as I thought I had turned a corner with this, I am swept into the trap again.

I had a conversation on the phone with my Dad, yesterday, who had a successful kidney transplant in 2016. We’ve been very lucky, but to say the journey has been a chill one would be a lie. I’m proud of him, and my mother, for their strength since Dad’s health dipped in 2010: I’m proud of my sister, who was a teenager when it all went down. I am grateful, every day, to the person whose organ donation saved his life. I am grateful to the family of that person, too, though they are strangers to me, and always will be. It’s still hard for me to talk or write about – for a long time I barely committed the reality of what was happening to us to paper at all. I’m also an ardent believer in not exposing the reality of my mental health for the internet to see – so talking about that time is something I’m working towards, because I know it could help other people in a similar situation. I’ve only done it once or twice – mostly, to say as publicly and openly as I can, carry a donor card. It helps more than you can know. To say I am awed by what my family became in the face of crisis is to say the least possible: that’s a story for another column.

However, yesterday we talked, and I – of course – ended up on the subject of the current global health alert. At the time of writing, it hasn’t been declared a pandemic – today the first case of COVID-19 was found in Manhattan, and there have been two cases on the island of Ireland. (See how I’m writing this like a dystopian novel? See how I have panicked myself into a crisis-future?) By Friday night when this goes live, who knows where we’ll be, so quickly does all this move. But during the conversation, my Dad, who is immunocompromised and thus, the Secretary General of Making Sure He Doesn’t Get Sick, told me how he and my Mam had been planning on stocking up, just in case. They went to the Big Tesco out in Clarehall for a reconnaissance mission, though, and there was no pasta. Or passata. Or any tins of tomatoes, as it happens. So we threw around some strategies, I suggested getting a grocery delivery if they preferred to lie low for a bit. Dad said he’d lash a few sliced pans in the freezer – I suggested making bread at home so they didn’t miss fresh, unfrozen things. He told me all the flour was gone, from Tesco, too. That flickered in me: shelves empty of flour, the most basic thing, the first ingredient. I was silently grateful for the shelf life of oat milk. I realised, sharply, that we sounded like conspiracy theorists – but we weren’t planning for a zombie apocalypse, or the end of the world. Panicking is pointless, but planning, at least, feels like taking some control over a situation that we quite frankly can’t control at all.

Just as I thought I had a handle on using the internet as a sharp object with which to pare down my sanity, I am swept into the trap again.

I spent the evening online – which was the worst thing I could possibly have done for myself. I spent an hour on Youtube, eye-locked on videos that claimed to unpack the secret origins of the virus. Wasting my life, and making myself freak out, basically. Mercifully, I got off Facebook around five years ago, and have not been subjected to the forwarded Whatsapp messages spreading misinformation. National panic doesn’t make for a cute flatlay, so Instagram is safe from the viral panic, but on Twitter, information hops quick. The adorable little microbes were just the latest in a long series of posts about the virus. Jokes, facts, news reports, conspiracies, people complaining about the jokes being tasteless, more jokes, diagrams. I like the diagrams, if I’m honest. I’m soothed by knowing that if I wash my hands for the length of time it takes to sing Happy Birthday to myself twice, they’re probably clean. I’m less soothed by the death statistics, the images of empty public transport. I am sometimes having a hard enough time differentiating between false information and fact, so am trying very hard to only really listen to information as released by the HSE. I have somewhat cornered myself, though, with this information, and misinformation. At my big age, I thought I was past falling prey to propaganda, and in writing this I am trying to write myself out of that spiral – and equally aware, that I am contributing more internet conversation about the virus to the minefield.

There is a deep abiding voice inside me that reminds me things will be grand, as long as we’re copped on and take care of ourselves and I am sure that voice belongs to my mother, the eternal realist. As long as we wash our hands, don’t touch our faces, cough into our elbows – maybe don’t go around licking the inside of bus windows – we’ll be fine. And if we’re not, we’ll work on that when it happens. Her profound sense of Cop On is what I will use to stabilise myself as I rise towards becoming the CEO of Scaring the Living Daylights Out Of Myself. She’ll stop me becoming a conspiracy theorist. The virus of fear is brutal, too, and looking at false information is as bad for you as chewing on the door-handles of public buildings. I mean, maybe not as bad, but you see where I’m coming from, here. My brave, bold mother – and my maybe-a-bit-of-an-apocalypse-prepper Dad, have been through enough at this point to manage a crisis, and it’s their energy I’ll be taking with me when I start to tiptoe along those dangerous ridges of the internet, teetering into hysteria and away from reality. It’s possible to be safe, and stay healthy, without sacrificing your sanity along the way.

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